Auburn Hills -- Somehow, the Pistons just churned through half a season and chewed through another whole coach and ended up back where they started. They’re still a raw, ragged group that should be better than it is, and should be embarrassed if it doesn’t make the playoffs.
Yes, that still has to be the goal, no matter how pointless it seems at times. Tanks? No tanks. After several seasons of unintentional tanking, now is not the time for the Pistons to do it on purpose.
They went from purposeful to plodding on this night, blowing a 13-point lead and losing to the Cavaliers 93-89, ending a three-game winning streak. Down the stretch, the Cavs had the All-Star point guard, Kyrie Irving, and the Pistons had their classic fourth-quarter stare. They missed short shots, they got hammered on the boards, you know the routine.
So the Pistons (22-30) head to the All-Star break in a battle with fierce rival Charlotte — ahem — for the final playoff spot in the awful Eastern Conference. Some will debate the benefit of squeezing in as a seven or eight seed, but the Pistons aren’t debating it, and they shouldn’t. That’s why John Loyer replaced Maurice Cheeks, to provide a spark, and it’s why they probably won’t be dumping players at the Feb. 20 trade deadline.
Positives are fleeting
Of course, the slightest positive glows don’t last long with this team. Andre Drummond was a force again, with 16 points and 17 rebounds Wednesday night. But he got into foul trouble, gave up huge rebound baskets to Tristan Thompson, and the Pistons earned themselves another week to stew.
“I don’t know what ‘more of the same’ is,” Loyer said, in response to a question. “We gave up 34 points (in the fourth quarter). I thought our effort was there, I thought we competed for 48 minutes. I didn’t see a lack of anything.”
The Pistons have talent scattered across their roster, but the key word there is “scattered.” It doesn’t take much to make the playoffs, and tank-o-philes aside, it’s a worthwhile pursuit.
At some point, the Pistons and owner Tom Gores have to show they can accomplish something now, not next year or next draft. Gores may have acted rashly when he fired Cheeks after only 50 games, and he surely cracked the already-shaky foundation underneath Joe Dumars. But the Pistons weren’t meshing with Cheeks, and a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2009 needs to act rashly, and can’t disregard its chances just to preserve a longshot spot in the lottery.
In fact, I’d argue it’s more imperative the Pistons make the playoffs now and forfeit their first-round pick to the Bobcats. As a condition of the Ben Gordon trade, the Pistons keep the pick if it’s in the top eight and lose it if it’s ninth or lower, which is automatic if they reach the playoffs.
If not now ...
But here’s the twist: If they don’t surrender the pick this year, they almost assuredly will the following season, when it’s only protected for the No. 1 spot. Think about that. If you don’t fork it over now, you could lose a pick as high as No. 2 next year. Is that worth fighting for, or tanking for?
Even with a lot of prime prospects in this draft, there’s no surefire anything. The lottery odds tilt toward the teams with the worst records, and sorry to tell you, there’s no way the Pistons are catching (or falling back to) Milwaukee or Philadelphia or Orlando or Sacramento. And if they land in the 14-team lottery, there’s a chance of missing the playoffs AND losing the pick.
Ugh. Too much math. The Pistons are riding less on the numbers fume and more on emotion right now. It’s only two games under Loyer, so anything sounds like a gross overstatement. They are playing with energy and pushing the ball at every opportunity, and the frontline of Drummond, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith can look legitimately forceful.
This was the way it was supposed to look from the start, but this is the new start, with 30 games remaining. Rebounding is a renewed emphasis and the Pistons controlled the boards against the Cavs until it actually mattered. They heave and miss way too many 3-pointers — hello, Smith and Brandon Jennings — and commit way too many turnovers.
Loyer, 49, is engaged and animated during games and the players laud his enthusiasm. Cheeks was older and often dour, and the hope is, a renewed atmosphere will slowly reveal a rejuvenated team. It’s been there in flashes, like everything with this bunch, there and then gone.
The Pistons will be in the playoff hunt the rest of the way, like it or not. Is there some great value to sliding in and getting pummeled by Indiana or Miami in the first round? Not necessarily, but that’s not the point either. There’s value in pushing away from five years of empty-tanking, because it’s way too easy to get used to the fumes.