March 1, 2014 at 1:00 am

Vincent Goodwill

Constant dysfunction has put Pistons on steady diet of defeat

Andre Drummond looks at the standings every day, and sees his team slipping further and further down the Eastern Conference, after starting the season with a wide-eyed exuberance only a 20-year old can have at this level.

As the losses begin to pile up, and a treacherous March schedule begins to take form, you wonder if the wide-eyed wonder birthed by optimism makes way to another doe-eyed look: one of resignation, especially when some of the inexplicable early-season losses look more and more inexcusable as time goes on.

“The more games we lose, the bigger the hole we dig ourselves in, the harder it is to dig ourselves out of it,” Drummond said. “The games we needed and should’ve won, we lost them and it’ll bite us at the end of the season.”

Drummond was almost the last man leaving the Pistons’ locker room after their 118-110 loss to the Houston Rockets Saturday. Across the way, Rodney Stuckey was getting taped up by strength and conditioning guru Arnie Kander, following another night of bumps and bruises.

March sadness

He was reminded of the Pistons’ disastrous and embarrassing 1-13 March last season, where they came one Charlie Villanueva last-second basket in Charlotte away from going winless, and where blowouts became the norm.

“1-13? That’s tough,” Stuckey said. “We have to do something about it. Hopefully we don’t go 1-15.”

Like Monday’s opponent, the New York Knicks, the Pistons have been in free-fall mode recently, and Stuckey was asked if this team wanted to make the playoffs.

“I can’t answer that question. You gotta ask them. Do I want to make the playoffs? Yes, of course,” Stuckey said. “You have to come out and act like we want to, play like we want to. Tonight we spotted them the first half. A team like them, you try to come back, it’s pretty difficult.”

Pistons interim coach John Loyer called his players “basketball junkies” when it comes to the self-awareness of being four games out of the playoff race, but even though they’ve played supreme competition this week (Golden State, San Antonio, Houston), the results haven’t shown a team desperate to make amends.

“Sorta, kinda but it’s not where it needs to be,” said Josh Smith when asked about the team having an appropriate sense of urgency. “I think at the end of the day it’s in your chest and how bad you want it more than anything.”

There appears to be a lack of trust within the players. It’s nothing intentional or menacing, but when you put eight new players in a locker room and there’s no positive reinforcement to build from, how can a team begin to truly form?

Whether they all have different visions on what a pecking order should be, or if they’ve even thought that far down the line, positive experiences can be written off as mere coincidence and the negatives have piled up so far that it’s the norm.

Add to it their coach was fired after 50 games, and clearly not everyone was in agreement about who should have been held accountable, they have no recollection of what “normal” is.

What's new?

“Not much has really changed, if you ask me,” said guard Brandon Jennings at Friday’s practice, when he talked about the difference in the team’s play under Loyer compared to fired coach Maurice Cheeks.

The defense has actually gotten worse under Loyer, a feat that seemed nearly impossible. The Pistons have given up an average of 109.8 points since Loyer has taken over.

“For us to be young and athletic how we are, our defense needs to be way better than what it is,” said Smith, who took 13 shots in the first quarter alone, perhaps an indication of a lack of trust.

Could that be bad decision-making or Smith seeing nobody else wanted to do anything with the ball? It comes down to the chicken or egg theory, but it’s worth noting Smith shot 4-of-13 while his teammates combined to shoot the exact same amount in the first 12 minutes.

For the talk that Cheeks had a sliding scale of accountability, the players haven’t done a good enough job of policing themselves this season — part of which can be attributed to youth and unfamiliarity.

For the talk that Cheeks had a sliding scale of accountability, the players haven’t done a good enough job of policing themselves this season — part of which can be attributed to youth and unfamiliarity.

“We say stuff to each other but we could probably get on each other more. But we say it here and there,” Stuckey said. “If you can’t you shouldn’t be in this league. People are gonna call you out and whatnot.”

It doesn’t take a guru to figure out this team is fractured mentally, and they get immersed in frustration way too quickly, taking way too long to begin to trust one another to pull themselves out of it on a nightly basis.

“We keep falling. We have spurts where we do well and go back up again but we’re having a real inconsistent year,” Drummond said. “We had a lot of high expectations for the guys we brought in.”

With all the talk of tanking lately, this team is much too talented to simply submit and succumb to a prideless strategy — but it’s tough to blame a wounded fan base to scrap plans of the present for an uncertain future.

“That’s my focus, it’s a new month. Hopefully we can try to win games and put ourselves in a spot for the playoffs,” Stuckey said. “Put ourselves in position to be right there for a playoff spot, that’s the most important thing.”

vgoodwill@detroitnews.com

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Detroit Pistons forward Josh Smith loses control of the ball as he is pressured by Houston Rockets' Patrick Beverley, right, and Jordan Hamilton during the second half Saturday. The play summed up the Pistons' frustrations as they lost 118-110 to the Rockets. / Bob Levey / Associated Press
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