Beard: Van Gundy searching for answers amid skid

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

The Pistons are nearing the halfway point of the season and in the spirit of the Christmas season, their performance during that span has been both naughty and nice, depending on the perspective.

Their 14-18 record has them tied with the Orlando Magic for 11th place in the East — which can be characterized as one of the biggest disappointments in the entire NBA.

The injury to starting point guard Reggie Jackson was a big lump of coal that coach Stan Van Gundy wasn’t expecting, causing them to adjust for the first 21 games of the season, but there’s no question they’ve underachieved this season.

That’s (some of) the bad news.

The good news is that they’re only 1.5 games out of the eighth spot and 4.5 behind the Celtics for third. Call it fuzzy numbers or a small sample size but as poorly as the Pistons have played, even without their starting point guard, they’re still not buried in the standings. Sure, the East is top-heavy, with just five teams above .500, but the Pistons — even without Jackson — should be one of them.

Pistons put up fight but Warriors pull out late win

In the stronger Western Conference, the Pistons’ record would rank eighth, with a divining line growing between the haves and have-nots. The Sacramento Kings (13-17) occupy the eighth spot there, with the Portland Trail Blazers just a game behind.

Since Jackson’s return, the Pistons are 3-8 — which is a bigger concern — but poor defense, griping about a perceived lack of touches, and the overall shot selection and distribution have contributed to their slow start. There’s enough blame to go around and Van Gundy has taken his share, citing a lack of preparation and strategic miscues among the reasons.

For the optimistic, the Pistons’ schedule eases up considerably in January, following a five-game, 10-day trip out west. They’ll face more of the sub-.500 teams in the league — but the difference will be whether they can take advantage.

With a full stomach and a thankful spirit, The Monday Drive takes a look at the Pistons’ current situation, with a five-game losing streak and a matchup with the defending champion Cavaliers looming Monday night:

1. Pro move: In his first game off the bench this season, Tobias Harris responded with a season-high 26 points against the Warriors. There may have been plenty of reason to sulk, but Harris responded in what Van Gundy called “a very, very professional response from a high-character guy.” Harris handled the situation very well, showing some quiet leadership that the Pistons may need again somewhere down the road.

2. Moving forwards: Van Gundy made the choice to move Jon Leuer to the starting lineup, but after Marcus Morris got in foul trouble, he had to reshuffle the minutes, with Harris getting a few more. In 20 minutes, Morris finished 1-of-7 for two points and struggled for the third straight game, going a combined 4-of-27 and averaging 6.7 points in that span. But Morris’ defense, especially on versatile forwards such as Kevin Durant, is a big asset.

Rip Hamilton to have Pistons No. 32 jersey retired

3. Rip’s jersey retirement: After announcing the plans to retire Richard “Rip” Hamilton’s No. 32 jersey on Feb. 26, the Pistons have reopened the door to an interesting question: where does it stop? There was no question about Ben Wallace or Chauncey Billups, but by extending to Hamilton, it seems that Rasheed Wallace — more of a fan favorite — might be next. Would Tayshaun Prince be far behind that? Coach Larry Brown? It’s quite an honor, but at this rate, retiring many more will begin to cheapen it.

4. Who’s the All-Star? Fan voting for the All-Star Game is open and it seems that Andre Drummond is the most likely Pistons player to be selected. He’s second in rebounds (13.4) and his scoring average (14) is just a little off where it was last season. If Drummond is to make his second straight All-Star appearance, he’ll have some tougher competition, with Hassan Whiteside (Heat), Al Horford (Celtics) and Dwight Howard (Hawks) also in the running.

5. Not another loss: Van Gundy had a memorable coaching tirade when asked about whether the 31-point loss following the team meeting was disappointing. Many fans wondered aloud whether he’s losing the team because his message isn’t getting through. He admitted he’s concerned, but as the coach and team president, there’s less than a minimal chance that he takes the fall for this malaise. As long as they get back to the playoffs, he’s safe.

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard

Pistons vs. Cavaliers

Tip-off: 7:30 p.m. Monday, The Palace, Auburn Hills

TV/radio: FSD/WMGC

Outlook: The Cavs dominated the first meeting this season, 104-81, on Nov. 18, but they’ll be playing the second game of a back-to-back after edging the Warriors Sunday night. ...The Pistons are 1-5 at home in the month of December.