Beard: Pistons' roller-coaster ride starts with Jackson

Rod Beard
The Detroit News
Reggie Jackson

Auburn Hills — There’s nothing like optimism, except springtime optimism.

Last April, the Pistons were raising eyebrows, even after a first-round playoff sweep to the eventual-champion Cleveland Cavaliers. The Pistons have made the playoffs for the first time in seven years and the look ahead to this season was mostly seen through rose-colored lenses.

Then came Reggie Jackson’s knee tendinitis in the preseason, which snipped some of the optimism. After missing the first 21 games of the regular season, Jackson returned, but things haven’t nearly reached the level of those spring hopes.

Not even close.

The Pistons are 27-30, sitting uneasily in the same No. 8 spot in the East as last season, just a game behind the Chicago Bulls for seventh and two games behind the Indiana Pacers for sixth. Coach Stan Van Gundy senses the pressure of anticipated improvement and though the record is nearly the same as last season (one game behind last year’s 28-29), the expectations have changed things.

“It’s about perception because last year at this time, we were one game better than what we are now and the feel was totally different,” Van Gundy said. “I get it, because the expectations were higher … and you have to deal with and learn to overcome it — and it’s part of the development of a team, to learn to deal with those things.”

ESPN senior writer Zach Lowe’s column this week highlights some of the Pistons’ issues. From Jackson’s injury to stagnant defense to inconsistencies at almost every position, there is no one singular reason the Pistons have underachieved in the first part of the season.

What went wrong

Part of Van Gundy’s plan to improve this year was spreading the offense around to other players, but Jackson’s injury changed things — drastically.

“After last year, they had everybody and it seemed like they got into a rhythm. Losing Reggie in training camp has really screwed them up — not only because they didn’t have Reggie — but since he’s come back midstream, it just hasn’t ever looked right,” Tim Bontemps, national NBA Washington Post national NBA writer, told The Detroit News.

“They haven’t gotten on track at any point this year. Watching them play, they fade in and out; at times, they look like world beaters, then they’ll lose to the Sixers at home.”

Ish Smith, signed as a free-agent backup point guard, was pushed into the starting role, with mixed results. The Pistons were 11-10 in that stretch, but when Jackson returned on Dec. 4, things took a turn.

They went 4-10 over the next stretch in December and Jackson’s numbers dipped: 14.5 points, 5.3 assists and 32 percent on 3-pointers.

“Detroit pivoted into a faster, more egalitarian offense to paper over Jackson’s absence. When Jackson returned, he tried to mix his off-the-bounce game with Detroit’s new style,” Lowe wrote. “It didn't work, mostly because Jackson wasn’t the same player. He couldn’t turn into the corner and zoom into the lane as easily.”

Jackson was among the best fourth-quarter players in the league last season and with the change in offensive philosophy, plus Jackson not at 100 percent, things started to spiral downward, just in meshing him back into the flow of the team. About 10 weeks after his return, Jackson still doesn’t look like he’s completely back to himself.

Report: Pistons have discussed Reggie Jackson deal with Magic

“The focal point in the equation is Reggie — and I don’t think Reggie is healthy,” said Greg Kelser, Pistons TV analyst for Fox Sports Detroit. “He is noticeably different and I give him all the credit in the world for being out there trying. He could have continued to sit but he’s a competitor and wanted to get back and join his team.

“On most nights, he doesn’t seem to have the push, explosion or lift that he demonstrated last year. And that’s been tough — tough for him and tough for the team. I don’t put all this on him, though. Everybody has an equal share in it on any given night.”

Jackson had a better January, but the numbers have regressed again in February. He did finish the All-Star break on a positive, with 22 points in Wednesday’s win over the Mavericks.

To trade or not

The trade-rumor mill has been spinning in recent weeks with potential deals, mostly involving Jackson. Lowe reported that there have been bigger discussions as well:

“Detroit has quietly explored the trade market for each of its franchise centerpieces, according to sources across the league, and come away disappointed with the potential return,” Lowe wrote. “(Van Gundy himself has said anyone is available for ‘the right price.’) “Any Drummond deal at the deadline is an extreme long shot, but Jackson remains in play for Minnesota, Orlando, New Orleans, or some mystery destination. Even if Detroit keeps him, missing the playoffs would put dramatic changes on the table this summer.”

That would be big news, if the Pistons decided to deal either of their best players, but Van Gundy seems committed to staying pat with this roster, unless a team with a good deal comes calling.

Though they’ve been inconsistent, the Pistons have the easiest schedule in their remaining 25 games in the league, based on win percentage. That provides some optimism heading into the post-break push.

“If you look at where they were in April and where they are now, at best you could say they flat-lined and in all reality, you probably have to say they’ve taken a step back,” Bontemps said. “Given how young the team is, it could be a blip, but it’s a disappointing blip.”

The path ahead

In his third season, Van Gundy seems to have hit a point where the next deal will have to significantly alter the roster, either to get an All-Star-caliber player, not just to change the faces.

“That is the million-dollar question: Is this group capable of becoming a contending team? The jury is obviously out,” Bontemps said. “I was as high as anybody coming out of last season. I thought they were going to be a team that could jump forward from last year’s sweep — about as competitive a sweep as you could have — and build on that to become a top-four team in the East.”

Kelser notes that despite last year’s 44 wins only yielded an eighth seed, they could end up with fewer and still get to the No. 6 or 7 seed this year, potentially getting a couple playoff wins. That would constitute an improvement, especially given the injury issues and inconsistencies of the first half.

The final 25 games will tell plenty about what the path forward for the Pistons will be. Trades will change the trajectory, certainly, but making the playoffs is almost a must.

“If they can’t bounce back in the final couple months of the regular season, they’re going to have a lot of choices to make about whether this is right group or home in on making some changes to augment this group and take the steps forward they thought they were going to,” Bontemps said.

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard