Auburn Hills — People are noticing, and the Pistons are noticing people are noticing. This is a good thing, finally. The Pistons have become this fascinating little chemistry experiment, with Stan Van Gundy mixing and stirring and constantly adjusting the burner.
So it's time to wonder: What exactly is forming here (besides a celebrated wall)? It's hard to tell what we're seeing, other than the obvious, that releasing Josh Smith was the greatest subtraction transaction in Detroit sports history.
The Pistons aren't the 5-23 team they were, nor the 9-2 team they've been P.S. (Post Smith). They're 5-15 at home but can tie a franchise record with a seventh consecutive road victory if they beat the Pacers tonight. They're two games out of the final playoff spot as we near the midway point of the season, and I don't think it's a fluke.
When Andre Drummond is determined to dominate, and Brandon Jennings is scoring and passing, and the 3-pointers are dropping, the Pistons actually look like a playoff team. Yep, I'm saying it, even if it's early and potentially foolhardy. It's the new expectation, no excuses — get back to the playoffs for the first time in six years.
The East is awful, which has helped the Pistons (14-25) climb into the mix barely three weeks after being as awful as anyone. They won't keep winning nine of 11, but they also won't keep playing poorly at home, as they did in a dreary 105-94 loss to the Pelicans the other night.
Sometimes a team gets hot and it's a mirage, or a schedule quirk. That's not necessarily the case with the Pistons, who have won tough road games. And there's a clear, tangible delineation between bad and good — Smith's departure. It's not some abstract theory. It's where chemistry changed, passing lanes unclogged and players' confidence sprouted.
More shooters needed
Van Gundy has a history of winning precisely this way, with a big man in the middle (Dwight Howard in Orlando) and a bunch of shooters. For the Pistons to become a consistent threat, they need more shooters, and they also need to adjust to their rising profile.
"We're not surprising anybody now when we come into a game," said Jennings, one of six Pistons averaging double figures in scoring. "When you win nine of 11, you're gonna have some pressure. I try to stay away from that because we haven't done anything yet. We're not even in the play …"
Jennings shifted to avoid the p-word.
"… We're not even in the top eight, so we still gotta get better."
Van Gundy says playoff talk at this point is "absurd" and he's right, considering the absurdity of 5-23 and his team's flaws. The top teams have superstars and the bottom teams have lottery dreams, and those in the middle have untapped talent still trying to define itself.
That's Jennings, a mercurial 25-year-old point guard getting better and better, while seeking the balance between passing and shooting. That's Drummond, the 21-year-old behemoth who recorded at least 14 rebounds in six straight games, but played the past four as if snoozing. That's Greg Monroe, the 6-foot-11 forward who leads the team with a 15.1 scoring average but was overlooked on the open market last summer, and has another year to prove his value. That's guys like Jodie Meeks, Jonas Jerebko and D.J. Augustin, searching for expanded roles.
Detroit officially ignited in a stunning victory at San Antonio last week, when Van Gundy famously and colorfully implored his team to form a (flippin') wall. (#FAFW). Nobody's pretending the Pistons defense is remotely wall-like, or that their shooting is lethal. They're 18th in the NBA in 3-point percentage, although those numbers improved during the streak.
When they get rolling, the Pistons are legitimately exciting. And when the energy is low and the shots aren't falling, they can lapse into mediocrity. Van Gundy recognizes the line and keeps pushing, which is why he might alter his lineup tonight, possibly removing Kyle Singler or Drummond.
"We brought absolutely no energy whatsoever, and that's starting to be a trend at the start of games," Van Gundy said after the loss to New Orleans. "I don't know how much longer we'll go with that lineup. We're having to dig out of holes every night. … I have no idea (about Drummond) but it's four games in a row where he really hasn't brought a lot to the game."
Preserving the spark
The Pistons got their spark with subtraction and construction, and keeping it depends substantially on Drummond and Jennings. The point guard is responsible for controlling pace and allocating shots, and Jennings takes his leadership role seriously.
Perhaps he needs to be aggressive earlier and run the fast break with more urgency. The Pistons fell behind by 23 against the Hawks and lost by three. They struggled early against the Nets and won by five. They fell behind the Raptors by 14 and won by three. They fell behind the Pelicans by 24 and never got close.
Comebacks are thrilling, but not a sustainable trend.
"I'm the one with the ball, and I definitely have to find a way to get us going better," Jennings said. "Right now, when guys get the ball, we don't know what to do with it. Our philosophy is shoot it, move it or drive it, and we're not doing those."
New standards are forming, much like an imaginary wall. It will take more time and a lot more work, but eventually the Pistons will have to confirm it's real, because it should be.