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Auburn Hills — Just when the Pistons finally found a direction, it veered. The temptation is to say it actually stopped, and everything's on hold.

That's too easy. Oh, the odds keep piling up against them, evident Tuesday night in a 103-95 loss to the Cavaliers. With Brandon Jennings, the Pistons were capable of outscoring opponents. Without him, it will be much harder to keep up.

But if things truly have changed dramatically under Stan Van Gundy — and I think they have — this is when we'll see it. The Pistons found their on-court leader, then lost him when Jennings' left Achilles tendon snapped. It was a brutally cruel twist, slowing the turnaround and muting premature playoff talk. But the days of caving, intentional or not, have to be over.

Van Gundy drove that message hard after the Pistons got picked apart by LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. This is the strongest coach the Pistons have had since Larry Brown, a feisty leader whose vision is just starting to form. Jennings was an obvious spark in the recovery from the 5-23 mess but Van Gundy's system is the constant, and he has another fearless point guard in D.J. Augustin.

"Look, Brandon was having a helluva year, and I feel bad for him," Van Gundy said. "But I'm not gonna stand up here and say that's the reason. We've got good enough players to win. If you take care of the ball and rebound the ball, you win."

Stars not necessary

This was a perfectly ironic clash between the NBA's luckiest team and one of the less fortunate. The Cavaliers have won three of the past four draft lotteries, years after landing the biggest prize ever in James. The only time the Pistons had lottery success, they foolishly locked in on Darko Milicic, although they weren't alone in that assessment. He turned out to be the worst No. 2 overall pick in history.

Now, the Cavs have James back after a four-year South Beach excursion and the Pistons just lost Jennings for the season. Cleveland (26-20) has won seven in a row and Detroit (17-29) lost its third straight after a 12-3 spurt. The Pistons are still only 21/2 games out of the eighth playoff spot in a weak East, and if Augustin plays this confidently, they remain a modest bet to break their five-year playoff drought.

Augustin scored 35 points in a loss at Toronto, and had 19 points and nine assists (but five turnovers) against Cleveland. In fact, the Pistons outshot and even outrebounded the Cavs, and actually played some defense. But they committed 18 turnovers and gave up too many second-chance points down the stretch.

The Pistons have a future, that much we've learned in the month since Josh Smith was jettisoned. It's a bit murkier now, with Jennings out and Greg Monroe heading toward free agency, and with the sometimes-halting development of Andre Drummond. But it's a future that can't be mortgaged, and Van Gundy agreed. He said the Pistons wouldn't surrender major assets for another point guard, and rookie Spencer Dinwiddie is the backup for now.

The Pistons can't just rely on lottery hopes and three-point prayers. The Cavs got their superstar back and have a rising one in Irving, but they're not tearing it up, at least not yet. The Pistons built a different way with their 2004 championship team, and you know who's doing the same thing now? The superstar-less Atlanta Hawks, who have won 16 straight and have the best record in the East at 37-8.

No offense to the Cavs, who haven't parlayed their good fortune into anything of note, but the Hawks are the more realistic model to emulate. Once they stopped chasing stars and made smarter choices, the Hawks became a beast. They drafted well (Al Horford, Jeff Teague), signed better free agents (Paul Millsap) and traded for good fits (Kyle Korver, Thabo Sefolosha).

Most important, the Hawks dumped overpaid Josh Smith and Joe Johnson. The Pistons at least got half of that formula right. And Van Gundy will get a chance to test his drafting skills with a first-rounder, after taking Dinwiddie with the 38th pick last season.

No excuses

Instead of mortgaging the future, the Pistons need to envision it and invest in it. If they've slipped farther in the playoff race by the Feb. 20 trade deadline, they should try to trade Monroe, although that's problematic. Under his one-year deal, he can refuse a trade. That's a debate Van Gundy the coach might have with Van Gundy the GM in the next few weeks.

For now, they have to show Jennings wasn't a singular force and other pieces are capable. That means Drummond has to have a bigger impact on offense, and Kyle Singler has to prove he's worthy of starting, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has to become a shooting guard who actually can shoot.

"I don't think they're looking for any excuses and I don't think they're making any excuses," Van Gundy said. "They don't have any lack of confidence in their ability to win. I don't think we're in any kind of downward spiral. Our team will be just fine."

It doesn't appear to be an empty claim. The future isn't as enticing as it was a few days ago, but it's still worth watching.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/bobwojnowski

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