Auburn Hills — The record is better, barely. The fanfare is better, barely.
But are the Pistons in better shape than a year ago? Clearly.
Stan Van Gundy has been here one season but it seems like two, or three, or five. The first part was a 5-23 disaster. The second part was a mildly intriguing 27-27, highlighted by the development of two crucial pieces — Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond. The result was a 32-50 mark, which happens to be the Pistons' best record in six years, which is both sad and enlightening.
The Pistons probably will lose free-agent forward Greg Monroe, a dependable piece but not a centerpiece. If his departure is the worst thing that happens this offseason, that's not bad. The Pistons were 7-4 when Monroe was sidelined, and it hasn't been easy integrating him with Drummond. If Van Gundy is to fully implement his spread-the-floor-and-shoot-the-ball system, he needs to clear the floor a bit.
Owner Tom Gores already is talking about giving Drummond a maximum contract, a commitment that eventually should happen. Drummond is a 21-year-old, 6-foot-11 rarity who could be special if he expands his offense and dedicates himself to consistent defense. He finished second in the league in rebounding at 13.5 per game and should be a long-time double-double machine.
If Drummond and Jackson can flourish as they did in the final few weeks, the Pistons actually might have a fearsome twosome, a good place to start.
"I think the numbers and point differential will indicate we were significantly better than we were a year ago," Van Gundy said Thursday. "I guess you could say we're trending upward. We feel like we've established a base of good young players. Over the last two-thirds of the year, we played .500 ball, which would've put us in the top five in the East."
To fully grasp where the Pistons are, out of the playoffs a sixth straight year, you have to remember where they were at the end of last season, and the season before, and the season before. They swung from pathetic to apathetic, with ownership issues, coaching issues and player dysfunction issues.
The Pistons aren't going anywhere the next few months except straight to the draft lottery (more progress — they actually have their first-round pick). But a cluttered path has been cleared, and it's up to Van Gundy and general manager Jeff Bower to fill the holes. Of the 15 players on the roster, only seven were here at the start of the season.
As team president, Van Gundy has done a solid job preparing for the future, dumping and acquiring pieces, gaining flexibility. As coach, he has to do a better job molding Drummond and demanding tougher defense from everyone.
Van Gundy's best trait is his measured boldness, the confidence and power to show he's in charge. I'm not just talking about raw honesty after ugly losses. He convinced Gores to eat $27 million to release Josh Smith, a momentous move. He accepted that Brandon Jennings would need a long recovery after tearing an Achilles, and rather than wait around and hope, he made a savvy deal for Jackson.
Jackson, 25, acquired from Oklahoma City for D.J. Augustin and Kyle Singler, has the ingredients to be a star. Drummond has the size and upside to be a premier big man, the perfect pick-and-roll complement. After Jackson arrived in February, Drummond's scoring average rose from 12.7 to 16, and his rebounds rose from 13 to 14.5. The Pistons haven't had such a promising pair of young players in a while, although neither is close to a polished product.
"I think it goes beyond those two guys," Van Gundy said. "Certainly, some of the things Andre's done, particularly in rebounding, are basically unprecedented in this league at that age. And we saw more of a gain offensively than we thought we'd see."
It's staggering the Pistons' six-year run of missing the playoffs is the longest in the Eastern Conference. We can blame the ownership change from Karen Davidson to Gores, or the poor decision-making by Joe Dumars, or the selfish culture that grew in the absence of leadership and accountability.
But the Pistons have legitimate NBA assets now, and I'd rank them in this order: Drummond, Jackson, Van Gundy, a lottery pick, Jennings, salary-cap space, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Jodie Meeks. A year ago, they had more deficits: Smith, Smith's contract, Smith's 3-point misery, Jonas Jerebko, Rodney Stuckey, Will Bynum, Charlie Villanueva, no first-round pick.
Monroe's situation will draw a lot of attention, but his expected departure isn't overly damaging if the Pistons use the money on a coveted, versatile forward such as, say, Golden State's Draymond Green. The former Michigan State star will be a restricted free agent and would fit perfectly here.
Mutual respect between Van Gundy and Monroe has grown, but when the Pistons didn't go all in on his contract last summer, a parting seemed inevitable.
"I really don't have a sense one way or another how that will go," Van Gundy said. "As far as him being a priority, we love Greg, but I don't think this is about how many love notes we drop in between now and July 1."
In other words, the Pistons don't feel compelled to court him at any cost. They have other possibilities, and the days of abject desperation might finally be nearing an end.