Auburn Hills — Not that long ago, it was a farfetched fantasy. The Pistons as a franchise were basically unplugged, and restoring power was daunting.
It’s coming back on, gradually, occasionally flickering. And with the return of competitiveness comes the return of grand ideas, including the one that never dies — a return to Detroit. It remains in the fanciful stage, but as the Pistons make a steady rise on the floor, they’re stirring possibilities.
That was the message from owner Tom Gores, NBA commissioner Adam Silver and others Monday, before the Pistons reverted to their youthful ways and fell to the Bulls 111-101. The Pistons are 22-19 at the midway point of the season, in position to end their six-year playoff drought if they can overcome nagging inconsistencies.
Four years into Gores’ ownership and a year-and-a-half into Stan Van Gundy’s reign, the Pistons are arcing up. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be marching down (town) anytime soon, but everybody wants to be part of a good revival, right?
It always has seemed like the right move for the team and the city, although it obviously wouldn’t be the right move for Auburn Hills. The Palace is still a tremendous venue for basketball, concerts and anything else, and Gores recently spent about $40 million in upgrades. But the lure of what’s happening in Detroit, with Cavs owner Dan Gilbert expanding relentlessly and the Ilitches’ glimmering Red Wings arena set to open in 2017, is tantalizing.
‘Looking at everything’
For a guy like Gores, who’s from Flint, the societal possibilities are too important to ignore. He reiterated his general stance that he’s open to all options, but appreciates where the Pistons play now. He made the remarks at a ceremony where Gores and Palace Sports & Entertainment vice chairman Arn Tellem committed $600,000 to the S.A.Y. Detroit Play Center, to enhance facilities and academic support for community youth.
Later in the day, Gores spoke at a business luncheon at the Pistons’ practice facility, and he clearly isn’t quelling the notion of a return to the city.
“Arn is looking at everything in terms of downtown Detroit,” Gores said. “We’ve made a philosophical decision that in order to impact Detroit, we don’t have to play in Detroit. Are we open to it? Yes. At the same time, we have to always respect our home, just like you respect your home.”
The Pistons-to-Detroit talk may be premature, but at least there’s talk. Martin Luther King Day is a celebration of inclusion, and it wasn’t mere symbolism that Gores began the day downtown. When he bought the Pistons, it was easy to monitor from afar, with the team way down the popularity scale. But isolation becomes less appealing as the team rebounds, along with the city.
Silver was in town making the rounds, his first game at The Palace since he became commissioner. He acknowledged he was there to hear more about the Pistons’ plans, while saying the NBA has no stance on where they play.
Mayor Mike Duggan would love to bring the Pistons downtown, and Gores is talking with Gilbert about several projects. If the Ilitches are looking for partners, I’m betting Gores would be happy to listen. It’s not that simple, of course, and plenty of loyal fans are happy with the team in Auburn Hills. When the Pistons are good, drawing crowds isn’t a problem. When they beat Golden State Saturday night, the building was packed and the atmosphere was electric.
‘The right path’
Eventually, the team must get to the point where the appeal isn’t the opponent, or an occasion such as Ben Wallace’s jersey retirement. Before any downtown dreams could shift out of the fanciful stage, the basketball product had to improve, and it has.
Give Gores credit. He has committed more energy and money to the franchise than first seemed likely. He made excellent executive hires, including Van Gundy, and allowed them to invest in players and time. The Pistons are still one of the youngest teams in the league, and will grow as Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson grow.
“We had to get the basketball right, and Stan Van Gundy is on his way to getting this thing right,” Gores said. “He’s setting a culture and a tone about what Detroit means. Look, I could say all the words, but the fact is if our players don’t play, then we’re not welcome to talk.”
Patience can be frustrating and the Pistons still show it. The Bulls manhandled them with veterans Pau Gasol and Derrick Rose, and the Pistons displayed more wasted emotion than real energy. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was ejected after picking up his second technical foul and Drummond also received a technical.
Van Gundy sounded disgusted afterward, and frankly, that’s good. Because as expectations nudge up, the Pistons have to rise more often to meet them. Jackson called the team “consistently inconsistent,” and the coach had more pointed words in a terse media briefing that lasted 90 seconds.
Before the game, Van Gundy was more eager to extol his team’s improvement halfway through the season, after going 32-50 a year ago.
“There’s still gonna be a lot of ups and downs, but I don’t think there’s any doubt we’re on the right path and making progress,” he said. “There’s also no doubt there’s still a long, long way to go.”
It’s a long way from the doldrums to contention, from dreams to a downtown reality. The Pistons are headed in a better direction and so is Detroit, and it’s not pure fantasy to say the two could meet again.