Auburn Hills — The slow-motion collapse has accelerated, and the Pistons are spiraling right out of playoff contention. Determining what they do wrong is relatively simple. They miss a lot of 3-pointers and play defense only when the spirit moves them.
Determining who’s responsible and how to fix it is the riddle. This is a humbling fall for a franchise that appeared on the upswing, and it’s smudging the reputations of the three main figures — Stan Van Gundy, Reggie Jackson, Andre Drummond. My first impression is the Pistons can’t return next season with all three in the same roles.
Owner Tom Gores will have time to mull who stays and goes (if anyone goes) once the playoff fate is officially decided. To me, Jackson is the key — are his woes the result of physical issues that have bothered him all season, or a sign he’s not the guy to lead the team? It’s a fair, important debate with no easy answer.
The Pistons (34-41) have lost eight of nine and trail Miami by 2 1/2 games for the final spot in the Eastern Conference with seven games left. Their crushing 97-96 loss to the Heat Tuesday night had a feel of finality. Coincidentally, the Red Wings’ 25-year playoff streak ended the same night, and this could be the first time since 1983 neither team made the postseason.
At least with the Wings, you could see it coming, a rebuild they no longer could avoid. The Pistons are the mystery, painfully encapsulated in the final minute of their must-win clash against the Heat. They led by four with 30 seconds left when Van Gundy made two self-proclaimed gaffes. He didn’t replace Stanley Johnson with a better ball-handler, and Johnson promptly was tied up and lost a jump ball with 14.7 seconds left. Van Gundy also didn’t call a needed timeout, and took full blame for it.
Then Drummond couldn’t corral a rebound as the Heat got three attempts in the final 10 seconds, and won it on Hassan Whiteside’s tip-in as time expired. And Jackson? The Pistons’ on-court leader was on the bench in street clothes, physically and mentally resting. It was a peculiar time to rest a significant piece, and Jackson said he didn’t want to sit. Van Gundy said he’d been contemplating it for a while as Jackson wore down, and isn’t sure if he’ll sit the remainder of the season.
Jackson, 26, seems less sure about everything, including his future here after such a turbulent season.
“It’s very tough, annoying and frustrating,” Jackson said. “You think you’re better than what you’re putting out there on the court. I always have ultimate confidence in myself and always think I’m one of the best players on the court each and every night. And if there are certain things I feel I can’t do, it’s tough.”
Thrown off course
After making the playoffs last season, the Pistons’ plummet began with Jackson. That doesn’t mean it’s all his fault, just his issues started it. He missed the first 21 games after a plasma injection to treat tendinitis in his left knee and never looked right. He had no burst to the basket, admits he couldn’t drive open lanes and said he felt like “a shell of myself.”
With Jackson not right, the Pistons weren’t right, becoming even more of a jump-shooting team, and a dreadful one. Drummond, his pick-and-roll partner, was thrown off. And when Van Gundy lost confidence in his lead guard, he was lost looking for solutions. Ish Smith was capable for a while but not every night, not with a lineup devoid of pure scorers.
The Pistons are 19th in field-goal percentage and 29th in 3-point shooting. That’s on Van Gundy, who has full power over personnel and somehow hasn’t found enough shooters. His team also hasn’t played competent defense, and the effort in some games is miserable.
I don’t think the players simply have tuned out Van Gundy, although that’s usually the next step. I think they’ve caved to frustration, and Van Gundy hasn’t helped by hammering players publicly. He’s smart enough to recognize it, and more and more is heaping blame on himself.
“Look, I am the guy responsible here,” Van Gundy said before the Miami game. “I choose the players. I choose the staff. I have a great owner that will do anything. We are not playing well at a crucial time of the year and I take full responsibility. They have to go out and get the job done, but shoot, it’s on me as much as it’s on them, if not more so.”
Trades are possible
That’s a stark admission from a coach who knows his message hasn’t gotten through, and is forced to look inward. Maybe he realizes he can’t run the whole team as coach-president. Frankly, I’m not sure which direction Gores would go if he felt compelled to choose between Van Gundy, Drummond and Jackson. It might take a whole summer to determine if a choice is even necessary, but the prospect of trading Jackson or Drummond again must be considered.
Drummond, 23, is still a rebounding machine — second in the league at 14 per game — but his offense remains raw and his defense poor. Inexcusably, his free-throw shooting has barely improved — from 35.5 percent to 39.1.
Gores committed big contracts to Drummond and Jackson, and neither has publicly expressed disgruntlement, although actions speak loudest. Jackson’s scoring (14.5 per game) and shooting numbers are down, and in a strange way, the club should hope it’s a knee issue, not an attitude or talent issue. In retrospect, Jackson said he might have been ready to play mentally when he returned Dec. 4, but not physically. And while he strongly resisted sitting, he’s not complaining.
“They definitely felt it was best for me to rest, and I trust in them,” Jackson said. “When I’m allowed to play again, I’m definitely gonna cherish each and every moment on the court like it’s my last. … It’s also going to be good in the long run, to force me to play a little different and expand my game. I haven’t been great this season by the way I measure myself. Without pain, there wouldn’t be joy. I truly believe there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”
The Pistons indeed are entering a tunnel, headed somewhere they didn’t expect to go. One downturn season doesn’t destroy all plans, but it certainly makes you rethink them.