Wojo: Unpredictable Pistons have no margin for error

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — One minute, one game, one streak, they’re a fun, free-wheeling show. The next minute, the next game, the next streak, they’re a mess.

The Pistons have completed nearly 70 percent of their season as they head to the All-Star break and we can safely say this: We have no idea yet who they are, or what they’re capable of doing.

As presently assembled, they’re not a playoff a team. And the growing reality is, they have no chance of being a playoff team unless they get a fully functioning Reggie Jackson back soon after the break. There’s no firm timetable on his return from a sprained right ankle, suffered Dec. 26, but it could be another couple weeks. Which could mean another four or five games, which would reduce the Pistons’ error margin to dangerously low levels.

At 28-29, they’re one-and-a-half games out of the eighth and final spot in the East, and their schedule toughens, with 15 of the final 25 on the road. Various statistical projections peg their playoff chances between 19 and 26 percent.

Blake Griffin brought hope, and when running alongside Andre Drummond, the possibilities look legitimate. But Griffin’s arrival also shrunk important timeframes. The Pistons are 6-3 since the trade (5-3 with him in the lineup) and adjustments are being made nightly. Stan Van Gundy said he couldn’t wait to fire up the game tapes during the break and figure out better ways to assimilate Griffin in the offense.

The concern is, more assimilation will be necessary upon Jackson’s return, and by then the Pistons will be in must-win mode. And make no mistake, Van Gundy and owner Tom Gores opted to go for it when they traded their two leading scorers, Tobias Harris and Avery Bradley, to the Clippers for Griffin.

Griffin’s range of skills

Watching Griffin for two weeks now, you can see why the bold move was made, and also the adjustment issues. He brings a true star quality, and teammates rave about his broad range of skills. He’s averaging 20.4 points, eight rebounds and 6.1 assists here but is shooting just 40.6 percent (29.4 on 3-pointers).

Drummond appears revitalized, and so do others. And for those who wondered how Griffin would handle his sudden expulsion from glitzy Los Angeles, he’s provided the energy and optimism the Pistons craved. But they also crave a playoff berth. Van Gundy might even need a playoff berth for job security, because if he misses for the third time in four seasons, with full control of personnel, responsibility falls squarely on him.

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The Pistons’ wild fluctuations can be startling. They opened the season 14-6 and then lost seven in a row (before Jackson was hurt). They’ve won at Golden State, at Oklahoma City and at Boston, and lost to some dregs. They endured an eight-game losing streak, then won five in a row after the Griffin trade, then lost three in a row.

“We’re one of the strangest teams in the league in that there’s really no difference in our record against good teams and teams below,” Van Gundy said. “I’ve said since the first 20 games of the year, we’ve shown we’re capable of beating anyone, and anyone’s capable of beating us. And how we come to play every night is very, very important.”

Some of the inconsistencies are tied to defensive lapses and energy droughts, which are inexcusable. Some are tied to the lack of a fourth-quarter go-to guy in Jackson’s absence, which is why Griffin was brought here, and for the most part, he’s delivering.

He also has seen how alternately tantalizing and listless the Pistons can look. He echoes what teammates say, that everyone must play harder for longer stretches. And yes, after a whirlwind two weeks, Griffin is ready for a break.

“Physically, emotionally, mentally, it’s been a lot,” he said. “It’s probably gonna take a few more games to really feel comfortable with everything, but I like our upside, like our ceiling. … Just getting Reggie back gives us another weapon. Anybody that’s great in the pick and roll, and in somewhat the same system, I expect to hit the ground running with him. He’s that good of a player, not really a guy you kind of have to wait for.”

The Pistons have waited seven weeks, and will wait as long as it takes to ensure Jackson is completely healthy. They know their ceiling can’t be reached until their point guard touches the floor. Ish Smith has filled in solidly but newcomer Jameer Nelson is limited, to be kind.

A Big Three in offing

Van Gundy doesn’t even want to discuss when Jackson might return, but familiarity with the offense will help the transition.

“You might have to pare things down without him, but Reggie’s easy to integrate when he comes back,” Van Gundy said. “Point guards are pretty easy to run stuff with, especially a guy like him — he can beat you off the dribble, can turn the corner, can make all the passes and can shoot the ball. From a system standpoint, it won’t be hard. Now, getting chemistry with Blake and James (Ennis III), guys he’s never played with, there’s problems.”

The Pistons finally will get extensive practice time now and must sift through issues quickly. Of their first eight games after the break, six are against teams currently holding playoff spots in the East. There’s also a six-game Western road trip in March.

The pressure will be on immediately, a 25-game sprint to chase Miami (30-28) and Philadelphia (30-25). Anthony Tolliver has played nine NBA seasons with nine teams, and says he’s never seen a team that rides the rollercoaster quite like this one.

That’s a problem because one more modest losing streak and the Pistons are done. It’s also a positive because one modest winning streak and they’re right back in the playoff picture. You can argue their upside should be high because of Griffin’s presence and Jackson’s pending return, theoretically forming a Big Three with Drummond.

“I can’t wait, I’m excited,” Stanley Johnson said. “Sometimes I feel like Reggie has been out so long, we don’t even know what it’s like to play with him anymore. Any team fully staffed is gonna be better. Getting him back now, hopefully we can get that same magic we had my first year and make that push for the playoffs.”

Push and pull, up and down. That’s the Pistons, an unfinished product headed toward an uncertain finish. A lot of pieces to fit in a small amount of time, and if they’re to fulfill the playoff plan, they can’t squander another minute or another game.