Niyo: Van Gundy keeps humor as Pistons sink to depths

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Auburn Hills — Stan Van Gundy's brother says he's captaining the Titanic of NBA franchises. One of the Pistons' all-time greats thinks this season might be a lost cause, too. And yet one of Van Gundy's Hall of Fame predecessors — the last guy to win a championship here, in fact — is telling him to stay the course.

So it'd be understandable if the Pistons president and head coach decided to do a little office remodeling at The Palace of Auburn Hills and maybe add a third job title: team psychologist.

"But I can't sit anybody on the couch — I actually don't have one," he joked Thursday after practice, before boarding a flight to Phoenix, where his team will try to avoid tying a franchise record with a 14th consecutive loss tonight against the Suns.

At least he still has a sense of humor about it, as dark as it gets these days, with the Pistons plumbing depressing new depths amid a 3-19 start. Only the Philadelphia 76ers — a franchise that has made no pretense about its master plan, building for the future while "tanking" in the present — are worse at 2-19, a half-game behind the Pistons in the standings.

And Dave Bing, whose jersey is hanging from the rafters at The Palace, is hardly alone in wondering if a turnaround is possible, telling Sirius XM Radio this week, "I'm not sure they're gonna get much better." Likewise, Van Gundy had little choice but to dismiss the recent comments made on the same satellite wavelength by his younger brother, Jeff, a former NBA coach who's now working as a TV analyst.

"He took over the Titanic and it's sinking even quicker," Jeff Van Gundy said. "I think everyone thought it was going to go better than it has. It hasn't gone well."

No one's arguing that last point, however. And while Stan Van Gundy was careful not to make any bold proclamations when he was hired in May to rescue this floundering franchise, he's at a loss to explain just what is happening right now.

"This isn't normal," he said Thursday, reiterating something he's been saying for weeks.

"And I deal with it, too — my wife's doing my psychology," added Van Gundy, who was lured to Detroit by billionaire owner Tom Gores last summer with the promise of personnel control and a five-year, $35 million contract. "But if you're thinking about where you are and what has gone on, I mean, that's discouraging. It is. You're thinking 13 in a row, we're 3-19 … that's discouraging."

It shows on the court, as the Pistons' quirky collection of talent continues to confound, particularly offensively. Van Gundy's team is getting the kind of shots that analytic basketball minds prefer — layups, free throws, 3-pointers — but Detroit still ranks 29th in the league in scoring, thanks to a league-worst 40.4-percent marksmanship. And from the looks of it in Tuesday night's loss to Portland, when the Pistons hit barely a third of their shots, things may be getting worse, not better.

"When you're struggling, you shoot the ball not expecting it to go in," said Van Gundy, who compared it to his own short-lived Pony League baseball career as a 0.091 hitter.

The addition of Jodie Meeks, the Pistons' biggest free-agent addition this past summer, should help in that regard. He'll make his season debut tonight in Phoenix, though no one's expecting much from a guy who is effectively in his first week of training camp after missing two months with a back injury.

Still, it can't hurt. The Pistons' point-guard tandem of Brandon Jennings and D.J. Augustin is mired in a brutal slump. And the team's highest-paid player, Josh Smith, is shooting a career-low 38.1 percent and averaging 13.5 points to match his $13.5 million salary. Meanwhile, the Pistons' best player, Greg Monroe, seems resigned to his fate as a pending free agent. And the team's biggest hope, young center Andre Drummond, is experiencing some serious growing pains in his third NBA season.

"It's just very frustrating," Smith said after a stunning overtime loss to those hapless 76ers at home last weekend. "I think, as a unit, we all agree that we're at an all-time low right now."

Their coach, whose next losing season will be his first in a nine-year pro coaching career, certainly would agree with that assessment. And he says it's one reason he reached out to Larry Brown last week. Brown, one of the game's all-time winningest coaches, led the Pistons to an NBA title in 2004, but he has made a nomadic career out of rebuilding jobs similar to the one facing Van Gundy now.

"He's a guy who has had about every experience there is to have in the game, and his main thing was, 'Don't change what you believe in,' " Van Gundy said. "It was a good thing to hear."

And a message that Van Gundy keeps preaching to his players through this extending losing skid and some lengthy practices, neither of which the players are happy about, as you can imagine.

Maybe the frustrated new coach is running his team ragged. Or maybe it's simply a raggedy roster in need of a major overhaul. Either way, personnel changes could be on the horizon. The league's trade moratorium regarding last summer's free-agent class ends Dec. 15, and coincidentally that night the Pistons will be playing the Clippers at the Staples Center, where Gores, who lives in Beverly Hills, typically sits courtside to watch his team.

The crowd there figures to be a bit livelier than the one at The Palace, where the Pistons rank last in the NBA in attendance, averaging just 13,764 fans, or a dismal 62.4 percent of capacity. The team's 26-year-old arena has undergone a three-year, $40 million face-lift since Gores bought the team — the final phase included a huge, high-definition scoreboard prior to this season — but it takes more than that to reinvigorate a fan base.

"I think the responsibility is always on you as a team," Van Gundy agreed. "I mean, to stand here and complain about the fans would be ridiculous. You're not playing well, you're losing games, what do the fans have to be excited about?"

The same can be asked of the coach, obviously. And it has been, even by Van Gundy himself, in countless moments of self-reflection. He talked at length about that Thursday, after another spirited practice that he hopes wasn't a mirage.

"I still think we've got a chance to be pretty good," the coach insisted. "How good? I don't know."

But at this point, the better question might be: How much worse can it get?

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Worst records

Philadelphia: 2-19

Detroit: 3-19

N.Y. Knicks: 4-20

Minnesota: 5-16

Utah: 6-16

L.A. Lakers: 6-16

Charlotte: 6-15

Current losing streaks

Detroit: 13 games

N.Y. Knicks: 10 games

Indiana: 6 games

Pistons' longest losing streak in a season:

14 games, twice