Niyo: Van Gundy sees Pistons still have long way to go

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Pistons guard D.J. Augustin looks for room around the Pelicans’ Anthony Davis, left, and Tyreke Evans on Wednesday night.

Auburn Hills — The spacing is still a problem in the seats. But that will take more time and energy to fix, all that elbow room between the paying customers at the Palace.

On the court, it's another story. And while it, too, is a work in progress — witness the Pistons' ugly 105-94 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday night — it's one that has the rest of the league marveling at what a difference one man can make.

Josh Smith? Nah, it's about Stan Van Gundy now, because that's who is most responsible for this midseason about-face the Pistons have made. And that's who'll decide just how this turnaround plays out the second half of this season.

Because for all the talk about the new-look Pistons' sudden presence — "The style of play they've adopted the last three weeks has been remarkable," New Orleans coach Monty Williams raved Wednesday — it's still about the future for this franchise.

The big picture

Van Gundy, the man who'll shape that future, acknowledged as much after his team's shoot-around Wednesday morning, talking about keeping an open mind as the trade deadline approaches and reality sets in. And that proved to be a bit of foreshadowing hours before his team handed the Pelicans a game far too quickly — and too willingly — for his liking.

"Look, we're not where we want to eventually be," he said prior to the game. "There's a long way from 14-24 to being a contender, and we've got to keep that goal in mind. And not get overly wrapped up in playing 10 good games here."

Because those 10 games were preceded by far too many like this one. And the hole the Pistons dug for themselves early this season looked a lot like the one they got buried in by the Pelicans.

As guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope put it, "This game, we were kind of dead."

On arrival, really. Two rebounds in the second quarter? A 22-point halftime deficit? Another vanishing act by Andre Drummond? Yeah, Van Gundy had seen enough, long before he stalked into his postgame press conference

"It was all baffling," he said, rediscovering that exasperated tone he'd honed the first two months of this season. "We didn't do anything well. … We brought absolutely no energy whatsoever.

"It was just a bad performance. Everybody has them occasionally. We just gotta make sure it stays at one game."

Because they've left themselves little room for error, obviously. In the standings, where the Pistons remain just two games out of the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference, if you can believe it. And in the stands, where many in the announced crowd of 12,016 probably were wondering what all the fuss was about.

"I've been saying all along, when you're 10 games under .500 — now 11 — talking about playoffs is absurd," Van Gundy said. "We need to talk about trying to become a good team."

Long road ahead

That's what they'd started to look like since Christmas, and even to a trained eye it's clearly no fluke.

"I watch them a lot," said Williams, whose team is scrapping to stay in the playoff race in a much tougher Western Conference. "Stan's one of those guys you learn from, and I've learned a lot just watching their games, how he's made the adjustment from playing one way and then playing another way."

"Remarkable" hardly begins to describe the difference in the Pistons, who started the season with a dismal 5-23 record but entered Wednesday's contest having won nine of their last 10.

That's the best 10-game stretch for this franchise since 2008, near the end of their run of six consecutive Eastern Conference finals appearances. And that it came on the heels of the unprecedented decision to waive their highest-paid player — essentially paying Smith $27 million to go away — only makes this all the more extraordinary.

Before that roster purge, the Pistons owned the third-worst offensive rating in the league. Since that move, the Pistons have been the NBA's second-best offensive team. So it's easy to see the causality there, just as it was easy to see the red flags when the Pistons signed Smith to that blockbuster $54 million, free-agent contract in 2013.

With Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond already in Detroit, Smith wasn't really a fit here even before Van Gundy arrived with his dual titles and a clear mandate. But as a high-volume, low-percentage shooter, Smith was the ultimate misfit for the new coach's preferred offensive system.

Now that he's gone, the Pistons are playing the way Van Gundy's perennial playoff teams in Orlando did, spreading the floor with four shooters on the perimeter and a big man roaming free in the paint.

He could use some better shooters, sure. And one of those big men — Drummond — was AWOL again on Wednesday, something Van Gundy wasn't about to let go unnoticed.

"That's four games in a row he really hasn't brought a lot to the game," the coach said after he'd benched Drummond (two points, two rebounds in 22 minutes) for most of the second half. "We need him, obviously. And he hasn't given us a lot. Tonight he didn't even rebound. … So we just sat him down in the second half. He wasn't bringing anything."

And that's the point here, I guess. The Pistons finally have showed us something, but they'll have to bring a lot more — certainly more than they did Wednesday — for it to mean anything in the end.