Auburn Hills — They’ve already handed them the keys.
So now all that’s left for Stan Van Gundy to do is bark out directions and help the youngsters navigate the bumps in the road without driving him — or them — crazy.
That’s no easy task, obviously, for a hard-driving coach once dubbed the “master of panic” by Shaquille O’Neal. And outings like this — it took a fourth-quarter rally Wednesday night to escape with a 110-97 win against the Philadelphia 76ers (7-40) at The Palace — won’t make it any easier.
But as Van Gundy and this young Pistons team try to find their way to the playoffs for the first time — at 25-21 overall, they’re in sixth place in the Eastern Conference — that’s absolutely what all the shouting is about.
It’s about point guard Reggie Jackson, in his first full year as a starter and the first year of an $80 million contract extension, fully recognizing that responsibility is a two-way street. And it’s about Andre Drummond, the soon-to-be All-Star on the verge of a $120 million max deal, fully understanding that recognition is a double-edged sword.
Together, those two players are the Pistons’ future, financially and otherwise. But at present, they’re also the sticky alternator as Van Gundy’s team lurches down the road to respectability.
As they go, so does this team, which returned home from another up-and-down road swing – two wins, two losses and far too many defensive lapses for Van Gundy’s liking — and appeared brutally out of sorts early against the 76ers.
The Pistons had six turnovers in a 12-point first quarter. They had just five assists in the entire first half. They let the 76ers shoot 68 percent in the third quarter. They were down by six with 9½ minutes to play. And yet, in the end, they won, led by Jackson’s game-high 27 points and a 25-point, 18-rebound night for Drummond, who also made two clutch free throws with 2:36 left.
“I mean, if we could ever get to the point where we just play like that consistently, we’d have a chance,” Van Gundy said. “Right now, we’re not at a point where we’re willing to do that.”
Van Gundy was quick to praise Jackson for his spirited defensive performance in Monday’s 95-92 win at Utah. But he was also quick to point out that needs to be the rule, not the exception. Backdoor-cut dunks by Nik Stauskas with the game on the line aren’t acceptable.
And while Van Gundy hasn’t been shy about calling out Drummond for his inconsistent effort — from the lazy reaches on defense to the wretched free-throw shooting — the Pistons’ coach said Wednesday he’s urging his 7-foot standout to block out all the noise.
“We talked about that today,” Van Gundy said, prior to tip-off against an undermanned 76ers squad. “I mean, he needs to keep his focus on the things that he does really well and not get caught up in the one thing that he’s struggling with. It’s frustrating, I understand that. I feel for him a little bit in that.”
But hurt feelings aren’t an excuse at this level, or at his escalating pay grade, so the kid gloves won’t stay on for long. Not if the Pistons are serious about ending that six-year postseason drought.
Point guard Brandon Jennings piped up after a poor showing in Denver, and other veterans publicly agreed with his comments about a lack of on-court leadership.
“We’re young right now, and I think a lot of guys, including myself, are in a different position maybe than they’ve ever been in,” said forward Marcus Morris, who, like Jackson, is getting his first shot at as full-time starter after an offseason trade that brought him to Detroit.
Morris, 26, says he’s no stranger to tough love from a coach, which serves him well now that he’s playing for an unfiltered one in Van Gundy, whose dual titles here give him added clout.
“But some guys you have to approach different ways,” Morris added, when asked about the Pistons handling all the criticism. “We’re getting better at it.”
They still have a long way to go, though, starting with the man in the middle. Drummond was looking to shake out of a funk Wednesday, coming off a frustrating road trip that saw him shoot 43 percent from the field and 31 percent from the line, including a dismal 1-for-10 showing at Utah. On Wednesday, “he played with much better energy,” his coach said, “and was sort of back to himself.”
Morris, for one, wondered aloud if the possible All-Star selection – the reserves will be announced tonight — might be weighing on Drummond, who played 35 minutes and finished 7-for-12 from the line.
“I know it’s on his mind — it’s human nature,” Morris said. “I’ll be happy when he gets picked and can just get past it.”
Filling the full role
Whatever the reason, there is no getting around the fact the Pistons’ fate is tied to their point guard and their center. It’s a pick-and-roll league right now, and although Jackson and Drummond have proven they can be a terrific offensive tandem in that regard, “if those guys aren’t defending with great energy and great commitment,” Van Gundy said, “then you have a tough time.”
Jackson understands that. And after forcing his way out of Oklahoma City in search of a leading role — and a bigger contract — the 25-year-old now refers to himself as the “head of the snake” in Detroit.
Yet that’s why Van Gundy’s demanding more from him. Jackson has delivered as a high-usage point man, but he has struggled at the defensive end, even with backcourt mate Kentavious Caldwell-Pope typically handling the tougher assignment most nights. So, too often, he’s only winning half the battle.
“That’s what goes with the job,” Van Gundy said. “You want to be the guy, play both ends of the floor. If you want to play one end of the floor, then give us half the money back. … I thought he took great responsibility the other night (at Utah) and it didn’t affect his offense at all. He played great offense. You can do both.”
It’s not easy — “It’s not easy at all,” the coach agreed — but those are the rules of the road, a hard truth these Pistons are learning along the way.