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Niyo: All Pistons on notice now, Van Gundy included

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Auburn Hills — They’re all on notice now, from the point guard who became a center of attention in advance of Thursday’s NBA trade deadline to the franchise center the Pistons made a point of including in talks as well.

But it goes beyond Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond — or any other player, for that matter — now that the deadline has passed and everybody’s still present and accounted for at The Palace, if not wholly accountable yet, based on Thursday’s Jekyll-and-Hyde performance against the Charlotte Hornets.

It goes to the head coach and team president, too, as Stan Van Gundy claimed victory in jest even before his team’s 114-108 overtime escape, mocking the “experts and inside sources who knew what we were doing,” after the Pistons opted to stand pat.

This is the roster that Van Gundy has assembled over the last three years, and this is the roster he’s sticking with down the stretch this season as the Pistons, who were patently awful out of the gate Thursday, scramble to try to make the playoffs.

But this is also the roster he’s sticking his coach with, for better or for worse, and whatever distractions all the swirling trade rumors might have caused — trade winds the Pistons front office certainly didn’t mind fanning — are now his to handle.

“We went into this whole thing and certainly (general manager) Jeff (Bower) talked to a lot of people — we made no secret of that,” Van Gundy said before Thursday’s tipoff against Charlotte, a team that had lost 11 of its last 12 games. “But we placed a high value on our guys.”

As expected, they found nobody willing to pay a steep price for the likes of Jackson, who has struggled through injury and inconsistent play this season. The Pistons reportedly were asking a first-round pick and a young prospect in return for Jackson, who is in the second year of a five-year, $80 million contract.

If true, it’s no surprise they didn’t find any takers, not with Jackson stiill searching for his game after last fall’s knee procedure, averaging just 10.2 points and 5.7 assists while playing less than 26 minutes a night in the 10 games prior to the All-Star break. Thursday, Jackson (four points, four assists) played just 20 minutes, and not at all in the fourth quarter, as the Pistons rallied from a 18-point deficit.

“How much he’s been affected by all the talk, I don’t know that,” Van Gundy said. “But we certainly hope he’ll get back to really being aggressive and attacking a little bit more on his pick-and-rolls and things like that and making plays. We know how good Reggie can be, and we’re gonna need that down the stretch.”

Barely there

He’ll need more from his $127 million center, too, obviously. Drummond largely dismissed questions about his name surfacing in trade rumors earlier this week — the Pistons weren’t soliciting offers, but they at least were open to hearing them — insisting it was out of his control.

“It’s all a business,” Drummond said. “Everyone’s name is going to be thrown around when they’re a high-profile guy. My name happened to be in there. I’m not mad or anything like that. I’m still here to play basketball.”

Pistons bench leads rally in OT win over Hornets

Presumably better than he did Thursday night, though, as Drummond (12 points, 13 rebounds) finished a team-worst minus-20 and, like Jackson, sat on the bench for the entire fourth-quarter comeback and overtime. They didn’t get traded Thursday, but it sure felt like it down the stretch, and afterward Van Gundy admitted he’s at a loss when it comes to figuring out his starters’ doldrums.

“We gotta figure it out, we do,” he said. “Because we need to get Reggie going.”

But if he juggles the lineup — inserting Ish Smith, who tied a career-high with 16 assists off the bench — he risks ruining the bench chemistry that has been a strength lately.

“Do you want to mess with it?” Van Gundy asked rhetorically. “I don’t know the answer to that right now.”

Right now, even with those glaring issues, the Pistons actually might be in a better spot than they were a year ago at this time.

They sit in eighth place, just a half-game behind the Chicago Bulls, a fading club that appeared to pull the plug on its season Thursday, trading away Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott to Oklahoma City. The Pistons are only 1 1/2 games behind the Indiana Pacers, who rode a six-game losing streak into the All-Star break.

Detroit also boasts one of the league’s easiest remaining schedules, with half of its final 24 games at home and only 10 against teams currently holding winning records.

So there’s room to move up, and since nobody’s moving on just yet, that’s the plan, to give this group a chance yet to see what it really can do.

“Part of it is saying, ‘You know what, we think we’re a little bit better than this, and another 25 games the rest of the year to play in meaningful games again and sort of assess where we are, I think will be helpful,” Van Gundy said. “So we’ll see what happens over the course of this and then we’ll go into the summer with a better idea of where we need to go.”

Sink or swim?

But if that sounds more like a reprieve than an full-throated endorsement, it probably is. And for an underachieving team, this might’ve been part of the plan as well for Van Gundy, playing some motivational games while half-heartedly playing the market.

“There were things that went back and forth, to where we’d say, ‘Well, we wouldn’t do that, but what about this?’ ” Van Gundy said. “But no, there was never anything we were really close on doing.”

Still, Van Gundy wasn’t exactly in a reassuring mood as the deadline neared, and why would he be with a hefty payroll providing middling returns, at best?

“I said, ‘Look, I know it’s on everybody’s mind … but if I told you I’ll never trade you, would you believe me, anyway?’ ” Van Gundy said. “I mean, look, it’s the NBA. You have to deal with this. This is part of playing in this league.”

And besides, he added, after all the discussions the Pistons have had as a team about mental toughness and ignoring distraction — talks that seemed to fall on deaf ears, at times — “this was a pretty good chance for guys to do that.”

“So I almost purposely did not try to reassure guys,” he said. “You’re in professional basketball. You’ve gotta grow up and you’ve gotta tough it out and you gotta play.”

And while Jackson admits that conversation the other day “was a little awkward,” maybe that’s no accident. The Pistons aren’t where they need to be, and even if they’re all staying put for now, the message from the top is pretty clear: It’s time everyone noticed.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

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