Niyo: Pistons must show they’ll pay the price to win

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Detroit — If they won’t defend themselves, who will?

That’s the lingering question for the Pistons after another rather indefensible loss Monday afternoon, as Detroit allowed a season-high point total in a 118-107 loss to the Charlotte Hornets at Little Caesars Arena.

And the longer this continues, the more likely the answer will be one that smacks of desperation, as Stan Van Gundy — the exasperated head coach with executive-branch powers who is now 3 1/2 years into a five-year plan — decides to take matters into his own hands. Again.

That’s now five losses in seven games in January, and a 3-6 record since starting point guard Reggie Jackson was lost to a significant ankle injury. And while the Pistons remain very much in the playoff picture — still two games out of fifth place in the Eastern Conference — they’re only a game clear of the Philadelphia 76ers, teetering in the eighth spot in the East.

They’re also beginning a four-week stretch that includes only two road trips — quick treks to Toronto (Wednesday) and Cleveland (Jan. 28) — with 14 of their next 19 games at home. So you’d think the Pistons are primed to make a little run here. But losses like this one — on the heels of similar stumbles against sub-.500 teams like Chicago and Orlando and Dallas — suggest otherwise.

Then you look at the glaring issues with the roster, with Jon Leuer’s season seemingly over and Jackson’s return still weeks away and Stanley Johnson idled by a nagging hip injury, and it’s easy to understand why the Pistons are actively looking to shake things up. Or at least assessing at their options in that regard.

No defense

The NBA trade deadline is a few weeks away (Feb. 8), and given Van Gundy’s history — coupled with his team’s current predicament — few would be surprised to see Detroit swing a deal.

The problems start with Jackson’s absence, forcing standout backup Ish Smith into an outsized role. (One that included guarding 6-foot-8 Nicolas Batum on Monday.) But they don’t end there, and when the rest of the Pistons starting five has an off night — or a bad day at the office, as was the case in Monday’s Martin Luther King matinee — it leaves Van Gundy throwing up his hands, on the sidelines and at the postgame podium.

Sure, there was the foul trouble that sidetracked Tobias Harris and Andre Drummond in the first half. But the Pistons’ coach didn’t want to hear about that afterward.

“Make whatever excuses you want for anybody you want,” Van Gundy said. “We didn’t guard anybody.”

Not the rangy forwards burying uncontested 3-pointers early, as Marvin Williams went 4-for-4 in the first half, picking up where the Bulls (17-for-36 from 3) left off Saturday. And certainly not the pick-and-roll plays late, as Kemba Walker and Dwight Howard — his 21-point, 17-rebound effort dwarfed Drummond’s production (3 points, 10 boards) — picked the Pistons apart en route to a 68-point second half.

“I think it’s a mindset, man,” said Bradley, whose shooting woes continued (6-for-19) after a brief respite in Chicago over the weekend. “You have to be prepared. You have to make sure that you’re ready to go out there and do your job and play hard for one another and just have that defensive mentality. …

“We can’t just have one or two guys defending. It has to be the entire team. We just have to be more consistent with it.”

Just do it

That’s been a consistent message from Van Gundy the last few weeks, of course. And really for most of the last few seasons. But while this team has been far more competitive than last year’s group on a nightly basis, the mediocre results do raise questions.

“I don’t think the message isn’t getting through,” Van Gundy said, shooting down one of them. “They all know the deal. But that’s different than bringing it out there and doing it. It’s hard, man. And it’s gonna be hard to win. When you’re down people, it’s hard to win.”

Harder still to find a trade that’ll fix what ails this team, though. The Pistons have been linked to the likes of Nicola Mirotic (Chicago), Evan Fornier (Orlando) and DeMarre Carroll (Brooklyn) as the post-holiday rumor mill starts to churn.

“But most of what is out there now we wouldn’t have any interest in,” Van Gundy said late last week.

And most of what’ll follow will fall into the same category. Talk is cheap, and that applies to trade speculation the same way it does to Van Gundy’s postgame rants or any locker-room entreaties.

“Look, fans and media love all the ‘vocal role’ stuff, the team meetings, all that (expletive),” Van Gundy said. “It has not a damn thing to do with anything. You want to step up? Go out on the court and step up. Show hard on a pick-and-roll, take the charge, dive on the floor for a loose ball, go up in traffic and get a rebound. That’s how you lead. The talking is all well and good, and, yes, there’s been a lot of it and they’re saying all the right things. But they’re not going out and doing it. … I’m not looking for talking. I’m looking for people to go out and do it.”

And if they can’t, or they won’t, or they don’t, for whatever reason, well, then Van Gundy — the president, not the coach — may decide he needs to do more than talk himself.