Niyo: Pistons’ playoff push becomes race against time

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Auburn Hills — Stan Van Gundy can do the math. He can read the calendar. And before you bother to check your own watch, he’ll tell you what time it is for his team, rattling off the schedule that awaits the Pistons as they come out of the All-Star break Friday at home against the Boston Celtics.

“We come back and play six games in nine days, nine in 15 days, and 11 of our first 15 are on the road,” Van Gundy said, not that he’s counting on any sympathy, mind you.

He also has three new players in his nine- or 10-man rotation, one starter who’s still weeks away from returning from a severe ankle injury suffered in late December, and by his own rough estimate, “a million ideas” about how to handle all this late-season roster upheaval.

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Yet Van Gundy knows this, too. There aren’t enough hours in each practice, and not enough practice days left in this season to fix everything that’s broken. Not enough time between now and early April to properly clean up a mess that’s largely of his own making at this point, nearly four full years into his tenure as team president and head coach.

And while he’s fairly confident in reading ownership’s own internal clock in that regard, Van Gundy understands the fans’ impatience with a team that keeps churning but doesn’t have much to show for it yet. He just doesn’t have time to worry about any of that, busy as he is trying to fit as many of these puzzle pieces together as he can to frame a playoff team this spring.

The Pistons were just 1½ games out of the final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference at the break, but the oddsmakers give them only a 25-percent chance of flipping that tired script with 25 games remaining in the regular season.

The math

Last season, a .500 record was good enough to snag the No. 8 seed in the East, as Chicago edged out Miami via tiebreaker. Two years ago, the Pistons grabbed the final berth with 44 wins.

This year, it’ll likely take a similar total, which means the Pistons (28-29) probably need 14 or 15 more wins, at least.

Philadelphia and Miami — occupying the seventh and eighth spots in the East — have two of the four easiest schedules in the league down the stretch. Miami (30-28) gets 15 of its last 24 games at home, and half of the Heat’s remaining games are against sub-.500 teams. Detroit also has a dozen games left against teams with losing records, but as Van Gundy noted, 15 of the Pistons’ final 25 games are on the road, where they’re 9-17 thus far this season.

After Friday’s game against the Celtics, it’s a back-to-back on the road at Charlotte and East-leading Toronto, then three games in four nights against Orlando, Miami and Cleveland.

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A week later, they embark on a six-game, 10-day road trip out west.

“But I’m excited for these last 25 games,” rookie Luke Kennard said Thursday. “I’m excited to play with this group and make a push for the playoffs.”

At the same time, the schedule will dictate just how hard Van Gundy can push the envelope with this team, particularly without Reggie Jackson running the point. The Pistons’ floor leader resumed light running this week, but probably won’t be ready until the second week of March.

Meanwhile, Thursday’s practice in Auburn Hills was only the third “live” session for the team since the blockbuster trade-deadline acquisition that brought five-time All-Star forward Blake Griffin into the fold. And that’s a major issue, because for that deal to really pay off, it’ll require some dramatic schematic changes for the Pistons.

That’s one reason why the popular notion of that trade being a “win-now move” on Van Gundy’s part is more than a little misguided. Frankly, it’s more of a win-next-year move than anything. But there’s still two months left in this season, and an understandable urge — from owner Tom Gores to a still-skeptical fan base — to return to the playoffs.

Still, while Van Gundy spent his All-Star break poring over the possibilities, watching hours upon hours of video on the back porch at his offseason home in Florida, he knows that seeing and doing are two very different things in this league.

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The Pistons’ coach looked at old cut-ups from the Memphis Grizzlies’ bruising big-man duo of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. He and his staff examined the way Utah utilizes Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert, what San Antonio does with Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge, and how Indiana has made use of big lineups with different combinations of Myles Turner, Domantas Sabonis and Thaddeus Young. There are others, of course — Van Gundy mentioned Milwaukee and Miami as well — but that’s part of the problem. Those teams all have been working on it for months, since the start of training camp.

‘This year’s different’

A good chunk of the offense the Pistons installed back in camp is now useless, what with Tobias Harris playing in Los Angeles and Blake Griffin replacing him in Detroit. And while personnel changes are nothing new for Van Gundy and his staff — this is the third major deadline deal in four years for the Pistons — this is no plug-and-play proposition. The Pistons already relied on a pick-and-roll offense before Reggie Jackson arrived in 2015, and the floor spacing didn’t really change when Harris replaced Ersan Ilyasova in the lineup two years ago.


It has this time, though, and while the Pistons are 6-3 since the trade, Van Gundy will be the first to say the offense hasn’t looked all that “coherent” in the face of collapsing defenses. After a brief surge following the trade, Detroit shot just 41.3 percent from the field in the last four games before the break, with an effective field-goal percentage of 47.7 percent — well off its season averages that already ranked in the bottom third in the NBA.

“This year is different because Blake’s different than anybody we’ve had at that spot,” Van Gundy said. “You’ve got to try to play through him more and get him in positions closer to the basket. So it has made it harder.

“Because you’re not just plugging one guy in and running through your offense and having him learn it. You’re actually having to do some stuff that’s new to everybody. And that’s been a challenge. … But he’s a great player and we need to play through him more, so we need to create some things to allow him to do that.”

Creativity takes time, though. And as Van Gundy admits, “We’re not gonna do 10 or 15 new things in a matter of two days. So, we’ll just have to take it day-by-day, step-by-step.”

And whether the Pistons’ path leads to the playoffs, only time will tell.


Here’s a look at significant transactions for Stan Van Gundy since he was hired as Pistons coach/president in May 2014.


February: Acquired Reggie Jackson from Oklahoma City in three-team trade. Detroit gave up D.J. Augustin, Kyle Singler and a 2019 second-round pick to Oklahoma City, and a 2017 second-round pick to Utah.

July: Acquired Marcus Morris, Reggie Bullock and Danny Granger from Phoenix for 2020 second-round pick.

July: Signed Reggie Jackson to five-year, $80 million contract.


February: Acquired Tobias Harris from Orlando for Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova.

July: Signed Jon Leuer to four-year, $42 million contract.

July: Signed Andre Drummond to five-year, $127 million contract.


July: Acquired Avery Bradley from Boston for Marcus Morris.


January: Acquired Blake Griffin from Los Angeles Clippers for Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, a 2018 first-round pick and a 2019 second-round pick.