Niyo: Pistons didn’t tank, but 76ers prove it works

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Detroit Pistons guard Reggie Jackson walks off the court during the first half Wednesday night.

Detroit – On one side, you had The Process.

On the other, you had something else entirely. Something that was a bit more difficult to process, as the Philadelphia 76ers finally extinguished the Detroit Pistons’ flickering playoff hopes Wednesday night with a 115-108 victory at Little Caesars Arena.

The reality hit home once it was over, even though everyone had seen this coming for weeks, if not months.

“Watching the last seconds ticking and then realizing we’re out of the playoffs,” the Pistons’ Reggie Jackson said, shaking his head, “that’s the toughest part, the most frustrating part.”

It’s also the part that has become an all-too-familiar routine in Detroit, where the Pistons are postseason spectators for the eighth time in nine years, and the third time in four under Stan Van Gundy, whose future – as team president and head coach – remains an open-ended question.

Owner Tom Gores said last month he’ll wait until the end of the season to sit down and discuss what’s next for Van Gundy, who has a year remaining on the five-year, $35 million deal he signed in May 2014. And any stay-or-go decision may ultimately be Van Gundy’s call to make if Gores, who backed his coach a month ago while also acknowledging “we haven’t won enough,” insists on front-office changes that strip him of some of his personnel control.

Whatever happens, though, some will call Wednesday’s result poetic justice. The Sixers’ historic tanking was ridiculed by many in recent years, including Van Gundy, who labeled it “embarrassing” in its early stages and more recently chided those hailing Philadelphia’s plan as some sort of master stroke.

"If that's your goal, it's not hard to lose,” he said last fall. “I don't think it takes ‘genius.’"

He wasn’t wrong on either count, of course. It was – and is – an embarrassment the NBA is still grappling with, and it doesn't take a genius to see more than a quarter of the league’s teams are going out of their way to lose games, rather than win them, right now.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban publicly admitted his own guilt on that front this winter, and while he drew a league-record $600,000 fine for his comments, it hasn’t exactly changed the way his team is operating on the court. Check out the lineups in that Mavericks-Magic box score from Wednesday night if you need more proof of that.

Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner, has tried unsuccessfully to dissuade teams from tanking to improve their own draft lottery luck, deciding that’s the best route to landing franchise-changing talent. But while Silver has moved past the denial stage – “It’s bad for the entire league,” Silver said last fall – he’s no closer to anything resembling a deterrent. The new lottery rules leveling the odds for the NBA’s three worst teams won’t go into effect until 2019, and there’s plenty of skepticism around the league that’ll have much effect, if any. Short of eliminating the draft and instituting rookie free agency – an idea Van Gundy has endorsed in the past – I’m not sure anything will.

Meanwhile, here’s all the incentive some owners will need. After four years of forced futility, and a combined record of 75-253, Philadelphia is now surging toward home-court advantage in the playoffs, tied with Cleveland for the third-best record in the Eastern Conference and riding a 12-game winning streak with the league’s second-youngest roster.

Even without All-Star center Joel Embiid, who is sidelined with a fractured orbital bone, and another rising star in Dario Saric, the 76ers still ran circles around the Pistons on Wednesday. Ben Simmons had 16 points, seven assists and six rebounds, while veterans J.J. Redick and Marco Belinelli “tore us up,” Van Gundy said, as the combined for 44 points on 16-for-25 shooting, including nine 3-pointers.

“I think it’s all coming together at the right time,” said Simmons, the former No. 1 overall pick who is a frontrunner for NBA rookie of the year. “A lot of us in here haven’t played in the playoffs. But as a young team, I think we’re ready, we’re getting there.”

As for what we’re getting in Detroit, it’s much harder to see, or even say, apparently, after a promising start to this season fell apart shortly after Christmas, when the starting point guard was lost – again –  to a significant injury. A year ago, Jackson’s knee problems hobbled the Pistons’ plans before the regular season even started. This time, it was a severe ankle sprain that sidelined him for 37 games, a stretch that made it painfully obvious how much he was missed.

Sure, Jackson struggled through a 1-for-11 shooting night Wednesday, but the larger sample-size numbers don’t lie. Over the last three years, the Pistons are 12 games over .500 (91-79) when Jackson starts, and 18 games under .500 (27-45) when he doesn’t. This season, they’re 25-16 with Jackson in the lineup and 12-25 without him, and that nearly three-month slide was too much to overcome.

“Well, clearly, yeah,” said Van Gundy, who is now one loss away from a third sub-.500 season in Detroit, something he never experienced in seven previous years as a head coach in Miami and Orlando. “Clearly.”

Where they go from here is much less clear, however, in part because of the moves Van Gundy has made, with ownership’s blessing, if not a mandate. The late-January blockbuster for Blake Griffin was viewed by some as an all-in move for this season, largely because the Pistons also gave up their first-round pick in this year’s deep draft, barring some lottery luck that lands them a top-four selection.

But there’s still a chance both sides will decide to see this through for another year, to try and find out if Van Gundy’s right when he insists that with a core of Jackson, Griffin and Andre Drummond, “we’ve got a chance to be really good.”

That’s debatable, and maybe implausible, particularly given the limited salary-cap flexibility to surround them with better-fitting talent – a problem exacerbated by some of Van Gundy’s free-agent overpays and draft decisions.

Yet Gores, who has never truly articulated a clear-eyed plan to the fans here, has a half-empty building to fill, even as a de facto tenant at Little Caesars Arena. And this franchise now has an empty decade under its belt as the only team in a watered-down Eastern Conference without a playoff win since 2008. So with nearly $75 million tied up in that trio next season – and more than $150 million over the next two years – the Pistons may not have much choice now, in the short term.

Unless they’re ready to pull the plug and start over, that is, a painful process that probably should’ve happened a long time ago.