Niyo: Pistons shouldn't bet future for short-term reward

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Unloading guard Reggie Bullock in exchange for second-round picks might not be in the Pistons' best interests.

More than anything, it takes patience.

That’s the message Dwane Casey keeps delivering to his Pistons team. And maybe that’s the message the front office will reaffirm in a couple days, with Thursday’s NBA trade deadline casting a long shadow not just in Detroit — but across the entire league — at the moment.

Yet the most important message may have been the one Casey’s players sent Monday night in routing the injury-depleted Denver Nuggets at Little Caesars Arena.

Coming off what Casey termed a “devastating” loss to the Los Angeles Clippers here Saturday night, when Blake Griffin’s former team erased a 25-point deficit and won going away, the Pistons responded with one of their most complete performances of this season gone sideways.

They posted their largest margin of victory in a 129-103 win, dished out a season-high 32 assists, dominated Denver on the boards and, for a welcome change, didn’t fritter away the double-digit lead they built.

In fact, as Griffin sat in front of his locker after the game, soaking his feet in an ice bath, he had to laugh about his relatively light workload Monday, playing only 23½ minutes as Detroit’s starters spent most of the fourth quarter on the bench resting.

“It’s awesome,” Griffin said. “Twenty-three minutes? You feel like you almost didn’t play.”

Whiff of postseason

That should help tonight, too, as the Pistons head to New York to face the lowly Knicks on the second night of a back-to-back.That game also is the first leg of a home-and-home with Knicks, owners of the NBA’s worst record (10-42) and losers of 13 in a row. And with the Pistons now 1½ games out of the eighth spot in the East, it stands to reason they’ll be back in the thick of the playoff hunt — such that it is — by the middle of next week.

The question is how different they might look at that point, what with owner Tom Gores sounding a little desperate last week while he was in town meeting with Ed Stefanski, Malik Rose and the rest of the front office. (“We’re not winning enough,” he said, “so we have to do something.)

So will they feel compelled to do something major, like pulling the trigger on a blockbuster deal with Memphis for veteran point guard Mike Conley? Will they decide to unload a player like Reggie Bullock and get something in return for a pending free agent they might not be able to afford this summer?

Casey, for one, wasn’t biting on any of those questions Monday.

“I’ll tell you what, I don’t want any part of being a general manager — at all,” he said, smiling, when asked if Monday’s performance might influence those deadline decisions. “I’ll leave it to Tom and Ed and Malik and those guys. They know what they’re doing.”

We’re about to find out, I’d argue. Because as Casey talks about the need to keep “a level head and a calm mind” as a GM, the same is true for a guy who hasn’t been able to get out of his own way in eight years as the Pistons’ owner.

Take a deep breath

If this is about setting “emotions aside and making solid decisions for your franchise,” as Casey notes, then probably the best thing the Pistons can do the next 48 hours is not to mortgage any more of their future for what is presently a borderline playoff contender. Giving up a first-round pick and attaching a young player like Luke Kennard to Reggie Jackson’s contract just to bring in a 31-year-old point guard coming off an Achilles injury? That doesn’t strike me as level-headed.

Likewise, while dealing away a player like Bullock — or backup point guard Ish Smith —to replenish some of those second-round picks you’ve already dealt away might make some sense, I’m not sure it’s all that imperative.

Better to let this play out, see if this version of Reggie Jackson we’ve seen the last week or two is one that’ll stick around for a few months. Or if the effort Andre Drummond turned in Monday against Nuggets star Nikola Jokic is closer to the rule — a la Griffin —than the exception. Or if the kind of bench production the Pistons got Monday — a 60-point night that included 10-for-21 3-point shooting — is something Casey can get regularly from that group down the stretch.

“If we get that from them every night, look, we’re not sitting here out of the playoff race,” Casey said. “We’re in the middle of the pack somewhere. But that’s the growth and the habits we’ve got to have from everybody. It’s the consistency.”

And that’s the message, for what it’s worth. Look, the fans aren't buying what the Pistons are selling — they lead the league in empty seats this season, averaging an NBA-worst 75.7 percent of capacity for home games. But Casey's still new here, and he's not planning on leaving anytime soon. 

“And that’s the key to the steady growth,” Casey said. “It took seven years to get there (in Toronto.) And that’s a lot of patience. But they finally got there. It takes time, to get the right mix, the right talent evaluation, the right contract decisions.  And I trust that Ed and our people are gonna make those decisions.”

Twitter: @JohnNiyo