Minneapolis — It took a couple weeks, but the Pistons have their first real challenge of the season. Squandering the 22-point lead against the Indiana Pacers was a blow, but the next issue is injuries.
Stanley Johnson has been slowed by issues with his back and a hip flexor. Now, the problem is Jon Leuer, who has missed a chunk of the season because of a sprained left ankle. Dealing with injuries is nothing new but the Pistons have been able to handle theirs because of the depth of their reserves.
Leuer looked to be on the road to returning but had a setback on Friday, when he was slated to be back, but just before the game had some tightness.
“He’s still out; he’s going to get another MRI (Monday). Hasn’t progressed the way we thought. We certainly thought he would be back even at the beginning of this trip and it just hasn’t materialized,” coach Stan Van Gundy said. “We’ll get in there and see what’s going on and see if there’s anything major or if he just needs some more time. He tried to do some stuff yesterday and it didn’t go well.”
It’s impacted how the Pistons can defend some of the stretch forwards in the league, Leuer had moved into a backup center role as well. With everything else that’s going on, it’s just another obstacle for Van Gundy.
The sky isn’t falling simply because the Pistons slipped a bit in their first two games of the road trip. They still have one of the top records in the East — which is better than anybody’s estimation before the season — and they’re improving every game. They weren’t going to keep winning at a 70-percent clip, but the way that some fans called their hot start a farce was stunning.
The Monday Drive takes a look at some points around the league and wraps the three-game trip:
1. The saga between LaVar Ball and President Donald Trump is amusing. Maybe amusing isn’t the word. Maybe it’s sad. Sure, Trump defused a situation with the three UCLA basketball players and helped broker a deal to get them out of China. It’s what a president should do. Ball did what he was supposed to do as a media magnet and took advantage of the situation to get more attention. Warriors coach Steve Kerr had maybe the most critical take on the situation: “You can probably stop covering LaVar. I don’t think you can stop covering the president. I don’t think that would work. It would be nice for all of us if both of them would just be quiet.”
2. One of the best moments of the trip was in Indianapolis with a Lyft driver. He said he served in the Marines and Army and had a flag and hat proudly displayed on his dashboard. I asked his opinion on the player protests during the national anthem; he said he was deeply offended, but he respected the players’ rights to do so — and he understands that’s what he fought for during several tours in Japan and other parts of Asia. “When I was in boot camp, they asked what color the blood is when you cut yourself shaving,” he said. “It’s red for everyone.”
3. The Magic announced they will no longer host their summer league. The Pistons have been in that league for years but Van Gundy isn’t sure what impact it will have on their future plans. The league’s momentum has gone toward getting more teams at the Las Vegas or Utah Summer Leagues, which is the likely next step.
“It’s disappointing. I’ve always liked that league and played in it in all three places I’ve coached,” Van Gundy said. “I just think it’s the best atmosphere for developing young players.”
4. When Gordon Hayward suffered his gruesome injury in the first game of the season, the outlook around the Celtics seemed to take a shot. They started 0-2 but have since reeled off 15 straight wins, including an impressive home win over the Warriors. Kyrie Irving has found a niche and despite some injuries, they’ve been clicking.
5. The development of the 76ers’ Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid has been compelling. They’re two of the best young players if they can stay healthy. I wouldn’t endorse tanking, but it seems to be paying off for the 76ers in the sense that they could have one of the most exciting teams in the league if they continue their ascent.