Auburn Hills — Teetering on the precipice of regular-season mediocrity and another trip to the draft lottery, Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy knew he needed to make a change.
Nearing the Feb. 18 trade deadline, he didn’t have many moveable trade pieces without breaking up the core. At 27-27, the Pistons were in a spot where the wrong move could have sent them into a spiral.
General manager Jeff Bower talked to Magic officials about some trades, and Tobias Harris’ name came up.
The Pistons jumped.
“His name wasn’t even out there for us until two days before we did the deal,” Van Gundy said. “We were really surprised.”
The Pistons gave up the expiring contracts of Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova for Harris, who had just signed a four-year, $64 million deal last summer.
Harris helped propel the Pistons to their first playoff spot since 2009.
“Since I’ve been here from the trade, the big focus for me is to make the playoffs,” said Harris, 23. “If we didn’t make the playoffs, I don’t know if I’d sleep at night.”
In the jubilant locker room following the victory that guaranteed a playoff spot, Harris looked to be one of the most relieved, seemingly showering off the stench of mediocrity that had dogged him for his first four seasons in Milwaukee and Orlando.
“It would be a job undone for me, a mission unaccomplished if we didn’t make the playoffs — and I’d be pretty devastated,” Harris admitted. “It’s a great feeling, and I tell everybody in the locker room to cherish it and embrace it.
“I’ve been in situations on the other side for four years and that’s a tough side to be on, when you’re not in the playoff hunt.”
In 27 games with the Pistons, Harris helped teammates become better players, and bolstered the offense with his ball movement, jumper and unselfish play. After Harris came off the bench his first two games, the Pistons have flourished since he became a starter, going 16-9.
And, he boosted his scoring by nearly three points over his average with the Magic, averaging 16.6 points, the second-leading scorer for the Pistons since the trade.
“He’s been a great puzzle piece,” point guard Reggie Jackson said. “He’s fit in seamlessly and played very well. We’ve seen many times where he led us in scoring, got rebounds and was in transition.
“He’s made things run smoothly for the entire team. It’s not just about his numbers; he’s made things work well for the team.”
Almost as critical as his contributions on the court, Harris also has brought a calm demeanor and professionalism to the locker room.
Gone is the swagger and liveliness Jennings brought, replaced with Harris’ cool. His teammates welcomed him into the locker room and he opened up to them.
“It’s not a lot of egos and not a lot going on in this locker room,” Harris said. “We have a great group of guys who have a great care for the game and each other. It just builds chemistry and you know you can count on your brother on the floor.”
That bond has helped the Pistons improve from 32 wins last year to 43 heading into Wednesday’s finale. And, it gave the Pistons a quiet confidence they lacked before, a bravado leading into their first-round matchup against the Cavaliers.
“It speaks to the guys we have here,” Van Gundy said. “He’s gotten the ball more, a lot more than (Ilyasova) did, and there hasn’t been any resistance or resentment from any of our guys.
“It goes to the character of our group, as a team that just wants to win and welcomed a good player with open arms.”
For Marcus Morris, whose scoring average has increased a point since Harris’ arrival, the reason is simple: “He’s playing with me.”
With Drummond and Jackson established as the centerpieces, there wasn’t a need for a ball hog. Rather, the Pistons needed a distributor who could help the offense flow better and create his own shot.
“He hasn’t come in here and tried to take the lead role or anything like that,” Morris said. “Some guys get paid and feel like they deserve something. He came in and worked for everything he’s gotten.”
Leaving Orlando wasn’t easy for Harris.
He kept a commitment to speak to a youth group even after he found out he had been traded.
Even Magic officials were hesitant to make the trade, but given the large contract and the fact they wanted to move in a different direction with Aaron Gordon, they made the deal.
“He’s a high-level player; he’s a great professional,” Magic coach Scott Skiles said. “Sometimes it could just be a change of scenery. It wasn’t like he was playing poorly for us — we liked him and I, in particular, liked him.
“I’m happy for him that he’ll get a chance to play in the postseason ... That’ll be good for him.”
It’s good for Harris and the Pistons.