Detroit — The Pistons are in an identity crisis. It’s a Jekyll-and-Hyde situation in trying to gauge where they are in their first season under coach Dwane Casey.
Looking at the results in the first 31 games of their schedule, it’s hard to figure out who they are, with drastic variations from game to game and even quarter to quarter.
Is it the team that started 4-0, with an overtime win over the Sixers, or is it the squad that followed with five straight losses? Is it the one that has beaten Toronto, Golden State and Boston, or the one that has lost three times to the Charlotte Hornets?
Casey’s mantra has been instilling winning habits, as he did in his seven seasons in Toronto, but for a Pistons franchise that’s finished above .500 just once in the past decade, it’s proving to be a difficult turnaround to navigate.
It’s involving changing the status quo and moving beyond mediocrity, which isn’t a quick fix. It’s similar to what Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is going through, as he reloads and retools his roster without some of the Hall of Fame-bound players of the past.
“I just read somewhere that Pop talked about how he had a whole new team and he thought it was going to work just like that,” Casey said Sunday. “We’re no different, with a lot of new actions and new schemes and approaches and it takes time to get those through.
“Being patient but still holding guys accountable and being persistent about how we approach things is the only way I know how to do it.”
The win over the Warriors improved the Pistons’ record to 13-7 and started a brutal 11-game stretch. Around that time, they had the easiest strength of schedule in the league; before Sunday’s game, they had risen to 15th.
Although the level of competition lightens up in the short term, they have a challenging western trip in early January. Casey hopes to have a lot of his fundamentals instilled by then, to give them a chance to stay in the playoff hunt.
“The No. 1 thing that’s non-negotiable is energy, effort, toughness and grit. When we do that, as we’ve shown against some good teams, we win,” he said. “When we don’t, it’s tough in this league. Getting that grit and energy each and every night is our biggest challenge.”
It was that same juxtaposition last week, with an overtime win at Minnesota, followed by a dud against the Hornets. It’s the mark of a .500 team that’s still trying to find itself.
They’ll either find themselves — or find themselves out of the playoffs again.
The Monday Drive takes a look at some key points during last week’s road trip and looking ahead:
1. Leaning on Griffin
The overwhelming dependence on Blake Griffin in the offense seems to be hurting the Pistons. When Griffin is off the court, the Pistons have a hard time creating their own shot and the bench has to rely mostly on 3-pointers, which is becoming a nightly coin flip. They’ve found some promise with Reggie Bullock’s drives, but not much else. There might be some value in running a little more action off pick-and-roll with Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond. It’s not as potent as previous years, but there’s something there.
2. Out of rhythm
Jackson still is working to find his rhythm in Casey’s offense, as he’s not handling the ball nearly as much and has become more of a perimeter threat. He’s attempting about six per game — a career-high — and shooting 34 percent from beyond the arc. The eye test shows that he’s lost some of his burst and he’s looking tentative in trying to figure out what to do. Casey even had allowed Jose Calderon to finish games, seeing Jackson’s indecisiveness.
3. All-Star performance
So far this season, Drummond has played like an All-Star, and when the reserves are announced, he could have his second straight selection and third of his career. Drummond has his deficiencies, but his scoring (17.9 points) is up almost three points over last season; his rebounding (15.5) is comparable as well. Joel Embiid most likely will be the starting big man but among centers, only the Magic’s Nikola Vucevic and the Hawks’ John Collins are comparable statistically to Drummond. Among frontcourt players, there likely will be two centers and Drummond could be the one behind Embiid.
4. Bullock blows up
Reggie Bullock had a heck of a showing in his first week back from a sprained ankle that caused him to miss five games. He had back-to-back games with career highs in scoring: 24 points in the loss to the Bucks and 33 in the win over the Timberwolves. In the four games, he’s averaged 20.8 points and hit 51 percent (19-of-37) on 3-pointers. He’s quickly becoming the Pistons’ top offensive options, mixing in an ability to score off the dribble or get to the rim on a cut.
5. Backup point guard issues
Jose Calderon’s playing time has picked up in the last eight games, since Ish Smith’s adductor tear, which could keep him out until early January. The production has been acceptable, with 4.9 points and 5.3 assists, but the 3-point shooting of 20 percent (3-of-15) has left something to be desired. Smith has struggled this season, but the production is better: 9.2 points and 3 assists, but 33 percent on 3-pointers.