Detroit — As Pistons coach Dwane Casey knows all too well — he's walking it precariously right now — there is a very fine line between urgency and panic at this stage of a long NBA season.
“It’s a fine balance for me because I get frustrated,” he said after a 45-minute shoot-around at the Pistons practice facility in Auburn Hills Monday. “You can forget where we are and want to be ready for Golden State in the Finals.
“But that’s not where we are right now. We are a growing and developing team, but we’ve got to do it in the right way.”
The Pistons went into the game Monday against the San Antonio Spurs having won just four of their last 17 games. They haven’t posted consecutive wins since Nov. 30-Dec. 1. And yet, not even at the mid-point of the season, they came into play Monday three games under .500 (17-20) and just a game out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
That's the message Casey has tried to impart, even as he put the team through a long, hard practice Sunday and a pointed, 45-minute session Monday morning: There is time to get this right, but it starts now.
“One thing we don’t want to do is coach from a negative way, where our guys lose their confidence,” Casey said. “That’s a fine line. But we have to keep teaching and critiquing, and we have to keep teaching hard.
“Our goal is the playoffs. That’s what we are striving for. And also we have a responsibility to develop our younger players. Right, wrong or indifferent, Andre Drummond is still a young man (25). Bruce Brown is a young player. Luke Kennard is a young player. We’ve got to continue to teach and develop and also push to get to where we want to go as a team and an organization.”
Consistency has been elusive. There was a stretch early in the season where the team was getting off to sluggish starts at the start of each half but was energized and often bailed out by the bench unit. Recently, with injuries to top reserves Ish Smith and Zaza Pachulia, it’s been reversed.
“We’re looking for consistency of learning and keeping our habits, and not losing our habits in the moment,” Casey said. “We have to get better defensively understanding our jobs in the defensive schemes and we have to get better offensively, making the right decisions with the ball and not trying to do too much.”
Casey will not use injuries as an excuse, but they have been an impediment to developing continuity. Shooting guard Reggie Bullock was injured earlier in the season, when the first unit was struggling. Starting small forward Glen Robinson III injured his ankle and has subsequently lost his role, causing a shift in the rotation.
The 4-13 skid has coincided with Smith’s adductor injury. Jose Calderon, age 37, is a capable player but he doesn’t bring the same speed dynamic to the second unit. The loss of Pachulia (leg contusion) while Kennard is still working his way into form also threw the bench rotation into flux.
“That’s why you have a 13-man roster,” Casey said. “Those pieces are so important. Every piece of the team is so important. You have to make sure you are ready to step in. Injuries are part of the game. Everybody goes through it.
“We’ve been inconsistent in handling that.”
There have been pockets of light through this stretch, too. The starting unit, which now features rookie Brown at shooting guard and Bullock at small forward, is starting to click. The last two games, they were a plus-82. Brown was a plus-20 in those two games.
“Bruce is a small piece of that,” Casey said. “But I think it’s more the sense of urgency of Reggie Jackson, Reggie Bullock, Blake (Griffin) and Andre — all five men — has lifted up. Early in the season, we were having trouble in the third quarter. Now, it’s the fourth quarter.
“Getting a consistent 48 is what we are striving for.”
The Pistons’ fan base, a decade removed from its last legitimate playoff contender, has long been out of patience with talk of teaching and developing. Casey can’t afford to be.
“Expectations from our fans is great,” he said. “I love it. We want to be No. 1 today – yesterday. But that doesn’t happen in this league. Where we are right now and how we are trying to get through it, takes patience. And patience is very thin in the NBA.
“But I am trying to keep it that way. I’m not brow-beating them. You coach them hard but you don’t brow-beat them and take away their spirit. You take away an NBA player’s spirit, or anybody’s spirit, that’s when they lose confidence and start second-guessing themselves.”
And that’s when the growth and development stops.