The Detroit Pistons’ search for optimism in a tough season

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It’s been another brutal season for the Detroit Pistons, but Dwane Casey and his hodgepodge roster of underappreciated veterans and inexperienced youngsters are taking the right approach.

It’s been a tough couple of weeks, months, years to be a Detroit Pistons fan. A hard-nosed, stifling defensive play style has never been everyone’s cup of tea, but from the Bad Boys in the ’80s to the smothering Detroit teams of the mid-2000s, this franchise — and its fanbase — grew accustomed to success.

In a span of 26 seasons from 1984-2009, the Pistons only missed the playoffs five times. They won three championships, made it to five NBA Finals and appeared in 11 Eastern Conference Finals during that time, including six straight conference finals from 2003-08.

Unfortunately, they’ve made the playoffs just twice over the last 10 years, getting swept in the first round both times. They’re heading for their ninth lottery appearance in the last 11 seasons, and even before Blake Griffin got hurt, Andre Drummond was traded for peanuts and Reggie Jackson and Markieff Morris were bought out, true excitement over Detroit Basketball felt like a distant memory.

Yet this is the situation head coach Dwane Casey found himself in: with his best player done for the season, the Pistons’ formerly promising No. 5 pick/aspiring franchise star wasting away in Cleveland, and two more starting-caliber players jettisoned for nothing but the opportunity to examine a few youngsters — few of which have starting-caliber potential. Following the Drummond trade, the Pistons lost seven straight games, and the complexion of the entire season changed.

“We didn’t anticipate being in this situation,” Casey said. “You never know about injuries. We had to retool, reconfigure our goals …. So it’s been fun, exciting, disappointing and frustrating at some turns when you look out there and you don’t execute, but teaching and putting it together has been fun.”

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In a rough stretch during an even rougher season that began with playoff aspirations, Casey and the Pistons were rewarded with a small breakthrough moment Friday night, when they ended their seven-game skid with a 113-111 road win over the Phoenix Suns.

“That’s how the gods in this game work,” Derrick Rose said. “If you play hard, the gods reward you. Tonight rewarded us with a win.”

Still, it’s been a difficult process for the team’s veterans and youngsters alike to get to this point. With so many young players stepping in to fill the roles of departing vets, the Pistons have had to resort to practices designed like training camp, some of them stretching to an hour-and-a-half or two hours long.

“We’re teaching,” Casey said. “We’ve got so many young guys that didn’t expect this much playing time this early in their careers, and we’ve really taken advantage of it as far as teaching, building the chemistry together, getting guys used to playing together in certain positions, certain situations. Guys have been receptive, spirits have been up, so that’s one thing I feel good about is the fact that these guys will compete at a high level.”

Detroit certainly did that Friday night, stunning a Suns team that had just thumped the Utah Jazz by 20 on the road before coming back home and playing the surging LA Clippers close. Derrick Rose led the way, tying his season high with 31 points, including 13 in the fourth quarter.

Casey called that performance a payoff for his professionalism, citing his eagerness to take part in these practices. He believes it sets the tone for the younger guys, giving them no reason to complain if a former MVP is buying in.

“They better, they have no choice,” Casey said. “There’s a lot of mistakes that were made [tonight], but again, playing hard makes up for a multitude of sins and shooting the ball well makes up for a multitude of sins. It does help create the culture we’re trying to create, the toughness we’re trying to create — having a guy like Derrick. My hat’s off to him.”

For Rose (who’s been dealing with injuries), Langston Galloway and Tony Snell, the stability they’ve provided as veteran leaders on a completely new-look, young team in full-blown development mode has been invaluable.

“They still think I’m crazy,” Casey laughed. “But we need it, we’ve gotta have it and again, I say this: I respect our veterans with Derrick, LG and Tony going through that. They’ve seen every training camp there is, but for them to be leaders and extend their energy doing those workouts has been great.”

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Nobody’s chalking up a win over a sub-.500 Suns team as some grand turning point for Detroit. Rose throwing it back with a 31-point performance was enjoyable, as was Brandon Knight‘s 19-point, five-triple revenge game against his former team, but those performances don’t leave fans with much to be excited about for the future.

What’s on the horizon for this Pistons squad? Rose is on the books for next season for a mere $7.7 million, but he’ll be 32 by then and is already injury-prone. Luke Kennard is a nice young piece, but not a franchise star, and he was mentioned in more than a few trade rumors just a few weeks ago. Knight, Galloway, John Henson, and Christian Wood all become unrestricted free agents this summer, Thon Maker is a restricted free agent, Bruce Brown Jr. and Khyri Thomas are on non-guaranteed deals and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk has a team option.

Between all of that and the need to shed Blake Griffin’s max contract as soon as possible, it’s easy to forgive a jaded fanbase for focusing on the disappointing close to a revitalization era that never got off the ground rather than being excited about beating the Suns.

With an eye already fixated on the next chapter, the crown jewel so far is undoubtedly Wood. The 24-year-old has flitted in and out of Casey’s lineup in the eight games since the Drummond trade, but he’s still averaged an eye-popping 20.4 points, 10.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.1 blocks per game on .514/.375/.804 shooting splits in that span.

“Just seizing an opportunity,” Wood said. “When I get an opportunity, it’s just strike and take advantage of it every chance I get. Playing with heart and playing with energy, I feel like that’s showing on the court.”

It definitely is, and even Casey — who’s been criticized for stubbornly keeping him in and out of the starting lineup — is taking notice.

“Maturity, a little bit better consistency — not totally yet, but maturity off the floor,” Casey said of Wood’s progress. “He’s really come in, done what he’s supposed to do. He’s been consistent offensively and, like a lot of young players, up and down defensively. But again, we like his talent, he’s only [24] years old. His future’s bright, he just needs to be consistent, continue to mature as a young man, which he’s doing so far with us.”

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Guys like Wood and Sekou Doumbouya are blossoming in expanded roles, but like Kennard, they don’t quite look the part of franchise centerpiece. The unfortunate reality is the Pistons are going to lose quite a few more games this season, and they don’t have someone to build around yet.

Even so, from the head coach all the way down the roster, there’s a surprising amount of realism when it comes to the situation the Pistons have found themselves in.

Dwane Casey joked about how even Bill Russell probably couldn’t protect the rim right now with how quickly as their perimeter defenders are letting opponents drive to the basket. He and the players alike admitted it’s been hard to keep morale high. And Casey and Knight, who’s only been with the team for five games but is intimately familiar with the NBA business, acknowledged many of these guys are fighting for their next job.

“The coaching staff has done a great job of being consistent, staying on us and trying to hold us accountable, but at the end of the day, this is our team,” Knight said. “So it’s for the older guys to continue to step up and help the younger guys, relay the right messages about playing hard for the rest of the season. Every game counts; you’re auditioning, other teams are looking at you, and this is where you build your reputation. You gonna mail it in or you gonna continue to be a pro?”

That mentor’s mentality from Rose, Knight, Snell and Galloway — even while understanding they might not be there next year, and the youngsters might not be there next year either — is what has made this kind of rare, all-around buy-in so impressive.

“I understand what he’s trying to do and the staff is trying to do,” Rose said when asked about setting the tone. “So it’s up to me to try to be a professional always and understand the plan. We’re building for something next year, so these 20 games, I know that he’s doing everything possible just trying to get guys to play with an urgency and build that foundation.”

It may not seem like it, especially in the NBA where talent usually trumps all, but the Pistons are competing every night. Aside from double-digit losses to two contenders in the Milwaukee Bucks and Denver Nuggets, they’ve been in almost every game since the Drummond trade, coming up short by seven, three, four and three points in four of those contests.

That fighting spirit alone won’t fill Little Caesars Arena after so many years of floundering rebuilds and outright boring rosters, but at the very least, Detroit’s hodgepodge roster is playing hard, and the man at the top — who actually will be around for awhile — is approaching it with the right mindset.

“I don’t care what development you’re going through — you never want to lose the appetite to win,” Casey said. “And that’s what’s frustrating for me is wanting to win but then stepping back and understanding what our goals are throughout these next 22-23 games. But it’s exciting. When you step back and think about it, it’s exciting.

“It should be exciting for our fans to watch these players grow, but at some point, the rubber’s gotta meet the road. And that’s why you never wanna lose the appetite for winning, because that’s contagious, that’s a habit that never leaves your locker room and that’s something that you always wanna preach and teach is making winning plays.”

Next: The haters’ guide to beating the Bucks

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