Why the Detroit Pistons’ ‘not fun’ season has actually been pretty good

Detroit Free Press

Cory Joseph hasn’t been with the Detroit Pistons very long. But he’s impressed with what he’s seen so far.

Since joining the franchise March 26, Joseph has acquainted himself with the rest of the roster — particularly the rookies. The Pistons asked Joseph to be a mentor for the young players; while he already had a good impression of the group from afar while with the Sacramento Kings, he has seen their work ethic and approach to the game up close. He said he believes the Pistons’ record this season is a poor indicator of the team’s competitiveness.

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“I feel like our record doesn’t really show you guys the full story of what’s going on here between the coaches, the staff, the players,” Joseph said Tuesday. “We have a unit that is young, extremely young. We might be inexperienced. But we play extremely hard and we approach every day to get better. We approach it with the right mindset. For as long as we have those key characteristics on the team and you have that key mindset, eventually you’re going to get over the top and you’re going to get to putting W’s on the board and it’s going to be consistent.

Joseph’s initial impressions highlight why the Pistons haven’t carried themselves like a bad team this season, despite owning the Eastern Conference’s worst record at 16-38. There’s frustration after losses, but it hasn’t led to discord in the locker room. Teammates have made an effort to compliment each other when talking to the media, and the 2020 draft picks — Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart, Saddiq Bey and Saben Lee — speak of themselves as a collective unit, rather than individually. None of the veterans have complained about minutes, and all have embraced being mentors in the locker room.

Even Dwane Casey, who coached a contending Toronto Raptors team before he joined the Pistons in 2018, appears to be largely satisfied with what he has seen this season. To be clear, he isn’t happy with the losing; he has often remarked that it hasn’t gotten easier to deal with. But this season feels different from last season, which the Pistons entered with playoff expectations and exited with most of the core roster either injured or traded away, with a full roster tear-down months away.

It’s Year 1 of the Troy Weaver era, and the refreshed expectations and consistent progression of the young players has helped the Pistons remain competitive, and even-keeled, despite 38 losses. Detroit went toe-to-toe with the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday, despite playing in the second game of a back-to-back and missing Jerami Grant. Such performances haven’t been uncommon this season, but with 18 games left on the schedule, Casey is happy the team hasn’t lost any of its fight.

Casey credits the consistent message this season: Compete, and get better. Team owner Tom Gores gave the Pistons a pep talk in the locker room after Sunday’s 131-124 loss. The front office has consistently stated a goal of a roster of hard-working, competitive players. So far, so good.

Casey also said he has been the same person every day, and that him being “boring” adds to the consistency that has helped keep players engaged despite the lack of a playoff berth.

“They have a pureness in their heart in their approach to the game,” Casey said. “I preach it all the time — it’s about the old word ‘process.’ It’s about using each and every day as a growth session. And so the consistency of that message from our ownership to the front office from myself, each and every day, each step, they talk to somebody and they’re hearing the same message. That helps. That will help our growth, that will help get us to winning quicker and on the same page and preaching the same message. That’s where we are right now.

The Pistons finished the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season with a 20-46 record. They need just five wins to surpass that win total this year, by virtue of playing six additional games. But Detroit will likely finish this season with little of the frustration that teams at the bottom of the standings often deal with.

The main goal this offseason is the same as last: Get better. They need more shooting, but it would be surprising to see them make any significant “win now” moves. For now, they’re benefiting from a lack of expectations. And Casey is confident that the franchise is on the right track to build off of this bad season.

“There’s a definite direction and a place where we’re going to,” Casey said. “The last couple of years, even the playoff year was like, whether we’re going to make the playoffs [or[ barely crawl in, and that’s not a way to build a championship team. It’s not fun, it’s not pretty, it’s not something you want to put your fans through each and every year. But it’s necessary. And again, you have to have patience. You’ve gotta see the big picture and the trophy at the end of the tunnel, and keep working toward it.”

Contact Omari Sankofa II at osankofa@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa. Read more on the Detroit Pistons and sign up for our Pistons newsletter.

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