Balancing rebuild with desire to win now a tough task for Pistons

Detroit News
By Steve Kornacki |  Special to The Detroit News

Detroit — The Detroit Pistons were 1-7 entering Friday night’s game with the Brooklyn Nets, and not off to the kind of start anticipated with No. 1 overall NBA Draft pick Cade Cunningham and a pair of Big Ten stars being taken in the second round behind him.

Now, expectations weren’t ratcheted up to immediate playoff contention or anything close to that. But respectability was anticipated, and that has yet to come in the early going.

“It’s funny,” Pistons coach Dwane Casey said. “Everybody wants to rebuild and everybody’s excited to rebuild. But guess what? It is very difficult to win (doing that). You try to preach growth, and then the winning will take care of itself.

“To come in and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to win a championship,’ starting three players who should be in college, I don’t think is realistic. So, we try to preach that to keep their spirits up. ‘Hey, we’re growing. We did this well last night.’ To the fans, I’m sure they’re thinking we should be winning.

“But it’s not easy. If it was, everybody would be doing it. Philly went through it how many years? Five years. Now, I won’t be sitting here five years from now talking about restoring. But again, it’s a process, and the problem you have is people that lack patience.”

Cunningham missed the first five games of the season with an injury, and hasn’t found the explosive offensive rhythm he displayed at Oklahoma State. He scored 18 points Thursday against the Philadelphia 76ers after getting two and six points in his first two games.

Ex-Michigan forward Isaiah Livers is practicing again after being stifled by a foot injury, and Casey said he should be playing soon.

“Isaiah is probably middle of November. Don’t hold me to it,” he said.

Former Iowa center Luka Garza didn’t play Thursday night, and is averaging 3.2 points and 1.2 rebounds in limited action as the third center behind starter Isaiah Stewart and Kelly Olynyk, the top scorer off the bench.

“Last night, we were going against one of the best big men in the league (Joel Embiid). I thought Kelly and Isaiah — Isaiah had one of his better nights last night — and it’s very difficult to play three centers in this league.

“So, it’s nothing Luka’s done wrong. He’s part of our program, but right now it’s difficult to play three centers. And you look at Kelly and his passing and his savvy, and the mentality that Isaiah brought last night. It’s about growth and (Garza) will continue to get better.”

Missing mark

The Pistons rank last in the NBA with 95.5 points per game. Their field-goal shooting percentage of .395 and three-point percentage of .272 also are rock bottom.

“A lot of this is, and I’m a believer in this, when guys don’t see the ball going through the hole, their intensity level goes down and it takes something out to them,” Casey said. “It shouldn’t happen that way, but it’s human nature, and we’ve got to fight that. … A lot of things suffered when our offense went south last night (in a 109-98 loss to the 76ers).

“It’s no excuse, but it’s human nature.”

Cunningham, for example, is 1-for-21 on 3-pointers. He is shooting .179 on all field goal attempts.

It’s the age-old question in basketball: How do players break out of shooting slumps?

“How do I approach it?” Casey said. “I look down the bench for people I can put in there (laughter). Hopefully, I can have somebody to put in there.

“But it’s something that I’ve especially seen with young players, new players in the league who all of their lives have seen the ball go through the hole. And then, in this league, there’s good players on other teams and it stops. And so, you’ve got to develop that next-play mentality.

“That’s what maturity’s about – developing that mental toughness. You miss your shot: ‘Where’s my assignment? Where’s my man?’ You might be upset with yourself, mad at whatever, mad at the call. Those are the things you fight as a player. ‘Next-play mentality,’ that’s how I approach it from a coaching standpoint.”

Steve Kornacki is a freelance writer.

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