The Pistons’ turnaround is not going to happen all at once. It’s not going to happen quickly, and many of the games are going to be really ugly. There will be some splashes of pretty in there, but before anyone gets his or her hopes up, remember that it’s going to take time.
Projecting the Pistons to make the playoffs, after they won just 20 games last season, is foolhardy. Thinking Cade Cunningham would come in and take over the league — though he’s a No. 1 overall pick — is unrealistic. Expecting Killian Hayes to be anything more than a decent point guard this season — after playing just 26 games last season — is optimistic, at best.
That’s very rarely how rebuilds work, and it’s not going to be how the Pistons project for this season either.
Judging by their 3-9 start, the Pistons more likely will be a Jekyll-and-Hyde team that has some stinky games like Friday’s 98-78 debacle against the improved Cavaliers. Every once in a while, they will have a performance like Saturday’s masterpiece at Toronto, with seven players in double figures for their best team win of the season.
“We shot it with conviction, like we felt like and believed it was going in,” coach Dwane Casey said. “It’s the work the guys put in and it’s a fickle thing. We bounced back, and as ugly as (Friday) night was, (Saturday) was a thing of beauty.”
The rebuild is a longer-term project, with incremental progress with the young core this season being the primary priority. The Pistons are using culture as one of the foundational pieces of the rebuild, and it’s showing in how they handled the aftermath of the loss to the Cavs.
That included a team meeting on Saturday morning to lay the groundwork.
“Just talking about everything as far as the team chemistry, discipline and being a disciplined team, setting our culture, who are we and what are we going to be and how are we going to play,” Casey said. “We’re laying that foundation and we’re pouring the concrete. Nobody likes pouring concrete because it’s boring watching concrete dry — but once that foundation is in there and then you grow, that’s where you establish something.
“We did it here in Toronto and they reaped the benefits of it, and that’s what we’re doing here in Detroit. So that’s what we have to believe and understand. Pouring concrete is boring and nobody likes to see it, and nobody likes to write about it, but that’s what has to happen when you’re restoring and rebuilding.”
One of Casey’s caveats this season has been that the young players are going to be up and down a lot, scoring 25 one night and maybe seven points the next. It’s not a slight on any of them. Rather, it’s a reminder that the road to rebuilding isn’t a straight line.
Take Cunningham, for example, who had 20 points in the win over the Rockets, but nine against the Cavaliers and 10 against the Raptors. He struggled in shooting from the field through the first three quarters, but when the Pistons needed a couple of big buckets in the final two minutes, he came through.
Hayes had only two games this season in which he scored in double figures, but he put together his most complete game, with season highs of 13 points, seven rebounds and 10 assists. After Hayes reinjured his sprained left thumb, he went to the bench for treatment and returned to the game. Cunningham had a balky right ankle on Saturday, the same ankle that kept him out for a few weeks into the start of the season.
Playing through those injuries was a big step for the young backcourt.
“Normally, some guys would be out a month with that, and they bounced right back in, which again, is pouring that concrete, establishing that baseline of having to play through stuff — and that’s what I’ve been preaching,” Casey said. “Whether it’s load management, injuries, whatever it is, you have to play through something to be successful in this league.”
Up and down. Two steps forward, one step back. That’s how it might be for much of this season.
Beyond the veterans such as Jerami Grant, who has been solid this season, the key to their growth will be Cunningham, who hasn’t had a lot of marquee performances, but his leadership in the midst of their growth is paramount to their success.
“It says a lot about (Cunningham) because in the locker room, he was one of the happiest guys. Any future star like that one, scoring 10 points probably would be crying in his milk because he missed so many shots,” Casey said. “He didn’t do that. He was happy for everybody else’s success — and that’s what you have to be to be a leader in this league, and we’re preaching that type of approach.
“He wasn’t hunting shots, and if the game came to him, he would take it, but he wasn’t looking for touches. He was happy for Jerami Grant knocking down on the threes and he was happy for Isaiah (Stewart) making those lay-ups and the whole nine yards. That’s what you want your future leader to be.”
The key is the future, not the present.
Give it some time and let the young players grow at their own speed. There’s no quick-grow solution to the Pistons’ turnaround.
Kings at Pistons
►Tipoff: 7 p.m., Monday, Little Caesars Arena
►Outlook: The Pistons (3-9) are coming off their most impressive win of the season, topping the Raptors, 127-121. Harrison Barnes is averaging 21.4 points for the Kings (5-8), who have lost four straight games.
— Rod Beard