The Detroit Pistons just completed a five-game road trip with the worst record in the NBA at 4-18 and an eight-game losing streak.
They rank last in field goal shooting percentage (.407), 3-point shooting (.299) and rebounding average (42.4). Detroit is 29th in points (98.9), 28th in assists (21.3) and 23rd in turnovers (14.3).
The Pistons do rank respectably in some statistics: 10th in free throw percentage (.785), tied for 10th in steals (8.1) and 16th in blocked shots (4.8).
With the season just past the one-quarter mark, those negative numbers provide plenty of reason for fans to be frustrated. They might not have expected a championship or even a playoff berth after adding the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft in Cade Cunningham.
But respectability didn’t seem to be asking too much.
Detroit basketball followers need look no further than the Phoenix Suns — who beat the Pistons 114-103 Thursday night — for what the short-term reality is and what the long-term reality could be.
The Suns drafted dominating center Deandre Ayton No. 1 overall out of Arizona in 2018 and went 19-63 the next season. Then they went 34-39 before going 51-21 last season to break a 10-year playoff drought by reaching the NBA Finals.
Their win over the Pistons was a franchise record 18th consecutive, and Phoenix leads the NBA with a 19-3 record.
“This (Phoenix) is a great template for a lot of us teams in the league,” said Detroit coach Dwane Casey, who led a successful rebuild with the Toronto Raptors. “Atlanta also is a template. Again, we’ll have a lot of resources next year when contracts come off the books.
“So, again, I have all the patience in the world. We went into this understanding that things got blown up and it doesn’t flip overnight. It takes time. So, patience is very short in the NBA. But it’s something that’s necessary when you rebuild.
“But Phoenix is an excellent, excellent example.”
Casey clarified how perceptions can get “blown up” in the media and with fan bases expecting so much when a No. 1 pick comes to town with much fanfare.
“I don’t know if it’s a misunderstanding in the organization,” said Casey, stressing that those inside Little Caesars Arena are staying the course. “You look back at Seattle when they first got (Kevin) Durant and OKC (Oklahoma City). Again, they had some missteps along the way, but they had patience, went the right way, made the right choices (and reached the 2012 NBA Finals).
“There are business decisions. It can be done. But I go back to Toronto. It took us five years of decisions there and we did it the right way. They added a piece (Kawhi Leonard for its 2019 NBA championship season) before they took off. So, if you do it the right way, it can be done. The key is to be patient right now and do things the right way.
“It might not equate to winning, but you see the growth. That’s what you’re looking for — it’s growth. … We’ve got multiple guys that we’re trying to nurture and grow and develop, and the results are heart-breaking sometimes. But to watch the growth and see the success, and the work we put in each and every day with the players (is rewarding).”
Casey pointed out that Michael Jordan, a No. 3 overall pick who now is acclaimed as the GOAT, required seven years to finally win his first NBA title in 1991.
“So, it takes time,” Casey re-emphasized. “That’s Jordan, one of the best of all-time.”
It was pointed out during Casey’s discussion with reporters in Phoenix and on a Zoom call that No. 1 picks Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won NBA titles in their first and second years, respectively.
Casey respectfully added that Johnson had Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy on the Lakers. A young Abdul-Jabbar had Oscar Robertson and two solid scorers in Bob Dandridge and John McGlocklin in Milwaukee.
Which of the other young talents will stay with Cunningham and perhaps power forward Jerami Grant to someday possibly reach the NBA promised land remains to be seen. All Casey knows is that there is work to be done.
Coaching a team with a starting lineup consisting of rookie Cunningham and three second-year players (point guard Killian Hayes, center Isaiah Stewart and small forward Saddiq Bey) to go with eight-year veteran Grant means in-season practices are different than with a veteran team.
“You do more teaching than, ‘Tonight we’re getting ready for X,’,” Casey said. “Right now, we’re still in the teaching mode of how to do certain things in the NBA versus college or whatever. When you’re rebuilding, you’re doing a lot of teaching.
“Hopefully, you’ll see that translate into the season and into the game that’s coming up. We try to be consistent and learn good habits. When we become a veteran team, you can mix it up big time (with game strategy in practices) and guys can change on the fly. It’s very difficult to throw a whole lot at young players, and expect them to grasp it throughout the game.”
Factor in that Cunningham missed virtually all of training camp with an ankle injury and then early-season games, and the need to learn for him is compounded.
Casey emphasized that “taking care of the ball and shooting” are the two most important elements to improved offense.
The shooting woes are there nearly every night, and Casey preaches that he can live with the results of good shots. He didn’t distinctly quantify what percentage of those are taken by his team, but did note that the majority are in that category:
“They measure everything in the NBA: what time you go to the bathroom, whatever you want measured, they measure. And we have all those measurements, and I forget where we rank as far as open shots. But that’s not an issue. That’s why I tell guys: ‘If you miss one, shoot 15 more.’ Now, if they were bad shots, I wouldn’t say that.
“And we’re passing on some shots that we need to take. … Now we’re chucking up a couple bad ones, but that’s to be expected. For the most part, we are getting quality 3-point looks or shots period. That’s what’s encouraging to me.”
So, the Pistons are geared to preparing for the long-term future rather than short-term payback. Some short-term success wouldn’t hurt, though, as it bolsters confidence.
Casey is Toronto’s all-time winningest coach (320-238) but had to build the Raptors, too. They were 23-43 and 34-48 under him beginning in 2011-12. They won 56 and 51 games before going 59-23 in 2017-18.
He led a successful rebuild there with a franchise that won it all the year after he was relieved of his coaching duties in Toronto, and is well-prepared to stay the course once again in Detroit.
Steve Kornacki is a freelance writer.