When the Detroit Pistons faced the Houston Rockets on Nov. 10, they were in very similar situations. Both teams started full rebuilds last season, with the former buying out Blake Griffin and the latter trading James Harden. The Pistons won the 2021 lottery and drafted Cade Cunningham. The Rockets took Jalen Green third overall. Detroit, the winner that night, was 2-8 afterward, while the Rockets fell to 1-10.
In five weeks since, the franchises have zoomed in opposite directions. Houston has wins in nine of its past 13 games; that includes Saturday’s 116-107 win in Detroit, as well as seven straight from Nov. 24-Dec. 8. (The final six of which came without Green, who has been out since Nov. 27 with a hamstring strain.) Veterans Eric Gordon and Christian Wood are among the Rockets’ top four in minutes over those 13 games, and their young players have filled in the gaps admirably.
The Pistons, meanwhile, have fallen victim to injuries and inexperience en route to 14 consecutive losses, tying a franchise record. Kelly Olynyk suffered a knee sprain in that Nov. 10 win over the Rockets, hasn’t played since and is at least a week away from returning. Jerami Grant underwent thumb surgery to repair an injury suffered Dec. 10 and is out until at least late January. Detroit’s center rotation has featured a lot of Trey Lyles (a natural power forward) and a little bit of Luka Garza (a 2021 second-round pick). The Pistons rotation consists mainly of rookies, second-year players and role players 26 and younger.
They’ve fully embraced their youth movement, partially by design and partially by circumstance. Youth movements are good for development, but bad for winning, as evidenced by the Pistons’ 4-24 record.
That showed Saturday as the Rockets built a 20-point lead before the Pistons narrowed it to nine in the final minutes. Rebuilds are hard to predict, but for the 14th game in a row, the Pistons had to find the positives in another negative outcome.
There aren’t any easy solutions for the Pistons, who will try to avoid making history against the Miami Heat on Sunday at LCA. Many fans expected the Pistons to improve this season after finishing with a 20-52 record last year. For now, though, they and team personnel have to find solace in the small victories. Detroit is at a disadvantage in experience and depth almost every game. The young players are taking their lumps.
“Just keeping your spirit,” Isaiah Stewart said after the game, when asked about his approach to the current downturn. “At the end of the day, we’re blessed to play this game and we’re blessed to be in this position. I firmly believe that we’re going to break out of this losing streak, so just keeping your spirit and just going out and playing hard. I feel like it’s going to turn around.”
Still, there were positive signs Saturday. Stewart asserted himself offensively, using his body to outmuscle Wood and Alperen Sengun for a 16-point, eight-rebound day. Saddiq Bey had his second straight strong offensive game — after an extended slump to open his second season — finishing with 23 points on 9-for-16 shooting. Cade Cunningham had a double-double, with 21 points and 11 assists. Killian Hayes dished out a season-high 10 assists. And Garza had nine points and three rebounds in nine fourth-quarter minutes.
“I thought he was ready,” Dwane Casey said of Garza, who played his first game for the Pistons since Dec. 10. “That’s something he does. He did his job coming in rebounding, which is an Achilles’ heel of ours right now. I thought he had two wide-open shots he normally makes. He came in and made an impact.”
Youthful mistakes cost Detroit the win. They committed 20 turnovers, leading to 22 points for the Rockets. And they allowed Houston to score 38 points in the first quarter — creating am eight-point deficit the Pistons were unable to close. Detroit won the second half by four points, but they played from behind for the entire game following a 3-pointer by Gordon 2:15 in.
It isn’t clear when the Pistons will win their next game. The Heat are firmly in the Eastern Conference playoff race. The Pistons could have an advantage against Tuesday’s opponent, the New York Knicks, as they have multiple players in health and safety protocols. But that game is still in New York. Thursday brings a rematch against the Heat on the road. The seven opponents after that: the San Antonio Spurs, the Knicks, the Spurs again, the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks, the Charlotte Hornets, the Memphis Grizzlies, the Orlando Magic, and, finally, the Utah Jazz on Jan. 10. The Knicks, Spurs and Magic are the only teams not in a playoff spot entering Saturday.
The Pistons have kept a big-picture approach. Casey has stated multiple times that the coaching staff is seeing progression behind the scenes — progression that hasn’t been represented on the court yet. Returning to the postseason will be a lengthy process. For now, all the Pistons can do is ride out the storm.
“Individual numbers don’t really matter as much if we have a result like we had,” Cunningham said. “I think having individual numbers like that, and then still coming out in a loss just shows we can still play more for each other, make more things happen for each other. Just continuing to work on that, continuing to grow as a unit and not just everybody trying to grow as a player or individual.”
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