Fighting Chance

Reason for Pistons optimism starts with McGrady’s steady hand

Tracy McGrady has brought some stability to the Pistons' offense.
Glenn James/NBAE/Getty Images
With a 0-3 Western road trek that looked daunting when the schedule came out and started badly with a New Year’s Eve dud at Phoenix behind the Pistons, it’s time to take their temperature. And coming off a bout with a stomach virus nastier than Ben Wallace’s glare, I say that advisedly.

Inconsistency remains the Pistons’ biggest bugaboo – but woven within that inconsistency rests whatever optimism can be mustered that the season can finish with a flourish. Because at least inconsistency means good and bad mixed in relatively equal amounts, and lately that’s what the Pistons have been exhibiting.

There is an ebb and flow to every team’s season, of course, and even within games teams blow hot and cold. But momentum remains more elusive for the Pistons than suits a playoff contender. There was no more stark example than the two games to close 2010, when they scored 104 points in perhaps their best win of the season against one of the NBA’s stingiest defenses, Boston’s, and followed up 48 hours later by scoring 75 points in a perplexing loss against one of the NBA’s leakiest defenses, Phoenix’s.

“We don’t have the toughness we talk about every night to go out and just grind games out,” John Kuester said after Tuesday’s 108-83 loss to the Lakers, who played with the purpose of a team recently embarrassed at home by lesser opponents. “You know, we have to somehow search for that because we’ve got a lot of basketball left. And I believe in this group.

“There’s a lot of basketball left. So we have to make sure that we understand that each half, and each game, we’ve got to compete … the whole time. During the road trip, the Utah game, we competed throughout, and I thought the first half of this game we competed. You just want these guys to have that passion that you have.”

A look at the standings and the immediate schedule should be enough to inflame those passions, because for as rocky as the two-plus months of the season have been, the Eastern Conference is forgiving. The Pistons, at 11-24, are merely five games behind Milwaukee in the loss column for the final playoff spot. If they can take advantage of the next five games – three of them at home, four of them against sub-.500 teams and the fifth at Chicago, playing without center Joakim Noah – they can close the gap and position themselves for a serious push.

What should give Kuester – or Pistons fans, for that matter – reason to believe they can suddenly find some consistency after lurching through the first 35 games?

I think it starts with the relative stability Tracy McGrady has brought to the offense since sliding in as the starting point guard. The guy who routinely scored 25 or 30 points a game isn’t likely ever coming back, but the McGrady the Pistons have seen in increasing doses lubricates the gears on offense like nobody else on the roster. However Kuester decides to use him from here on out – as the starter or off the bench, as a point guard or elsewhere – two things seem likely: (1) His role will be bigger than anyone would have guessed coming out of the preseason and (2) the ball is going to be in his hands for the bulk of however many minutes he winds up getting.

And as McGrady’s role increases, so will the influence he exerts on the whole. His basketball IQ, so apparent from the beginning, even when his legs sometimes betrayed him, and his status in the game make McGrady a candidate for leadership. But it’s hard to lead from the rear. Now that he’s front and center, look for him to become as central to the vibe of the team as he has become to the functioning of the offense.

I asked him about assuming more of a leadership role last week, right before the Pistons jetted off to Phoenix.

“I feel I do a great job of organizing us when we’re on the basketball court,” he said. “I think guys follow my lead, as you saw (in the win over Boston). Me starting at the point guard position and being under control on the court, that’s just something I’ve been able to do throughout my career, not vocally, but just the way I go about playing.”

How the pieces now fall into place around him will be Kuester’s biggest chore. But Charlie Villanueva’s move into the starting lineup has given the frontcourt a scoring threat to start games and Tayshaun Prince seems to thrive as a scorer with McGrady handling the bulk of playmaking duties. Ben Gordon is at least showing signs of emerging as a go-to scorer and Greg Monroe, fresh off his first career double-double (14 points, 11 boards) against the Lakers, is a pretty safe bet to offer increasing contributions from this point forward.

Down the road, if the Pistons need a boost for a finishing kick, it sure won’t hurt to get Jonas Jerebko and his relentless motor back for the final month or so of the season, if his rehabilitation from Achilles tendon surgery goes well.

So their temp might still be a little elevated, but the prognosis could be worse. The stability Tracy McGrady brings to the Pistons’ offense might squeeze just enough inconsistency out of the Pistons to give them a fighting chance in the forgiving East.