Turning the Ship

Prince, aware a young team follows his lead, works to rise above frustration

Veteran Tayshaun Prince returned to the Pistons as a leader of its young nucleus.
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When Joe Dumars was grilled the day training camp opened about the decision to bring back Tayshaun Prince, here’s what he said: “Even when you are building a young nucleus, you’ve got to have the right veteran to help those guys take that step. Even when you see young teams, eventually what you hear is, ‘We’ve got to get the right veteran.’ I felt like we had the right veteran here already and did not have to go and look for the right veteran. We feel like he’s the type of guy that will lead the right way under the right circumstances.”

There was code in that last part … “lead the right way under the right circumstances.” It was a tacit acknowledgement that the circumstances weren’t right last season, for sure, and probably beyond that, even. But with the Pistons removed from limbo by the sale to Tom Gores and a new coach in place, Lawrence Frank, who came with a reputation for demanding daily accountability during his stint in New Jersey, Joe D was confident the circumstances were at last right. And that in the Tayshaun Prince he’d mined late in a historically weak first round, he had a veteran who could help turn the ship back away from the iceberg.

But turning the ship is an arduous process. From 1,000 feet above, no movement is discernible even though below deck the crew is straining frantically against the forces of nature’s momentum. That’s where the Pistons are at these days, straining frantically.

After Tuesday’s disheartening loss to Dallas, in which the Mavs led 15-4 after five minutes and seven Pistons turnovers, Prince, brought back for his leadership and experience as much as for his reliability and production, spoke in measured tones, admitting frustration and disappointment. But any similarities to last season ended there.

“It’s not like the guys aren’t playing hard,” he said. “But you get frustrated when things don’t work out. When things aren’t going right at both ends, you get frustrated. And when you get frustrated, they become worse. That’s when me and Ben (Wallace) have to come in and talk to the guys and say, ‘Hey, let’s hold our heads up’ and ‘We’ve got to get through this thing.’ Because right now we’re just dragging from game to game.”

Prince knew fixing the team’s defensive ills would take time. Defense always does, especially when there’s no dominant interior defender to cover a team’s weaknesses. But the Pistons’ offense has struggled every bit as much, and one problem feeds the other. A sputtering offense means forced shots near the end of the shot clock that leaves a team vulnerable to transition opportunities. All those easy baskets for the opposition, in turn, mean your offense too often starts by taking the ball out of the net against a set defense.

“We just haven’t played well on both ends,” he said. “I said coming in I thought defense would be something we would continue to work on and get better and better, but we don’t have any flow offensively. The defense is frustrating us to the point it’s carrying over to the offensive end. You can see it. Every time we do make a couple of shots, a couple of turnovers and the momentum swings back to the other team. Frustration has picked up on the offensive end, as well. At first it was defense, trying to get things together. But now it’s both ends.”

Players have talked since camp opened about their appreciation for Frank’s transparency. He met with each player at his first opportunity, once the lockout ended and before camp opened, and talked to them about expectations and roles. One of the issues Frank broached with Prince was his expectation for his leadership and what that entailed.

Because Prince is prideful, because he experienced almost immediate success in the NBA – his admission to the starting lineup in the playoffs of his rookie season coincided with the start of the Pistons advancing to six consecutive Eastern Conference finals – the failure of the last few seasons have been especially tough for him. As a demonstrative player, the frustration hasn’t been very well concealed, either. When Prince is upset, it there’s to see – for fans, coaches and teammates alike.

“That’s one of the things the coaches have talked to me about, as far as not letting the frustration show on my face and try to help the guys out in situations when things are really down,” he said. “As you can see in games, when we start to get down, then we kind of bury ourselves as opposed to trying to pick ourselves back up.”

In less obvious ways, though, Prince offers advice and encouragement. He’s taken a special mentoring role with Brandon Knight, thrust into the starting role the past week as Rodney Stuckey recovers from a groin injury, with whom he already felt a kinship via their University of Kentucky roots even before Knight’s work ethic won him over.

“I’ve talked to Brandon every time he’s made a mistake,” he said. “I’ve pulled him aside on the bench during a timeout. As we all know, as a vet, when things happen over and over, you get frustrated. Brandon is going to give 100 percent effort every time. We know that. He’s a hard worker. He does it in practice all the time. He works hard afterwards, before. Sometimes he plays a little too fast. When we dig ourselves a hole a little bit, any good player, they try to get it back right away and you end up compounding it and it goes the other way. He’s a hard worker, man. We know he shoots the ball real well. He’ll learn from it, just like everybody else. He’s not the only one making mistakes out there. We’ve just got to get better.”

From 1,000 feet above, there’s little evidence anything has changed. Below deck, they’re straining frantically. Tayshaun Prince came back with the full understanding that leadership was part of his job description. He’s taking it seriously. As someone who bristled when the circumstances weren’t right in recent seasons, he has every motivation to make sure present circumstances aren’t tainted by frustrations they all feel when results don’t keep pace with expectations.