Part of the Process

Joe D agonizes over losses, but sees clear Pistons progress over a season ago

Pistons president Joe Dumars
Allen Einstein (NBAE/Getty)
(Editor’s note: First in a series of stories coming on over the next several with Joe Dumars and his perspective on the Pistons.)

In the heat of the moment, losses like the last two the Pistons have endured at The Palace – seeing 17-point leads dissipate against both Chicago and Denver – are no easier for Joe Dumars to endure than they would have been during his playing days.

In the more measured moments of analysis required of his current job as president of basketball operations, he knows they constitute a virtually inevitable step in the evolution of a team being built without shortcuts.

“That’s usually how it plays out – you go through some heartbreaking losses,” he said. “That’s a part of your learning curve. These are tough, hard-to-swallow losses that you inevitably have to go through. Even though you know it’s a process – you have to go through it – it’s still not easy to walk out and lose games where you feel you’ve been in control. That’s never easy.”

As he takes the measure of a team that has added three cornerstones in three successive drafts plus folded in a promising handful of complementary players, Dumars looks at the growth from a year ago – when the Pistons were scrambling, post-lockout, in Lawrence Frank’s first season – to now.

“I would say we’ve definitely gotten better,” he said. “We’ve shown the ability to compete against just about every team we’ve played. We have shown the ability to come out and play and put ourselves in position to win games. Right now, it’s just the ability to close games out. Usually that’s the toughest step you have to take in the process of learning how to win. You first have to learn how to compete, then you have to learn how to put yourself in position to win, then that final step of learning how to close out games is usually the toughest step you take in the process. That’s what we’re going through right now.”

The Pistons, 7-17 through a rugged first 24-game stretch during which the games have come at a more rapid pace than any other NBA team has endured, have lost eight times after leading by double digits. The Chicago and Denver losses featured the largest leads at 17. They’ve twice lost 13-point leads, three times lost 11-point leads and once gave up a 10-point edge.

If you want to choose a word to characterize the front office’s view of the trend, it would be “disappointed,” not “alarmed.” Nobody’s writing it off as coincidental, necessarily, but the reality is that low double-digit leads in the NBA can dissolve in the matter of a few minutes and a handful of possessions.

“When you’re close, it’s the last 20 percent,” Frank said after Thursday’s practice before the Pistons left for Friday’s game with his old franchise, the Nets, now relocated to Brooklyn. “That’s harder than the 80 percent. The key is, are you determined or are you discouraged.”

The schedule hasn’t been kind to the Pistons. Even after having Wednesday off, they are still the only NBA team to have played as many as 24 games; only six others have played as many as 23. The average number of games played by the other 14 Eastern Conference teams is 21. The Pistons played their first 24 games in 42 days, only four more than it took to play their first 24 a year ago during the lockout-compressed schedule, when all teams were similarly challenged.

“When we looked at the schedule, we said, ‘OK, there’s no way around acknowledging that it’s going to be a tough first month of the season,’ ” Dumars said. “The second thing I said was, ‘Let’s leave it at that and not make any excuses. No matter what happens over the course of the first month, guys, I don’t want to hear anything about using it as an excuse. We’ve got to play 82 games – 41 at home, 41 on the road – and we’ve just got to get through it.’ ”

Dumars sees the same characteristics in Frank this season that he saw a year ago, when he credited Frank’s day-to-day consistency of approach and temperament with enabling the Pistons to pull out of the 4-20 tailspin that opened their season. And he sees that calming influence reflected in the way the team goes about its business

“It bears itself out by the fact we are putting ourselves in position to win so many games,” he said. “These guys, they believe in each other. When they step out on the floor, they’re playing like it. The fact we are not closing games like we’d like to right now is not a reflection on how much they believe in each other. That’s the really good thing I like. Last year, it was more of a stretch to see where it was going to go when we were in the midst of that rough start. This year, it’s a lot easier to see. These guys truly believe in each other and are giving themselves a chance to win, night in and night out.”