Salvage Operation

With the losing streak past, Pistons scramble to make up for lost time
According to ESPN, arbiter of all things sports, the Pistons’ chances to make the NBA playoffs nearly tripled with their win in Washington on Tuesday night. Then again, taking your playoff odds from 0.3 percent to 0.8 percent probably isn’t reason to put the champagne on ice just yet.

Those odds are the product of a computer model and everybody knows what the computer spits out is only as good as the quality of the data that gets put into it. Which, come to think of it, is a lesson a basketball team could take to heart. Because the outcome of a game usually reflects the quality of the effort and execution entered into the attempt to win it.

Teams without overwhelming physical advantages have to play both hard and smart, and when one was present for the Pistons over a long, hard month, the other was usually absent. Early on in their 13-game losing streak, the Pistons played with admirable bursts of energy, but their execution or composure were often lacking.

That led to some tough early road losses at New Orleans and Oklahoma City, and then they came home with road-weary legs and a three-game losing streak to play the Los Angeles Lakers. Rotten scheduling luck was the last thing the Pistons needed at that point.

It went downhill from there. The Pistons, understandably, assumed an inevitable boost from the return of Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and Ben Gordon from injury. No one could control the circumstances when it actually happened a week later, but in hindsight it surely was less than ideal that their returns coincided, tripling the reintegration issues.

Roles forged organically in the injury absences of stars were jarringly altered by their en masse return. Confidence plummeted. When confidence starts leaking, it often manifests itself as what appears a lack of effort. Teams low on confidence are low on aggressiveness, a vicious cycle that sees them getting constantly knocked back.

Suddenly, winning a game becomes an incredibly complex task requiring a series of improbable achievements. When things are going well, a coach can push an endless combination of buttons and find one or a dozen that work well enough to produce a win at some point along the 48-minute continuum. When losses mount, the opposite occurs: At some point over 48 minutes, something happens that undoes whatever baby steps toward winning have been taken.

So, now that the Pistons have mustered the collective will to push back against the tidal wave that was threatening to wash over their season, what’s left to salvage from the injury-ravaged 2009-10 season?

Well, plenty.

The first order of business is to build off the momentum of not just a win, but a road win, and a road win achieved without three of their top eight players. Ben Gordon, Tayshaun Prince and Will Bynum sat out the Washington win with injuries.

Given the hardships that injuries have imposed all season, I don’t know that any credible assessment of the 2009-10 season will turn on whether or not the Pistons actually make the playoffs. But maintaining the carrot of a playoff push, which Tuesday’s win does at least temporarily, is important for the structure it provides.

Playing games that carry the weight of keeping playoff possibilities alive make for much more meaningful assessments from Joe Dumars – and his peers around the NBA – about everybody.

If there are to be deals made before the trade deadline, the value of veterans who might be made available will be heightened by how they lead and how they perform through this next stretch of games.

Joe D is going to be watching Rodney Stuckey to see how he emerges from this experience. He appeared to take another stride toward leadership earlier this week with his declaration that he was picking up the offensive pace and it was up to his teammates to match it. If Stuckey is indeed at the center of the next phase in Pistons history, he needs to continue to progress as a player and a leader over the next three months.

Then there’s Gordon and Charlie Villanueva, the major moves Dumars made last summer as the first step in the remaking of the roster. The idea is they’d be Stuckey’s wing men, two young veterans steering the ride for the next five years. When they’ve been healthy, they’ve both shown exactly what Joe D hoped he was getting. Alas, they’ve both dealt with a series of physical setbacks. But more than half the season remains – plenty of time for them to reveal their mettle in games that bear meaning.

On that score, what Villanueva did Tuesday in Washington – knock down three fourth-quarter triples, hustle for a key offensive rebound, play with swagger despite taking another blow to his already-broken nose – was huge. You think there wasn’t pressure on a team staring at a 14th straight loss? You think Charlie V’s teammates don’t look at him just a little differently today for rising above that pressure to pull them from the quicksand?

Move on to the rookies. Jonas Jerebko has been a difference-maker frequently, more often in his far greater opportunity at small forward while filling in for Prince, who in the span of two months has incurred the first two injuries of his eight-year career that have forced him out of a game. What position Jerebko is best suited to play probably isn’t a huge concern at this point – that will play itself out over time – but monitoring his progress to gauge exactly where his ceiling might be will help shape roster and draft decisions.

Similar stories with Austin Daye and DaJuan Summers. Daye, while at times looking as painfully young and inexperienced as he in fact is, has given the Pistons every confidence they made the right call at No. 15 in last June’s draft. His offensive skill set is tantalizing and a perfect fit for the way the NBA game is trending. Summers, likewise, has the type of scoring versatility that will allow the Pistons great lineup flexibility. Playing games that matter in the months ahead will be good for them, in no small measure because it will make practices competitive and playing time precious – it won’t be merely handed to rookies.

Playing experience of any kind helps in forming assessments of their futures, but experience in games that matter lead to far more trustworthy assessments.

Exercise caution in making too much of any one win. But the streak-snapper helps the Pistons regain their equilibrium. Eight of their next nine games to close January come at The Palace. If they can scratch out wins in a handful of them, all the while building confidence and chemistry as the ravages of injury abate, then maybe ESPN was right: Maybe that win brightened the outlook for the rest of this season threefold.

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