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Pistons in precarious spot as they try to end playoff drought

Gaining postseason experience this season would prove invaluable for Stan Van Gundy's young nucleus

POSTED: Mar 23, 2016 7:41 PM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner

NBA.com

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Tough road ahead: The Pistons' opponents over their final 10 games are a combined 90 games over .500.

The opportunity and the urgency of the Detroit Pistons' playoff push probably is a lot harder on Stan Van Gundy than it is on the Pistons or their fans.

Most of the players haven't completed their fifth season in the league, their 26th year on the planet or both, so they know no better. The fans who still show up at The Palace of Auburn Hills have been grounded by six consecutive seasons on the outside looking in. It's been seven years and five coaches since Detroit snagged a playoff berth, and when the Pistons reached the Eastern Conference finals for the sixth and (so far) final time in 2008, current franchise anchor Andre Drummond was 14 years old.

Van Gundy, though, is a grown man with more skin in this game than anyone. His dual role as Pistons president of basketball operations and head coach makes this a Stanley Production as surely as if his last name were Kubrick. And he's used to fairly rapid improvement.

In Van Gundy's second season as Miami's head coach (2004-05), the Heat improved from 42 victories to 59 and went from two postseason rounds to three. When he took over in Orlando in 2007, he helped bump up the Magic from 40 the season before he arrived to 52, then to 59 and a trip to the Finals.

His latest team wasn't close to playoff ready upon Van Gundy's arrival as coach/POBO. It took heavy lifting and a roster overhaul to eke out three additional victories from 2013-14 (29-53) to 32-50 last season. This year's climb to 37-34 with 11 games left -- from .390 to .521 in winning percentage so far -- has thrust Detroit into the chase for the East's final postseason berth, but has guaranteed them nothing.

The site fivethirtyeight.com, as of Wednesday morning, was giving the Pistons a 38 percent shot at making the playoffs compared to Washington's 40 percent and Chicago's 34 percent, and projecting that all three teams would finish 42-40. If that happened, tiebreakers would kick in and ultimately determine whether a 10-victory improvement would be viewed as a success or a disappointment in Detroit.

Our guys know every game is important.

– Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy

Consider how precarious the Pistons' position is right now, three weeks from the regular season's finale. Facing Orlando Wednesday night (7:30 p.m. ET, League Pass), they are at the midpoint of the longest homestand -- nine games -- in franchise history. So far, they're 3-1 thanks to a parade of visiting struggling squads (Sacramento, Brooklyn, Milwaukee). They have just four road games remaining, period.

But things get more challenging after Van Gundy's old Magic team exits the Palace. Detroit's opponents over its final 10 games are a combined 90 games over .500 and include the likes of Atlanta, Oklahoma City, Dallas, Miami (twice) and Cleveland. The Bulls and the Wizards provide face-to-face fate-determining one time each.

The Pistons are 9-10 so far against their remaining opponents and 19-21 overall against teams at or over .500. So a 5-6 finish to 42-40 seems about right, with a whole lot of uncertainty as to whether that will be good enough.

"Our guys know every game is important," Van Gundy said the other day. "I don't think it's a matter of our guys understanding -- or not understanding -- the importance of games... It's a matter of playing well and getting the job done."

Achievement is different from activity, as John Wooden used to say, and while it hasn't paid off in anything particularly tangible yet, Van Gundy has definitely owned the latter. He and GM Jeff Bower have made eight trades in the past 17 months and it would have been nine if Detroit hadn't voided its deadline deal with Houston for forward Donatas Motiejunas over a failed physical.

Two other roster moves were arguably even bigger -- dumping Josh Smith last season despite hefty money left on his contract when the team reached its 5-23 low point and the decision to let free-agent big man Greg Monroe leave for nothing in return.

At this point, only Drummond and guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope remain from the roster Van Gundy and Bower inherited from Joe Dumars' regime. And Drummond, who has seen Detroit's locker room turn over two or three times since his arrival as a 2012 lottery pick, still is just 22 years old.

All of which makes it feel like the Pistons are ahead of and behind schedule all at once. The playoff drought, the 27-27 results after Smith was waived and Van Gundy's personal timeline will cast anything short of an eighth-place finish as a disappointment. But if you're going by the building blocks necessary for any perennial loser to hoist itself into the playoffs, well, some of the pieces aren't quite there.

Defensively, as rattled as Van Gundy was after a recent six-game stretch in which Detroit gave up an average of 113.7 points, it actually has cleaned up its rating from 21st in the NBA last season (104.2 points per 100 possessions) to 14th (103.5). Offensively, the Pistons rank 17th, same as they did after last season despite a small tick up in production (from 102.3 to 103.0).

The Orlando blueprint that Van Gundy has applied -- four out, one in, with shooters spotted around the perimeter while Drummond dominates the paint -- remains a work in progress, as does Drummond himself. The Pistons ranks 10th in 3-point field goals attempted but 22nd in accuracy. They also rank last in free-throw shooting, dragged down by Drummond's 35.7 percent. If the big fella shot even 50 percent, Detroit would go from having outscored opponents by 48 points in 71 games (0.6 per) to 124 (1.7 per).

Drummond also isn't quite where he needs to be, or where Van Gundy envisions him, as his Dwight Howard surrogate defensively. His rebounding and shot-blocking numbers aren't far off Howard's first four seasons, but his fundamentals (help and rim protection) still need work.

Reggie Jackson has brought talent and potency at point guard -- he has scored 30 or more seven times this season in his James Harden-like liberation from OKC -- but his decision-making isn't any more mature at this stage than most of the roster. These are players in the making: Caldwell-Pope, Stanley Johnson and Tobias Harris, to whom the Pistons still are adjusting after giving up stretch-four Ersan Ilyasova (though they're 10-5 with Harris as a starter).

"It's a good excuse," Van Gundy said last week, "to be able to say, 'Oh, you're young,' which basically means you're not mature enough or tough enough to play well every night. If I were the guys and that was being said as an excuse, I'd be embarrassed. They've all played the game since they were five or six years old. Get yourself ready to play and play. The young excuse, yeah, there may be some situations on the floor you don't react to as quickly, things like that. As far as coming out and playing hard with energy and being ready to play, that has absolutely nothing to do with anything. Nothing."

Detroit is not ready to contend for anything beyond a low seed, but it is ready to learn what it doesn't know yet about playoff basketball. It would be a shame for the Pistons and their fans, if not the Bulls or the Wizards, if that process has to wait another year.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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