MINNEAPOLIS – This was the moment Stan Van Gundy had in mind. Back in training camp, when already there was a sense of a stronger bond being formed. Through the euphoria of the back-to-back comeback wins over the Clippers and Warriors. Amid the five-game sweep of their recent home stand.
How would the Pistons respond to the first whiplash of their momentum? Would the guys who fall on the wrong side of the line separating those in from those out of the rotation still be as upbeat when wins turned to losses? Would their confidence sag and their camaraderie suffer?
The two losses – the first time the Pistons have lost consecutive games in the first 15 – to start their three-game road trip, to the Bucks and Pacers, both could have been wins.
The Pistons came back to tie in the final minute at Milwaukee and led by 22 in the third quarter at Indiana. Everybody’s going to lose two in a row at some point, right? Teams that win 50-plus games have a way of cutting those losing streaks short, which ups the ante for the finale of the three-game road trip Sunday at Minnesota.
That’ll be a window into the state of the Pistons, a measuring post for all the permanence of all those positive traits they’ve exuded since training camp opened nearly two months ago.
A few other observations with the Pistons sitting at 10-5 nearly 20 percent of the way into the 2017-18 season:
The injury that cost Stanley Johnson three games set him back. Johnson is too early in his development to expect that missing 10 days wouldn’t throw him out of rhythm. One of the overlooked angles of the Pistons early success was how well Johnson was playing because it wasn’t necessarily reflected in the numbers. But he was playing his role to a T before the back and hip injuries converged and sidelined him. He was a little more active in Friday’s loss than he was at Milwaukee in his return, but the 1 of 9 shooting – and one rebound with zero assists and steals in 25 minutes – speaks to how subpar he remains. They need him to bounce back against Minnesota and again form a dynamic perimeter defensive duo with Avery Bradley. He’ll be called on to guard Jimmy Butler and Johnson gets up for that type of challenge, so maybe Butler acts like smelling salts for Johnson and benefits the Pistons.
On the flip side, Luke Kennard’s emergence – three straight games with double-figure scoring, a 12.7 scoring average and 8 of 13 3-point shooting – is enormously promising. It’s not just that Kennard appears to be very quickly and seamlessly translating his college scoring skills to the NBA or that he’s doing it with remarkable efficiency for a rookie, either. It’s that the way he scores – and sets up others to score – is unique to the Pistons and helps round out their offensive profile. A playmaking wing is a valuable commodity. That Kennard appears to have figured it out this soon is going to give Van Gundy a huge weapon off the bench. I’d look for Van Gundy, who’s really good at that sort of thing, to figure out more ways to exploit Kennard’s offensive flair in the weeks ahead. Overlooked, perhaps, is that he’s been way better than expected defensively. A Kennard who gets to average on defense can be a star in the NBA someday – maybe someday soon.
So that’s the 2015 and ’17 No. 1 picks. What about 2016? What about Henry Ellenson? He’s the one who made the most waves in the first week of the season, contributing in a big way to wins over Charlotte and Minnesota. But a few defensive hiccups cost him his grip on a spot in the rotation and old pro Anthony Tolliver has simply been too good for Van Gundy to look anywhere else when Tobias Harris sits. Jon Leuer might face a similar dilemma when his sprained ankle heals enough to permit his return. But Van Gundy pulled Ellenson aside Thursday in Indianapolis to offer encouragement, assuring the 20-year-old – still the Pistons youngest player – that his future remains bright, that his time will come again. Ellenson, not unlike Kennard, has unique offensive ability. As soon as his defense starts catching up, he’ll force Van Gundy’s hand again.