As East playoffs unfold, Pistons should feel even more that they’re on the right course

In the thick of the playoff drive as late March turned to April, Stan Van Gundy displayed the perspective that has allowed him to thrive in the dual role of coach and chief front-office executive.

With their postseason fate uncertain, he talked of the need for honest self-analysis and reflection no matter how it turned out, of not getting lulled into a false sense of complacency because the Pistons had gone from 32 wins to a number that would settle at 44 when the dust cleared. Don’t assume that because you got better this season improvement next year would be inevitable, was his overarching message.

So that work is ongoing, even as Van Gundy, general manager Jeff Bower and their team are working along two other fronts, preparing for the draft and setting their priorities in free agency. In reality, it’s the necessary first step that sets the framework for every decision that comes next. In order to know what you must add, it’s essential to be certain what you already have to know what complementary pieces are needed to round the circle.

Along the way, I would suspect they’re at least observing the unfolding Eastern Conference playoffs with more than passing interest. It would be folly to think that because the Pistons played more competitive games with Cleveland than Atlanta – and Toronto, for that matter, until the Raptors got home and Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, for the first time this postseason, remembered who they are – that that they’ve elevated themselves to chief challenger status for 2016-17.

But it’s not nothing, either. It’s a data point, and a pretty good one. I’d bet Van Gundy and Bower felt coming out of that Cleveland series that there was a chance – if they did their homework and executed their off-season game plan with discipline blessed by a little fortune – they could be the best non-Cleveland team in the East next season. And I’d bet the results of the rest of the Eastern Conference playoffs have only fortified that confidence.

By Van Gundy’s admission, patience is not one of the bullet points on his resume. But his approach to roster building has been unerringly patient, resisting any impulse to take shortcuts. “Shortcuts” – the moves naysayers said would be the undoing of Tom Gores’ daring plan to install Van Gundy as both coach and president of basketball operations in May 2014.

It’s not easy to make the gains the Pistons have so plainly made in 24 months. Pistons fans who held their breath through six straight fruitless NBA draft lottery game shows will attest to that. Teams don’t give up their playoff spots gladly. Making roster improvements without lottery fortune is grinding work that requires the occasional kiss from the basketball gods.

The next phase also isn’t easy. For every champion that can chronicle a logical progression – lottery to playoff berth to legitimate contender to cutting down nets – there are probably a half-dozen who anticipated they were on that path when the elevator began a sudden, disorienting descent.

Van Gundy has often said, in talking about the list of Bower-engineered trades he’s executed, that they were “no-brainers.” At some point, a trade partner with a piece Van Gundy and Bower see as the ideal fit to fuel the Pistons’ next growth spurt will want something other than expiring contracts, second-round picks or trade filler in return. At some point, they might have to consider surrendering a player they view as part of their core – the way Oklahoma City had to part with Reggie Jackson or Orlando with Tobias Harris.

Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe such easy calls will keep presenting themselves, in the way that the last Pistons championship era was gilded by the ultimate no-brainer opportunity to add Rasheed Wallace.

But the likelier course is that a much tougher call awaits the Pistons as they try going from 32 to 44 to 56 wins. In a way, they’ve already signaled that day is near, agreeing to trade a No. 1 pick to Houston for Donatas Motiejunas before that deal was called off.

That wasn’t Van Gundy all of a sudden losing his disciplined grip. It was an acknowledgment that the Pistons had risen to a level where they at last had enough assets in hand to risk one on the chance to add an even better, more complementary piece.

As they grind their way through the early off-season, preparing for the events that will determine what comes next, Van Gundy’s team will strive to look at their roster – their assets drawer – with unvarnished honesty. As a point of reference, it probably won’t go unnoticed what’s happened in the Eastern Conference playoffs since they stepped out. To the extent it influences them, one suspects it will only be to reinforce their resolve. They aren’t yet where they want to be, but they have every reason to believe they’re on the right path.