The team Stan Van Gundy saw in the preseason, the one he still sees in practice, isn't the one he sees in games. What the Pistons could really use is a few weeks of spiritual therapy, but barring an intervention what Van Gundy would settle for is a team that just puts its head down and runs through a wall.
"We're really messed up right now," he admitted after a ninth straight loss, 106-96 to the Lakers. "We're really messed up as a team. A lot of dilemmas, a lot of guys – I don't know, feeling pressure, whatever. But we're really not right mentally right now. That's what we just talked about and that's got to change before anything else does."
Van Gundy only knows one way to battle out of it: start playing harder than the other guys. He's not seeing that. Not in games, at least.
"Not in a long time have we had a night – I thought we played really hard the last three quarters and overtime in Oklahoma City (on Nov. 14). I thought we really battled hard in Memphis (the following night). Since we've come back from that trip, I don't think there's a night where I can say we've played as hard as our opponent. Well, then you deserve to lose and we're not out of that yet."
It's impossible to be confident when you've experienced success as rarely as the Pistons have – this season, now producing a 3-15 record, or over the previous five, all ending without a playoff berth. And it might logically follow that a team lacking confidence finds it hard to assume the role of aggressor. Van Gundy won't offer his team that option, though.
"Confidence is a funny thing because confidence comes from success," he said. "So I don't care who you are. When you're not having success, you're battling and you've got to push yourself through it and rely on past experiences. I think the easiest thing to do is just play hard. I mean, play hard. That doesn't take confidence. Shooting, yes. But playing hard will solve a lot of problems and we don't play hard enough."
"I agree," team captain Caron Butler said. "You've got to play harder. You have to play smarter and lift the energy and the morale. When adversity strikes on the court, you can't get so hard on yourself and have this woe-is-me attitude. You've just got to continue to push forward and play the game of basketball and block everything out and just try to win games."
That's Van Gundy's message – just play. But he theorizes a team that found it easy to "just play" in the preseason and still does in practice is having difficulty dealing with the greater consequences of regular-season games that go on their permanent record. (Warning: Extended Van Gundy quote ahead, but it was the essence of his postgame dissertation and, in effect, a State of the Pistons address.)
"We played harder in the preseason when the games didn't count. I certainly thought we played better together when the games didn't count. It's the same thing in practice. We play harder in practice than we do in games. We move the ball better in practice than we do in games. So what's the answer to that? I asked them; they didn't have an answer.
"My answer is there's no dilemmas in the preseason. Nobody cares how many shots they're getting. Everybody knows everybody's going to play a little bit, so everybody's spirits are up. You're not worried about stats. There's no dilemmas. There's nothing else on your mind. There's a purity in what you're doing and now, all of a sudden games count and there's, I guess, pressure to perform.
"It's not a lazy team. I see them in practice every day. We saw them in the preseason. I understand the games don't count, but that's what's mind-boggling. The effort was better when things didn't count. We have enough talent to win games but we don't have enough talent to overcome lack of effort. I don't think it's laziness. I think there's too much (clogging their minds) and I don't know how we get out of it. They're going to have to take care of that themselves and just go out and play."
Van Gundy has begun to tinker with the rotation and playing combinations. Kyle Singler is now the starter at small forward for the past two games with Greg Monroe going to the bench. Cartier Martin got a look in the first half against the Lakers but didn't play well, so Van Gundy went with Jonas Jerebko and Gigi Datome for the fourth quarter, when the Pistons rallied against Lakers backups, cutting what was once a 21-point deficit to 10 before Byron Scott brought his starters back en masse with 6:39 to play, the Pistons eventually coming as close as seven.
"We're either going to change it or we're not and we're going to give other people looks," Van Gundy said. "We gave Gigi a look tonight. Somehow, we're going to find a group that'll just go out and play harder and with a purity about them and when we find that, we'll be better off."
"It felt good to be out there, (but) it's not a matter of who is playing now," Datome said. "I would like to – everybody would like to – but now it's a matter of winning games. We're going to keep being positive, be one with each other and keep on trusting each other and keep on sticking with each other."
"I'm going to stay positive," Butler said. "There were a lot of positives, believe it or not, that you could take from this game. But there were a lot of negatives, as well. You can't be too hard and be the bearer of bad news all the time. We're going to watch a little film on the plane (to Boston for Wednesday's game) and build these guys up and keep tackling. No one's going to feel sorry for us. We've got another opportunity tomorrow night, so we've got to clear our mind and get ready."