A four-game winning streak fueled by the dynamic production of the three young players Stan Van Gundy expects to be at the heart of a very bright future gave the Pistons a reason to believe the season's final 10 games might yet deliver them to a place their 5-23 start appeared to push hopelessly beyond their reach: the playoffs.
Sunday's loss at Miami, despite splashy nights for Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson, knocks them back a peg or two and further reduces what little margin for error they have. If there's a bright side, it's that five of their nine remaining games come against teams directly in front of them in the standings, including two with Charlotte and one each with Miami, Indiana and Boston.
No matter how it turns out, Van Gundy will go into the off-season feeling good about both the potential for growth from Drummond, 21, Jackson, 24 and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, 22, and the opportunity that an attractive first-round pick – likely a top-10 pick if the playoff bid comes up short – and a boat load of cap space provide to reload the roster around them.
He'll also go into the summer confident that one big hurdle has been cleared – the exorcism of a losing environment. Van Gundy came into his first Pistons season with a spotless record as an NBA head coach: seven full seasons, seven playoff berths.
So the 28-45 record the Pistons own is foreign territory for Van Gundy, each loss adding to his career-high total – and to his misery. But the salve has been the relentlessly positive attitude he sees reflected in his players.
"I'll tell you what's kept me going is we've got a good group of guys who have continued to play hard even through that 5 and 23 start and turned it around and then we got to the trading deadline and made a move, which in terms of trying to develop chemistry held us back and we lost 10 in a row – but virtually all of those were close games," he said. "Guys hung in there and kept playing hard.
"So the group kept me going by how hard they've worked and how hard they've played and not giving up on anything."
Van Gundy's first team always will be special to him, the 2003-04 Miami Heat that started 5-15 and then finished the season with a 17-4 rush, advancing to the second round of the playoffs before losing to the Indiana Pacers in seven – the team the Pistons beat in six games in the conference finals on their way to the third NBA title in franchise history. The Pistons were on a similar ascendancy, going 12-3, when Brandon Jennings got hurt, and might have survived his loss if not for the 10-game skid in the wake of their roster upheaval.
"I've struggled with (losing) – it's a lot of losses," Van Gundy said. "But you walk in every day and you've got a group of guys that are working hard and so you owe them your best every single day. They've been fantastic, especially the guys who have been here all year and been up and down on the roller coaster with us. They have been magnificent and, truly, it's been one of my best groups to coach, ever. It's been an honor to coach them. It hasn't always gone the way we wanted, but it's been a great, great group."
While Van Gundy knows the future rests largely on the shoulders of Jackson, Drummond and Caldwell-Pope – and hopes Greg Monroe joins them by sticking around in free agency – he understood the need to surround them with a particular type of veteran influence.
"Young players are always going to listen to veteran guys, so the key is to have the right veteran guys so that they're getting the message you want them to get," he said. "That's the key. I like the guys that we have in our locker room. Caron's been there all year. Joel Anthony, Anthony Tolliver, Tayshaun (Prince) – guys who've had success in the league, done things the right way and you can trust to deliver the right message."
Butler, Van Gundy says, was an especially positive influence during the darkest days of the 5-23 start.
"I really think Caron, in particular, allowed us to survive the first 28 games. He was a huge part of holding everybody together, as was Joel. And then we've brought in good veterans from there. But those guys who held it together, and even the younger guys who held it together after that 5 and 23 start, I've got great respect for them. Because I think a lot of teams would've let the rope go at that point and they didn't. I give a lot of credit to our veteran guys, the leadership, but really to everybody."
It's no substitute for a playoff berth, perhaps, but it's a few laps ahead of where the Pistons began the season – and gives them a head start on next season that Van Gundy will happily take into the summer.