HOUSTON – It's wise to take Stan Van Gundy at his word – because he practically winces as he says it – when he insists he recalls each of his 245 career coaching losses. He'll sure remember No. 245, which came Wednesday night in New Orleans. It came on a night he says he couldn't recall one stretch – not one play, even – in which his Pistons didn't play hard. And yet they lost, a circumstance of rotten timing, catching Anthony Davis' return from a five-game injury absence on a night he scored 39 points, blocked eight shots and snatched 13 rebounds.
It was a loss – like the last-minute loss at Washington in their previous game, or the wrenching double-overtime loss to New York 24 hours before that – that the Pistons might rue when mid-April rolls around, depending on which side of the playoff bubble they're residing on at the time.
Van Gundy knew that was part of the risk when he pushed through two trades two weeks ago, including the big one that landed the Pistons the player he hopes will be their point guard into the future, Reggie Jackson.
He stops short of saying it was a no-brainer, but it ultimately was a deal he felt the Pistons would be foolish to pass on – even at the risk of disrupting the chemistry of a team that had survived a nightmarish 5-23 start and a season-ending injury to the man who helped spark the turnaround, Brandon Jennings.
"We really liked (D.J. Augustin and Kyle Singler, traded for Jackson), so it wasn't an easy call. But you just don't get very many opportunities to acquire a really talented young player – you just don't," Van Gundy said after Thursday's practice at the Toyota Center. "And if you wait until the summer, then it's you against everybody else in a bidding war and his team's got a chance to match (an offer sheet for Jackson, who will be a restricted free agent July 1)."
For a Pistons team that hasn't made the playoffs since 2009, removed from the national media glare, Van Gundy knew winning a free agent of Jackson's stature would have been a tough pull.
"It's where we are right now as a franchise. It's not going to be where we are, necessarily, in two or three years. But where we are right now, we're not the destination place. We have to do things a little bit differently and we have to take advantage of those kinds of opportunities to get really talented guys."
But in games decided by one or two possessions, like the last two road losses to teams fighting for their own playoff lives and positioning, Van Gundy sees the cost of unfamiliarity showing up in miscommunication and turnovers.
"I've seen a couple of passes in the paint from Reggie over the five games – they're not used to some of the passes he makes. He gets to the rim, he makes that late pas where he dishes it back. We haven't had a lot of those. I think we've caught people by surprise, not ready to catch it. He threw a pass to Jodie (Meeks) last night, late in the game. Jodie's waiting to run off a screen, he tried to hit him in the paint, threw it out of bounds. That's not a pass we've tried to make all year. If that's something that had been going on all year, he probably would have been ready to catch it. You do get some of those things – a play here and a play there."
There was no guarantee the Pistons were going to make the playoffs by standing pat at the trade deadline, of course. Van Gundy – who understands the dynamics of making the postseason, the potential benefits for a franchise amid a five-year playoff drought – isn't going to look back and regret the deal if the Pistons fall a game or two short, wondering what might have been.
Indeed, while he's certain having Jackson for the long haul makes the Pistons better, he's also optimistic that the trade will pay dividends in the short term, as well, while acknowledging the safer path to the 2015 postseason might have been to make no deals.
"The goal is to make the playoffs, but if it were the only goal, yeah, you would have probably been better off not forcing guys into adjustments, not bringing in four new guys with 27 games to play," he said. "But we still think we can get in and we made the move with an eye to the future, thinking it wouldn't hurt us short term. And I still think we're going to be good short term. We had a bad game against New York. I thought we played pretty well most of the game against Cleveland. I thought the Washington game went to the wire. Last night went to the wire. A couple of tough road losses. Disappointing, but it's not that we've been playing poorly."
One more critical point for the insight it provides into Van Gundy's thinking: As much as they coveted adding Jackson, who at 24 he sees as an ideal player to slot in with the young core of Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the Pistons maintained their organizational discipline in trade negotiations.
They knew interest league-wide in Jackson was high, with Brooklyn on the verge of sending Brook Lopez to Oklahoma City and Indiana reportedly making an aggressive pitch, among several other inquiring teams. The bidding had the potential to get out of hand and Van Gundy was prepared to back away if that was the case.
"We were aware of (other teams involved), but it didn't matter to us. We knew what our interest was in him. That's what mattered. And we knew what the parameters of a deal would be. As much as we liked him, we weren't going to give up a first-round pick – that was our sticking point. As much as we liked him, we wouldn't have done that. That was the initial price. If somebody else had been willing to do that, maybe we wouldn't have gotten him. But we knew we wanted him and we knew what the parameters were."
If there's a loss somewhere over the next six weeks that knocks the Pistons out of the 2015 playoffs, Stan Van Gundy will wince – like always. It still wouldn't cause him to rethink the course he chose for the franchise in mid-February. The bet is that there'll be less wincing – and perhaps more champagne uncorking – down the road for having made the Reggie Jackson deal.