A Journey in Progress

The declarations of confidence and optimism that echoed throughout the practice facility as the Pistons answered questions Monday on media day were genuine, founded on a summer of exemplary work across the board.

“I’m excited,” Brandon Knight said. “We’ve got a lot of guys that have been working their butts off this summer. Greg (Monroe), big-time worker. All our rookies. All those guys have been working big-time. Stuckey. All our guys have been working hard and I can attest to that because I’ve been here as well. Just the amount of work these guys have put in makes me confident in them and their abilities and what we’re going to be able to do this season.”

It’s a pretty safe bet, of course, that an eerily similar tone was struck at 29 other NBA media days. The key will be how the Pistons react to adversity – which is where last year comes in.

“Every team that enters Oct. 1 is going to say they want to make the playoffs,” Lawrence Frank told me recently. “Every one. Ten of them will say they want to win a championship. Now, that belief – does it stick a month later, two months later? And if you weren’t a playoff team, what are you willing to do – as a player, team, coach, coaching staff – differently than what you did the year before? Because surely you wouldn’t think that you could do the same thing and get a different result. So what are each of us willing to do differently to get a different result or a better result or to get the most out of our team?”

The Pistons are pegging their optimism not only on the dramatic gains many players feel they’ve made over the summer but on the way they finished last season, a 21-21 flourish after a 4-20 start. They’re confident they won’t open so sluggishly this year – not with the benefit of a full training camp with a coach whose system they now grasp – yet the NBA schedule maker has set them up for another challenging start, sending them on the road for six straight games after the Oct. 31 home opener with Houston.

As the unquestioned senior statesman of the team now that Ben Wallace isn’t around, Tayshaun Prince plans to let everyone know how critical the early days of the 2012-13 season will be.

“We are capable,” he said. “There are a lot of teams that are capable. The question is going and doing it. The important thing for us is how we start the season off. We’ve got a nice road trip coming up at the start of the season, so we’re going to have to steal some games there. It’s all how you start. You get off to a bad start, you put yourself in a hole and all of a sudden the playoffs get out of reach.

“Every year since I’ve been here, we’ve had an early road trip. The difference is that this is a younger team, but it could be a good thing we go on the road early – build our chemistry as far as on and off the basketball court. We can talk playoffs right now, but the important thing is how we start the season off.”

And to the extent that how they start training camp off will factor into how they start the season, Prince plans to convey a sense of urgency.

“We’re going to have to really get after it tomorrow,” he said, “and instill how we’re going to play and everybody come with the right mind-set starting tomorrow.”

We’ll see how it plays out, but last year offered pretty compelling evidence that these Pistons aren’t going to be beaten down by that road trip, which includes stops at Western Conference co-favorites Oklahoma City and the Los Angeles Lakers, plus a visit to Denver, which has added Andre Iguodala to one of the league’s deepest rosters.

That 4-20 start had every potential to not just trash the season, but undermine the futures here of the young core the Pistons now confidently believe will spark their ascendancy. But they stayed the course and for that credit is due Frank and his players – him for remaining even-keeled and not losing faith in a cast of players to whom he had no prior relationship, them for resisting the eminently human urge to point fingers when failure takes root.

Frank deflects any credit.

“We just try to be very real with the guys,” he said. “Every day, whether you win or lose, what did we do well? What did we do poorly? What do we need to fix? Watched a lot of tape with them, showed it to them. There are times you’ve got to be a hope teller – not a hype teller, but a hope teller. But at the end of the day, we’re going to be real. We won’t always be right, but we’ll be real.

“You’ve got to read players. Different guys get motivated by different things, but at the end of the day you have to be motivated by competition. We say you can coach ‘don’t know’ – you can coach guys that don’t know – but you’ve got to embrace competition. That’s our group. They kept on fighting. They could have used everything as a crutch – new coach, new system, no training camp, blah-blah-blah – and gone through the motions, but instead, it was all about them. They knew four and 20 wasn’t reflective of who we were and it was because of their fight that we were able to go .500 after. It speaks to their character vs. anything we did.”

Frank knows a lot more about his team today than he did a year ago, or in December when the lockout lifted and he finally met them. He challenged them as last season wound down to put in the work over the summer and come back better players – and he’s plainly pleased with the responses he’s witnessed.

“Everyone had a very focused summer development plan,” he said. “We really saw great strides. Virtually the whole entire team here in September. It was all voluntary. You didn’t have to pull any teeth. Guys want to create their own memories of what Detroit Pistons basketball is. When people talk about the Pistons, they’re no longer talking about ’04. They’re talking about what’s happened the last three years and we want to change that perception and understand it’s going to take a great deal of sweat equity. It starts with what our guys did this summer.”

They have that to lean on now. And they have the adversity they stared down during that wrenching 4-20 start to last season, when it all could have unraveled. The Pistons know they have a long stretch of road ahead of them to get back to legitimate title contention. They also firmly believe they’ve put a lot of bad road behind them.