Williams encouraged by behind-the-scenes growth from Pistons

Injuries that gutted their depth and stripped much of their veteran presence shaved away most of the margin for error the Pistons carried into Monty Williams’ first season as their coach. Alas, errors are the one inescapable trait of pretty much every NBA team that leans on youth as heavily as these Pistons.

He knows it will earn him some sideways glances, but Williams also knows – to his core – that the Pistons aren’t that far away from a breakthrough despite what their record says they are.

“That’s the thing that I’m so ticked off about the record,” Williams said after Thursday’s practice with the Pistons sitting on a nine-game losing streak after a 2-1 start, “because it doesn’t reflect the growth I’m seeing from individuals and us as a team.”

That theme popped up several times in a 15-minute session with reporters that covered a variety of topics – Cade Cunningham’s defense, Jaden Ivey’s return, point guards filling in on the second unit with Monte Morris out, the team’s self-realization of the areas that are costing them games as they absorb the hard lessons told by game tape.

Williams says he’s heard from other coaches or players across the league he’s coached in the past who tell him, “Coach, these guys are coming. That gives you motivation and excitement.”

If the opposite of motivation and excitement is frustration and discouragement, the source of those negative vibes comes largely from two categories: turnovers and fouls. There are many factors that funnel into both of those outcomes, but there isn’t any mystery about the remedies. It comes down to young players learning how to weed out critical errors that result in fewer easy scoring chances for the opposition.

The Pistons are 29th in the NBA in turnovers and 30th in points off turnovers, handing opponents 21.9 points a game off their miscues. They’re also 30th in the NBA in fouling and by 2.2 per game, fouling 24.1 times on average. That’s resulted in opponents making 24.3 free throws a game, most in the league. Add up the 21.9 points off turnovers Pistons opponents score and the 24.3 free throws a game they make and you have 46.2 points on the board that come against something other than a set defense.

The Pistons, on the other hand, score 14.3 points off their opponents turnovers and score 16.5 at the foul line for a combined 30.8 points, meaning they have a deficit of 15.4 points a game they have to make up to win. That puts an extreme burden on a team missing key 3-point shooters and relying on young playmakers to run an efficient offense.

But Williams sees progress on some of the things – not all of them, and not with the requisite consistency – that lead to unforced turnovers and avoidable fouls.

“When we watch film, they see the things that we have taught that they know they can be better at,” he said. “I see the growth. I know it sounds crazy, but when I look at the numbers and I look at the film, I see the growth. My hope is with the work and the preparation, we’re going to see consistent play and the style and identity that we want to put on the floor every night.”

The Pistons got a bit of a boost this week when Jaden Ivey and Alec Burks returned to the lineup. Jalen Duren hasn’t been right since spraining an ankle in the season’s fourth game after averaging 18.0 points, 15.3 rebounds and 2.7 blocks over the first three games and will be out again on Friday at Cleveland. Isaiah Livers practiced on Thursday and while there is no official timetable for a return, Williams said, the hope is that if he responds well in the aftermath of that practice he’ll be back soon.

Bojan Bogdanovic (calf), Monte Morris (quad) and Joe Harris (shoulder) remain out, representing three of the four players older than 25 on the roster and three of the team’s top 3-point shooters. Getting a little healthier and making a handful fewer self-inflicted errors a game would put the Pistons in position to win some of the games they’ve lost in agonizing fashion over the last few weeks.

Williams knows, even if he understands it will be a difficult public selling point, that the Pistons are in position to turn the corner.

“Twelve games in, I see things that the fans may not pick up on from the beginning of our times in Vegas until now,” he said, “that lead me to believe that they’re all growing in that environment.”