The Detroit Pistons' recent "Bad Boys Unite" fundraiser was an exercise in nostalgia. Predictably enough, organizers seemed to expect more traction from looking backward than trying to make sense of the mess currently before them.
According to The Associated Press, "President Joe Dumars didn't speak to reporters and owner Tom Gores wouldn't discuss his plans for the end of a season that seems headed toward a fifth straight spring without a postseason berth."
The shy-guy act comes pursuant to the once-proud franchise stumbling through botched drafts and a revolving door of head coaches, but it actually preceded the franchise's new low: losing to the Philadelphia 76ers.
ICYMI: 76ers end 26-game losing streak destroying Pistons, 123-98, winning their first game in exactly two months. » http://t.co/Q2pmJTAFkk— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) March 30, 2014
No, not losing—getting decimated by the Sixers by a 123-98 margin at a time when the rest of the league had its way with Philadelphia 26 straight times. If Philly had become a nationwide joke, the Pistons deserve a few laughs of their own.
Facing joke of the NBA, the Detroit Pistons become joke of the NBA - http://t.co/2gV2uYUffd— PhiladelphiaUnquirer (@PhiladelphiaUnq) March 30, 2014
If only their current state of affairs weren't so sad.
Lest we forget, this was supposed to be a very different kind of season in Detroit. Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond were a year older, more seasoned and polished. Brandon Knight was replaced by the sometimes electric Brandon Jennings. Cap flexibility turned into the ever-dynamic Josh Smith.
Conventional wisdom suggested that Smith's addition alone gave Detroit new-found hope for a postseason birth.
Instead, Detroit presently ranks 11th in the Eastern Conference, just behind the similarly underachieving Cleveland Cavaliers and ahead of the rebuilding Boston Celtics. The club inherited by interim head coach John Loyer won't make the playoffs, and it's hard to argue its made any progress either.
At best the Pistons will finish with a marginally better record than a season ago. You could chalk up a sluggish start to some of the roster turnover, but the failure to turn things around thereafter is unpardonable—and anything but unexplainable.
The Pistons' first mistake was thinking Smith would be a good fit at small forward, playing alongside paint-cloggers Monroe and Drummond. Though he leads Detroit in scoring, Smith is averaging career-lows in field-goal percentage and blocks, grabbing the fewest rebounds since 2005-06.
The organization is learning what the rest of the league probably already knew: Smith isn't at his best on the perimeter.
His 3.4 three-point attempts per game are a career high. His ability to cash in on only 24 percent of those attempts should come as no surprise.
Smith probably isn't the one to blame. He played the lion's share of his minutes in Atlanta at the power forward position, getting many of his looks in the post or on drives to the basket against slower defenders. Now his quickness comes as less of an advantage against wing defenders, and his ability to post up compromised by Monroe and Drummond remaining close to the hoop.
Simply put, Smith is out of place. And it shows.
Personnel is only part of the problem, though. Detroit ranks 27th in points allowed, putting forth a shameful defensive effort that can't be explained as simply as Josh Smith's ills.
Part of the problem is that the Pistons simply haven't experienced enough continuity to gel as a unit defensively. In addition to the roster shuffle, president of basketball operations Joe Dumars, "has now dismissed eight coaches since taking charge of Detroit's front office in 2000" (per ESPN.com news services).
That makes it extremely hard for a defensive philosophy to take root.
SBNation's Mike Prada described the debacle aptly:
Watching Detroit play defense is like watching five strangers — tall, talented, impressively tattooed strangers, but people who have never met before — playing together in a pickup game. There's no cohesion between the guards and the big men. Help comes only once everyone realizes that help must be sent, not as a preventative measure to stop a cut. By then, someone is usually dunking. Nobody communicates, leading to botched switches and preventable easy shots.
And while it's notoriously difficult to measure a team's psychological state, it doesn't take a shrink to speculate something is awry in the Pistons' heads.
@AschNBA I think the Pistons' current lack of desire to play basketball is easily apparent to anybody watching them these days.— Brian Mahoney (@briancmahoney) March 30, 2014
That lack of sheer will is, of course, most damning on the defensive end, which is how giving up 123 points to the Sixers happens. The season has been defined by chaos and disappointment, and it's left the Pistons in a free fall.
Rather than ending their season with something positive to build upon (much less a playoff push), they're headed steadfastly in the wrong direction. The Pistons are 3-12 in March, looking less like a team on the brink of playoff contention and more like a club bordering on implosion.
That return to square one has to be cause for embarrassment, to say nothing of the Sixers game.
There are no more coaches to fire. No instant fixes. For all intents and purposes, the Pistons are still very much rebuilding. The hope at this point has to be that trading one of Detroit's bigs will help solve some chemistry issues. Until the rotation actually makes sense, this team's ceiling will remain low.
Then there's the not-so-small matter of finding a long-term coaching solution. Despite rumors the franchise would target NCAA star Tom Izzo, the Michigan State coach has subsequently emphasized that he's perfectly satisfied with his current situation.
If only the Pistons could say the same.