NEW YORK — Stan Van Gundy stood before a pack of reporters. His Detroit Pistons had just suffered their fourth straight defeat, the latest letdown a 109-95 loss to the bumbling, if not tanking, New York Knicks.
Van Gundy was neither angry nor content, neither animated nor dejected. He responded to questions honestly and extensively with the poise of a head coach who hasn't given up, but with the uncertainty of someone still looking for answers. Like the rest of us.
"I thought our guys fought," he said after Monday's game. "Even when we got way down, I thought our guys fought. I didn't think they ever gave up the ship. We were just bad."
That malaise spilled into Tuesday night's season-defining matchup with the Miami Heat. The Pistons trailed by as many as 12 points but fought back in the fourth quarter. They held a one-point lead inside 12 seconds to play and needed only a defensive rebound to secure the victory. They failed. Twice.
Three games now separate the 10th-place Pistons from an Eastern Conference postseason bid. With seven dates left on the schedule, and the ninth-place Chicago Bulls still in front of them, the outlook isn't good.
And among the thronging horde of issues responsible for this (probable) sub-.500 season, one stands out more than most: The Pistons weren't supposed to be here, outside the playoff bubble, facing questions about the wholesale value of their core.
"Our goal obviously is to get in the playoffs, but right now, we're in a little bit of a different situation with the way we've played," Van Gundy said. "I'm more concerned with how we come out and play, to be honest, than I am with the result. I just want to see a lot better energy, a lot better spirit, than what we've had the last half-dozen games. That's what I'm really concerned about right now. And if that happens, the result sort of takes care of itself."
This is basically the same squad that won 44 games in 2015-16, snuck into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed and engineered the most competitive losing half of a first-round sweep (at the hands of the eventual champion Cleveland Cavaliers) you'll ever see. This year, low-key roster improvements were supposed to provide a step forward, perhaps marked by a top-four conference finish.
ESPN.com forecasted 45 wins and the fourth seed. Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal predicted 49 victories in the same spot. The Westgate Superbook in Las Vegas (h/t CBSSports.com) set the Pistons' over/under at 45.5 wins.
They will be lucky to get 40.
The Pistons haven't sniffed .500 since they were 33-33 on March 11, working off a stretch in which they appeared to turn a corner. Since then, they are 1-7, with bottom-five offensive and net ratings.
"I can't really put my finger on it," Marcus Morris said.
Reggie Jackson has become almost a scapegoat for the Pistons' woes. They were above .500 when he first returned from knee and thumb injuries, with a top-five defense. They've failed to forge any kind of identity when he plays, and the on-off numbers are damning:
|Detroit's Reggie Jackson Problem|
|Pistons:||MP||AST% (Rank)||Off. Rtg.||Def. Rtg.||Net Rtg.|
|With Jackson||1,424||51.2 (28)||101.7 (28)||110.5 (28)||-8.8 (30)|
|Without Jackson||2,196||54.0 (24)||104.2 (22)||102.2 (3)||2.0 (10)|
"It's tough to see him like that," Andre Drummond admitted. "He's hard on himself about it."
Jackson's demeanor, at times, hasn't helped matters. Something has seemed amiss even from afar, and Detroit held a team meeting in December aimed mainly at adjusting to the way he plays and carries himself.
But Jackson isn't the lone problem. As of now, he's not even playing. He was a late scratch from Monday's loss to the Knicks. Van Gundy freely admits his point guard hasn't been playing at full strength and remains non-committal about whether he'll take the court again this season.
"We're at a point in the year where we're really struggling, and we just really need to have guys who are at full energy. And as much as he wants to [be], he can't right now."
Ish Smith has generally played better than Jackson with every starting lineup Van Gundy uses. But you lose something when you go to Beno Udrih as your primary backup, and Smith hasn't acted as a cure-all for what ails Detroit.
All five of the Pistons' lineups that have logged at least 100 minutes, three of which feature Smith, post negative net ratings. Van Gundy has thrown out nine different starting fives, and eight of them are net minuses.
The sole exception is the unit of Aron Baynes, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Tobias Harris, Morris and Smith—a group that has started once and totaled 90 minutes for the year.
Jackson said of this season, per the Detroit Free Press' Vince Ellis:
This season, at times, it felt good, and I could get (to my spot), but at other times, I felt like I was a shell of myself. I could see the gap, but I felt like I couldn't get there, I couldn't explode there seemingly as quick. It was like guys were popping out of nowhere. They'd get back in front of the ball, in front of me, so I didn't feel like I was the same.
A healthy Jackson will go a long way next season. He does dominate the ball, but his three-point percentage has climbed since arriving in Detroit, and last year's go-to starting five featured him and outscored opponents by 3.2 points per 100 possessions.
If he recaptures his explosion and efficiency on drives, the offense should fall into place. And Caldwell-Pope won't have to defend as many point guards on the other side.
"I think the thing he really looks forward to, and we look forward to, is getting a fresh start in the offseason and being able to go through the preparation for a season like he did last year," Van Gundy said. "And not only get right physically but really get his confidence back."
There's no guarantee Jackson regains form. And the Pistons tilted toward average with him at full strength anyway. There isn't a lot of room for this team to grow. That Caldwell-Pope and Harris have proved to be serviceable pick-and-roll initiators aids offensive balance. But someone on the floor will almost always be displaced from his comfort zone, away from the ball, and prone to attacking solo when the offense isn't clicking.
"We went on that dead streak in the fourth quarter," Drummond said after the loss to New York. "When we weren't hitting shots, guys took it upon themselves to go one-on-one and take tough shots in the paint."
If there isn't a ton of concern surrounding Drummond's development, there needs to be. He's still only 23, but it seems like he's plateaued.
Detroit gets blasted by 6.5 points per 100 possessions when he's in the game, compared to being a plus-4.5 without him. That's a bigger swing in the wrong direction than the team experiences with Jackson.
Drummond allows opponents to shoot 55.6 percent around the rim—a bottom-three mark among the 20 players challenging at least seven point-blank looks per game. He has limited shooters to sub-50 percent clips near the basket just once in his career (in 2014-15) and remains a liability when defending pick-and-rolls.
Plodding towers don't hesitate to back down Drummond. He should instill more fear, as a 6'11" slab of marble, when facing post-up brutes. More mobile bigs are apt to go around him:
He hasn't shown enough ability to survive on switches. He struggles staying in front of wings and gets foul-happy against quicker players:
Too many of the Pistons' possessions at the other end are dedicated to Drummond backdowns. Post-ups are 27.4 percent of his offensive sets, which is about the same as last season. He doesn't have a reliable touch in those situations. He's attempted 227 regular hook shots, of which he's converted 41.4 percent:
Drummond has been more efficient on turnaround hook shots, but even those aren't pretty:
Building an offense around a big on the block is hard enough with the craftiest skyscrapers. Drummond doesn't yet have the well-rounded game to make it work. He's averaging a career-high 1.8 assists per 100 possessions, but that doesn't prove he's making defenses pay off collapses.
That's assuming they ever feel the need to compact. Of the 44 players who have churned through 100 or more post-ups, only Alex Len and Julius Randle average fewer points per possession.
Drummond is still most dangerous as a pick-and-roll finisher. But the Pistons' commitment to last year's style has fluctuated. Drummond is on track for about 40 fewer roll-man possessions (154) than he enjoyed in 2015-16 (194). His turnover rate on those sets has also spiked.
What happens if you outgrow one, possibly two, of your three highest-paid players? That's a dilemma Detroit has to resolve over the offseason. Caldwell-Pope's restricted free agency only complicates things.
At least one team will offer him a max deal. He is the Pistons' most valuable player, according to NBA Math's Total Points Added, and it's not close. He doesn't obliterate box scores, but he's a worker bee and more often than not this team's energetic glue.
Wesley Matthews is the only other wing clearing 20 points and 3.5 assists per 100 possessions while shooting better than 36 percent from three despite notching a usage rate south of 20.
"We have a pretty good idea of what's coming," Van Gundy said of Caldwell-Pope's free agency. "And it's going to be our decision to make. We only don't have him next year if we decide we don't want to have him. There's no team out there that can decide they're going to have KCP next year. They don't get that decision. It's on us."
Caldwell-Pope's pre-contract hold ($9.2 million) drags the Pistons past the projected $103 million salary cap. He'll take home closer to three times as much once he puts pen to paper on a new deal. That's all before decisions are made on the futures of Baynes (player option), Reggie Bullock (restricted), Michael Gbinije (non-guaranteed) and Darrun Hilliard (non-guaranteed).
It will be a shock if the Pistons let Caldwell-Pope walk. They tried shopping him at the trade deadline, along with Drummond and Jackson, but there's a difference between moving him and allowing him to leave for nothing.
Leave this roster alone, and Detroit will cruise past the $125 million luxury-tax line. That's a lot to pay for a nucleus coming off a lottery appearance, even if you think it's better than its record. And the Pistons just might be. But there are too many what-if scenarios in play for them to be assured of a meaningful organic leap.
What if Stanley Johnson never blossoms into an average three-point shooter? What if Drummond has peaked? What if Caldwell-Pope has, too? What if Jackson's 2015-16 campaign was more fluke than stasis? What if Morris never sustains his February performance for more than weeks at a time? What if the talk, from both Van Gundy and players, about a lack of fight, never subsides?
"We're trying to build something here," Van Gundy said. "And we haven't been playing the way we like to play. You look around, it's still a lot of young guys, and we're still building [something]."
After this season, they just can't be sure of what.