Closing the Gap

Pistons, other East pursuers have reason to hope in chase of Miami, Indiana

Greg Monroe
When the Pistons won at Indiana back in December – all things considered, still the best win of the season – not much seemed beyond their grasp. They were in the playoff field and, by all appearances, headed toward a postseason berth, possibly even a top-four spot given the growth potential they seemed to hold. Remember, they’d won at Miami a few weeks before that amid a four-game road winning streak.

Things went south for the Pistons not long after that, of course, but a little lost in the shuffle is it hasn’t exactly been straight-line progress for Indiana, either. The Pacers were 20-3 when the Pistons beat them on Dec. 16. They were 40-11 just before the All-Star break, but they’ve been a .500 team since then, 12-12 over their last 24 games – more than a quarter of the season. That looks like more than just a bump in the road.

Down in South Florida, meanwhile, Miami is also bumping along at .500 in a slightly smaller sample size, the Heat 8-8 in their last 16 games.

What seemed so inevitable not that long ago – a Miami-Indiana Eastern Conference finals – no longer appears a lead-pipe lock.

What does that mean for the Pistons, who return to Indiana on Wednesday in a far different place? This season, probably not much. It would take a miracle finish for the Pistons to sneak into the No. 8 playoff spot, like an 8-0 sprint to the tape while keeping their fingers crossed that Atlanta, New York and Cleveland do a lot of toe-stubbing over the next two weeks.

Long term, well, for the Pistons – and everybody else – it means that minor tweaking to strike the right balance, plus a little chemistry karma and good health, could result in a dramatic turnaround. LeBron James could be playing elsewhere next season, but even if he stays put, Dwyane Wade’s knees aren’t getting any younger. With monster contracts handed out recently to Roy Hibbert and Paul George, Indiana will be hard-pressed to add talent and might, in fact, lose Lance Stephenson to free agency this summer.

“Any time you go through this long season, there’s ebbs and flows,” John Loyer said of Miami and Indiana’s recent mediocrity after Pistons practice Tuesday. “And sometimes it doesn’t take much. Everybody gets up for Indiana. Everybody gets up for Miami. They’re the highlight of most teams’ seasons and you want to play your best against the best. Both teams, I think, will be fine. They’re ultratalented, very well coached. Especially talking about Indiana, they have enough people who can score. They’ll figure it out. It’s just a stretch they’re going through. I’m sure they’d rather go through it now than when they get closer to the playoffs.”

The playoffs are pretty close now, though, less than three weeks away. Maybe Miami and Indiana will plow through the field and wage another classic conference finals, as they did a year ago, and perspective will revert to what it was a few months ago: the Heat and Pacers, then everybody else. But the cracks in the wall would seem to offer encouragement to 13 other front offices around the Eastern Conference.

That includes the Pistons. There will be major management decisions to make over the off-season with Loyer an interim head coach, significant cap space looming and the pending restricted free agency status of Greg Monroe.

But any team that starts with a foundation of Andre Drummond, who won’t be 21 until the eve of 2014 training camp, is in a pretty good place. Drummond’s skill set makes the blueprint for team building pretty clear. The Pistons are likely to look for shooters and athletes to surround him, an effort that began last off-season.

They upped their athleticism with the additions of Josh Smith and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, but attempts to solve their shooting issues unraveled with the injury to Chauncey Billups, the shooting slump of Charlie Villanueva and the uneasy transition to the NBA for Italian league MVP Gigi Datome.

They’ll get another stab at it this off-season when, perhaps, the gap won’t appear as large as it did only recently.