After limping through 78 games on the schedule as if their actions didn’t matter, the Pistons finally played like both the present and future matter Friday against Milwaukee.
The Pistons completing the sale of the team to Tom Gores undoubtedly had a buzz at the Palace that we haven’t seen in more than two seasons. George Blaha and Greg Kelser were no longer forced to pretend that the roster as assembled is a finished product that just didn’t have any breaks go its way this season. Instead, they excitedly talked throughout the night about the Pistons finally having the means to fix the gaping holes on this team. Alan Ostfield, president of Palace Sports and Entertainment, stopped by the broadcast booth and gave a pretty honest assessment of the relief team employees feel now that there is some closure on the sale of the team. Following this process as a writer has been stressful enough for me and I have no stake in the outcome other than my fandom. I can’t imagine what it has been like for people who work for the organization and had to be stressed beyond belief about the future. Fans, both on Twitter and at the game, seemed about as lively as fans watching a late season game between two underachieving non-playoff teams can be.
And on the court, the Pistons played like things mattered. The Pistons’ play this season hasn’t just been listless, it has lacked accountability. Despite the many feuds, altercations, mutinies or whatever the latest label is, Joe Dumars never felt the need to publicly intervene and correct the behavior. Despite the players begging for more communication from coach John Kuester, he never felt the need to oblige. Despite Kuester begging for his players to be more unselfish, disciplined and tougher, they never obliged. As we saw, the environment was toxic for everyone involved.
But against Milwaukee, someone was watching. Gores reportedly wasn’t in the building, but as Dan Feldman wrote earlier, Gores most positive and scariest attribute he brings to the table is the same thing: uncertainty. What does he want? What players does he think are worth keeping around? What executives does he think are worth keeping around? What will he view as success? What are his values when it comes to building a basketball team? Fans obviously have these questions, but it looked like the players did too.
Against the Bucks, the ball moved. Charlie Villanueva attempted to establish post position more than I’ve seen him try to the entire second half of the season. Ben Gordon attacked the basket and tried to dunk on someone even though Gordon never dunks on anyone. Rodney Stuckey fearlessly attacked the rim all night, shot 50 percent and got to the free throw line eight times. Chris Wilcox did his best Blake Griffin impersonation finishing with 27 points and 13 rebounds.
The contributions of those four guys are significant because they are four guys whose Pistons careers will be scrutinized very closely in the offseason. The cap space from Dumars shedding useful players like Chauncey Billups, Arron Afflalo and Amir Johnson turned into Gordon, Villanueva and Wilcox. More than halfway through this season, it looked debatable whether Wilcox would receive a NBA contract from anyone next season, but a late stretch of strong play might just earn him another make-good contract somewhere. Gordon and Villanueva are both more significant cases because they were supposed to be the central figures in Dumars’ makeover the team, and both have failed to live up to expectations.
Villanueva’s game against the Bucks was the most active he’s been since early in the season. He posted up. He caught lobs inside. He wasn’t great defensively, but he expended energy, moved his feet and gave more effort on that end of the floor than we’re accustomed to seeing. He shot the ball efficiently (and he would’ve been even more efficient had he not attempted five 3-pointers, only making one), going 7-for-13 from the field.
Gordon, on the other hand, continued to slump. Despite his early activity, including running around screens like he’s been watching Rip Hamilton game film, he still only attempted three shots in 18 minutes. It was good to see him aggressively go to the basket a couple of times, even looking to dunk once before contact forced him to adjust, but he is still not the confident Gordon from his Chicago days. He’s not even playing like the injured Gordon from last season.
Stuckey is the fourth and most important guy in that group of controversial Dumars ‘guys.’ The man whose potential caused Dumars to jettison Billups for cap space, the man who has been a starting point guard in this league for more than two and a half seasons despite showing nothing but occasional glimpses of proclivity for the position and the man who chose the night the organization was honoring a great player from its greatest team, Dennis Rodman and the Bad Boys, to stage a protest against his coach by not going into the game, played with a purpose against Milwaukee.
As a player, Stuckey is still a work in progress. Attitude didn’t seem to be an issue for him until this season. Fans have short memories. If Stuckey plays hard and productive, like he has in back-to-back games now after scoring 22 points off the bench against the Bucks, the fans will come back. There is now, however, a more important person he has to convince. Dumars has long believed Stuckey can be a dynamic force in the league. But does Gores believe in that potential? And can Stuckey do enough in these final few games to make a believer out of Gores?
The reality is, these last few games for the Pistons suddenly are very meaningful. I’m sure Gores has been paying attention throughout, but this might be his only shot for up-close evaluation of the players who are here before he makes a determination on their futures. Many of them played like they knew that Friday.