Pistons' Frank: 'This is going to be hard'
Lawrence Frank thinks rebuilding a basketball team is like having a child.
In other words, if you think the Pistons season is bad now, wait a few months.
"I've said all along that this process may be very painful," Frank said earlier this week. "Everyone wants a baby, but few people want to go through the pregnancy. This is going to be hard."
When the season started with three straight losses, Pistons fans prepared themselves for the worst, but then the team did something that stunned everyone.
In the span of the long New Year's weekend, Detroit played well while beating two teams expected to be in the playoffs -- Indiana and Orlando. In the second game, even though Dwight Howard had every Pistons player taller than Will Bynum in foul trouble, Detroit held the Magic's superstar to a reasonable 19 points and a season-low seven rebounds.
Suddenly, the Pistons were 2-3 and riding an improbable winning streak. Yes, both the Pacers and Magic had been on the second half of back-to-backs, but things were still looking brighter. Jonas Jerebko and Greg Monroe seemed to be a perfect match in the post, Tayshaun Prince and Rodney Stuckey were earning their surprising new contracts and Brandon Knight looked like the steal of the draft.
At that point, to go back to Coach Frank's metaphor, morning sickness set in.
Rip Hamilton came home as a member of the Bulls and scored 14 points in an easy 99-83 Chicago victory.
After that came a trip to Philadelphia -- site of last season's Roundball Rebellion against former Pistons coach John Kuester -- and Detroit shot just 36 percent while losing 96-73.
The Knicks came in, held Detroit to 37 percent shooting and left with a 103-80 win.
Next came the Bulls again, this time in Chicago, but the only thing that changed was the details. The Pistons added 19 turnovers to a 39-percent shooting night, and the Bulls pulled away for a 92-68 rout.
Finally, the Mavericks made it five losses in a row. This time, Detroit managed to turn the ball over seven times in its first nine possessions -- a feat that is normally not seen outside junior high. That, plus an utter lack of defensive effort -- they managed to force Dirk Nowitzki to miss exactly one shot all night -- let the defending champs build a 28-point lead before the Pistons managed a meaningless garbage-time rally.
That's five straight losses, by an average of 20 points a game. Yes, they are playing decent teams, but Frank isn't going to use that as an excuse.
"We're not losing games because of how we are playing," he said. "We're losing games because we don't deserve to win."
Frank's players aren't about to argue with him. Prince talked for an unusually long time after the loss to Dallas, discussing how disappointed he is with the team's lack of progress.
On other nights, it's been Jerebko saying that the team's effort was "horrible" or Ben Gordon saying that the Pistons were failing in every aspect of the game.
So what's gone wrong? After all, this is supposed to be Year Four of the rebuilding project that started when the Pistons traded Chauncey Billups to Denver for Allen Iverson.
The problem is that Joe Dumars fell victim to Matt Millen Disease. As Lions fans discovered during Millen's tenure, the first step in a rebuilding process has to be adding talent to the roster. Otherwise, it's just a bad team that is going to stay bad.
"This isn't going to get better just because we want it to get better," Franks agreed. "That's not how this works. You have to work hard, and you have to add the right pieces."
That's been the problem. Dumars struggled for years trying to build a new core group to follow Billups, Hamilton, Prince and Ben Wallace. That's nearly impossible to do while you're going to the Eastern Conference finals every season -- Dumars had to focus on adding players like Rasheed Wallace and Antonio McDyess in order to win championships -- but it hasn't been much easier since everything collapsed.
Players like Stuckey, Austin Daye and Jason Maxiell haven't developed as Dumars hoped, while the money saved by the Billups trade went on a pair of free agents -- Gordon and Charlie Villanueva -- who have never fit into the Pistons' system.
Monroe gives the Pistons a potential All-Star to build around, and Knight has shown flashes of being the successor to Isiah Thomas and Billups that the front office hoped Stuckey would become.
Taking Knight with the eighth overall pick might be a long-term success, but it's only going to make things tougher in the short term. The Pistons chose not to go for the center they've needed since 2006 and, instead, got themselves a point guard with barely any experience.
"Brandon played nine months of college basketball and got two weeks of training camp," Frank said. "He's got a big learning curve ahead of him."
Knight's already had a 23-point game, but he also tried 13 3-pointers against the Knicks and hasn't gotten to the free-throw line since the third game of the season.
"I've talked to Brandon every time he's made a mistake -- pulled him to the side during a timeout and things like that," Prince said. "Sometimes he plays a little too fast, but he'll learn from it, just like everyone else is. He's not the only one making mistakes."
Monroe is 21 and Knight turned 20 in December, so the Pistons can expect a lot of struggles in the next few years.
Labor pains, you might call them.