Two plays separated by about an hour in Detroit's win at Toronto Sunday captured so much of the uncertainty -- and the promise -- surrounding the stalled-out Pistons.
The team had just reviewed its pick-and-roll coverages at halftime. Van Gundy wanted Drummond to corral Lowry at the 3-point arc instead of laying back. The Pistons spent training camp testing a more aggressive defense, and Drummond blew away the coaching staff with his speed and footwork. Once the season started, Drummond sank closer to the rim.
"There's a tug of war going on between us," Van Gundy told ESPN.com.
Lowry juked Kentavious Caldwell-Pope before launching. The fact that Caldwell-Pope was guarding Lowry at all is a sore spot. Caldwell-Pope chases opposing point guards because Reggie Jackson, alleged franchise player at that spot, hasn't been able to since recovering from a knee injury. The Pistons usually hide Jackson on the least-threatening wing player, a reprieve that draws shade from teammates -- including during an infamous players-only meeting in December, when a few guys hammered Jackson for his desultory play.
The meeting opened rifts that have only begun to heal. "The way they came at Reggie wasn't cool," Drummond told ESPN.com. "You can't beat a guy up for not playing at 100 percent right after coming back. Guys who have played with pain -- you think they would be more sensitive."
There are moments when the tensions melt away, and the Pistons transform into the team they expected to be after pushing the Cavaliers in the first round last season.
Drummond smothers Lowry 25 feet from the basket, as instructed. The trade-off: Jonas Valanciunas has a free run for an offensive rebound against the rest of Detroit's undersized frontline. But Tobias Harris meets him at the foul line, snares a gritty rebound, and ignites a transition attack in which the Pistons, normally so dull and low on playmaking verve, look positively vibrant.
It ends in an open corner 3 -- the shot Detroit never gives up on defense, but also can't squeeze from an offense that belches up more pull-up 2s than any other team.
"When we are connected like we were on that play," Harris told ESPN.com, "we are a different team."
Note who was not on the floor: Jackson. Detroit has played better, and with peppier spirit, when Ish Smith replaces Jackson. They run more, and fast-breaking helps the Pistons sidestep their crippling lack of 3-point shooting; opponents can't clog the paint if they don't have time to set up. Detroit ranks an ugly 24th in points per possession after opponent makes, but scores at a top-10 rate when they snatch a defensive rebound and flip ends, per the tracking site InPredictable.
"We found a groove with Ish," Drummond said. "And when Reggie came back, it has been a big adjustment."
Opponents have outscored Detroit by seven points per 100 possessions with both Jackson and Drummond on the floor -- a margin that would rank 29th among teams, per NBA.com.
"Reggie came back," Van Gundy said, "and we've struggled ever since."
Few anticipated this after Detroit rode opportunistic trades and an endless reel of Jackson-Drummond pick-and-rolls last season to their first playoff appearance since 2009. The step back has the Pistons worried they're about to approach the luxury tax for a mediocre team with no path to 50-plus wins. Their justifiable fear that no big free agent would ever consider Detroit pushed them to snare decent players under contract whenever they became available, even if they weren't perfect fits with Drummond and Van Gundy.
They needed talent; they would figure out the rest later. The figuring it out part has been harder than expected, especially with both Jackson and Drummond plateauing. Detroit has quietly explored the trade market for each of its franchise centerpieces, according to sources across the league, and come away disappointed with the potential return. (Van Gundy himself has said anyone is available for "the right price.")
Any Drummond deal at the deadline is an extreme long shot, but Jackson remains in play for Minnesota, Orlando, New Orleans, or some mystery destination. Even if Detroit keeps him, missing the playoffs would put dramatic changes on the table this summer.
Flipping Jackson or Drummond seemed an impossibility when camp opened. Jackson sliced up defenses in practices. Drummond was a wrecker blitzing pick-and-rolls beyond the 3-point arc, and even switching onto smaller guys.
Van Gundy wanted to revamp the Pistons on both ends, but Jackson and Drummond would remain the linchpins. He envisioned a side-to-side motion offense in which Detroit's secondary playmakers -- Harris, Caldwell-Pope, Marcus Morris -- would relieve Jackson of some ball-handling duties.
It was not going to be a teardown. The Jackson-Drummond dance would still be Detroit's default option.
And then Jackson's knee started hurting. Detroit pivoted into a faster, more egalitarian offense to paper over Jackson's absence. When Jackson returned, he tried to mix his off-the-bounce game with Detroit's new style. It didn't work, mostly because Jackson wasn't the same player. He couldn't turn into the corner and zoom into the lane as easily. When defenses pressured him on the pick-and-roll, Jackson picked up his dribble right away and tossed a rote swing pass:
Distress signals blared: Jackson pulled up for more midrange jumpers, and produced fewer drives, free throws, and shots at the rim. He's shooting a ghastly 49.5 percent in the restricted area.
Without Jackson's penetration, Detroit's drive-and-kick 3s dried up. They have the lowest free-throw rate in the league. Defenses construct a shell around the paint, and watch the Pistons heave midrange jumpers. The Pistons have the exact shot selection profile on offense they try to impose on the other end.
Jackson's lifeless play produced a well-documented outcry for more ball movement in that December closed-door meeting. The drama sapped Jackson's spirit. He no longer understood his place on the team. Uncertainty still gnaws.
"It's hard," he said. "Stan told me it would be all pick-and-roll. We had success that way. Now, we didn't know what we were. Are we a pick-and-roll team? Are we a movement team? We didn't have an identity."
Jackson's personality has never absorbed easily into a team environment. He's both quiet and intensely self-confident. "In an ideal world, if I could run pick-and-roll on every play and it would lead to a championship, that's what I want," Jackson said. Teammates and coaches in Oklahoma City rolled their eyes at Jackson's habit of writing "SPG" and "HOF" -- for "starting point guard" and "Hall of Fame" -- on his shoes while serving as Russell Westbrook's backup.
Jackson has met privately with Van Gundy and wondered why he doesn't have the ball more in the fourth quarter, and whether he still has the confidence of the coaching staff. "Reggie and I talk every day," Van Gundy said. "I understand this is uncomfortable for him. But when we get a Reggie who is attacking and finishing better, the ball will be in his hands more."
The problems on offense -- the Pistons rank 23rd in points per possession -- extend well beyond Jackson. Detroit's motion-based plays generally feature Caldwell-Pope, Morris, and Harris flying from the corner to take a dribble handoff, rocketing off a second pick from Drummond at the elbow, and making a play from there.
It just doesn't really get traction. Defenders scrunch in off every Detroit spot-up guy, clogging driving lanes and blockading Drummond from lob dunks.
Jackson isn't useful off the ball; defenses ignore him when he lazes into the corners.
Detroit hasn't collected a lot of intuitive playmakers -- guys who drive-and-kick instantly upon catching the ball, or think one step ahead of defenses. Caldwell-Pope has two speeds -- sprint and stop -- and usually makes only the most obvious pass upon encountering resistance. He doesn't prod defenses. Harris and Morris can pass, but they are most comfortable stopping the ball, surveying the scene, and shoulder-shaking into long 2s.
Hesitation is death in the NBA. Given their lack of shooting, the Pistons can only open tiny crevices toward the rim. They don't act fast enough to slither through before those crevices constrict.
A team determined to play this way needs high-IQ playmaking across the roster. The Pistons know they don't have enough. "It's a huge question for us," Van Gundy said. "And right now, I don't think we can say 'yes' to it, if I'm being honest."
Stanley Johnson has shown glimpses:
Several teams, including San Antonio, tried to steal Johnson on the cheap after Van Gundy, in late November, suspended Johnson and questioned his practice habits, per league sources. The Pistons were almost deadlocked between Johnson and Devin Booker in the draft room in 2015, sources say, and they grew more frustrated with every Booker 30-point eruption.
Johnson has come on over the last six weeks. He lost 20 pounds, and has worked on his passing. In the modern NBA, you don't trade wings who can defend four positions and dish smart passes when the ball swings their way. A team less hell-bent on making the playoffs might even think about promoting Johnson, and seeing what sort of future assets Morris -- working on a crazy good contract -- might fetch at the deadline. The Pistons, with a new arena to sell, are not that team.
For now, Johnson is a bit player with a shaky jumper. He barely moves the needle on Detroit's playmaking issues. Van Gundy doesn't trust the team to improvise, either. He calls a set play after every opponent basket, and nixed a brief experiment allowing Jackson to direct the offense. (Some players have a hard time hearing Jackson when his mouthpiece is in.) "We are not a team that just comes up and plays in a flow," Van Gundy said.
Detroit's offense feels aimless, without a defining tentpole. "Good things still happen when we run the pick-and-roll," Drummond said. "But I can't control what plays we run."
Drummond was supposed to be the tentpole -- on both ends. It hasn't happened. The rim-running dunks come and go, and Drummond demands a heap of post-ups that usually end with a fading hook.
This is not what the coaches want. Van Gundy is on Drummond to either back his way to the rim, or face up and drive -- a tactic Drummond might use more if he felt confident in his foul shooting.
They have their tense moments. Both are close with Tom Gores, the Pistons' owner, and each freely admits they talk with Gores about the other in terms that might not always be the most flattering.
"Whatever we talk about with the owner is between us," Drummond said. "But Stan and I leave nothing unspoken."
"I think we like each other personally," Van Gundy said. "Like most young bigs, he needs to be pushed really hard. Sometimes, he's more willing to hear hard coaching than others."
Van Gundy pushes Drummond hardest on defense, and the progress there just hasn't come. Drummond sags back in his comfort zone, but he's not the imposing deterrent he should be. He doesn't have the same intuitive sense of angles and timing as Rudy Gobert, DeAndre Jordan, and other behemoths who prefer to hang near the rim. Point guards pick him apart with pocket passes, and screeners slip behind him toward a naked rim.
He'll leap to block shots that never come, and doesn't always work his way back into the action.
On too many nights, Drummond flat doesn't try hard enough. When Drummond parks himself in the paint, point guards just drive right at and around him. That's a trend to watch: Point guards have gotten so good attacking conservative defenses that the sit-back scheme might not work anymore unless you have an All-Defense-level guy like Gobert on the back line.
That's why Van Gundy is urging Drummond to scamper up higher. Jackson recommended the same look. "We have to be more aggressive," Jackson said. "When you see centers drop back, as a point guard, it's like a drill with a cone."
Drummond occasionally sells out, and he doesn't look awkward switching onto smaller guys.
Drummond can't commit to that style.The Pistons think Drummond still has a leap in him, but they're getting antsy.
Even so, any Drummond move now would be a shocker. There aren't many teams with a glaring long-term need at center. Phoenix may face one if it lets Alex Len walk, but the Suns wouldn't include Booker in any package for Drummond. Ditto for Portland and C.J. McCollum.
Jackson moves are more plausible, since Detroit would settle for a lower return. They could rekindle talks of a Jackson-Ricky Rubio swap, provided Van Gundy is OK looking a little foolish after publicly snuffing that deal.
But Jackson's value has cratered; Rubio may be the only semi-comparable starter they could get for him. Lottery teams seeking long-term floor generals -- like Dallas, for instance -- aren't flipping top-10 picks for Jackson. Detroit isn't ready to dump Jackson for unwanted expirings in New York and Chicago.
That leaves only a few plausible alternatives. The Pistons could target a distressed young point guard like Elfrid Payton or Emmanuel Mudiay, and snag a rental wing to make up the salary gap. Mudiay is available, per several league sources, though it appears Denver has no interest in Jackson. Orlando remains an intriguing fit; Rob Hennigan, the Magic GM, was part of the Thunder front office that drafted Jackson, and the team is starting freaking C.J. Watson over Payton.
If Payton doesn't float Van Gundy's boat, the Pistons could reunite with D.J. Augustin. Jrue Holiday could ignite another point guard shuffle if he indicates he won't re-sign in New Orleans; the Pelicans have kicked the tires on Jackson, league sources say, though nothing ever got serious.
They might even flip Jackson for an extra wing -- Mario Hezonja and filler, perhaps? -- ride out the season with Smith, and fill the point guard hole later. But wings are in demand, and teams aren't going to flip proven ones for Jackson right now.
The Pistons will likely hold off on any major moves until the draft. They aren't in severe distress; they're a .500-ish team in the playoff hunt, with a young roster that can still grow. They regard the playoffs as a must; they won't make any move that amounts to a huge in-season downgrade.
Barring a major surge, Detroit will face serious questions in the offseason. If the Nets, Sixers, or some other team with mega-room hits Caldwell-Pope with a max offer sheet, Detroit will probably shed someone to duck the luxury tax; Harris and Boban Marjanovic are the likeliest candidates.
The bigger-picture downside is severe: an average team with limited upside, and trade chips that won't yield enough for Detroit to change directions without tanking.
But the Pistons aren't going there. They've perked up lately, and they have the easiest remaining schedule in the East. Drummond is only 23. Jackson gets healthier every day, and the team is projecting unity around him. "Reggie is my best friend," Drummond said. "I'll always have his back. We are going to figure this out."