Immediate future could be bright

The Sports Xchange

Everyone around the Pistons organization eagerly points out the progress the franchise made this season.

They note that the team had a .500 record after a 4-20 start. They talk of having two of the best young players in the league in center Greg Monroe and point guard Brandon Knight. They speak highly of their bright, well-prepared coach, Lawrence Frank, who took the same defense-first approach that made them an elite team in the previous decade. They trumpet the stability of the franchise under new owner Tom Gores after two turmoil-filled seasons, when personnel moves were stymied and players openly defied Frank's predecessor, John Kuester.

The Pistons finished the season Thursday with a 108-86 rout of the Philadelphia 76ers.

"What we like about this year is we reset the culture," Gores said. "We established ourselves this year with our work ethic and toughness. But going forward, I want to win. I think we better make the playoffs (next season)."

All that sounds comforting but in reality the Pistons still need to improve dramatically to become a playoff team again, let alone a serious contender in the Eastern Conference. They're still one of the league's worst defensive teams. They look overmatched far too often against the upper echelon clubs. They have gaping frontcourt holes to fill. They could use an athletic young wing to help phase out aging small forward Tayshaun Prince. And they still have too many bad, or at least questionable, contracts hampering their salary-cap flexibility.

Even the youngest player on the team understands where the Pistons, who finished with the ninth-worst record, are in the NBA pecking order.

"We've grown a lot but we've still got a lot of work to do," Knight said. "We've got a lot of things to get better at to be a playoff team and eventually reach our goals."

First, the good news. Monroe and Knight should be lineup fixtures for at least the next decade, as long as they don't get antsy when they're eligible for free agency. Both have yet to reach their 22nd birthday and have the skills and character to become All-Star caliber players. Monroe recorded 30 double-doubles, the most by a Piston since Ben Wallace's 34 in the championship 2003-04 season, and Frank believes he's just scratched the surface of his potential.

Knight was even better than advertised after he slid to the No. 8 overall pick in last June's draft. He's a surprisingly solid 3-point shooter for his age, confident with his floaters in the lane and a fearless attacker. He must become a better playmaker and decision-maker, especially on pick-and-roll plays, but that will come with experience.

Frank was hampered by a lockout-shortened training camp but he bonded with the players and impressed with his knowledge and passion, a stark contrast to Kuester's two inept seasons. Frank stands a good chance of ending Detroit's coaching carousel.

Beyond those positives, they're still a downtrodden franchise with four consecutive losing seasons. Until president of basketball operations Joe Dumars acquires two more impact players, the Pistons will continue to spin their wheels.

The fact that role player Jason Maxiell started most of the season at power forward demonstrates how weak they in that area. They need to find a long-term partner for Monroe, preferably a menacing defensive stalwart to protect the rim.

Dumars re-signed Prince to a four-year contract prior to the season to provide a veteran presence but he's an average player compared to the other small forwards around the league. A younger, more dynamic option at that spot must be found to at least share minutes with Prince.

They also must decide just exactly what they've got in shooting guard Rodney Stuckey. He can carry the offense at his best -- he had four 30-point games -- but he's also prone to nagging injuries. More troubling, he lacks focus at times and mentally checks out some games, as he did during a scoreless night in Toronto right before the All-Star break and during the last six games, when he averaged 5.4 points.

With Monroe and Knight considered untouchables, Stuckey is the Pistons' most trade-worthy asset. Do they put up with his idiosyncrasies or do they deal him to upgrade another position?

Then, there's the disappointing duo of guard Ben Gordon and forward Charlie Villanueva, who have not lived up to the lavish five-year contracts bestowed upon them during the summer of 2009. Should Dumars exercise his amnesty clause to rid himself of one of those salary-cap busting deals?

With a supportive, aggressive owner behind him, Dumars has the freedom to make the necessary moves to get the Pistons back in the postseason. There is strong evidence the franchise is headed in the right direction but, as Knight said, there's so much more work to do.

The Pistons seemed destined to challenge Charlotte for the league's worst record after winning four of their first 24 games. Those fears were eased when they won seven of their next nine games, including two victories over Atlantic Division champion Boston. They remained competitive on most nights from that point.

No team needed an extended training camp more than the Pistons, who had a new coaching staff and younger players in prominent roles. Without it, they buried themselves while trying to learn the system and each other's games on the fly. They lost 17 of 19 games from Jan. 4 to Feb. 1, including 11 by double figures.

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