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It starts at the top

It's one thing to lose a game you should win; it's another to lose three straight to teams who not only have a losing record but were also facing the Pistons at less than full strength.

But that's where we're at. The Sixers (sans Elton Brand) scored 38 in the fourth for a come from behind victory; the Knicks (sans Nate Robinson) used a seven-man rotation to bully their way to 65 points in the first half, creating a cushion they'd never give up; and the Wizards (sans Gilbert Arenas and Brendan Haywood) withstood a quarter of gimmicky smallball before outscoring the Pistons 93-65 the rest of the way.

Taken individually, the games are embarrassing; taken collectively, they're evidence of a team in complete free-fall.

The code word being tossed around is that this is a team in "transition," but anyone who's been paying attention has seen this team get worse -- this team was better two weeks ago than today. With the exception of Rodney Stuckey, there's almost no progress to be found.

Remember what we were told to expect? Here's Chris McCosky's description of the first day of training camp:

The Pistons are going back to playing rugged, man-to-man defense. They will mix in some zone coverages, but predominately, they are going to lock in man on man. They will trap more than they have in the past, especially when young players such as Rodney Stuckey, Arron Afflalo, Jason Maxiell and Amir Johnson are on the floor.

Offensively, Curry is adamant about pushing tempo and getting quick offense off turnovers and missed shots, but in the half-court he is dead set on establishing a consistent low-post presence.

"We are going to be really good defensively and offensively we are going to be a team that can beat you 120-110 or we can beat you 80-70," Curry said.

Have we seen anything close to that? Detroit's "rugged" defense ranks 21st in field-goal percentage allowed (.4606) -- they were third in the league last year. All that trapping from the young guns? Maxiell is averaging nearly five fewer minutes a game compared to last year (despite the absence of Antonio McDyess for most of the year) and the team ranks just 25th in turnovers forced (13.6 a game).

Pushing the tempo? The team ranks 26th in offensive pace. Establishing the low post? Over 43% of Rasheed Wallace's field-goal attempts have come from beyond the arc, by far the highest rate of his career.

Literally everything that was promised hasn't happened, or at least hasn't happened frequently enough to be considered part of the team's identity. Did trading Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson throw a wrench in Curry's plans? Undoubtedly, but that doesn't justify drifting aimlessly along, changing gears on a whim and leaving everybody confused what's happening.

Maybe in some parallel universe, Rip Hamilton and Allen Iverson can share the same backcourt and thrive, but I don't see it happening here. That said, moving Hamilton to small forward isn't a real solution; it's a temporary band-aid that's only going to make things more awkward when the Pistons face a team with a big frontcourt and Curry needs to re-insert a legitimate big man. If Stuckey keeps playing as well as he has the last several games, can you really look him in the eye and tell him he needs to sit? Or do you risk alienating your highest-paid player by telling AI he needs to come off the bench?

Don't get me wrong, I'm a proponent of sending AI to the bench and letting him reprise the Manu Ginobili/Ben Gordon uber-sixth man role, dominating the ball as much as he wants with the second unit and having guys like Arron Afflalo and Jason Maxiell available to pick up the slack defensively. But if there's any chance of him buying into that role, it can't come in the form of a demotion, which is exactly what it'll look like when the decision is made after he gets outplayed by Stuckey and Rip over the next several games.

But whatever; Curry can cross that bridge when he comes to it. There are enough problems with the current team than to worry about massaging egos down the road. To his credit, Curry isn't blind, he sees his team floundering out there, he sees them bickering with the refs and getting frustrated. But when he calls out his team with biting post-game remarks, I don't think he realizes those are symptoms of the team's struggles, not the actual cause.

Look, I know Pistons fans are spoiled, six straight appearances in the conference finals will do that. But we're a quarter of the way through the season and this team is suffering an identity crisis. DBB reader Juicebox wrote the following on Nov. 26, and it's stayed in the back of my head ever since:

The weird thing about Curry is what kind of team does he even want to have? The first month of the season has really been no indication. When Flip came our offense was suppose to improve. That was Flip’s background. To a degree, of course, it did. And right away in Flip’s first season there were new plays, new rotations, new sets that we hadn’t seen from Brown or Carlisle. What kind of team are we even suppose to be under Curry? What’s suppose to improve? Just playing the young guys more? That’s not really happening or working when it is happening. We’re not a defensive team like in the Brown/Carlisle era.

[...] Fact is, I can’t tell what Curry wants to see happen on the court. The guy has no idea what he want his starting lineup to be, what he wants his rotation to be, who he wants to run the point - he has lineups that force players out of their strengths and into roles that they shouldn’t be in. It seems like he just wants the team to keep doing what they’ve been doing but because he’s a former NBA player (barely) they’ll respect him more than some white guy from Minnesota. I just don’t see it. I’m not seeing new sets or plays, I’m not seeing energy or physicality, and I’m not seeing people being used to their strengths. That’s all on the coach. I just would like to know how a Michael Curry Detroit Pistons is suppose to be different than Flip Saunders one. Not how it’s suppose to be better -- but how it’s suppose to be different.

I can handle losing games for the sake of "developing the future," but when you're running the starters ragged, benching players like Maxiell and Amir (and complaining about energy afterward), and lack any apparent guiding philosophy, well, that's hard to stomach.

Joe Dumars told us at Curry's first press conference that Curry was "his guy." Everyone before him (Carlisle, Brown, Saunders) was hired because of a resume; Curry got the nod because of a personal connection and trust. Maybe Curry will eventually develop into a great coach -- hell, I'll go so far as to say maybe he's already a great coach and we're too naive to see his master plan.

But either way, we need to see something more out of the next 20 games than we have the first 20, because unless things turn around soon, this annoying stretch of games could turn into a disaster of a season.

I'm not panicking; I'm being real: there's plenty of time left in the season and plenty to like about this roster, but the rest of the East won't wait. Boston and Orlando will coast to division titles, and Cleveland is looking like the best team in the league (they have the stingiest defense and the second-most potent offense -- that's the stuff of legends). Plus, just like how the Pistons have been treading water, Philadelphia and Toronto have yet to play to their potential (except, of course, when facing the Pistons).

And whether you think New Jersey, Atlanta, Miami and Chicago are contenders or not is irrelevant -- all four of those teams are undeniably on the upswing, anchored by promising young players who haven't come close to reaching their ceiling.

Forget worrying about a division crown or even home court advantage -- if the Pistons are going to simply make the playoffs, Curry needs to step up and find a way to make this work. The players are the one who need to execute, but the coach needs to put them in position to succeed.