Since the Pistons turnaround in late December, I've been curious how dismissive Stan Van Gundy has been about the ideas of the playoffs.
Van Gundy has long had a reputation as a pessimist, and has owned up to it at times since the team's turnaround. But particularly after losses, he's seemed quick to point to the team's record as definitive proof that the Pistons aren't yet a playoff team - in spite of their climb in the standings or numbers since the turnaround.
As he said after a January 12 loss against the Toronto Raptors, he said "I've been saying it all along. When you're 10 games under .500, now 11, talk about the playoffs is absurd."
But since December 22, the Pistons have the sixth best point differential in the league. They have the fifth best offensive rating and improved their defensive rating from 105.8 to 102.2. They're tied for the seventh best winning percentage.
They've certainly played like a playoff team. So wouldn't it be natural that the playoffs were part of the team's goals?
As the wins have continued to pile up, Van Gundy has made allowances that the team has gone from focusing on developing its young players to putting themselves in the best chance to win now (though not going as far as to mortgage future assets). That's even gone to the extent of playing 32 year old journeyman John Lucas over 21 year old rookie Spencer Dinwiddie.
But still, Van Gundy has gone out of his way to emphasize that the playoffs aren't a focus right now. He was asked directly about it during the pregame in Indianapolis and offered some interesting thoughts.
"I think, first of all, our guys know. They look at the standings," Van Gundy said. "We spend a lot more time talking about the way we want to play, the things we have to do to play well. I've never really understood how saying ‘Ok, you know, we're two back.'
"How does that translate to how you play on the floor? How does that make you guard a pick and roll better, or guard in the post better? That's just nothing of any concrete value. I know our guys are motivated to play, in case it'd be a motivational thing.
"But we have to make sure we're doing what we need to do to play well. If you're playing the way you're supposed to play - you play, hard, you play together you execute - the results will take care of themselves. We want to stay dedicated to the process of what we need to do to play well."
Process over product. Production over playoffs. Now that makes sense. Especially in the context of a few losses leading into the playoffs.
In games against Indiana and Minnesota, despite struggling defensively all night the Pistons very nearly snuck away with wins. But Van Gundy wasn't much interested in looking on the bright side after the games.
"They shot 72 percent in the second half with virtually no resistance whatsoever," he said after the Pacers game. "Look, we lost at Toronto, scored 110. We lost tonight scoring 109. It's nice that we've made offensive improvement but we have no collective defensive mentality at all right now. If we want to be good - and we've gotten a lot better - but if we want to be good we're going to have to develop some intensity on the defensive end."
After Timberwolves game, he once again ripped the team. "There was not a good stretch of defense in the whole game," he said. "They've gotten some guys back, but if you couldn't score that many points against our defense tonight, you aren't an NBA team."
There's no mention that the Pistons won't be able to make the playoffs unless if their defense improves - although that is most certainly the case. The focus is instead that the level of effort defensively is unacceptable.
Setting that message of unacceptability of bad defense creates an organizational expectation, whether there's a playoff race going on or not. That's how you create a cultural change.
While he's been especially harsh after the losses with poor defensive effort, Van Gundy hasn't been a broken record. The Pistons entered the All Star break with a blowout loss to the San Antonio Spurs. Given his tone after recent losses, one might expect another irate postgame - but that wasn't the case.
"Their defense was very good. We were a step slow. I thought we fought hard. I didn't have a problem with our guys tonight; we didn't have a lot in the tank tonight," he said. "We let it get away a little in the third quarter, but I thought our guys fought hard. I don't give them too many breaks, but I was not disappointed in their effort tonight."
Stan Van Gundy has a long history of creating strong defensive teams despite a lack of strong defensive players. He's also made the playoffs every season in his career. But the overhaul he faced with the Pistons was a bit more drastic than those he faced in the past.
Still, it's becoming clear how he eventually negotiated those changes.
It'll be interesting to watch how Van Gundy's emphasis develops as the remainder of the season unfolds, whether the playoffs will start to become a talking point or the goal remains improvement for the sake of improvement. And whether the defense makes a consistent improvement.
Between the dramatic ups and downs of this season, it's certainly been an interesting start to the Stan Van Gundy era. All things considered, there's a lot to like about the direction of the team these 54 games in.