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Have Pistons Finally Gotten Their Heads Back Above Water?

Curtis Compton/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

AUBURN HILLS — The Detroit Pistons are 2-0.

For most franchises, that’s no big deal, but the Pistons have fallen so far that it’s a cause for celebration.

When the Pistons rallied to beat the Utah Jazz 92-87 on Wednesday night, it marked the first time in eight years that they’ve won their first two games of the season. Their fans haven’t been waiting most of a decade for a great start — they’ve been waiting for a decent one.

Ironically, the last 2-0 start was literally the end of the last great era in Pistons history. Detroit started the 2008-09 season by beating Indiana and Washington, but before their third game, they stunned everyone by trading Chauncey Billups to Denver for Allen Iverson.

The trade was an epic disaster both in the short term – Iverson was over the hill and disrupted the chemistry of the team that had won the 2004 title and come within a game of repeating in 2005 – and even worse in the long run. The move was designed to clear up salary cap money, which Joe Dumars spent the next summer on Charlie Villanueva and Ben Gordon.

The Pistons went into 2008-09 having gone to the Eastern Conference Finals in seven straight seasons, but since trading Billups, they haven’t won a postseason game. They were swept that year by Cleveland in the first round, and haven’t come close to the playoffs in the last six seasons.

The losing, and the dwindling local interest in the team, are the reason that owner Tom Gores knows that he needs to find a way to change things as quickly as possible. He’s fairly sure he found the answer a year ago when he hired Stan Van Gundy to coach and run the organization, but he’s hoping the payoff will come this season.

“Our guiding principle is patience with progress,” Gores told the local media before Wednesday’s home opener. “I think we’re making tremendous progress, and I give so much credit to Stan Van Gundy for that. I could speak about culture and I could speak about chemistry, but those are things that we have to get done every single day on the floor.

“Right now, I feel that we can walk the talk because of Stan and the people on the ground.”

There’s no question that Andre Drummond is the cornerstone of the franchise, and he’s averaged 18 points and 14 rebounds in the two victories. More importantly, he and Gores agreed that, while they both see his long-term future being in Detroit, he’s willing to wait until next summer to sign a max contract, freeing up almost $13 million in cap space.

“I have great respect for Andre and the maturity he had to make a very big decision and put the team first,” Gores said. “As well as I know Andre, starting four years ago, for a young man to be able to do that is pretty incredible.”

The Pistons have also shown that they can win games in different ways – something they weren’t able to do in the past. On Tuesday, they went into Atlanta and ran the Hawks out of their building, leading by as many as 19 points in a 106-94 victory.

Wednesday was the complete opposite. Detroit and Utah traded the lead 23 times and neither team ever had a double-digit advantage.

“I like the character our guys have shown and I like the fight,” Van Gundy said. “I like that we’ve had that attitude even in games when things haven’t gone well. That’s really good.”

It wasn’t a perfect night for the Pistons by any means – backup shooting guard Jodie Meeks suffered a Jones fracture to his right foot, the same injury that hampered Kevin Durant last season and has sidelined Dez Bryant. Meeks could miss two months, which will mean more playing time for Reggie Bullock.

The game also showed a weak point in Van Gundy’s system of surrounding Drummond with perimeter players. The Pistons matched Ersan Ilyasova up with Derrick Favors, and Favors responded by going 10-for-15 from the floor on a 26-point night.

“That’s a tough matchup for Ersan – he’s not really known for guarding post-presence guys,” he said. “We did the best we could to make Favors uncomfortable, but it is the NBA, and guys will have good nights.”

At the end of the night, though, Favors was a minus-3 and the Pistons were 2-0.

Now they just have to avoid trading Reggie Jackson in the next 24 hours.

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