AUBURN HILLS, Mich. (AP) — It was a night when the Detroit Pistons had a real chance to make a statement — to their own fans as much as anyone.
There was finally a bit of a buzz at the Palace — but that was mostly because of the presence of Utah rookie Trey Burke, who was a college star at Michigan before being passed over by the Pistons in last year's draft. With Burke in the opposing lineup and a decent crowd in attendance, Detroit had an opportunity to earn a little respect.
Instead, the Pistons lost by 21 in one of their most listless performances of the season.
"There's a lot of things that went wrong," guard Will Bynum said. "After having a week full of great practices . to come out and play like this, it was disappointing."
Detroit is actually in position to make the playoffs, because most of the Eastern Conference is mired in mediocrity at the moment — but the Pistons have still been one of the NBA's most perplexing teams this season. Detroit is 17-23, only two games better than at this point in 2012-13. That's good enough for a spot among the top eight teams in the Eastern Conference right now, but after the Pistons added Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings in the offseason, fans were hoping for more.
There was always going to be an adjustment period after so many significant changes — new coach Maurice Cheeks was also added during the offseason. But this season is now about half over, and it's fair to wonder if this new-look roster will need another makeover before the stretch run.
After their poor performance at home against Utah on Friday night, the Pistons went on the road and beat Washington 104-98 for their third win in four games. Smith had 22 points and eight rebounds.
"It was a disappointing and embarrassing loss last night and we wanted to be able to come in and give as much energy as possible to beat a hot Wizards team," Smith said after Saturday's win. "They've been winning as of late, they have a pretty good team over there and we just wanted to be able to come in and match that intensity."
The Pistons actually have a better record on the road (10-10) than they do at home (7-12) — and the sparse crowds that have become the norm at the Palace haven't improved much this season. Some of Detroit's most frustrating losses have come at home — the Pistons blew double-digit leads in the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Lakers, Portland and Charlotte, and they let a nine-point lead slip away in the final period against Washington.
The question all along has been whether the 6-foot-9 Smith, 6-foot-11 Greg Monroe and 6-foot-11 Andre Drummond can function together. The Pistons are the most prolific offensive rebounding team in the NBA, and they are averaging a league-high 51.6 points in the paint.
When Smith and Jennings are in a good rhythm, Detroit can cause matchup problems for just about anyone. The Pistons are still the only visiting team to win at Indiana this season, and they're one of three opponents to win at Miami.
But those flashes have been brief, and the new-look lineup still looks awkward at times. Smith is a 28 percent 3-point shooter for his career and is on pace to attempt over 300 this season. His previous career high for 3-point attempts was 201 last season with Atlanta.
Defensively, the Pistons have had problems despite the shot-blocking ability of Drummond and Smith. Ten of Detroit's last 12 opponents have made at least eight 3-pointers. Utah made nine in 22 attempts.
"We never ran them off the line," Cheeks said. "They got into a rhythm of making 3s, and we never got into it."
Because so many other teams in the East are struggling too, the Pistons have had plenty of time to work through their problems. With the trade deadline approaching, another slight shake-up isn't out of the question. Ultimately, a playoff berth would represent a step in the right direction, even if Detroit isn't all that impressive in securing it.
But 40 games into the season, the Pistons are still very much an enigma.