If there was one game that stood out in the Detroit Pistons' season, it may have been the March 21 contest at Denver.
That was the night Detroit trailed by 22 points after the first quarter, rallied behind a 45-point effort from Ben Gordon — then lost by one in the final seconds when the Nuggets made a layup while drawing a foul, missed the free throw and scored on a putback for a four-point possession.
The ending was emblematic of the Pistons, who are becoming competitive again but still have plenty of work ahead.
Tom Gores, who just completed his first season as owner, has made the goal clear for next season.
"We've got to make the playoffs," Gores told reporters Thursday night before the season-ending win against Philadelphia.
The next day, president of basketball operations Joe Dumars agreed it's time for the franchise's three-year playoff drought to end.
"I think it's a reasonable expectation," Dumars said at a news conference Friday.
Detroit went 25-41 in its first season under coach Lawrence Frank and was never much of a factor in the playoff chase. But the Pistons played .500 basketball after a 4-20 start, a sign that perhaps the worst is over for the rebuilding franchise.
"If we had started off 21-21 and finished 4-20, it would be pretty easy to come here and say we're not headed the right way," Dumars said. "We do like the direction we're headed."
Detroit was in disarray after the 2010-11 season, when players struggled under coach John Kuester. Gores took over the team during the offseason, and Frank was hired as the new coach. After the lockout, the Pistons parted ways with Richard Hamilton but brought back Tayshaun Prince and Rodney Stuckey, choosing to remake the roster gradually instead of breaking it up completely.
Detroit started poorly, losing three straight games by at least 23 points during one January stretch, but the team rebounded with a run of seven wins in nine games in February.
"We showed in stretches that we're capable of being a playoff team," Frank said. "But we didn't do it over a 66-game season and next year there's 82."
Center Greg Monroe was solid in his second season, averaging 15.4 points and 9.7 rebounds. Rookie Brandon Knight settled in after being taken with the No. 8 pick in the draft. The 6-foot-3 point guard averaged 12.8 points and made 105 shots from 3-point range.
"I think he's getting to that point where he's comfortable in the game," Monroe said late in the season. "It's slower. The first few months in the league everything is moving 100 miles per hour, so I think everything is slowing down for him."
Knight struggled with turnovers in his first season, and although Monroe did good work on the offensive boards, he could still be more assertive on offense. Gordon and Stuckey can score in spurts but lacked consistency. Both were limited by injury problems.
Prince will likely be the only player remaining next season from Detroit's 2004 NBA title team. Hamilton went to the Chicago Bulls this season, and Ben Wallace has said he's retiring — although he did say after Thursday's finale against Philadelphia that walking away was difficult and he'd have to think it over.
Gordon and Charlie Villanueva have two seasons remaining on the five-year deals they signed in the 2009 offseason — moves that haven't really panned out. Gordon remains a regular in the rotation and a consistent 3-point threat, but he's been unable to crack the starting lineup on a consistent basis since coming to Detroit. Villanueva played only 180 minutes during an injury-plagued 2011-12.
The Pistons potentially could take advantage of an amnesty clause that allows teams to waive a player and have his salary taken off the cap. And Gordon would be the most likely candidate because of his $55 million contract.
"It's something that we're all going to sit down and talk about after the season," Dumars said.
Jonas Jerebko, a second-round pick in 2009, averaged 8.7 points this season in 64 games after coming back from a torn Achilles' tendon. But Austin Daye, a first-round pick the same year as Jerebko's selection, started only four games in 2011-12 and didn't seem to have the coaching staff's trust.
So Detroit has plenty to sort out during what will be another important offseason. At least this time, the Pistons enter the summer on a reasonably positive note. They went 9-9 down the stretch after starting the season as pushovers.
"Any time you can win and get any kind of positive feel from winning, there's always value in that," Gordon said. "Take every game like it's your last. That's what playoff teams do, and that's how you develop into a playoff team."
AP Sports Writer Larry Lage in Auburn Hills, Mich., contributed to this report.