AUBURN HILLS – For all the explosive changes to the way we communicate enabled by smart phones, sometimes those very phones are the biggest obstacle to an effective exchange of ideas or emotions.
“Once you get uncomfortable,” Reggie Jackson said about the awkward moments that hang over any conversation where challenging topics are discussed, “the easy thing to do is pick up the phone.”
And communicate with somebody – anybody – else, about something – anything – else.
So when the Pistons went to a players-only dinner during their weeklong group excursion to Las Vegas, where their days were filled with training sessions amid mixed martial arts fighters and other conditioning drills and their early evenings with scrimmages on UNLV’s campus, Tobias Harris had a suggestion.
“I told everybody, ‘put the phones in the middle.’ Just sit there and talk,” Harris said of that early-August evening at Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak and Stone Crab on the Vegas strip. “Not too many times we really get guys to communicate.”
“Tobias suggested it and I seconded it,” Anthony Tolliver said. “Like, yo, let’s do this.”
To motivate everyone – and it was everyone minus Avery Bradley, whose third child, Alicia, had just been born, and Boban Marjanovic, in camp with the Serbian national team – to refrain from reaching for their phones during a lull in the conversation, an idea was hatched.
“The joke was, whoever touched the phone first was going to pay the bill,” Reggie Jackson said. “It was a challenge. It became more fun. The more the phones were off, the more you just talked about anything, the more you got to break down people and get to know each other, you got to see people for how they were. I think we got out of our comfort zone.”
A MESSAGE TO ANDRE
Players talked about their goals and hopes for the coming season in general and they talked directly to each other about what they wanted to see from teammates. One interplay was between Jackson and Andre Drummond, Jackson telling him it was Drummond’s team to lead and that they would all be looking to him.
“You have to come in and accept it every day that you’re the best player,” Jackson told Drummond. “You control the game the most.”
In the next breath, Jackson put himself on the spot.
“I have to stand side by side with my man Dre and understand this team is going to go as far as we take them. We’ve got to be married to each other. We’ve got to get on the same page and we have to push ourselves somewhere we’ve never been for our team to go somewhere. That’s the only way it’s going to happen.”
Others around the table picked up the baton and delivered similar messages to Drummond.
“It was received well,” Harris said after the entire team minus Marjanovic went through a voluntary workout last week. “Andre knows what he needs to do. He wants to be a very good player, but he took it the right way. I’m trying to push that lion out of him and get him to really reach his max potential. I told him the other day, even if he just says a couple of words defensively, talk a little bit louder – you might not even be saying the right things – people are going to listen. He’s got to be able to use his voice and his stature to really impose his will. He did it well today, I thought, and that was big.”
Tolliver lent perspective to the message to Drummond.
“I think it’s good that everybody hears that out of Reggie’s mouth because sometimes, when you have a couple of alphas on your team and it’s never really established who’s team it is, there can be some tension. He came out and said, ‘This is your team and it’s up to us to make you an All-Star.’ Which is completely true. I tell Andre all the time, ‘If you’re not an All-Star this year, we’ve done you an injustice, but not only that, you’ve done yourself an injustice.’ It’s both. It’s going to be him as an individual but it’s also going to be us getting his back and making sure we’re the best we can be.”
DETERMINING AN IDENTITY
Tolliver, a natural leader and, at 32, the eldest Pistons player by more than three years, emerged as the unofficial moderator of the dinner. He had a message for his teammates.
“I told everybody there, ‘We can be one of the teams that shocks the NBA. There’s always a team that steps up and does something beyond what they look like on paper. There’s no reason why that can’t be us this year. We have to decide what our identity is going to be.’ We talked about how we want to be the best defensive team in the league.”
They know how this sounds to skeptical fans. All 30 teams go to training camp expecting to be rewarded for their off-season diligence. The Pistons understand there are nearly 29 other groups of players assembling for their training camps thinking this year will top last year. Jackson wants the feeling around that Las Vegas dinner table to be less a fond memory and more a foundational moment.
“You come out and say it, but we’re going to see how we approach it,” he said. “Everybody says it’s a goal we set, but there has to be a way we go about it. We talked with each other and we’re going to continue to do so throughout the season. What is going to make us that great defensive team? What is everybody’s role to make that happen? That was good that we got to sit down and say it, we got to put it out there. But now how are we going to approach it?”
“Everybody is on a really good level of how it needs to happen,” Harris said. “Our biggest thing is going to be our mentality. If things don’t go right, we can’t negate anybody. We have to stay strong through the whole season.”
When Tolliver asked what their identity should be and the overwhelming consensus focused on an elite defense, he shaped a similar response.
“I said, ‘OK, that’s great. But we can’t just be lip service. We actually have to put in the work and do that and help each other out on every single possession and lock down individually on defense and do all the things it takes to be a great defensive team.’
“I said, ‘That’s great, because once you have that identity on the defensive end, that camaraderie carries over to the offensive end, so that’ll take care of itself.’ I think guys came out of that dinner with a sense of where we were going.”
EARLY CARRYOVER EFFECT
Stanley Johnson said on his first day of group voluntary workouts, he sensed a different vibe.
“From the day I got here, I was like, ‘This just feels different,’ ” he said. “Everything’s a little different.”
And he thinks the seeds were planted in Las Vegas.
“I’m the type of guy, if you never met me before, you’d never know how I am,” he said. “All you see is what you read and likewise with a lot of guys. Almost everybody was there except Boban and Avery was having a child. It was productive. We got to play against each other, good open run, went to dinner, had serious talks about how we want to approach the season and I think it segued into this – knowing what we have to do, knowing how we have to compete. I think we’re just a more mature and focused group.”
Some of that is the newcomers. Bradley has made a mark already in voluntary workouts. Langston Galloway left an overwhelmingly favorable impression on his new teammates in Las Vegas. To young Pistons like Henry Ellenson and Luke Kennard, who weren’t around for the 2015-16 playoff run, Tolliver is also a newcomer.
“Anthony Tolliver at the end (of the Vegas dinner) spoke up and said let’s talk about the season and brought everyone in and we told what we wanted to do,” Ellenson said. “It was cool to see guys just having that and everyone talking. I think collectively we’re more hungry. Langston Galloway, he was even preaching that during pickup. One time we were getting a little sloppy and he stopped everyone and said, ‘If we’re going to be playing pickup, let’s play the right way.’ That’s the thing with the new guys. It was cool to see. I feel like the team’s had a good vibe all summer during the text groups and all of that.”
Kennard had to cut his time in Las Vegas short to attend the NBA rookie orientation program, but he went out of his way to get there.
“I flew in late one night, stayed the whole next day, then flew out that night. But I had a blast,” he said. “I was able to meet all the guys, we were able to work out together and to play some live stuff. It was a lot of fun and a great way to start.”
As the 2015-16 team did during a similar trip, the Pistons found a unique bonding experience in undergoing MMA training with some UFC fighters.
“We did some circuit training where everything was timed – some of the hardest workouts I’ve ever done,” Jon Leuer said. “We were saying it was like a boot camp for us before we get into the preseason stuff, but it was good. Just to get out there and meet the new guys and be under a stress-free environment where guys could relax but still work really hard. It was definitely a positive thing.”
“It was definitely beneficial from the standpoint of us bonding, getting a chance to be with each other and really seeing where each one of us was and how hard we could push each other,” Galloway said. “That’s what you have to fall back on when you have battles down the stretch – who you can rely on, who you can trust. The chemistry has to be there. I was talking about that with a couple of guys. If we don’t have chemistry, we’re not going to go far at all. It was a huge foundation for us – huge foundation.”
How much carryover effect can their week in Las Vegas really have? Well, ask the player Galloway has looked up to for years – a point guard who preceded him at St. Joseph’s and a player Stan Van Gundy has said is the best teammate he’s encountered in his two decades in the NBA, Jameer Nelson. Nelson often put up teammates at his own expense at a hotel near his Philadelphia home while orchestrating a similar experience before his Orlando Magic teams opened camp.
“When we did those bonding camps,” Nelson told columnist Bob Ford of the Philadelphia Enquirer recently, “we always got off to extremely fast starts in the season. It was all about getting together, seeing each other and feeling like it was in-season for a week. Who’s better to have fun with than the guys you go into battle with?”
The openness with which they spoke to each other at the Joe’s Stone Crab dinner and the unity they felt in going through grueling MMA workouts are essential ingredients they’ll need to carry with them throughout the season ahead. That’s the mood the Pistons carry into this week’s opening of Van Gundy’s fourth training camp as their coach.
“I really think that was something last year that we lacked,” Harris said. “Not only on the court sometimes when we were playing, but even off the court. Too many times we were holding things in instead of expressing them to each other. I really hope this year we’re able to do those dinners frequently, that we can sit down, no cell phones, and just chop it up the night before a game.”
For the inaugural season at Little Caesars Arena, 29 years after the Pistons christened The Palace of Auburn Hills with the franchise’s first of three NBA titles, the hope for those who gathered in the desert last month is that what happened in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas but proves portable.