I’ll be honest: I didn’t really know what to make of the Detroit Pistons heading into this season. It’s a good thing I was on paternity leave when we were writing previews, and that Ben had to do it, because there’s a decent chance mine would have just been like 750 words of, “I don’t know, man. I guess they’ll be better because the East got worse?”
(Who am I kidding? It would’ve been like 1,200 words.)
To some degree, my non-prediction has borne out. The conference is weird right now. One expected leader’s struggling to get interested, to get stops and to find rotations that work. The other looks great, except for the whole “we lost our All-Star small forward on opening night” thing. Three games separate third and 13th place.
We all think we know how things will shake out come spring — Cleveland and Boston again playing for the Finals, everyone else trying to figure out how to get on their level — but for right now, it’s hard to make sense of it all. How fitting, then, that the team for whom I had zero feel is tied for the NBA’s third-best record after three weeks.
The Pistons might be good, you guys.
Detroit didn’t get off to a scintillating start on Wednesday against an Indiana Pacers team that looked eager to shake off a tough loss to the New Orleans Pelicans. But after giving up 30 points in the opening 12 minutes to the surprisingly explosive Pacers, and going down double digits early in the second, the Pistons got back on track behind strong play from a second unit led by (very) big man Boban Marjanovic and guard Langston Galloway.
The Pistons tilted the game back in their direction with a 37-22 second quarter, punishing Indiana’s porous defense with a steady diet of high-percentage looks at the front of the rim — some generated by the mammoth Marjanovic getting deep post position, others created by pushing the pace in transition or getting guards rambling downhill off dribble-handoffs. The Pacers would work their way back to even-up midway through the third, knotting the game at 65-all on a steal-and-dunk by Victor Oladipo, but Detroit answered with a furious 13-0 run — this time, led by the starters — to put Indy back at arm’s length.
They’d stay there, never drawing closer than seven as the Pistons pulled away for a 114-97 win. Detroit has now won six of its last seven, with the lone loss coming on Halloween night at the end of a West Coast road trip that had just seen them knock off the defending-champion Warriors. Stan Van Gundy and company now sit at 8-3, behind only the red-hot Celtics in the Eastern standings.
Detroit took a many-hands-make-light-work approach to knocking off the Pacers, with bucket-getting forward Tobias Harris (23 points on 8-for-19 shooting, eight rebounds) leading six players who scored in double figures, and eight who notched at least seven points in the effort. The Pistons determinedly attacked the basket, earning a 56-36 edge over Indiana in points in the paint and working their way to 25 free throws. (The evening’s lone bummer: Andre Drummond, who’d entered shooting a staggering 75 percent from the free-throw line and looking like his foul-shooting woes had been cured, went 0-for-7 at the stripe. Uh-oh.)
Familiar issues aside, Drummond (14 points on nine shots, 21 rebounds, a welcome four assists) still made a positive impact by locking down the glass and finishing what he was fed. Reggie Jackson (18 points, six rebounds, three assists) and Ish Smith (nine points, five assists, three rebounds) kept the action running. Harris, Galloway (12 points on 4-for-5 shooting) and Avery Bradley (14 points, three rebounds) found paydirt when they zoomed around those handoffs and turned the corner.
With the exception of this saucy late bit of pick-and-roll punishment from Jackson to Drummond …
… the Pistons’ comeback wasn’t especially flashy. (Few things that start with Boban sealing a helpless Al Jefferson in the restricted area are.) But it was sharp, convincing — professional. The kind of performance a good team produces to get a win they’re supposed to, and the kind of victory a good team secures to keep the good times rolling on a five-game homestand.
The Pistons’ defining characteristic thus far has been balance. Detroit ranks ninth in both points scored and allowed per possession, marking them as the only team in the NBA in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. (The Houston Rockets, fourth on O and 11th on D, and Orlando Magic, 11th and seventh, are knocking on the door, too.) The balance shines through in their offensive distribution, with seven Pistons averaging at least seven points per game — eight, if you round up Anthony Tolliver’s 6.9, which would be nice of you.
Nothing in the Pistons’ eye test or statistical profile really screams “conference finalist,” but the more you watch them, the more you realize that they just kind of do a lot of stuff well. They limit their own mistakes, turning the ball over on the league’s fifth-lowest share of offensive plays and allowing the fourth-fewest points off turnovers per game. They maximize yours, forcing turnovers on 17.4 percent of opponents’ possessions (third-best in the league) and cashing in to the tune of 19.7 points per game (fourth in the NBA).
They also extend possessions (eighth in offensive rebounding rate) and finish them (seventh in defensive rebounding rate) in nearly equal measure. That combination — don’t cough it up, force you to cough it up, keep you from getting second shots, get more second shots of our own — has allowed the Pistons to get just over seven more shot attempts per game than their opponent, the kind of discrepancy that helps a team without a ton of dynamic offensive creators to establish and hold an edge on the offensive end.
While they’re not shooting as high a volume of 3s as Van Gundy’s Orlando Magic teams, they’re knocking down the ones they do create at a near-top-10 clip, with Harris, Bradley and Galloway all drilling well over 40 percent. And they’re limiting long-range looks on the other end, allowing just 26.1 3-point attempts per game, fifth-fewest in the league.
“They were really good,” Oladipo said after the loss, according to Noah Trister of The Associated Press. “They do a great job forcing you into tough 2s. They did a great job protecting their paint, made it hard on us to score.”
Jackson looks more like the guy that Van Gundy bet $80 million on than the one who limped and sulked his way through last season. Drummond’s still got miles to go on defense, but he’s leading the league in rebounding again, finishing in the paint and (for now) making himself late-game-playable through his work at the line. Harris, scorching the nets at all three levels, might finally be making the leap to Legit Top Scorer status.
Stanley Johnson looks like he’s coming back around. Tolliver’s been great, providing steady and versatile play at the backup big spots. Bradley hasn’t been lights-out as he acclimates to a new context, but he and Galloway add defensive activity, shooting and supplementary ball-handling that just wasn’t there in Detroit’s wafer-thin reserve corps last year.
In a way last year’s didn’t, this year’s Pistons seem to just kind of make sense … even if their current spot in the standings doesn’t necessarily.
It’s still early, and plenty of caveats apply — most notably that the schedule will start to toughen up next week. Detroit’s got dates with the Bucks, Wolves, Cavs, Thunder and Celtics before the end of November, with all but the Cleveland game coming away from Little Caesars Arena. The road will get rockier, the defense will be tested, and Langston Galloway won’t maintain a true shooting percentage near 75. (Probably.)
But a healthy Jackson and an engaged Drummond provided the backbone of a playoff team two years ago. Harris absolutely has the potential and chops to be this sort of offensive weapon, even if his shooting percentages (47.3 percent from the field, 47.1 percent from 3-point range, 88.2 percent from the line) cool off. Bradley, reserve big man Jon Leuer and rookie wing Luke Kennard should chip in more over the course of the season.
The Pistons won’t keep winning at a 60-win pace, but it’s not unreasonable to think that they could still keep winning. As SB Nation’s Paul Flannery wrote earlier this week, “Somebody’s got to make an impact in the East standings this season. It might as well be them.” Stranger things have happened. Right?
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