What to Make of the Detroit Pistons' Fast Start
In Stan Van Gundy's first season in Detroit, the Pistons limped their way to 32 wins, a modest 3-win improvement from 2013-14 but still their 7th straight sub-.500 season and a long ways away from the title winning heyday of Chauncey Billups and Co.
After a 2-0 start with wins over two top-15 teams, the excitement is building in Michigan. For good reason too. Not since they were 33-31 in March of 2009 have the Pistons been two games over .500.
So how have they gotten here?
This past offseason, Van Gundy continued to re-shape the roster to fit the 4-out, 1-in style offense that he ran in Orlando. That is where four players hang around the perimeter while one big man roams the post.
He let Greg Monroe walk. He traded for stretch-fours Marcus Morris and Ersan Ilyasova. He also drew some ire for passing up Justise Winslow and drafting Stanley Johnson instead. Many questioned those moves, but it was all in line with getting the roster he needed around his current version of Dwight Howard: Andre Drummond.
Heading into the season with a rebuilt starting lineup, we pegged Detroit as the 11th best team in the East with a 37-win season. Another modest improvement. However, after beating a 60-win Atlanta squad by 12 and an up-and-coming Jazz squad, the Pistons have already moved up in our power rankings, passing up Charlotte and sitting only 1.2 nERD points behind Indiana as the 8 seed. Although two games are an extremely small sample size, the movement is substantial.
Do we think after two games, the Pistons are suddenly legit contenders for the playoffs in the East? To answer that, we need to take a look at how they have won their first two games.
One of the Pistons' best attributes last season was rebounding. They finished tied for fourth with 44.9 total boards per game. Their real power was on the offensive end as they tied the Thunder for first in offensive rebounds. After losing Monroe and his 10.0 boards per game, it was expected the rebounding would drop off. However, that has not been the case so far.
In the season-opener, against the Hawks, bottom five in total boards and rebound percentage last season, Detroit expectedly won the war on the glass. But by out-rebounding the Hawks on the offensive glass 23-7, the Pistons made up for a lackluster 38.5 percent shooting performance by out-shooting the Hawks with a 96-82 edge in field goal attempts.
In game two, against Utah, the league leader in rebounding percentage last season, things would be a little more difficult. The Pistons still managed to maintain the edge grabbing five more boards than Utah. Their advantage on the glass limited Utah to just three second-chance points. To put that into perspective, the Jazz ranked second in the NBA last year with 15.1 second-chance points per game.
By far and away the driving force in the rebounding game is Drummond. In the Hawks game alone, he grabbed 19 rebounds. The seven-footer grabbed more offensive rebounds, eight, than the entire Atlanta squad. The second-ranked rebounder last season with 13.5 boards per game, Drummond has made his name on the glass. He has always had the talent, but with Monroe out of the way, this is clearly Drummond's team. He is becoming more than just a rebounder too; he is quickly maturing into the centerpiece of Van Gundy's system.
Last season the Pistons ranked 29th in free-throw percentage at 70.3 percent. That was in large part to the extreme struggles at the line for Drummond. A career 39.7 percent at the line, Drummond still threw up bricks while increasing his attempts to 4.5 per game. By some miracle, through two games the Pistons center is 14-for-21 from the line, including a game-changing 8-for-11 in Wednesday's win over Utah, a remarkable improvement.
Through two games, Drummond is averaging 18.0 points, 14.5 rebounds, and 2.0 blocks per game while posting a 91 Defensive Rating and a PER of 24.5. His current nERD rating 20.9 ranks him sixth in the NBA. All are hard numbers to maintain, but remember, Drummond just turned 22-years-old.
With the way Drummond is playing, the Pistons may finally have their first All-Star since Allen Iverson in 2009, ending an astounding drought. The weight of the Pistons' season will not fall squarely on the young man's shoulders, though. While he may have his one post player in Drummond, Van Gundy's offensive system needs outside shooters.
Last year his club shot 34.4 percent from three, ranking them in the bottom half of the league while launching the 11th most attempts in the NBA. This season, they have already taken 48 attempts but are hitting them at an impressive 39.6 percent.
In particular, the starting lineup has started off hot going 16-for-34 from three-point land. While the percentage should drop off, the club has a wealth of shooters who have done well behind the arc in their career.
Over the past four seasons, Ilyasova has shot 39.7 percent. Morris also has been an above average shooter, making over 36 percent.
Third-year shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has gone 6-for-12 from deep. After shooting below league average at 33.7 percent from three his first two seasons, Caldwell-Pope is looking like, at age 22, he could be in the midst of a breakout season.
The final player valuable to the system is a playmaking floor general who can run the pick-and-roll. In Orlando, Van Gundy had Jameer Nelson. In Detroit, he is banking on Reggie Jackson. Especially after signing him to an $80 million deal. The Pistons' 9-7 record over the final 16 games last season and averages of 19.9 points and 10.9 assists over the final month earned Jackson the contract and starting spot in Detroit this season. His 17.0 points, 4.5 assists, and 42.9 percent shooting from three this year are nearly identical to the line (16.7 points, 5.4 assists, and 45.3 percent three-point shooting) Nelson posted during the Magic's run to the NBA Finals in 2008-09.
With Van Gundy's track record, a .611 winning percentage and seven playoff appearances in nine seasons, we should be inclined to believe the Pistons are playoff contenders. Even after two solid wins, however, I am not ready to say we will see them in the postseason this year, especially playing in the Central against higher-ranked Cleveland, Chicago, Milwaukee, and Indiana.
Now if they can knock off the also 2-0 Bulls for their third win, we may have to reconsider their place in the East.