As we entered the 2017-18 NBA season, I was rather astounded at some of the previews for our hometown Detroit Pistons. The most optimistic projections among most legitimate analysts was that the team would be lucky to finish above .500. That kind of projection was rather astonishing given that it was just a year ago that the team finished 44-38 and prior to last season the estimate was modest improvement and a solid #5 seed. So what caused expectations to plummet so dramatically? Certainly a 37-45 season where nearly every player regressed was a reason, but the belief that bounce backs combined with the addition of Avery Bradley couldn’t net this team more than 5 wins was a tad strange.
Well, we’re now 16% into the season and the Pistons are 10-3, having won 5 straight and 8 of 9 overall, and sitting at #2 in the Eastern Conference. So the question becomes, who are these Detroit Pistons and are they for real? Let’s take a look:
What’s changed?: The most notable change with this group of players is that there have been key bounce-backs and improvements among the primary contributors. The most obvious one is Reggie Jackson. Jackson was the focal point of Detroit’s offense in 2015-16 and the knee injuries that derailed his season last year didn’t just mitigate his impact, it made him straight up bad. But the 27 year old PG is back to his old form this season, averaging 16.3 PPG (compared to 14.4 last year), .442 FG% (.419), .365 3PT% (.359), 6.1 APG (5.2), and 1.1 SPG, a career high. He’s back to being an offensive catalyst and he’s doing less of the scoring when compared to two years ago. Why? He’s finally been given real weapons.
The first is Tobias Harris, who has been the main beneficiary of the decision to trade Marcus Morris. Harris is now a full time starter and has added a dangerous three point shot to his repertoire, allowing him to average 20.1 PPG. He can drive and score or catch-and-shoot and is a perfect weapon to have in a system that is now much more open to passing. The only attribute that his game is lacking is the ability to draw fouls consistently. If he could do that, he could take his play to a higher level, but for now, he’s bordering on All-Star status. The other weapon is Avery Bradley, who is a huge improvement over Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Bradley is in many ways, what the Pistons always wanted KCP to be, a legitimate three point shooter and elite perimeter defender to pair alongside Reggie Jackson. Shooting .414% from beyond the arc, Bradley allows the court to be stretched more than KCP did because defenders must respect his prowess. While his game still can get better (he needs to cut down on turnovers), Bradley seems to be fitting in well with the Pistons new system. Stanley Johnson has also taken a step forward. His defense continues to be stellar, as he held to Giannis Antetokounmpo to 29 points on just 13 of 27 shooting. But he’s also been very strong offensively since a dismal first game against Charlotte. In the season opener, he was 0-13 overall and 0-6 from three. Since then? He’s shooting .484% from the field and .394% from three for a solid 9 PPG on 7 attempts per game, with very low turnovers (0.9 per game). He’s seemed more comfortable being the fifth offensive option and that’s key for Johnson’s development. At only 21, he can still grow considerably and this season, he just needs to be a very good defender, pass the ball to the main scoring options, and make the few shots he takes.
And then there’s Andre Drummond. For two years the Pistons tried the Drummond post-up circus and it just didn’t work. It killed the offensive rhythm and efficiency and he was just bad at it. He was never natural looking and this offseason, Van Gundy abandoned it to reconfigure Drummond. Drummond is now a main passing option in the offense and the results have been positive. His best assist percentage had previously been 6%. This year it’s 14.1%. That change has opened up more looks for the other aforementioned scorers in the offense. Then there’s his defense, which has improved for sure. He’s still a long way from being in asset on that end of the floor, but he’s not atrocious anymore. His WS/48 is at an all-time high, as is his box plus/minus. His free throws have also been a well talked about point of improvement. He’s currently at a .632 clip, which is a massive improvement over his old ghastly .355 number. Perhaps most importantly was how he bounced back to go 4/6 on Friday night after going 0/7 on Wednesday, proving that he’s not falling back into his old habits. He still has his occasional ugly shooting game (4 of 17 against GSW, 6 of 15 against IND), but the reconfiguring of his game has a lot to like and a lot of room for growth.
Put simply, the pieces just fit together better than they did last year. Bradley is an improvement over KCP, and Johnson + Harris is miles better on both ends of the floor than the Morris + Harris/Morris + Leuer lineups the Pistons went with last year.
How the Pistons match up against the league: Surprise, the Western Conference is the NBA’s best conference. You could’ve woken up from a coma you fell into in 2003 and that sentence would still be true. Boston, at 12-2 seems to be elite. Can the Ewing Rule really apply to Gordon Hayward? But outside of that, the East is a mystery. Toronto has been a perennial good-not-great team and seem to be declining. Washington looks like they have the potential to be a top four squad. Milwaukee has the talent to be in that conversation. And then there’s Cleveland. Having LeBron James will always make you in the title conversation, but they certainly haven’t played like it, at just 7-7 on the season and needing big performances from James to carry them against teams like Washington and New York. So check back around Christmas when it comes to the Cavs. In terms of stats, the Pistons look like a good team: they are 5th in the NBA in +/-, at +5.3, behind only Oklahoma City, Houston, Boston, and Golden State, all objectively good teams. In terms of opponent’s PPG, they have the 7th best defense in the NBA. This team certainly passes the stats test.
Are they for real/how good are they?: This is what we don’t know. On paper, they should in theory be 12-1, as a home loss against the improving but still mediocre 76ers and a road loss to Lakers should in theory be wins. But every team has let down games. Perhaps most impressively is the fact the Pistons have beating teams that they should beat and doing it consistently, without the frequent letdowns that these teams of the last 10 years have had. Just doing that alone can get you 48 wins. But it’s the question of is this team an actual late round playoff contender that’s the real question. These next 14 games are going to tell us the answer. Starting on Wednesday, the Pistons are going to undergo the toughest stretch of their schedule, without question. They play 9 of 11 on the road (with one of those home games being against Cleveland), before returning home to host Golden State, Boston, and Denver. In that 14 game stretch, they play 11 bona fide playoff teams, along with Indiana, Phoenix, and Philadelphia (two of those three on the road). If the Pistons can play to a draw and emerge 7-7 in that stretch and 17-10 on the season, I think we can believe that they are a top 3 team in the East. That record would put them on pace for 52 wins and have us beginning to think about 2nd round playoff matchups. A 5-9 finish would be sobering but wouldn’t destroy the season. A 9-5 finish and 2 things will happen: a) we will run out of Kool Aid to serve and b) it might be time to start thinking about what trade deadline piece can give the Pistons a shot to rival Boston and (maybe) Cleveland
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