Essay: Are The Pistons Getting Better?
The Detroit Pistons failed to win one of their first eight games this season. They were an atrociously bad basketball team, with a 21-year-old point guard showing little to no improvement, and Rodney Stuckey shooting so poorly that a D-League relegation would’ve felt generous.
For that ninth game, Pistons head coach Lawrence Frank mercifully replaced Stuckey in the starting lineup with former Duke standout Kyle Singler. The reasoning was A) Singler’s increased length on the perimeter could help on the defensive end, B) his superior shooting ability would loosen Brandon Knight’s collar and open up the offense, and C) nobody could possibly be worse.
The Pistons have not been the San Antonio Spurs since making the change, but they aren’t an embarrassing laughing stock either. They won their first game (in Philadelphia) after making the switch, and are 6-6 since. Not bad.
Even better? They’re beginning to fill a few glaring holes on the defensive end, and all the pre-draft questions surrounding their first round draft pick/franchise savior Andre Drummond appear to be answered: He’s really, really good.
It’s been five long years since the Detroit Pistons were a relevant basketball team. If the first month of this season is anything to build on, their future finally looks good, and for this year the playoffs might not be out of the question.
In their last five games, Pistons’ opponents are shooting 38.6% on over four more attempts per game than their season average. They’re one of the 10 best teams in basketball at defending the restricted area, which is a world’s difference from letting teams get there—at this, the Pistons royally suck—but should still be noted as a positive.
They’re the very best team in basketball at defending mid-range jump shots (they’ve allowed the 11th fewest makes on the fifth most attempts), and according to Synergy they’re the fourth best team in spot up situations, allowing just 0.85 points per possession. They’re also third best in the league at defending the corner three, with opponents converting on just 31.3% of them.
Some of this stuff (mid-range jump shots) can be chalked up to luck—it’s a make or miss league, and sometimes you get lucky after rotating poorly and leaving your man wide open—but it’d be impossible to say that the Pistons (Corey Maggette aside) aren’t playing like a team with a vested interest in stopping their opponent from scoring. They hustle like mad, and they try like hell.
Trying and caring is great, as are dandelions and lollipops. But if the Pistons aren’t executing an organized plan all these numbers will begin to hike as the season goes on.
With the help of Synergy, I re-watched a ton of Detroit’s defensive possessions since Kyle Singler was inserted into the starting lineup. Here’s what I saw:
- Their defense is frantic, especially when they go to a zone (which happens a relatively decent amount). They scramble constantly, chasing a basketball traveling through the air like a cat trying to murder a set of floating car keys.
- Too many times they have two players close out on one shooter, leaving one of said shooter’s teammates wide open on the perimeter. Some of this can be attributed to youth, and some of it can be attributed to having Corey Maggette on the court 15 minutes per game.
- When trying to force the ball-handler on a pick-and-roll towards the screen and into a double team, Knight and Singler don’t jump out far enough, allowing their man plenty of space to drive into the lane and ruin everything. This happens frequently, but will hopefully smoothen itself out as the two youngsters grow.
The big man—whether it’s Drummond, Jason Maxiell, or Greg Monroe—is caught out of position because he expects the ball-handler to be forced in his direction. When this doesn’t happen, chaos ensues.
- Regarding the numerous wide open shots that the Pistons have surrendered this year, some of them can be attributed to poor pick-and-roll rotations by the likes of Monroe and Drummond, but Maggette and his prideful existence as someone who pretends to show interest in closing out on a shooter remains such an overwhelmingly horrendous problem.
Andre Drummond is playing 18 minutes a night, has appeared in all 20 of Detroit’s games, and is posting a 20.9 PER. When you add all of that up, it basically translates to him someday being enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Seriously, Drummond’s looked fantastic, energetic, coordinated, and active; all the things you want from a rookie seven-footer who possesses unlimited potential.
He leads THE ENTIRE NBA in offensive rebounding percentage (18.5%) and the Pistons are a noticeably better basketball team when he’s on the court as opposed to when he’s not. Per 100 possessions, Detroit posts a net rating of +2.6, making him the only Piston who’s played at least 200 minutes with a positive net rating.
When he’s off the court, the team’s net rating is -6.9, and they score only .954 points per possession which would be the second worst offense in the league.
On defense, Drummond will more often than not go “soft” against pick-and-rolls, meaning he’ll sag near the free-throw line, simultaneously preventing the ball-handler from driving into the paint and keeping track of his own man should he dive by.
Similar to most young big men (including Monroe), he’s a work in progress in this area, but getting better. Through 20 career games Drummond has already established himself as a rim protecting presence, and he’s 10th in the league in block percentage.
Best case scenario for this year’s Pistons is an eight seed, which would be cool and eventually soul crushing. But looking at things from a long term point of view, three years from now this team could look like the Memphis Grizzlies look today. At least, that’s the ceiling, probably.
They’re already humongous and talented up front, which is the most difficult part of the house to build. The foundation is set, and how they go about filling out the rest of their roster over the next few years could be the difference between a middling .500 ball club and a serious championship contender.
Combining a talent like Drummond with an already proven Monroe and a few young players who appear eager to learn and grow, the Detroit Pistons finally have a future to smile at.