By Adam Spinella
Since Feb. 1, something has been different in Motown. Standing at 12-6 since that date, the Detroit Pistons have the fourth best record in the NBA during that time, behind only San Antonio, Miami and Washington. Better yet, the Pistons sit only a half-game behind the six seed in the Eastern Conference after sputtering through January on the outside of the playoff picture. Their defensive rating, built around athletic rim protector Andre Drummond, has slowly and quietly climbed back to being the sixth-best unit in the league.
Impressively, the Pistons have done so while only shooting 32.1 percent from three during the span, the second-worst mark in the league. They’ve attempted the fourth-fewest free throw attempts, and while they have picked up the pace dramatically on offense, they’re still 24th in total offensive efficiency on the season. The defense has been a top-five unit in defensive efficiency, and the level of improvement over a dismal January is incredibly notable.
Still, it’s hard to know what is a mirage and what isn’t. The winning spurt has propelled the Pistons and their fan base to employ great optimism about their chances not just to capture a playoff spot, but to push a team in the first-round. Those same fans refuse to admit that the Pistons have gone 2-4 on the road since Feb. 1, with their wins coming over Toronto in a fourth-quarter comeback and at Philadelphia. Nine of their final 16 are on the road, but only three of those road battles are against teams with better records. The schedule is favoring the Pistons to close out the year.
What about their team? What has been seen, done or tinkered with by Stan Van Gundy to get this team to take a step forward heading into the postseason? And exactly how good are the Pistons and their chances to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs?
Point Guard Play
Detroit is taking care of the ball with a newfound care that didn’t exist early in the year for point guard Reggie Jackson. The before and after splits for Feb. 1 show a completely different player in terms of trying to do the little things and playing a safer brand of basketball.
Pre Feb. 1 – 17.0 PTS, 2.5 REB, 5.5 AST, 2.7 TO
Post Feb. 1 – 12.3 PTS, 1.9 REB, 5.3 AST, 1.7 TO
Van Gundy has always built his offenses around a spread pick-and-roll attack, trusting point guards to make reads and create offense with shooters all around. Where Jackson went wrong was his overt impatience with letting plays happen and come to him. There was no savvy in reading the defense early in the season, and while Drummond played with lackluster energy on his rolls, it was Jackson forcing the issue and leaving his feet that got the Pistons in trouble.
As of late, Jackson has been much better at slowing down in the half-court and finding the open man. Often times, it doesn’t result in a shot for him or even assist, but he seems more content with the result of not turning the ball over. A year ago, I don’t think the scoring-happy Reggie Jackson would have exuded the patience to hold onto this ball and find Leuer cutting across the baseline.
Van Gundy isn’t some bumbling idiot dropping F-bombs and scowling at every human with a heartbeat on the sidelines. He knows what he’s talking about, and his system only works if he and his franchise point guard are on the same page. Now that Reggie is surveying defenses to pick them apart with the pass, he’ll find the opportune times to shoot the ball without working incredibly hard to get himself open. Any ball handler needs to think score first. A false sense of security for the defense thinking about the pass out of the pick-and-roll can be lethal though.
Jackson has been feeling competition behind him for heavy minutes as the Pistons’ point guard all season, even after a solid 2015-2016 year and a large contract extension. The heady, speedy and sophisticated play of Ish Smith as a backup is a revelation for the Pistons. He’s exciting to watch and makes everyone around him better on offense — it’s a treat that Detroit faithful aren’t used to, and find themselves begging for more. Is Smith better than Jackson? Probably not, but the dynamic he brings to the team is an important one.
The biggest challenge in finding a balance for Jackson and Smith at the point comes with whom they play. Jackson is a better outside shooter, making him an ideal fit next to the Pistons best post-up threats. Smith, an electric passer out of the pick-and-roll, needs shooters around him to create that spacing. So it would seem simple — put Jackson with the first unit, then play Ish Smith and Jon Leuer together to create greater spacing right?
Not necessarily. Smith and Drummond have an unbelievable chemistry, and their play together when sharing the court is backed up by plus-minus and other metrics. When they play side-by-side, Smith can ping passes forward in the full court to find teammates before they know they’re open. He’s able to push the tempo, and transition is easiest with Andre on the floor to clean the glass and the Pistons can run off missed baskets.
That chemistry most notably manifests itself in open lob opportunities that Smith creates for Drummond, something he cannot do with Aron Baynes at the five. It’s rarely scripted and often times takes a great deal of snaking around and waiting for the opportune moment. Without being a huge scoring threat, Smith is able to toy with defenders and get the ball to Andre where he needs it in a lob situation.
So what does Van Gundy have to do to correctly leverage his rotations? He’s been doing it, making quicker substitutions for Smith, getting him in for a brief run with the first unit and Jon Leuer at the 4. Smith and Drummond carry the offense for a brief bit, then when Jackson returns to the game in the early-to-mid portion of the second quarter, he gets a run of his own before Drummond and the rest of the starters return. It won’t be that exact every game, but it is a recipe for getting the best of both worlds with two high-caliber point guards.
Rebounding, Transition and Frontcourt Versatility
Key for the Pistons in this resurgence: they have been the top rebounding team in the NBA. No coincidence, Andre Drummond seems awakened and is playing out of his mind on the interior. Righty and lefty spin hooks aside, the Drummond experience has always been one contingent on his engagement mentally. For whatever reason, he appears ready to be the anchor of a defense and the most valuable player on the court for the Pistons.
When Drummond makes plays on the offensive glass (he’s the league’s top offensive rebounder per game) he and the Pistons are near unstoppable.
The Pistons know Drummond is the best rebounder in the league and they bank on that skill night in and night out. It’s gravy on offense, where the Pistons get extra points and possessions out of it. On defense, it’s a necessity. When Drummond can snatch rebounds over four or five players, the other Pistons on the floor don’t worry about crashing the defensive glass, instead leaking out and getting more opportunities for easy baskets. That in itself is accounting for a few extra possessions per game, and is only an option when Drummond rebounds, outlets and the Pistons properly space the floor in transition.
In theory, Detroit should be much more dangerous in transition than they already are. Van Gundy has required more athletic ball handlers in Detroit than he had on his 2009 NBA Finals team in Orlando; this team is much more suited for open court chaos than the Magic teams of Turkoglu, Carter and Redick. The comparison to be drawn is the small-ball versatility that Van Gundy requires from his forwards. All frontcourt members (save the center, the defensive anchors and block-to-block finishers) must be able to shoot, handle the ball to initiate offense and create for others.
Tobias Harris and Marcus Morris, both of whom are in the nebulous between what we think of as small forward and power forward, can fill this role. Drummond outlet passes lead to transition baskets, and with either of them leading the break, Detroit is not longer waiting for a bogged-down set defense that can make life difficult for the Pistons point guards.
Frontcourt versatility is en vogue these days, and the Pistons have been setting the trend more than following it. Morris and Harris are both benefactors of quirky matchups at times, on either end of the court. Still, the automatic attention that must be paid to Andre Drummond on either end allows Morris and Harris to exploit these matchups for the team’s gain. Morris can be a help defender at the rim, and Harris can push in transition.
With playmakers in the frontcourt, the outside shooting of a point guard becomes all the more important. Van Gundy wants to toy with mismatches in his frontcourt when not relying on the spread pick-and-roll. Harris and Morris utilize a size advantage to post smaller forwards that check them. Against the bigger, less mobile defenders, more work off the dribble is required. In either situation, we see the value of Reggie Jackson (37 percent from three on the year) over Ish Smith (23 percent). For all the shouts about Ish Smith spending more time alongside Drummond and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, he’s simply an ill-advised fit next to Harris and Morris — especially with Drummond terrorizing defenses with simply the thought of him rolling to the rim.
Offensive Options and Progressions
Van Gundy’s offense is simple in its execution but heavily mental in its timing. Stan likes to play chess with his players, hitting the right button to exploit the matchups in Detroit’s favor while moving the action away from his weaknesses. The pick-and-roll is at the heart of the attack, where an aggressive playmaker and a dominant rolling big are at their best — especially when surrounded by shooters. If there was ever any doubt about number one option for the Pistons, the construction of their roster with so many stretch-fours should alleviate that concern. Drummond has this amazing gravity on his rolls that create wide open jumpers for stretch big men. It’s a thing of beauty to watch.
Next is the posting up and exploitation of those matchup nightmares that Tobias Harris and Markieff Morris create. Both are great scorers inside and outside, off the bounce or in the post. To create that spacing while sharing the court with a non-skilled center, a shooting point guard is a necessity (we covered that already). Drummond or Baynes must lift to the top of the key or towards the free throw line to not allow defenders to double before the catch.
So what happens when they sag off the center at the elbow?
Automatic. Hit the big man at the top of the key into a dribble handoff to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Sometimes the opposing big man cuts through, sometimes he down screens — the read of the play is on the other wing to get KCP open. Caldwell-Pope is 10th in the league in shots coming off a handoff, per NBA Stats. He’s shooting a crisp 42 percent in those situations, which is a decently high number for those dribble handoffs.
Caldwell-Pope is more than just a scorer. It’s his passing out of these handoff situations that have caused Pistons fans to want the ball in his hands more frequently as a playmaker and a facilitator. While sprinting full speed off a flurry of off-ball screens into handoffs, KCP makes intelligent reads at a high speed. Pick-and-pops are open due to stretch shooters screening for him to get open (another plus of the Van Gundy system). Drummond finds himself open on delayed rolls or when his man is forced to step up on the full-speed burst of KCP.
Caldwell-Pope only averages 14.2 points per game on the season, the fifth best mark on the team. Wanting a larger chunk of the offense to go his way is a relatively common request for Pistons watchers: he’s above 37 percent from three, has a two-to-one assist to turnover ratio and has been the team’s most clutch scorer in late game situations. Volume alone doesn’t go to show just how important Caldwell-Pope is in the Pistons’ equal opportunity offense.
There’s a coaching phrase that I love which appropriately fits the Pistons’ players right now: embrace your role, but don’t be satisfied with it. Everybody seems to be embracing their role within the offense, while looking to perform better to prove they deserve a larger role. Harris has been ultra aggressive of late, helping shoulder the team’s scoring load while Jackson is more of a facilitator. Jon Leuer has continued to hit big shots from deep, and is even starting to bully guards in the low post on switches. Stanley Johnson, bless his heart, is still searching for that confidence from deep because he knows he has to shoot it to keep defenses honest.
When an equal-opportunity offense hits on all levels, the game becomes a beautiful one to watch. Every Piston works hard to share the ball and get it to the right man for the shot. The aura in their offensive simplicity is that everything flows off one another. Everyone seems to finally be playing with an understanding of their role and how they bring out the best in one another.
For all the success that Stan Van Gundy has had coaching teams on the offensive end throughout his career, he’s really a perfectionist on the defensive end and a guy that gets fired up the most about team defense. For that reason, the Pistons January slump really didn’t sit well with Van Gundy. Instead of giving up on his guys, he continued to be hard on them and believed they could right the ship internally.
He was correct.
Over the past month the Pistons have been winning close games, defending for a more complete portion of the game. The players are moving on a string — including or around Drummond — to completely collapse on attempts to score in the lane. It’s an easy mentality to fall into where the rest of the Pistons simply let an incredible athlete like Drummond clean up the mess. But metrics show he’s not been useful as a rim protector and is a step or two below the greats in the league like Rudy Gobert or DeAndre Jordan.
Part is cause, and part is effect. Drummond isn’t quite on that level, lacking the supreme instincts to snuff out every single lob or weak side opportunity that comes his way. Partially responsible is the scheme, where Van Gundy is more prone to letting the athletic Drummond spend time on the perimeter to pressure and not slink back towards the rim on ball screening actions. Most of all, the rest of the team now seems hellbent on not letting Drummond be alone in the paint to play two-on-one whenever penetration occurs.
Van Gundy has mixed in more aggressive ball screen defense from Harris, Morris and Leuer to force more turnovers or difficult passes. The help defense has been strong in the situations. Watch as Reggie Jackson casually avoids a screen and gets to blitz Derrick Rose. Drummond steps up to take the roller, the weak side help is there to tag Drummond’s man, and Drummond does a great job of raking down on the ball without fouling to force a steal.
Plays like this from Drummond don’t draw the highlights or praise for excellent rim protection, although they should. While Drummond is only 28th in the league in blocks per game (1.1, a low number by most measures) only two players ahead of him in blocks have more steals — Giannis Antetokounmpo and Draymond Green. No seven footer has more steals per game, and only four big men (Embiid, Gobert, Anthony Davis and Myles Turner) average more steals and blocks combined. Those steals can even lead to transition opportunities where Drummond is starting the break. Everything comes full circle for the Pistons’ attack.
Whatever Van Gundy does, he is great at bringing out the best in his players as competitors on that side of the floor. When would you have seen this type of isolation defense from Marcus Morris before?
It’s not just the amazing pressure and intensity that Morris puts on Carmelo Anthony. The timing, during a lull period out of a timeout in the first quarter, is not a time where defensive engagement is usually at its peak. The rest of the defense is tuned into the play, completely on a string and ready to collapse with precision when Melo drives baseline. Caldwell-Pope is active off the ball in dissuading Melo from a middle drive after he jabs Morris to death. Jackson and Harris both go flying at the paint when Drummond rotates to Anthony. It’s a pristine possession out of a timeout.
While Stanley Johnson has struggled on offense, his defensive energy and attitude are top notch. His play on that end of the court has helped lift Detroit back to the top of the league in defensive ratings, and Matt Way nicely summed up his work on that end of the court. In short, he helps in almost every way, and when the Pistons are getting stops and running in transition, his offense is that much more bearable. Going to the bench for a defensive stopper is a toy that Stan Van Gundy will cherish — he’s a defensive coach first and foremost, and will continue to covet what Stanley gives the Pistons on that end.
The team’s defense is by far the most vital aspect to their continued climb towards the postseason. Every team needs an identity to hang their hat on: with a top-six rated defense in the league, it’s clear this is what the Pistons and their blue-collar fanbase want theirs to be. That defense needs to be a constant, particularly in games against other opponents scrapping and clawing for seeding position. With nine of their final 16 games on the road, there is little to no time for complacency.
This is a make-or-break time for the Pistons, but for Caldwell-Pope in particular. He is in the midst of his fourth and final season on a rookie scale contract and due a big payday this summer. Van Gundy has no options to replace KCP internally, as the Stanley Johnson experiment has burst into a large ball of flames (the kid simply cannot shoot and thinks way too much on the court). But the amount of money that gets sucked into a KCP contract is a ton for a fourth or fifth cog on offense, especially for a Pistons team concerned with remodeling their bench. Eight figures over five years to a guy like KCP is definitely worth thinking twice over.
Caldwell-Pope has been toyed with throughout his career as an option to defend athletic point guards, using his quickness and length to stay in front of the ball. The Pistons lack large guards (see ya, Spencer Dinwiddie) to play alongside Kentavious, so those experiments have floundered. Still, his inability to keep speedsters in front on switches or in transition/ emergency situations has caused complete removal from that weapon in the arsenal. Frequently he lays on screens and doesn’t get back to his man, giving up on the play entirely and letting the other team attack his big men behind him.
The question is, where would the Pistons go to replace this type of production and utility? It won’t be replaced internally; their youth on the wings is one of the least talented groups in the NBA. Free agents this summer don’t replace his playmaking value and shooting together, especially off those wondrous dribble handoffs. Perhaps Stan the Man has something up his sleeve as a fallback option, but all signs lead towards the Pistons biting the bullet and coughing up the dough.
Van Gundy has built a team based on the concept that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. He believes in his scheme, and after passing on any moves to shake things up at the trade deadline, it seems he believes in his guys as well. We shouldn’t sleep on the Pistons performing well during a first-round series — they match up well with the Celtics and would have the same lack of depth as the Wizards if those two ran into each other. The issue with a “whole is greater than the sum of its parts” team though is the inability to afford continuity over a long stretch of time. If the Pistons don’t get out of the first round this season, it’s hard to envision the team improving enough this summer to justify this same core being the team of the future in downtown Detroit.