January 16, 2019

1.) The Detroit Pistons are 10-3 through 13 games, having won eight of their last nine. What did pundits miss heading into this season that might explain this start? 

Bryan Toporek: In retrospect, perhaps we should have believed the preseason hype about Andre Drummond having learned to hit free throws at a not-horrendous clip? Not only is Drummond smashing his previous career high with a 63.2 percent mark at the charity stripe, but he has also become a far more prolific facilitator. Last season, Drummond averaged 1.1 assists per game and had an assist percentage of 6.0 percent; this year, he’s up to 3.2 assists and an assist rate of 13.7 percent, per NBA.com. The UConn product had 11 helpers in 99 minutes across his three preseason outings, so the signs were there for those who paid close enough attention. But after he displayed alarming stagnation in 2016-17, many were in wait-and-see mode with Drummond.

Well, the Pistons are 4.2 points per 100 possessions better than opponents with him on the court. It’s still early, but Pistons fans should be encouraged by the big man’s hot start to the season.

Drummond isn’t all that’s going right for Detroit, though. Reggie Jackson, who was an injury-ravaged shell of himself last year, is rounding back into his previous form. Tobias Harris has broken out as the type of No. 1 scorer Detroit has lacked in recent years. And, as always, Avery Bradley remains an underrated two-way bulldog who has infused this team with some defensive ferocity. Sprinkle in strong contributions from the bench — what up, Ish Smith and Langston Galloway? — and these Pistons look like a legitimate playoff team.

Matthew Way: Pundits didn’t account for the effect Detroit’s health issues had on last season’s performance.  Reggie Jackson’s knee looks fine now and he’s back to being the dynamic ball handler in the pick-and-roll that he was two years ago.

Andre Drummond had surgery to repair a deviated septum and that appears to be making a real difference.  He’s playing with an energy that we haven’t seen before from him.  His free throw shooting is allowing him to be more aggressive offensively and he’s certainly benefitting from Reggie Jackson’s healthy knee in pick-and-roll situations.

Tobias Harris had LASIK surgery this offseason and is shooting an impressive 50.6 percent from three through 13 games. He’s always had a good stroke and his improved vision appears to be having a real effect on his shooting.

Then, the addition of Avery Bradley has had a significant impact on Detroit.  The communication among the starters defensively has improved tenfold with him on the floor.

Jesse Blanchard: The season before last, the Detroit Pistons were the youngest team in the NBA Playoffs, built around the presence of Drummond in the middle and Reggie Jackson’s dynamic work in the pick-and-roll.

Then Jackson got hurt, Drummond regressed, and it seems everyone forgot progress isn’t always linear. This is a team whose main components are still growing into their primes and, in some cases, competing boundaries create friction. Especially when the hub off their attack, the Jackson-Drummond pick-and-roll, imploded with injuries but remained in use.

in Drummond’s case, there was also a need to mature. His size and athleticism are his greatest weapon on the basketball court. This summer, he took better care of his body and the Pistons found better ways to utilize him with more dribble handoff actions, giving him decision-making touches away from the post, where he’s less effective, but still giving him the ball to keep him happy.

Factor in the continued growth of Tobias Harris, which should have always been factored in, and upgrading from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to Avery Bradley, an in-his-prime, best case version of KCP, and it should have been obvious the Pistons’ playoff season was a better indicator than last year’s train wreck.

James Holas: A few things are different for this year’s Pistons. For one, Reggie Jackson didn’t magically suck last season: he wasn’t healthy. Being cleared to play isn’t the same as being 100 percent, and Jackson hadn’t recovered his loping athleticism and speed from having knee surgery in the summer of 2016, which had a cascading effect.

No burst from Reggie, no penetration. No guard penetration, no high pick and roll with Drummond, meaning the offense stalled, meaning Drummond pouted and meaning Reggie got down on himself, meaning it looked even WORSE when the team performed better with Ish Smith. Chemistry is always underrated when talking teams, and last year’s Pistons were a toxic miasma of frustration and grumbling. This season? healthy Reggie reverses all of that! Jackson is back to knifing into the lane and panicking defenses, and all is revving smoothly in Motor City.

Andre Drummond’s a key reason, as well. Offseason septum surgery, Coach Van Gundy tinkering with the offense to involve Drummond from the high post, and Andre overhauling his free throw routine to go from a liability (career 38 percent free throw shooter) to passable (he’s shooting a relatively respectable 63.2 percent from the charity strip so far this year). The new-look Pistons offense keeps Drummond engaged by allowing him to get touches as a playmaker versus ineffective post-ups, and the move is paying dividends. Last season, Drummond tallied four assists only four times in 81 games; this year, Drummond has four or more dimes in eight of his 13 games played. Less post-ups plus more assists plus decent free throw shooting from Andre Drummond changes EVERYTHING for Detroit.

Tobias Harris making a mini-leap has goosed the Piston offense. Harris just turned 25 in July, and his game is blossoming as he’s enters his prime. Tobias is shooting an eye popping (and unsustainable) 50.6 percent from three on a healthy six attempts a night, and he’s playing with an offensive confidence he’s never shown before. He’s too quick for most power forwards (where he’s spending 87 percent of his minutes), and too strong for most small forwards. Some regression to the mean is to be expected, but Harris is providing the offensive pop to power Detroit’s new attack.

And lastly, the steady leadership, shooting, and defense of Avery Bradley. Bradley and Detroit are perfect for each other. Detroit desperately needed an “adult” presence in the locker room, and he’s built for the role of perimeter pest and off-ball scorer. Bradley is slapping up career highs in points per game (17.2) and three-point percentage (41.4 percent), and he’s a perfect complement to the bulk of Drummond and the slippery offense of Reggie Jackson.

Taken all together, the reinvigorated Pistons will be hard to handle for the rest of the Eastern conference.

Al Horford, Celtics

2.) The Boston Celtics continue to roll, regardless of who’s in or out of the lineup. How have they been able to maintain this early success despite injuries? Can we now consider it silly to question Danny Ainge?

Bryan Toporek: Hell, I thought it was silly to question Ainge back in the summer, so nothing about the Celtics’ hot start has changed my mind. The decision to trade down for Jayson Tatum wound up being a godsend in the wake of Gordon Hayward’s likely season-ending injury, especially considering how NBA-ready the Duke product has proved. Second-year forward Jaylen Brown has picked up where he left off in last year’s playoffs, while Marcus Smart continues to do typical Marcus Smart things — pestering opposing guards and wings on defense while shooting far below 40 percent from the field. Meanwhile, Aron Baynes is emerging as an impact under-the-radar free-agent signing, while rookie Semi Ojeleye, Daniel Theis and The Untouchable Terry Rozier are rounding out a bench unit with serious punch.

And oh, yeah: Maybe Kyrie Irving was justified in wanting his own team? I appreciate him making me look smarter for plugging him as a dark-horse MVP candidate heading into the year.

Matthew Way: I don’t think it’s ever silly to question any general manager’s moves, but we probably don’t give enough credit to the interactions between the front office and coaching staff in making those moves.

Brad Stevens is an elite coach and probably had at least an advisory role in the offseason moves. Stevens has an incredible way of putting guys in positions to succeed and he’s done it again with Boston’s young players this year. Jaylen Brown looks like a different player and Jayson Tatum has been incredibly impressive for a rookie.

Jesse Blanchard: It appears the Celtics have a strong rapport between management and coaching staff and as such, it should come as no surprise that a team with a clear identity and direction should find some semblance of sustained success.

Part of the success comes from empowering players within the system. There are defined roles, but none are limited, giving young players like Jaylen Brown or Jayson Tatum space to explore their games without taking the team completely off the rails. It also allows for flawed players like Marcus Smart to mitigate their weaknesses to take full advantage of their strengths.

But at the center of it all, in my opinion, is the Celtics’ part-time center. Al Horford isn’t a traditional superstar in the sense that you put the ball in his hands and work around that. But he is an amplifier, taking even a collection of disparate parts and connecting them seamlessly.

James Holas: The Position-less Revolution is not only televised, it’s archived on NBA League Pass. All summer, I told anyone who’d listen how amped I was to see Brad Stevens unleash long armed lineups of athletes on the league. Gordon Hayward going down bummed me out, but I chuckled seeing the talking heads predict gloom and doom for Boston.

Quality depth has been Boston’s trademark. Ainge did a masterful job in assembling a multifaceted, multiskilled roster. Last year’s Celtics fed minutes to the enigmatic Kelly Olynyk and the corpse of Amir Johnson; replacing them with the burly Aron Baynes and do-it-all excellence of Daniel Theis is a tremendous upgrade. Both Baynes and Theis can play either behind or beside the perennially underrated Al Horford, who’s anchoring Boston’s stifling defense while acting as the ultimate offensive lubricant on the other end.

Avery Bradley and Isaiah did everything that the Celtics asked and more, and I say this not to downplay their accomplishments in green and white: size matters. Kyrie and Jaylen both are about six inches taller than the guys their replacing in Boston’s starting lineup, which in the defensive scheme of things is a gigantic step up.

And then you have to tip your cap to Ainge’s draft acumen: despite a gaffe here and there (I’m looking at you, James Young and RJ Hunter), he has more often than not struck gold. Marcus Smart can’t shoot straight, but he’s the heart and soul of the Celtics’ defense and an underrated playmaker on offense. And remember the oodles of jokes heaped upon the Celtics’ front office for refusing a deal for Serge Ibaka because (in part) they didn’t want to part with Rozier? Serge is now being paid $21 million a year by the Raptors, and Rozier just handily outplayed him as Boston throttled Toronto.

And we can’t forget that Brad Stevens is Dumbledore, the baby-faced wizard who’s making this elixir of youth, athleticism, and veteran know-how into a cohesive functioning team. Stevens has 100 percent buy-in from every man on the roster, and his rotations are a thing of beauty; the Celtics coaching staff has their finger on their roster’s pulse, shuttling the exact right personnel no matter the situation.

We’ll see some slippage eventually. Guys are playing out of their minds right now, other teams are rounding into form, and it’s a long season. But yeah, I don’t want to tell you “I told you so” about the Celtics…but…

Magic, Aaron Gordon

3.) What’s something you appear to have been wrong about before the season and what changed or what did you fail to consider that led you to be wrong? 

Bryan Toporek: I thought Lonzo Ball was the Rookie of the Year favorite. Welp!

My rationale at the time: The Lakers were doing everything in their power to put Ball at the forefront of their team, which meant he’d be allowed to play through the typical mistakes that often plague rookie point guards. Having Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Larry Nance, Kyle Kuzma and Brook Lopez would give him plenty of outlets for easy assists and would prevent opponents from selling out defensively to stop him. While he wasn’t likely to put up huge scoring totals, voters love narratives and triple-doubles, both of which he figured to generate in droves.

What changed: Lord have mercy, his shooting stroke is ugly. In the words of noted philosopher Snoop Dogg, “His father put him in the lion’s den with some pork chop drawers on,” as opposing floor generals have been licking their chops to outright embarrass him in one-on-one matchups. And my fears about Ben Simmons getting off to a slow start have proved entirely unfounded. Is it too late to ask for a mulligan on this one?

Matthew Way: I knew Cleveland would struggle defensively, but I didn’t think it would be nearly this bad.

I failed to consider the effect not having another great creator would do to their defense.  LeBron often goes through stretches where he doesn’t seem to care defensively, but he’s also putting so much into his offense that it would be hard for him to be great defensively even if he tried hard.  That could change if Isaiah Thomas can pick up where he left off last year, but he’s certainly not going to provide any help on the defensive end.

Opponents are shooting an unsustainably high percentage from three, but Cleveland is also giving up consistently good looks.  Even when that number drops, the Cavaliers are going to remain one of the worst defenses in the league.

Jesse Blanchard: With apologies to Aaron Gordon, I was out on him as a cornerstone player in Orlando heading into this season to the extent I openly wondered if the Magic should consider selling high on him.

I failed to consider how just a slight tweak in role or team chemistry can be a catalyst for a career and the power for Assistant Coach Chad Forcier, who did quality work for the Spurs in player development, and Frank Vogel.

Like Shawn Marion, Andrei Kirilenko and Lamar Odom, Gordon is a solid-to-average NBA wing but a dynamic power forward who tilts the league’s most important position, at least in terms of dictating style, in Orlando’s favor.

And as his teammates improve and grow in their games from improved coaching, Gordon will find more comfort and use for his.

James Holas: I figured the Magic would be their usual horrible selves. I didn’t figure that Aaron Gordon would make such a tremendous leap, or that Vucevic would turn into Dirk Nowitzki. They’ll eventually fall back a bit, but the future suddenly looks much better in Orlando.

I thought that Westbrook, Melo, and Paul George would roar out of the gates on pure talent alone, overwhelming fools with pure aggression and bucket-getting. I didn’t think they’d be THIS much adjustment necessary, or that Melo wouldn’t gum up the works as much as he is, or that the reigning MVP Westbrook would look so lost and ineffective.



Occasionally, we write together.

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