December 16, 2017

The Detroit Pistons were a sad, disappointing crew last season. Coming off the promise of a late-season playoff push in 2015-16 after trading for Tobias Harris, hopes were high going into 2016-17. The wheels fell off before the season began when Reggie Jackson was diagnosed with knee tendinitis. Jackson missed the first 20 games of the regular season and was perhaps the worst high-usage player in the NBA when he returned.

While not everything can be pinned to Jackson’s injury, not many teams can have their best player in a playoff season return one year later as one of the most detrimental players in the league. The Pistons were no different.

Among players who had a 25 percent usage or higher, played in 50 or more games and averaged 20 or more minutes per appearance, Jackson had the league’s fourth-worst effective field goal percentage at 46.8 percent, the fourth-worst true shooting percentage at 51 percent, sixth-worst defensive rating at 110.5 and second-worst offensive rating at 101.7.

He was mercifully shut down by Stan Van Gundy and the Pistons organization in late March, but the Pistons were no better after Ish Smith was moved into the starting lineup and the team faltered across the board.

The Pistons took steps to shore up their biggest weaknesses in the summer. They were among the worst shooting teams last season, so they took perhaps the best shooter in the draft in Luke Kennard. They signed Langston Galloway as an insurance policy for Jackson, in case rehab didn’t do the trick, and to add shooting. They brought back Anthony Tolliver to add more shooting and bring veteran leadership. They were opportunistic in pulling off a steal of a trade, acquiring Avery Bradley for Marcus Morris, freeing them to dodge a potential disastrous financial situation with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

Jackson was put on a 16-week rehabilitation program focused exclusively on strengthening the ligaments in his knee, eschewing basketball activity of any kind. Because tendinitis is a chronic condition, management is the only way back. Stronger ligaments take the load off the knee from the impact and strain of running, jumping and landing. As a result, Jackson played no basketball from his last game of the season on March 24th until playing five-on-five with his Piston teammates a week before training camp.

The rehab seems to have been a success.

Jackson is averaging 15.6 points and 5.8 assists so far this season, and he’s been more efficient than at any point in his career. In stark contrast to the horror show he endured last season, his true shooting percentage is 54.6 percent, the best mark of his career if the season ended today. He’s also been solid defensively. Jackson is no perimeter stopper, but thanks to his improved physical state and strength he’s no longer a turnstile.

Reggie Jackson is a big piece of the puzzle, but he’s not the only reason for the Pistons’ early season resurgence and surprising 10-4 record.

Tobias Harris has emerged from the shadows and revealed what very few people outside of Detroit knew last season: He’s really good and has been for a while. Harris is shooting the lights out with high volume from long range, hitting a preposterous 50.6 percent of his threes at a rate of 6.2 attempts per game. That success rate is unlikely to continue at such high volume, but the threat of him bombing away from distance will be something defenses have to take seriously. This generates space the Pistons never had last season.

While his shooting in itself is a weapon, defenses can’t sag off him. He’s able to utilize that to his advantage with a deadly quick first step, blowing by slower-footed fours who simply can’t defend his shot but close him off and keep him on the perimeter at the same time. Tobias Harris is making defenses pick their poison.

Andre Drummond is a brand new player. After offseason surgery to repair his deviated septum, he lost 30 lbs over the summer and has a higher energy level. Instead of being utilized exclusively in the pick and roll and on the post as he was last season, Drummond has been highly effective as a point center.

The Pistons have been able to run offense through him from the elbow, using dribble handoffs with Avery Bradley and Tobias Harris to deadly efficiency. He has a career high (by a huge margin) assist percentage of 14.1 percent, third among Piston regulars.

Drummond has essentially dropped the things he’s bad at (things he spent far too much time doing in the past) and has focused on the things he is tremendous at, while adding a couple of delightful tricks. He has been one of the worst players in the post for the past couple seasons, in spite of using a massive 27.5 percent of his possessions from the post.

This season he has posted up just 20 times, less than 10 percent of his total possessions. He took less than 50 percent of his shots from inside 3′ last season, this season he’s up to almost 70 percent. Drummond hits 66.7 percent from around the basket.

Speaking of Drummond hitting things, he’s also hitting 63.1 percent from the free throw line. A new Andre Drummond, indeed.

Avery Bradley has been a significant upgrade over Caldwell-Pope at the two. He’s an improvement on the defensive side while being a more effective and willing shooter. He’s better off the ball and an ideal DHO partner with Drummond, and their chemistry extends to being found in cuts to the basket.

The attention to detail and defensive aggression since Bradley’s arrival has been tangible. The Pistons are seventh in the NBA in turnovers forced and their active hands and tenacity puts offenses in bad positions significantly more than they did in years past.

Bench units including Ish Smith, Galloway and Tolliver have been spark plugs for a Pistons’ squad which is renowned for getting off to slow starts. This team’s bench simply overwhelms other reserve units with defensive tenacity, hustle and a willingness to get out in transition.

When Tolliver is on the floor, the Pistons are 22.2 points better per 100 possessions. When Galloway is on, the Pistons are 21.5 points better. This doesn’t mean that the reserves are better than the starters, but it does mean that the Pistons’ bench pummels other reserve units. So far this season, a bench versus bench battle simply isn’t a fair fight.

The Pistons have deviated from their dogmatic pick and roll-heavy offensive gameplan and utilize much more movement and action off the ball through Drummond’s DHOs. After running just 4.4 percent of their possessions through the DHO last season, they’re running 10.5 percent of their possessions out of that play type this season, scoring .913 points per possession. That’s good for ninth in the NBA.

Their pick and roll possessions have reduced in number, but increased in potency. last year, the Pistons ran 20.8 percent of their possessions through the pick and roll ball handler, scoring just .849 points per possession. This year, they’re running 14.4 percent of their possessions through it but scoring a league-leading 1.009 points per possession.

Reggie Jackson is the most notable PNR ball handler and has been outstanding, scoring 1.025 points per possession, but Avery Bradley and Tobias Harris have been even better in fairly small samples, scoring 1.267 and a preposterous 1.692 points per possessions respectively.

Much like Harris’ incredible three-point shooting numbers, this will likely regress. What may remain more consistent and regression-proof are the Pistons’ focus on taking care of the ball, being responsible in transition defense and active in forcing turnovers.

While the Pistons are sixth in forced turnovers, only four teams have turned it over less than the Pistons’ 14.6 turnovers per game. They get an extra 1.8 possessions per game as a result, and they are the sixth-best team in the NBA at keeping teams off the board in transition, yielding just 8.5 fast break points per game.

These have been common precepts throughout the Stan Van Gundy era in Detroit, and it speaks to the idea of not beating yourself through sloppy mistakes. The Pistons are not blessed with a plethora of All-NBA defenders, but eliminating easy baskets is a great way of leveling the field and limiting your opponent’s ability to hurt you.

As a result of this offensive versatility and defensive intelligence, the Pistons¬†are currently top-10 in both offensive and defensive rating, even though they’ve played five of the 10 highest scoring teams in the league through 14 games.

The Detroit Pistons are no lock to win 50 games, but there are indicators of a consistent foundation upon which the team is built and the concepts it operates under. Many questioned why Van Gundy didn’t simply break up the core and start over. The best answer to that question is that Van Gundy wanted to see what this young core could do if it was ever healthy together.

Between Jackson’s injury and Caldwell-Pope’s midseason shoulder injury which seemed to affect him from the middle of January on, the Detroit Pistons have never been fully healthy since the end of the 2015-16 season. That squad was on a 50-win pace going into the playoffs over a 27 games sample, and that was with a dreadful bench led by Steve Blake.

This team is better than that team, and we may see Van Gundy’s faith in his own team-building and in the players at the heart of its roster being justified in front of our eyes.

Duncan Smith

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