Heading into the weekend, the young NBA season’s three most impressive overachievers were the Orlando Magic, the Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons, each of whom were on track for winning records despite what were projected to be a trio of losing seasons. Hot starts can fade fast, though: The Magic and Pacers have gone a combined 0-4 since Friday, losing by a total of 56 points as Orlando’s shooting went cold and Indy’s defense collapsed.
Detroit, however, has kept on winning. After handling the Bucks and Kings at home (not to mention managing a road win over the Warriors two Sundays ago), the Pistons are now 7-3 on the season, good for second-best in the East — and there’s evidence they might have done it despite being slightly unlucky along the way. Is it possible that Stan Van Gundy’s shambolic plan is finally coming together?
The 2016-17 Pistons were a solid defensive team in desperate need of some spark at the other end of the floor. Whatever offensive promise Andre Drummond (ostensibly the team’s star, and certainly its highest-paid player) flashed early in his career seemed to have been a mirage; the attack sputtered to a halt whenever high-usage point guard Reggie Jackson set foot on the court; and the team generally hoisted way too many inefficient shots and not enough 3s. Detroit needed an offensive resurgence if it hoped to achieve its second winning season in the last decade, though it wasn’t clear where that breakthrough was going to come from.
The Pistons did some offseason rearranging, like any team. They let Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Aron Baynes walk in free agency, traded midrange scorer Marcus Morris to Boston for Avery Bradley, signed Anthony Tolliver and Langston Galloway, and drafted Duke’s Luke Kennard with the 12th overall pick. Jackson was going to be healthy again, and former No. 8 overall pick Stanley Johnson would have another year of much-needed development under his belt. But this was far from a total teardown; Detroit’s existing talent would also need to play much better in order to keep Van Gundy’s coach/exec seat from spontaneously combusting.
And so far, the talent has delivered. Drummond has been one of the most improved players in the league this season, upping his true shooting percentage, assist rate, rebound rate and Box Plus/Minus at both ends of the floor. He’s back to taking 68 percent of his shots within 3 feet of the rim (last year that number had dipped to a career-low 49 percent), wreaking more havoc on putbacks and basket cuts instead of reprising the plodding, inefficient, post-heavy offensive role he played last year.
And although it’s unrealistic to expect Drummond to keep hitting 75 percent from the free-throw line (considering he began the year with a 38.1 percent career rate), it’s likely that he has improved there to some extent — the odds of a “true” 38 percent shooter making 30 of his first 40 free throws are about 1 in 459,000. Maybe his new form at the line really is working.
Drummond isn’t the only Piston holdover playing significantly better ball this year. Jackson has bounced back from his miserable 2016-17 with superior numbers nearly across the board, and his plus/minus impact finally befits a player of his salary and reputation. He and Ish Smith are at last the effective point guard platoon the team expected to get from them going into last season. Forward Tobias Harris has continued to refine his new-school spin on the classic Van Gundy stretch four. Meanwhile, Johnson has taken an encouraging leap forward from his first two NBA seasons, when he was one of the league’s worst regular players.1 He still isn’t burning up the box score (averaging 8.5 points and 3.2 rebounds per game), but Johnson is at least making enough shots to space the floor and play his role with an acceptable level of efficiency.
And as a whole, Detroit is playing a more efficient brand of basketball. A year ago, the Pistons took the league’s second-most midrange shots per game — trailing only the Carmelo Anthony-led Knicks — and the fifth-fewest 3-point shots per game. This season, they’re down to 18th in midrange tries per game and up to 17th in attempted 3s per game. After generating the worst shot quality in basketball last season (according to Second Spectrum), they’ve risen to 17th this year, while making just about as many shots as they deserve to have made. And on defense, Second Spectrum’s tracking data indicates that Detroit is forcing the third-most-difficult set of shots in the league — and that the Pistons’ 14th-place defensive ranking is mainly a result of opponents hitting more shots than they should have (no team in the league has been unluckier in this respect), a trend that ought to reverse itself as the season goes on.
Given all that, these Pistons might have the most staying power of any early surprise team. Ten games in is still pretty early in the season, but we learn a lot about basketball teams in a short amount of time. Since the league last expanded in 2004, teams that start the season 7-3 tend to go on to win about 50 times per 82 games. And even those who finished below .500 the previous year — like Detroit did last season — ended up winning roughly 45 games on average.
Although the East is apparently in flux, it’s still probably premature to suggest the Pistons are poised to make a deep playoff run this season. But for a franchise that has made the playoffs just once in the last eight seasons, even a return to the postseason would represent a successful campaign. And based on the way these Pistons have started off, they’re well on their way.