During the 2003-2004 NBA season, a bunch of ragtag veterans in Detroit shocked a star-laden team from Los Angeles by relying on stellar defense and smart, team-first basketball. They counteracted their below-league-average points per game scoring average and low field goal percentage by playing to their unique strengths, and doing it as one. This was the epitome of a “team.”
Flash-forward 10 years and a lot has changed in Detroit: after suffering through some tough seasons due mostly in part to poor team management and drafting, the Pistons finally entered the offseason with some cap space. Pistons brass seemed committed to recapturing that “lightning in a bottle” one decade later. They, like a few other teams (the Wizards, Pelicans, Cavaliers, and Mavs in particular) had their sights set on returning to the playoffs for the first time in the past few seasons (excluding the Mavs, of course). In today’s NBA, there are really only two ways to build a playoff team: through the draft slowly or by poaching other team’s best players in free agency (or some mix of the two, i.e. the Pacers). Both can be challenging in their own right, but for demanding owners, free agency is the way to go.
So this offseason Detroit went out and signed the second or third-best free agent (depending on whether or not you think Chris Paul was really entertaining leaving the Clippers) and dealt for a high-profile point guard capable of facilitating or finding his own shot. They add into the mix their two young big men: a freakishly athletic center whose a legitimate double-double threat, plus 2-3 blocks a night threat, and a lanky power forward with increasing range, above average passing ability, and high basketball I.Q. Sound at all familiar?
With this sweeping overhaul comes many questions, some of the biggest being: can the combination of Josh Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond play extended minutes together effectively? How are Brandon Jennings and Smith adjusting to their new roles and team? (Both were in situations where they were at least sharing alpha dog status) Is Greg Monroe a part of their long-term plans? Who will step up and become their three-point threat?
While I’m not ready to call for another banner to be made in D-Town just yet, the talent is there to make some noise when the playoffs come around. But for that to happen, this year’s Pistons have to take some advice from that decade-old Pistons team and accept their individual shortcomings and play to their collective strengths. Let’s take a look at some of the early observations of Detroit this season.
As I am writing this, the Pistons record stands at 2-2, having beaten Washington and Boston, and having lost to Indiana and Memphis. What does that say about them? I think it says that they’re neither a top or bottom-level team. While each game has been relatively close (a slow start against Indiana prevented a Pistons comeback, and they took a tough Memphis team into overtime after giving up a lead late in the game). So, they’re beating teams we expect them to beat, and playing the better teams tough.
The statistics reflect the “Pistons are above-average” mantra: they’re the 13th-most efficient offense at 99.3 points per 100 possessions, and the 10th-most efficient defense, giving up 98.6 points per 100 possessions. They actually are scoring more than most predicted; they’re tied for 12th in PPG (99.8 for them while holding opponents to 97.3 per game). While they score a relatively high number of points, they aren’t doing it together; they only assist on a bucket 18.5 times per game (20th in the league), and they turn the ball over… a lot: 18.8 times per game (sixth-highest)! Yes, you read that right. The Pistons have a negative turnover ratio.
But where they really stand out is on the glass. Detroit has the fifth-highest rebound differential rate in the league, out-rebounding opponents by 3.3 a game! They hit the offensive glass (13.8 offensive rebounds per game, good enough for third), which makes up for their poor performance on the defensive glass (29.0 per game, fifth-lowest) and is a necessity when you feature inefficient shooters like Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith.