Is it possible that Stan Van Gundy has no interest in replicating the wildly successful, four-out style he put around Dwight Howard to take Orlando to the 2009 NBA Finals? Because these Detroit Pistons do not look like that Magic team. These guys are friggin; tough. And they love to get to the rim.
After watching the Pistons take on the Atlanta Hawks last night, I came away thoroughly impressed with the job SVG has been doing in Detroit. Sure, they lost to the Hawks at home in what was pretty much a must-win game to take a firmer hold against the Chicago Bulls for the 8th seed in the playoffs. But the Hawks are an experienced, veteran team – beginning to recapture the magic of last year’s 60 win Eastern Conference Finals squad that boasted a league-best four All-Stars. The Hawks team that has a true heir to Gregg Poppovich, second in last year’s coach of the year balloting and that has been stifling opponents with the league’s 2nd best defense. Atlanta has tasted success; Detroit is starting to put it all together.
Oh yeah, but this team put up 32 points against that league 2nd best defense in the opening frame. And if you look at a smaller guy like Marcus Morris starting at power forward and assume Van Gundy has simply decided to surround the potent Reggie Jackson-Andre Drummond pick and roll combo with three capable wing shooters, you realize these guys are doing all their damage inside, beating up on an undersized Hawks team and bullying their way to the free throw line. Tobias Harris in particular showed off an explosive first step that was far too quick for Paul Millsap to guard, swooping in to the basket several times for 11 points in the first quarter. (Also, as a quick sidebar, many NBA analysts I really respect have decried the public need to “grade” trades right away without letting things develop. Well, I’m grading this one! The Pistons absolutely fleeced the Magic to pry away the swingman Harris who is still just 23 years old).
There’s just a toughness emanating from this team, be it the bearded shouting of Morris or the bulldog rookie Stanley Johnson off the bench, or even just their grizzled no-bullshit coach. It’s not hard to look at the defensive prowess of third year player Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and the length Reggie Jackson has at point guard and imagine that this team could morph into the kind of rangy, switch-everything athletic line-up that made Milwaukee such a nightmare to score on last year (yup, not comparing them to the equally switch-happy Golden State. Let’s all calm down a little). While they’re somewhere around the middle of the pack defensively this year, that’s up seven slots from 2014-2015 as the front office has realized that excising bricky, ground-bound behemoths like Josh Smith and Greg Monroe from the rotation has given Andre Drummond free rein to terrorize the glass.
It certainly does all come back to Drummond, who leads the league in double-doubles and is the first player since Dennis Rodman to average 15 rebounds in a season. Van Gundy gives Drummond the freedom to chase offensive boards as well, and the Pistons sit second in the league in both that statistic and in the closely-related second chance points. A key factor, if somewhat overlooked, to the Detroit pick-and-roll games is the gigantic portion of Jackson’s misses that Drummond is able to corral. Hell, watching the game last night, a terrible Marcus Morris three point miss turned into an easy two as the big man just swallowed up the smaller Horford for the put-back.
Of course a strength on one end is frequently a weakness on the other and Drummond had a ton of difficulty with Horford’s speed and outside touch over the course of the game. No surprise really, as Al is one of the craftier and more versatile bigs in the game (also due for a massive contract this offseason), but the matchup highlighted just how much of an old-school center Drummond is. That, and the hack-a-Howard strategy that Atlanta used later in the contest to seriously deflate Detroit’s momentum and possibly salt the game away. Everyone can argue about the aesthetics, but it’s a viable strategy and a glaring weakness in Drummond’s game that he should be able to address (just 60% C’mon!) with a serious summer in the gym.
Another glaring weakness the Pistons have at the moment is at backup point guard where Dennis Schroeder took Steve Blake’s lunch money all night long. I kept looking up at the screen and wondering why Teague would even get minutes over the German back-up sensation, who has been having somewhat of a down season. Welp, turns out it’s easy for Schroeder to pad those numbers when going up against a 36 year old white guy on his 8th different team (not even counting the teams he went back to in his career). I know Brandon Jennings was a necessary sacrifice to bring in Harris, but look for this as the key area Detroit will improve on in the offseason. (Another side-note, I LOVE Stanley Johnson and don’t think it’s crazy to think he’ll be a better player than Justise Winslow who gets a lot more buzz. Winslow played three positions yesterday: his natural small-forward, a small-ball power four, AND shooting guard where he played ball handler for Blake who played off ball. I trust Stan to get the most out of this kid going forward).
I don’t mean to keep ending these articles about Eastern Conference playoff hopefuls who are not there juuuuust quite yet, but sadly that’s where all these guys are. Outside of Toronto (and even that’s a stretch), there just aren’t any challengers to Cleveland this year. Detroit in particular is in for a rude smoking if they do hold on to the 8th seed (Chicago also lost last night!). Their strengths just don’t match up well with Cleveland, who also rebounds the ball well and can stick Shumpert on Jackson without a mismatch on the other side of the court. But if you think about team-building in four or five year windows (which everyone outside of Golden State, San Antonio, and Cleveland should be doing anyway) Lebron won’t be good forever. The East is heating up (FINALLY!) and in just a couple of years all of those Detroits and Charlottes and Bostons will have more than enough ammunition to come after the King.
Let’s just hope that the Pistons are the team to do it. I really like watching these guys.