This NBA season is full of surprises, but few expected the Detroit Pistons’ hot start.
Last year’s Pistons were a one-dimensional team under Coach Stan Van Gundy. They allowed 105.3 points per 100 possessions (11th best) but were not a threat at the other end of the court, scoring just 103.3 points per 100 possessions, the sixth-least efficient offense in the NBA. Andre Drummond, the team’s centerpiece, showed promise early in his career but turned in three straight disappointing seasons from 2014-15 to 2016-17. Point guard Reggie Jackson had the highest usage on the team (26.4 percent), but scored just 0.89 points per possession, ranking him 49th out of 54 guards playing at least 800 possessions. In fact, Jackson was so bad that the team’s net rating with him on the court (minus-8.8) was significantly worse than it was with him on the bench (plus-1.8). In addition, Detroit took too many inefficient shots from mid range (24.7 per game, the third most last season), oftentimes grinding the offense to a halt.
Now, the Pistons are 10-3, off to their best start since going 15-3 in 2005-06, and second behind the streaking Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference. As of Sunday night, the Pistons have quality wins over the Golden State Warriors and L.A. Clippers on the road plus a five-win home stand, showing this shouldn’t be considered a fluke.
One of Detroit’s most noticeable improvements is Drummond’s free throw percentage, with a change in form nearly doubling his success rate in just one season.
Drummond has improved in other areas, too. His offense is more focused around putbacks and cuts to the basket (46 percent of possessions) rather than trying to post up opponents as he did last season, resulting in 0.92 points per possession in the half court, up from .88 points per possession in 2016-17. His assist rate is at a career high (14.1 percent), as is his league-leading rebound rate (26.4 percent) and Box Plus/Minus (6.1 BPM), a box score estimate of the points per 100 possessions a player contributed above a league-average player, translated to an average team. That’s made him the eighth-most valuable player this year per Basketball Reference’s wins above replacement.
Jackson is no longer a drain on the offense, either. His net rating on the court is plus-6.7, highest among starters, and drops to plus-2.5 when he is on the bench, thanks, in part, to a career-high effective shooting percentage (49.7 percent) in addition to being more efficient as the ballhandler on the pick and roll. Among the 10 guards handling the ball on at least 100 possessions, only Kemba Walker of the Charlotte Hornets has been a more efficient scorer.
More shots at the rim plus 28.2 three-point shots per game have caused the team’s midrange shot attempts to drop to 15.5 per game, raising Detroit’s effective field goal percentage (52.5 eFG percent) to its highest level since Van Gundy took over as coach in 2014-15.
Detroit’s defense, meanwhile, is as stingy as ever. Its 102.4 defensive rating is the 10th best and the best under Van Gundy, with above-average ranks against spot-up shooters — especially those who attempt jump shots off the dribble or within 17 feet of the basket — and players who roll to the basket on pick-and roll plays.
Perhaps the small sample size of 13 games is worrisome for you, but it shouldn’t be. We learn quickly how good an NBA team is after only a handful of games, and even if we were to regress Detroit’s win-loss record to the mean we would be left with a club estimated to win 52 games. If we instead used the team’s points scored and allowed to determine how good the Pistons are, we would see a team capable of winning 57 games. In other words, this Detroit team, barring injuries, is going to be one of the better clubs for the remainder of the season, and a force to be reckoned with in the Eastern Conference.
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