The NBA season is about 10% over as we enter November. New rules has made offense go up across the board to Doug Moe’s 80’s Nuggets levels. For the Pistons, while the majority of the roster remains the same from the 17-18 season, it was an extremely eventful offseason. Anthony Tolliver, James Ennis, and Eric Moreland were replaced by Zaza Pachulia an Jose Calderon and U of M alum Glenn Robinson III in free agency. Bruce Brown and Khyri Thomas were added via the draft in the 2nd round. Former Piston Grant Hill was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame and re-signed with FILA; two news items that will bring a smile to the faces of fans who remember the 90’s. Stan Van Gundy was replaced on the bench by Dwane Casey and in the front office by Ed Stefanski. Former Piston Tayshaun Prince and Michigan native Shane Battier were considered for front office roles before two time champion Malik Rose was hired.
The dual role of coach and general manager has not worked out well for any who have tried. All the Pistons had to show for the Van Gundy era was a first round sweep as an 8 seed. Expectations were a lot higher for a team that’s consistently had a top 10 payroll and is playing in a shiny new arena. It’s easy to change the seat covers to make the attendance problems less obvious to fans at home. It’s harder to change the culture in an organization that got stuck in a treadmill of mediocrity. That’s why it was time for radical moves. Rebuilding with the intention of securing a high lottery pick was going to be prohibitively difficult in a conference featuring the Hawks, Bulls, Magic, Knicks, and Cavaliers. Making bold moves to enter into the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference wasn’t an option with no cap space or appealing trade chips (there’s a reason no one mentions the Pistons as a Jimmy Butler landing point. There isn’t enough in the cupboard to meet Minnesota’s high demand).
To address this concern, Dwane Casey was brought on board. He was available because of past playoff failures against the Cavaliers. Instead of dwelling on what the Raptors couldn’t accomplish during his tenure, it’s more important to look at what they were able to achieve. The enduring image of the Raptors was annual May slaughter in Cleveland. However, it’s easy to forget that Toronto was a trade away from tanking themselves. They hadn’t come close to a .500 season in the post-Bosh era and looked to be on their way to another losing season. In late 2014 Kyle Lowry was nearly traded to the Knicks. The Raptors wanted to make a run at the presumptive #1 pick in the 2014 draft: Canadian star Andrew Wiggins. Those plans were set aside as the Knicks backed out of the trade and the Raptors started winning. They won the division that year and three more over the next four seasons. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry started making all-star and Olympic teams. And on the sidelines was Dwane Casey, who got the most of his rosters and got his star players to buy in. He became a victim of his own success when his teams simply reached its ceiling. After more than a decade since the last playoff win, and limited roster flexibility due to cap concerns, second and third round exits sound rather appealing.
The new front office deserves kudos for bringing in a coach with a proven track record of maximizing the available talent.
The early results are promising. A familiar refrain this season will be that the East is now wide open. While that is true, it has been for some time. There is a top tier of teams looking to make the Finals: Boston and Toronto with Milwaukee looking to crash the party and the Sixers trying to will themselves into that group. Everything below that is up for grabs, just as its always been. There’s no reason the Pistons shouldn’t aim for a 4-6 seed or better.
— Detroit Pistons (@DetroitPistons) October 16, 2018
That said, the 4-0 start was a bit of fools gold. Three of the first four games were at home against the Nets, Sixers, and Cavaliers with a road game in Chicago mixed in. Only one of those teams is projected to make the playoffs. The fact that it was an incredibly exciting overtime game where Blake Griffin exploded for 50 points, 20-35 from the field with 14 rebounds and 6 assists (although amazingly he shot better from 3 point range, 5/10, than the foul line, 5/11), fueled fan excitement.
FIFTY for @BlakeGriffin23.
Here’s how he did it. pic.twitter.com/XOb56tWg7a
— Detroit Pistons (@DetroitPistons) October 24, 2018
Andre Drummond and Joel Embiid battling on the court and twitter after the game leads to dreams of what drama a 7 game series could bring. But the other wins were also by small margins against teams that have not been competitive so far this season. The Bulls and Cavs are a combined 3-13 to start the season, and while Brooklyn plays hard, they often have a talent deficit.
That’s why the subsequent 3 game losing streak was not a surprise. The Celtics came into Little Caesars Arena and blew the Pistons out last Saturday. Detroit played the Celtics much closer in a rematch in Boston, but ultimately fell 108-105. The losing streak was extended as the Pistons played a back to back in Brooklyn. The game went to overtime, and former Piston Spencer Dinwiddie hit a 3 pointer over the outstretched arms of Andre Drummond to give the Nets a 1 point win.
So what have we learned over the first 7 games? The Pistons are right now a middle of the pack team. They’re 20th in offensive efficiency and 14th in defensive efficiency. Blake Griffin is embracing his role as a scorer and a facilitator and is playing All-Star level basketball. Andre Drummond’s 3 point shot is still somewhat theoretical in actual game play, but he’s averaging more 3 shots per game than he ever has in his career while still leading the league in rebounding and hitting free throws at an over 60% clip. Improvement will come from improved shooting from Reggie Jackson, Reggie Bullock, and Stanley Johnson. All are shooting in the mid 30% range so far this season. Reggie Jackson is still shaking off the rust and returning to his previous form. Stanley Johnson’s shot may be failing him, but he’s played with a different energy that makes you think that the 22 year old is ready to take a step forward and be a real contributor. Luke Kennard has been out but his return will add some much needed shooting to the rotation. The bench is a work in progress. Ish Smith remains as productive and fun to watch as ever, but he’s changed his shot selection this season to maximize his offensive potential. It hasn’t gone unnoticed, with Hoopshype writing an article on this very subject (https://hoopshype.com/2018/11/01/detroit-pistons-ish-smith-midrange-three-pointers/). The rest of the bench is a work in progress, with almost every active player seeing the floor each night. Everyone has contributed and it gives the Pistons the type of depth required to succeed over a long 82 game season.
Congrats Dre! pic.twitter.com/zQHWudB0St
— Detroit Pistons (@DetroitPistons) November 1, 2018
When you see Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson and most of the rest of the team from last year suit up it may seem like Pistons as usual. But there have been a lot of subtle changes on and off the court. Let’s see if they can prove themselves over the next month with a 12 game slate that includes a number of winnable games at home mixed in with road games against the Raptors, Rockets, and a rematch against the Sixers and matchups at Little Caesars Arena against those same Rockets and a Heat team looking to make the playoffs.