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NBA PM: Detroit Pistons Off to a Surprisingly Strong Start

The Pistons have gotten off to a strong start for a variety of reasons. James Blancarte breaks it down.

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In the 2015-2016 season, the Detroit Pistons signed point guard Reggie Jackson to a handsome $80 million, five-year contract that would cement his role as a cornerstone and leader of the franchise. At the same time, the team had allowed forward/center Greg Monroe to leave and sign with the Milwaukee Bucks. The team would bank much of its success on the pairing of Jackson and Andre Drummond. The team then reached the playoffs for the first time since 2008-2009 but lost in the first round.

Last season the Detroit Pistons dealt with much adversity. The team came into that season with high expectations and hoped that the continued pairing of Drummond and  Jackson would continue to yield success. Yet Jackson dealt with lingering knee tendinitis issues all year and the team regressed. Finishing the season with a losing record, the Pistons failed to make it back to the playoffs.

This season, the Pistons are on a tear. Although the season is young, they are in second place in the Eastern Conference, ahead of elite teams such as the Washington Wizards and Toronto Raptors. With roster changes, better health and internal improvement, the team has gotten off to a strong start.

To begin the season, Jackson confirmed that he had spent the offseason focusing on the health of his knee and that he feels healthy.

“With my knee, I’m feeling good. With the health of it, I’m feeling great.” Jackson said in September. “I just got to do the best I can to take care of it. The team is doing a great job of monitoring it. I’ve had no setbacks. I’m on pace, which is to be ready by training camp.”

So far Jackson has played in every game. Point guard Ish Smith continues to serve as the back-up point guard and a spark plug for the team. Having Smith and Jackson gives the team two strong options at the point.

Count Drummond’s free throw shooting as one of the many factors that have helped this team so far as well. Now in his sixth season, Drummond is a career 38.9 percent free throw shooter. Big men are often sub-par free throw shooters but Drummond’s shooting is among the worst in history and has been an issue throughout his career. Despite being so physically imposing and athletic, Drummond can often shy away from contact instead of seeking it, which prevents him from earning more free throw attemps than he probably should. The team recently set a franchise record after hitting only one of three free-throws in a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers (two of the three total free-throws came in garbage time).

Drummond spent the summer dedicated to improving his accuracy at the charity stripe and the work has paid off so far as he is currently shooting 75 percent from the line. Drummond recently spoke about the work he put into improving his accuracy after a recent win over the Bucks.

“It’s a testament to the work I put in throughout the summer, over the years, not even just the summer, throughout the years. The hard work I put into finding something that really works for me, feeling mentally strong if I do miss a shot to come back and knock down the next after that.” Drummond stated. “It’s just mental toughness. Being ready at all times to shoot the same shot.”

Once again healthy, Jackson and Andre Drummond have rekindled the success they had previously shared together. Head Coach Stan Van Gundy likes to build his team around a dynamic point guard, a big man who can score and facilitate down low in addition to loading the team this with shooters and secondary playmakers.  This formula makes the Jackson/Drummond pairing crucial to the team’s success on offense.

When the Pistons made the playoffs two seasons ago, the pair sported a 1.6 net rating over the course of the season. Last year, of all potential two-man line-ups, the pairing sported the third worst net rating for a pair, loggina a -3.3 net rating. This was one of the major reasons why last season’s team fell so short of expectations. This year, the pair is currently logging 24.4 minutes a game together and sport a -0.6 net rating. While a slightly negative net rating is somewhat concerning, there have been significant signs indicating that this pairing is still trending up.

Of note, Drummond has also shown much greater willingness to facilitate and feed his teammates the ball. Drummond has a career average of only 0.8 assists per game and last season averaged over one assist (1.1 per game) for the first time in his career. This season, he is currently averaging 2.7 assists per game.

The team also lost its two leaders in minutes per game from last season, guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and forward Marcus Morris. Offseason acquisition Avery Bradley has successfully stepped into Caldwell-Pope’s place as a secondary scorer and defender for the team. In addition, third year forward Stanley Johnson has stepped up his play with a starting role (he only started one game last season) to go along with his increase in minutes. Also, veteran journeyman forward and new addition Anthony Tolliver has played well in his usual role as a servicable backup. Forward Tobias Harris provides stability and continues to play a large role with the team, now leading the team in minutes per game.

What remains to be seen is whether potential trade rumors has any effect on the team. Basketball Insiders recently reported initial trade rumors centering on Jackson and disgruntled Phoenix point guard Eric Bledsoe. Van Gundy, who serves as both the coach and president of basketball operations, recently attempted to refute the alleged reports.

Despite the rumors, the Pistons are still in a in a good position moving forward. The Eastern Conference in is flux with the conference-leading Boston Celtics relying on an almost entirely new roster and a number of very young players, and the Cleveland Cavaliers in early season turmoil. It’s not clear just how far this team can go this season, but there is potential for them to make more noise in the Eastern Conference than anyone reasonably expected entering this season.

James Blancarte is a writer for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney based in Los Angeles, California.

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