The Detroit Pistons currently sport a 12-14 record, with a negative point differential, against just the 12th-toughest schedule in the NBA so far through the 2013-14 season. They've dropped four of their last six games and haven't been over .500 since opening night, when they defeated the Washington Wizards. Statistically speaking, they're firmly in the league's "muddled middle" in terms of both offensive and defensive efficiency.
So why, pray tell, would I spend my (not so) precious time pontificating about the Pistons?
Because their last win stands as the only blemish on the Indiana Pacers' otherwise perfect home record. Because, the night before that, Detroit came within a Damian Lillard buzzer-beater of taking the Western Conference-leading Portland Trail Blazers to overtime. Because a week-and-a-half prior, the Pistons became just the second visitor to upend the Miami Heat on their home floor—and did so in rather emphatic fashion.
And because, slowly but surely, the Pistons are starting to resemble the exciting, young team that so many expected them to be when the current campaign began. As head coach Maurice Cheeks said after his team's win in Indy via The Associated Press: "It's impressive the way we came in and competed with the way the Pacers have been playing. We have a good basketball team."
When talking about the Pistons, I'm pretty much obligated to start with Andre Drummond. The 20-year-old center didn't rest on his laurels after a summer spent frolicking with iCarly star Jennette McCurdy (pour one out for Andrette McCurmond).
Instead, he's asserted himself as the second coming of Dwight Howard, poor free-throw shooting and all. Check out the numbers each put up through the first 26 games of his sophomore season:
Dwight was a far superior free-throw shooter—and got to the line nearly twice as often as Drummond has—but didn't convert from the field at nearly the same rate that 'Dre has to this point.
To be sure, it helps that Drummond's taken more than 97 percent (!!!) of his shots within a few feet of the rim, whereas Howard wound up with a relatively meager 85 percent of his in that space over the course of his second season.
Which is to say, Drummond's been finishing his dunks and layups at a better rate than did a perennial All-Star pivot at the same stage in his career.
On the whole, 'Dre ranks in the top four in the entire league in both rebounding (12.6 boards per game) and field-goal percentage (.621).
Not that this should surprise anyone. His per-36-minute numbers this season are nearly identical to those he posted as a rookie:
And it's not as though 'Dre's boards all come easily, either. According to NBA.com's SportVU stats, Drummond ranks fourth among his peers in rebounds per chance and leads everyone in contested caroms with 5.7 per contest.
(By the way, 8.6 of Dwight's second-best 13.2 boards have come uncontested. Just sayin'.)
Drummond's effort and effectiveness aren't limited to dunks and rebounds, though. Those same SportVU cameras have caught 'Dre turning away 53.2 percent of his opponents' field-goal attempts at the rim.
Or to put it more conventionally, Drummond's holding his foes to 46.8 percent shooting near the hoop.
His 3.1 combined blocks and steals aren't too shabby, either.
But while Drummond may be the most exciting piece of the puzzle in the Motor City, he's hardly the only one responsible for the Pistons' prospective success.
No Piston has caught more flak for the early gulf between the team's expectations and results than has Josh Smith—and rightfully so. Through his first 26 games in Detroit, Smith has averaged a career-high 4.2 three-point attempts per game...and converted just 26.4 percent of them.
That pace didn't slow all that much during his last two outings, when he piled up 31 points against Portland and another 30 at Indy's expense, going 1-of-6 from beyond the arc between the two.
On the bright side, he's done a much better job in those two games of playing to his strength: post play. Of his 46 attempts in those two games, 16 came on the block—nearly 35 percent, far outstripping his 20.2-percent mark on the season, per Synergy Sports.
You can understand, though, why J-Smoove has so often resorted to hoisting those ghastly long twos and threes. For the most part, he's had to steer clear of the paint to make sure Drummond and Greg Monroe have space to operate.
Oh, right, Greg Monroe. Arguably the NBA's most forgettable young talent, Monroe has strung together a solid season so far. When he's not busy being bandied about in trade speculation, the fourth-year forward out of Georgetown has found time to average 15 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.1 assists while shooting 51.5 percent from the floor.
Not bad by any means, but not exactly the making of a borderline All-Star, which appeared to be Monroe's destiny just a couple years ago.
The same could just as easily be said of Brandon Jennings, who's tread water (more or less) ever since dropping 55 points on the Golden State Warriors as a rookie. Jennings' time in Detroit got off to a slow start after suffering through a broken jaw, though the Los Angeles native has picked it up of late. The Pistons haven't lost a game in which Jennings tallied double-digit assists since Nov. 22, going 5-0 over that span.
Jennings, though, hasn't been the best guard at head coach Maurice Cheeks' disposal. That honor, to this point, belongs to Rodney Stuckey, who's bounced back nicely from an abysmal 2012-13 campaign to average 15.2 points on 46 percent shooting off the Pistons' bench.
A bench from which Will Bynum's waterbugginess at point guard has come in handy, as well.
As relatively rosy as all of this may seem on the surface, the Pistons still have a long way to go before they can comfortably call themselves a success this season. They're still two games under .500, with a defense that, however improved from its rough start, has been torched for over 100 points in four of the team's last six outings.
The fit up front between Drummond, Smith and Monroe remains tenuous at best and an outright logjam, at worst. It's tough enough to find space in the middle to accommodate three such behemoths, much less with a collection of players who've hit just 31.2 percent of their threes this season, the second-worst mark in the entire league.
The ever-shifting situation at shooting guard—between Chauncey Billups (an over-the-hill veteran), Kyle Singler (an overmatched glue guy) and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (a doe-eyed rookie)—hasn't helped matters any.
And as long as we're on the topic of terrible shooting, it's only a matter of time before teams start punishing Drummond for his feeble performance at the foul line.
There's plenty of opportunity for this team to improve before all is said and done. Monroe, who will be a restricted free agent come July, is an attractive, young trade chip who could be packaged in a trade for, say, a competent perimeter threat at shooting guard (former Piston Arron Afflalo, perhaps?).
That would, in essence, free Detroit from the tyranny of the Drummond-Monroe-Smith trio. According to NBA.com, the Pistons have allowed a whopping 109 points per 100 possessions whenever those three share the floor—more than the Utah Jazz's league-worst defense.
Take Monroe out of the equation, though, and the Pistons' picture improves considerably. According to NBAwowy.com, Detroit has allowed a respectable 101.5 points per 100 possessions (with an opponent effective field-goal percentage of 47.4) in the 131 minutes that Drummond and Smith have played without Monroe in the lineup. That's a borderline top-10 mark in today's NBA.
Better yet, that arrangement has seen the Pistons score 115.1 points per 100 possessions, which would blow the Portland Trail Blazers' league-leading offense out of the water. This makes intuitive sense: Without Monroe, there's more room in the middle of the floor for Drummond-centric pick-and-rolls and Smith post-ups, among other enticing actions within the Pistons' offense.
Fans in Michigan can only hope that long-time GM Joe Dumars has caught wind of these developments and is already working the phones to reshuffle things accordingly.
Current flaws and all, the Pistons have made massive strides toward respectability. Their current record may not seem like much, but it sure beats the combined mark of 111-312 (.356 winning percentage) they posted over the previous four seasons.
None of which (surprise, surprise) ended with a trip to the playoffs. This one figures to, with Detroit, the eighth-youngest team in the league, currently owning the fifth seed in the East.
The Pistons needn't apologize for the putridity of the conference around them. They, too, are getting their act together, and should have a much more respectable record before the season is through.
Which—sample sizes be damned—their success against some of the best teams in the NBA of late would suggest.
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