By Liam McKeone
There have been a couple of contenders for biggest surprise of the season so far. The Celtics sitting at the top of the conference after Gordon Hayward’s injury and Cleveland’s complete lack of effort in every regard both come to mind, but the Detroit Pistons really take the cake. After missing the playoffs last year, leading many to question if the team should blow it all up, Detroit has come out firing on all cylinders and is sitting comfortably in the No. 2 seat in the Eastern Conference.
When considering what led to the turnaround, all eyes should point to Andre Drummond. The Pistons’ centerpiece, Drummond has taken his game to new heights that none of us have seen in his five years in the league. He’s throwing up absolutely gaudy rebounding numbers, averaging a league-leading 16 per game. However, it’s his defensive effort and rekindled chemistry with Reggie Jackson that has been powering the Detroit engine. After a history of being notably unwilling to go outside his comfort zone and guard players on the perimeter, Drummond has been switching on pick-and-rolls and using his athleticism to hang with much smaller, quicker players near the three-point line. This was a glaring hole in the defense that any team with adequate shooters could take advantage of, and now the team has a gritty identity centered around their defense. This isn’t even mentioning his much-improved free throw shooting, which has risen from hilariously, historically awful to just bad — a big jump for the big man who could barely hit half of his free throws last season.
Things weren’t looking good after Reggie Jackson came back last year from a knee injury. He looked rusty, the team played much better with their backup point guard out there and it was an overall disaster. But Jackson is showing why he’s worth his max contract, and has rounded back into form in 2017. The pick-and-roll with Drummond and Jackson is the bread and butter of Detroit’s offense, and now that both players are rolling, the offense is too.
But one player has been going relatively under the radar as a huge reason for Detroit’s turnaround, and it’s the guy they traded for this offseason. While Avery Bradley’s contributions on the court include his All-NBA defense and knockdown shooting ability, he brings a lot more to the table. He’s a consummate professional who is perfect for a team with younger guys in Drummond, Stanley Johnson and Jackson. He’s a perfect fit for Stan Van Gundy, a coach with a similar mindset and, at times, has had trouble motivating his roster.
It’s been a perfect storm so far in Detroit. The success probably isn’t sustainable; the Pistons work extremely hard, but lack the star power to remain a top-two team in the East for the rest of the season. Cleveland will get it together at some point, Boston will hang around in the upper echelon with Irving and Brad Stevens, and the Bucks and Wizards have true superstars leading them. But Detroit will continue to play hard, commit on the defensive end, and continue to develop the young talent they have. Anything can happen once the playoffs roll around, and while they won’t be a top seed, Detroit will be a tough out for anyone who has the misfortune of playing them.