The Step Back

Five big questions for the surprising Detroit Pistons

We have questions about the NBA. Luckily, we also have answers. Some of them might be useful. A few might even turn out to be right. This is Five Big Questions and this week we touch on everything Detroit Pistons.

Andre Drummond’s career free throw percentage is an abysmal 38.9 percent, but this year he’s hitting 63.9 percent of his free throws. In short, can he keep this up or will be regress to the mean eventually?

Paul Centopani (@PCentopani): This is more than just a blip on the radar, Drummond’s shot at this rate for a solid month now. Maybe a regression is coming, but it’s clear he’s put in work over the offseason. I have faith he’ll stay above 50 percent from the line for the year. I believe in Andre Drummond. I should also disclose I’m a native Connecticutian and that comes with a predisposal to supporting all UConn players past and present.

Rory Masterson (@rorymasterson): Andre Drummond has been self-destructive at the free throw line for the duration of his career. He’s in his sixth season in the NBA. He also shot below 30.0 percent during his single season at UConn. Here’s the chaser, though: he’s also only just turned 24 years old. If you’re older than, say, 26, think about yourself, right now, at 24. That person is completely foreign to what you’ve become. Even going younger, it’s more resounding: compare you at 21 with you at 18. The obvious point is that people change, but more directly, NBA players change because they’ve devoted their lives to this game. Being young and having the ability to adapt go hand-in-hand. It’s worth believing in Drummond for as long as he believes in himself.

Matt Rutkowski (@MontaWorldPeace): We were asking this question back when he was at 75 percent on the year, and then he came in strong with an 0-for-7 game from the line. So I guess the answer is “yes,” depending on when one posed the question. Further regression is possible too, I suppose, but he can still do worse over the rest of this season while still being better than last year.

Jeremy Lambert (@jeremylambert88): He’ll likely regress, while also improving. 38 percent to 63 percent is a Andre Drummond-sized jump. He’s more likely to make a Ish Smith-sized jump by the end of the year. So, we’ll say he’s around 42 percent. That’s still good and means he’s on track to be at 63 percent in about five years.

Trevor Magnotti (@illegalscreens): When you’re shooting that poorly from the line over that amount of sustained time, is there even a mean you can regress to? Essentially Drummond at the line has been a random number generator. That generator has just finally started to crank out positive integers this year. It will continue to do so until it doesn’t, and then it won’t until it does again. There is no rhyme or reason to this. He is an abandoned sailboat lost on the ocean, doomed to be blown in alternating directions until the end of time. Is this the season he reaches shore? Will he stay there if he gets there? Who knows!

Tobias Harris is putting up 20-plus points a night in large part due to his ridiculous 3-point (47.5 percent!!) shooting so far. He’s on pace for 262 made 3s, which clearly won’t happen, but if the over/under is 200 made 3s, which side are you on?

Centopani:  It’s 2017, I’ll believe anything that happens at this point. 200 3’s? Why not 300? He’s essentially the Rashard Lewis in the Pistons’ iteration of Stan Van Gundy’s offense. Harris’ shooting has been white-hot on 6.2 attempts per game. Lewis averaged 7 attempts per game during his All-Star season of 2008-09. So even if Harris comes back to earth, give him an uptick in attempts and… *crunches numbers* …You know what, this is impossible to figure out. Just give me the over.

Masterson: Do you remember, a moment ago, when I was talking about how people change, how young people change and how NBA players in particular change? Go ahead and table that for a minute: Tobias Harris, who is 25, hit a career-high in 3s last year by nailing 109. Now, look — Brook Lopez went from a previous career-high of literally 2 3-pointers made in a season to 134(!) last year. I’m all for the Tobias Harris spacing revolution, and it would only bolster the previous points, which would make me look prescient. For now, though, I’ll say he falls just a whisker shy of 200 on the season, say 197 or so.

Rutkowski: I’m going to go with over. I don’t know if it makes sense, but Marcus Morris being moved out of town seems like it opened up more shots for Tobias than anyone else. He’s currently shooting 6.2 3s per game. Even if his percentage falls a shade below 40 percnt on the year, he’ll still be on pace to hit over 200 3s. That’s with perfect health, but let’s be honest. No one has missed a game in the NBA for like twenty years if I’m remembering correctly.

Lambert: Give me the over because I’m all about preaching Pistons positivity right now. Andre Drummond will improve his free throw percentage and Tobias Harris will go from 109 3-pointers to 209. We live in a world where every non-3 is a bad shot. Harris knows this. The Pistons know this. Harris and the Pistons will take nothing but threes for the rest of the season.

Magnotti: Give me the under, but just barely. He’s shooting a ton right now, which is a positive for the offense because as the team’s best shooter, he draws gravity and bends the defense away from the Reggie Jackson/Drummond pick-and-roll. Even if he slopes off, the process is one that needs to continue for his teammates to continue being effective because of the threat it presents. He should be chucking off the catch any time he gets the ball in the corner or on an outlet out of a pick-and-roll action, and he’ll get to 200 off that easily, even if he cools off.

How has Stan Van Gundy turned this team with just one player over 30-years-old into a winning team after a 37-win season last year?

Centopani: Because youth is taking over the league. Detroit was supposed to be a solid, low-rung Eastern Conference playoff team last season and everything pretty much went wrong. They decided to run it back and they’re seeing positive regression with continuity. I also feel like it’s important to point out, some of their major players — like Drummond and Harris — while young, have each been in the NBA for 6+ years. So Detroit’s youth comes with experience.

Masterson: While Detroit only has one player older than 30 — lest we forget that the player in question is Anthony Tolliver — the Pistons do have a TON of players either in the middle of or at the cusp of their athletic primes. The ages of core Pistons players include: the aforementioned Drummond, 24; the aforementioned Harris, 25; ex-Celtic bloodhound Avery Bradley, 27; a version of Reggie Jackson that has managed not to be a menace to his teammates, 27; Ish Smith, 29; and guys like Reggie Bullock, 26, and Jon Leuer, 28, who soak up bench minutes. The only real blinding injection of youth is — well, we’ll get to that momentarily.

Rutkowski: Bench. Bench bench bench. Langston Galloway, Anthony Tolliver, and bench. Per Basketball-Reference, the Pistons six most-used five-man lineups are a net negative per 100 possessions. Langston Galloway, on the other hand is a +22.3 in the 191 minutes he’s played. Anthony Tolliver is a 21.7 in his 211 minutes. The Pistons best 3-man combination to this point is Ish Smith, Galloway, and Tolliver, and it’s not particularly close. In Thursday night’s loss to the Bucks, it was the bench unit that pulled them back within striking distance, and that momentum seemed to stall once the starters got back on the court. It’s bench. Bench bench bench.

Lambert: Because he’s a good coach. Having a healthy Reggie Jackson helps as well. It’s amazing how teams get better when their point guard looks like a starting point guard and isn’t replaced by Ish Smith (who is great, mind you) throughout the season. Prior to coming to Detroit, Van Gundy had never missed the playoffs as a coach. He’s missed the playoffs in two of his three years in Detroit. He’s too good of a coach to make it three of four and the Pistons have talent peaking at the right time.

Magnotti: Matt’s right about the bench, but so much of this turnaround can be attributed to Reggie Jackson, who the Pistons could have left for dead after last year, and Ish Smith. Jackson was a victim of one of those off-court problems we never totally understand, in my opinion — Getting hurt early on, and then having Smith go nuts in his absence, wrecked his confidence last year. Given a summer to better delineate roles between the two and fix the chemistry issues, Jackson and Smith both appear more comfortable in what they do for this team this year. Since this position drives so much of Detroit’s offense, I have to attribute most of the credit for this start to those two.

Stanley Johnson was injected into the starting lineup this season and while his impact has been felt, he’s struggled offensively. Can he still be a serviceable offensive option?

Centopani: I guess that depends on your definition of serviceable. Expecting nightly contributions of 6-12 points from him is fair. He’s the fifth scoring option for this team, so anything in that range is fine. He’s a tough, athletic defender who’s shooting 32.5 percent from 3 and still just 21 years old. I think he’ll eventually bump that percentage up and raise his value on the offensive end. He just needs to become semi-reliable.

Masterson: Generally, I am of the opinion that any player can be made into a “serviceable offensive option,” Andre Roberson notwithstanding. That Stanley Johnson is a decent, not great, free throw shooter enables him to be a key player in close games down the stretch; it isn’t a “Hack-A-” situation. Where he’s fallen short this year, and where he can improve in order to further Detroit’s cause, is in his playmaking ability — his assists-per-36-minutes are at a career-low, as is his assist percentage, although his true shooting percentage is at a peak. If there’s anything Marcus Smart has taught us, it’s that effective playmaking and an ability to see the floor can turn any pumpkin into a chariot on offense.

Rutkowski: If you take away Johnson’s historic opening night performance, he’s 48.5 percent from the field and 38 percent from three. I’d consider that serviceable. Even if you include opening night he’s still shooting better than Marcus Smart from both the field and from 3. He’s also doing it with about a third of Smart’s turnovers. That isn’t relevant at all, but I wanted to mention it. I’m going to call that serviceable.

Lambert: Andre Roberson was, and is still, a starter for a team that was one game from the NBA Finals. If he can be turned into a serviceable starter, anyone with a hint of basketball IQ and athleticism can be turned into a serviceable starter. Stanley Johnson is a NBA player. He has a basketball IQ and athleticism. Thus, Stanley Johnson can be a serviceable starter.

Magnotti: He can, absolutely. We overvalue individual scoring and shooting when we talk about the overall value of a player to an offense as a fourth or fifth option. Johnson doesn’t shoot well and he’s not going to get you buckets, but he can cut, and he’s a great screener allowing the Pistons to do some fun stuff with 1-3 and 3-4 pick-and-roll. While he doesn’t distribute that often, he has been a good decision-maker when he does this year, and has a career-low turnover rate because of it. He can obviously improve, but the Pistons just need Johnson to not be a negative right now, and he’s providing value by doing all the little things.

This team is very young and eight of their first 13 games were at home. Are they a real contender in the East against the likes of the Cavaliers, Celtics, Raptors and Wizards?

Centopani: Their 10-4 start is definitely promising, but let’s not get crazy here. I like them to make the playoffs, but they’ll still get waxed in a series against Boston or Cleveland. If they can avoid either of those, I’d like to see how they’d fare against the second tier of the East. To be clear, I don’t think they’d win against those teams either, but I’d be interested in watching it play out.

Masterson: As far as actually winning the East goes, not just yet. They are certainly on their way, though, and could knock off an unsuspecting team or two in the playoffs. 14 games does not a title contender make, but if some of what we’ve discussed holds, and especially if it can sustain into next season and beyond, the Pistons may very well be a burgeoning Eastern Conference force, helping to shape a potentially post-LeBron world.

Rutkowksi: No. Very no. But they’re fun, and you don’t often get to say that about the Pistons. Even when they were good, they weren’t especially entertaining. This team, for whatever reason, is. That matters more to me right now. Maybe a couple years down the line they can be more.

Lambert: They’re not on the level of Boston or Playoff LeBron Cleveland. But what’s stopping them from competing with the Raptors or the Wizards? The only thing those two teams have over them are more playoff failures. I would favor both teams over the Pistons in a series, but I also wouldn’t call you crazy if you thought the Pistons could beat them.

Magnotti: This team probably isn’t a playoff threat, for the same reasons that a Cleveland team that was actively shaking rust off in 2016 dispatched them in four games. But in the regular season, this team is a problem, and they’ll compete for a playoff spot probably in the 4-6 range at the end of the day. They’re a lot like Atlanta last year — a team definitely punching above its weight class on the back of *actually trying,* good coaching and a few stellar performances. And that’s good compared to where this team was a year ago.

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