Muscled Up

Backboard-dominant Pistons barely resemble team that opened 0-8

The Pistons have improved their ability to score inside, and it shows in the Win column.
Allen Einstein/NBAE/Getty Images
Remember the first eight games? Of course you do. The Pistons lost all of them. And they didn’t just get beat, they got beat up – outrebounded per game by an average of 7.5, outscored in the paint by 5.7 points.

Now look at their last eight games. They’re outrebounding opponents by a whopping 12.8 a game, outscoring them in the paint by 11.9 per game.

That’s not just incremental improvement, that’s going from the proverbial 98-pound weakling to the bouncer at the hottest nightclub in town.

Lawrence Frank has preached since before meeting a single one of his players about the need to establish a team identity. Is it possible the Pistons are on their way to becoming a power team?

“We’ll see,” Frank said. “There’s still a lot of things to find out. That’s why it’s a long journey. There’s a lot of evolving parts. Your team will take you on different journeys.”

The journey has been a lot more pleasant of late. The Pistons are 6-1 in their last seven games and are on a four-game winning streak. Some of that can be attributed to the schedule – four straight home games, back-to-back games against the 4-27 Washington Wizards to open the stretch – but there’s no one who’d question that the Pistons are vastly improved and vastly different in appearance than the team that came out of the chute.

Three of their last four wins have come against Miami, Milwaukee and Atlanta, conference opponents a cumulative 25 games above .500.

The desultory numbers of their 0-8 start included, the Pistons still rank No. 7 in the NBA in rebounding percentage at 51.7. Over their first eight games, that number was 45.5 percent; over their last eight, it’s a dominant 57 percent. They haven’t been outrebounded once in the last eight games and only twice in that stretch have they not outrebounded their opponent by double digits. Only once in their last eight have they been outscored in the paint, and that by the slightest of margins, 58-56, in the double-overtime loss at Atlanta.

What possibly explains going from one extreme to the other in less than half of an NBA season?

“Effort, focus, purpose,” Frank said to begin a litany of foundational reasons. “Attacking the paint. Some of it is being relentless with your effort, some of it is when you move the ball and you attack inside-out you’re going to force teams to be in rotation. Some of it was a byproduct of that second unit’s pick-and-roll attack. Some of it was Greg (Monroe) and (Jason Maxiell) and that unit attacking the glass. Some of it is missing your own shots and getting ’em back. Some is in transition.

“Each game is a little bit different. I wouldn’t say there’s one reason, but that’s the reason why we’ve won some of these games.”

To be certain, rookie Andre Drummond’s expanding role has had an effect on the Pistons in both statistical categories.

The ground he covers and the rebounds he grabs above the crowd have helped the Pistons become a more sound team defensively. The Pistons are still just No. 19 in the league in points in the paint allowed, but those numbers are trending in the right direction, as well. They allowed 49.3 points in the paint per game over the first eight, 36.6 over their last eight. For the season, they’ve scored 44.9 per game in the paint and yielded 41.4.

And over the last 26 seasons, Drummond is No. 3 among all rookies over that time – behind only Roy Tarpley and Charles Oakley – in rebounding percentage.

In Friday’s win over Atlanta, Maxiell grabbed 10 boards, Monroe and Drummond nine apiece. The Pistons attempted more than 50 percent more shots in the paint (52-34) than Atlanta, a team that thrives in transition and goes heavy on pick-and-roll offense.

The Pistons will continue to evolve as the season unfolds, and the future beyond that. But this much appears certain: With Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe both central to that future, it’s a good bet that the identity they eventually adopt will look a lot more like these last eight games than those first eight.