DA's Morning Tip

Staying course perfect fuel in Detroit Pistons' surprising turnaround

Crew from 37-win team in 2016-17 doing most of driving in Detroit's revival

David Aldridge

It would have been so easy to blow it up.

The Detroit Pistons misfired (sorry) in 2016-17. The team that won 44 games and looked like it was set to be a mainstay in the Eastern Conference for years — all its key players had been, by design, given long-term contracts, the franchise of the belief it would be difficult to lure free agents to Detroit — regressed last season, falling to 37-45 and falling to 10th in the East.

There were rumblings that the Pistons were shopping center Andre Drummond, whose free throw calamities made it impossible for coach Stan Van Gundy to play him down the stretch of games, and they wanted to move point guard Reggie Jackson. But they couldn’t find any takers.

Maybe it wasn’t by choice. Maybe there wasn’t a deal that made sense. But the Pistons didn’t move either man. They decided they could improve best from within. They opted to stay the course — with some key additions — and come back with most of their core group from last season.

When we were in L.A. (working out together before training camp), we went to dinner and we said, the season we had, if you call it straight, if you looked at us like a stock, everybody’s stock was down. Because we didn’t win.”

Pistons forward Tobias Harris

So far, their collective bet on their guys has paid off. Detroit has been the league’s biggest surprise so far this season. And in doing so, they bet on their guys getting better.

“In the business world, and in this business, too, that’s what it usually comes down to: (if) things aren’t going right, then change is of the essence,” said forward Tobias Harris, having an All-Star caliber season. “As a player, you don’t want to get traded. I’ve been traded. I’ve gone to good situations, but you still don’t want to go through that process. I think everybody had that mentality in the locker room. That kind of molded us together even more. When we were in L.A. (working out together before training camp), we went to dinner and we said, the season we had, if you call it straight, if you looked at us like a stock, everybody’s stock was down. Because we didn’t win.”

A tough four-game road swing this weekend started with losses at Washington and Philadelphia. But the Pistons are still in fourth place in the East this morning at 14-8, with a starting unit that’s been as productive as any in basketball.

Van Gundy has revamped Detroit’s offense. Gone are the endless elbow pick and rolls between Jackson and Drummond, which led to a lot of stagnation — last season, the Pistons were 25th in Offensive Rating, 24th in Pace, 27th in Effective Field Goal percentage and 30th — DFL — in True Shooting percentage.

In their place is almost a five-out, zero-in motion offense, with Drummond facing the basket most possessions. He’s facilitating through a series of dribble handoffs and off-ball cuts by guards like Avery Bradley (acquired from Boston in a July trade for Marcus Morris). The DHOs get guards like Jackson going downhill, make Drummond more impactful offensively as a rim runner, and clear out space for Detroit’s vastly improved perimeter shooters — Harris, free-agent pickup Anthony Tolliver (36.5 percent on 3-pointers) and first-round pick Luke Kennard (41.5 percent on 3-pointers).

Through Dec. 4, Detroit is 10th in Offensive Rating, 19th in Pace, ninth in Effective Field Goal percentage and 13th in True Shooting percentage.

“My entire coaching staff felt like that, that we needed to get more movement,” Van Gundy said Friday. “I had my brother (Jeff, the former Knicks coach and current ABC/ESPN analyst) do a lot of work on us. And he watches every game now and gives us a report. And he’s been extremely strong on me, even through the preseason and early season games, when he thought I went away from it at times. Like, ‘you’ve got to be committed to the movement,’ and everything else. And we’ve developed more and more simple stuff, but more and more different alignments and looks with it. He’s pushed me hard on all of that. Pretty smart guy.”

The Pistons have not puffed up their record with cupcake wins. They’ve beaten both the Golden State Warriors and Boston Celtics on the road, with Drummond dominating the Celtics with 26 points and 22 rebounds last Monday. They’ve beaten the Minnesota Timberwolves and Oklahoma City Thunder.

“We thought we had to add 3-point shooting, ball movement, get back to a toughness factor with the group. Because we didn’t think the way we finished was really who they were,” General Manager Jeff Bower said. “A lot of it was we looked at how they had played the year before as a group, and we looked at what was different last year compared to that. And it was a different group. The health of Reggie Jackson changed the group a lot. His ability to win games in the fourth quarter the year before, when he was one of the leading scorers in clutch minutes in the fourth quarter, that had a big part of us winning 44 games.”

Jackson only played 52 games last season, suffering from left knee tendinitis that required PRP injections but never allowed him to be at his best. Eventually, the Pistons shut him down for the season in March. And Jackson’s absence wore down top reserve guard Ish Smith.

Now, Jackson’s back. NBAMiner.com ranks him 7th in the league this season in clutch points (defined as points in the last five minutes of a game in which neither team is ahead by more than five points) with 37, ahead of the likes of Russell Westbrook, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and Jimmy Butler. With defenses forced to devote men and materiel to Jackson, there’s all kinds of room for Drummond and others to operate.

Among starting forwards, Harris ranks in the top 40 in Offensive Rating (109.1) and Effective Field Goal percentage (.575) and 14th in True Shooting percentage (.601). He had 31 points in the win in Boston, making five of six 3-pointers.

“A lot of that is determined just by the way we’re playing offensively,” Harris said. “It’s kind of like, at times, you’re going to have to choose who you want to give up, really. There’s some games where I can see it more often, but there’s other games where I feel like that teams are focusing in. I just kind of tell Reggie, bring it over to my side off of Andre and let’s just see what they do.”

Harris has flashed throughout his career, both with the Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic, and was a key part of the Pistons’ grand experiment after they got him from the Magic in 2016. Orlando had given Harris a four-year, $64 million deal the year before, which was part of his appeal to the Pistons; they didn’t think they’d be able to get someone that young and with that kind of potential in free agency.

Harris started strong last season but, like almost everyone else in Detroit, faded at the end. At Van Gundy’s urging, Harris has expanded his range, and taking six 3-pointers a game this season, by far the most in his career.

“We wanted him to work on his 3-point shooting, and then early in the year, preseason, he wasn’t shooting a lot of them,” Van Gundy said.

“You’ve got to step in, you’ve got to take that shot. He’s been doing that. And lately, I told him I didn’t think he was running hard in transition, so he started doing that, and had the huge transition bucket down the stretch in Boston, where he outran people for a layup. So I think his ability to work, adjust and try to get better is really what stands out to me. So whatever issues he runs into will improve.”

No one has improved more than Drummond, though, and that’s what makes the Pistons’ future intriguing.

Still just 24, the center remained a conundrum last year: a behemoth on the boards since coming out of college, he’s led the league in offensive rebounds each of the last four seasons and total rebounds the last two. But he was invisible offensively for long stretches, and not as dominant on defense as he should have been, given his length and quickness.

I used to dread getting up and go to the gym — ‘ah, I’ve got to get up and work out. I’ve got to do a million jump hooks and run all over the place.’ When I found that joy again, my whole game started changing.”

Pistons center Andre Drummond

The offensive piece was easy to understand: Drummond shot just 38.6 percent from the foul line last season, and guys who struggle with free throws tend not to be very aggressive, lest they get fouled — and it doesn’t matter if it’s done intentionally or not. But the rest of it was still a mystery. Everyone agreed, though, that the status quo was unacceptable going forward. The Pistons left it up to Drummond; they didn’t crowd him or demand he work with their assistant coaches all summer. He said he’d come to training camp better, and they trusted him.

Drummond spent the summer working with trainer Idan Ravin and Miami-based trainer Stan Remy. Improving his mechanics was just one piece. Drummond needed to have fun again.

“I think for me, I went every summer for the past five years listening to so many people and working with so many different people, and doing the same thing over and over again, that it got stagnant,” Drummond said.

“And it wasn’t working. I work hard. I work very hard. But there’s something that just wasn’t clicking, and I felt I wasn’t having fun anymore. So I took it back to my roots. I worked out with Stanley and Idan my first year in the league, before the Draft. And when I started working out with them, I felt myself starting to love basketball again. I found myself trying to enjoy waking up at 7 a.m. to work out.

“I used to dread getting up and go to the gym — ‘ah, I’ve got to get up and work out. I’ve got to do a million jump hooks and run all over the place.’ When I found that joy again, my whole game started changing. I found a new-found confidence.”

Drummond shot threes this summer. He dribbled at the top of the key. He tried Eurosteps. He did everything you wouldn’t expect a seven-footer to do. But he lost 30 pounds, and regained his smile.

“It’s one thing to ask for change, and to have agreement for change,” Bower said. “But it’s hard to see the effects of it, across the board. That takes conscious, and daily, intentional actions — that maybe weren’t natural or instinctive. But he’s worked hard at it, and he’s seeing now the results of all of that work. A lot of this was internally driven in Andre. He wanted to improve; he wanted to help lead this team. And that’s when it’s most effective.”

And, at the foul line, Drummond’s found a form that works for him. He starts hunched over at a deep bend of the waist, like he dropped a quarter and is just starting to pick it up. From there, he shoots. The ball doesn’t have a ton of arc, but so far, it’s working much better for him. Through his first 22 games this season, he’s shooting 65 percent (68 of 105) from the line. No, Rick Barry is not likely impressed. But for Drummond, that’s major improvement.

“At the line, I didn’t do anything,” Drummond said. “All I did was build my confidence. I’ve always been able to shoot the same shot, but it was just believing I’d make the shot. So it was having that confidence boost, and believing that every shot would go in is a great feeling.”

Drummond now laughs his way through evenings like Saturday’s with Philly’s Joel Embiid, with whom he’s had a big man’s war of words all season. Embiid scored 30 on Drummond and the Pistons in the teams’ first meeting this season, and said afterward that Drummond’s trash talking got him going. Drummond replied via Twitter: “see you Dec. 2.” Embiid then poked at him Saturday morning, saying Drummond “can’t shoot” and wasn’t someone that he had to concentrate on defensively.

No matter what Embiid thinks, Drummond is now a big part of Detroit’s offense, whether or not he’s taking jumpers.

“I think he was always better where he was away from the basket and then rolling to the basket,” Van Gundy said of Drummond. “We knew he was certainly an above average ballhandler and passer for a big, so you put those two things together. And, low post play, just in general in the league has proven to be pretty low percentage, with very few exceptions. So changing our approach, making him absolutely more involved in the offense, but a lot less in the low post, it all just seemed to make sense for us. You go into it not having really played that way extensively. We’d seen flashes of it. We’d do it five or six times a game. But you don’t know how it will be long term. I’m sure people will adjust and we’ll have to make tweaks. But through 20 games, it’s been pretty good for him and pretty good for us.”

Bradley replaced Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who signed a one-year deal with the Lakers. (The Pistons, hard-capped, could not offer anything near what KCP wanted, and let him leave.) There was risk and reward with getting Bradley — his defensive impact may be debated by some analytics folks, but his willingness to take on the opponents’ top backcourt scorer every night brings unquantifiable benefits.

Offensively, Bradley has also spaced the floor – 41.2 percent on 3-pointers — and has become a favorite of Drummond’s on dribble handoffs, leading to unencumbered drives to the rack. But Bradley is just as productive when he doesn’t shoot at all, but moves and cuts, drawing defenders with him. Two guys can run the same amount of miles in a given game, but if one is always getting open and the other isn’t, those miles aren’t the same.

“The speed he plays with off the ball, it’s the equivalent to a guy having the basketball,” Harris said. “He’s been able to open up the floor a lot for us as a team, and Andre’s been able to make some great plays for him. Even in transition, him getting out and running. Off the ball, he’s one of the best players in the NBA, if not the best. It’s a huge aspect of the game that doesn’t show up in the box score.”

The Pistons may know more about themselves after their next five games: at San Antonio and Milwaukee, followed by home games against Golden State, Boston and surging Denver. A poor stretch in those games won’t define Detroit’s season; Van Gundy knows the league will adjust to what they’re doing, and there are rough patches to come as there are for every team. The hope is his team is better equipped to now handle them.

Less, so far, has been more.

“The biggest thing is, we didn’t feel anything would make us a better team,” Bower said. “That’s really the driving force. With Stan, he never loses sight of the fact that this is a competitive project. We have to play games. We’re not just trying to win a transaction. The driving force is, will this make us a better team when we have to go out and play? And that helps. That helps keep it crystallized into what we’re really charged with doing.”

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Longtime NBA reporter, columnist and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here andfollow him on Twitter.

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