A 10 percent check list for Pistons: lots to like revealed in 5-3 start
Adam Pantozzi (NBAE/Getty)
Ten percent of the season – or as close to 10 percent as you can get in an 82-game schedule – is in the books.
Here’s my snap shot of what the Pistons are – and a guess, based on that outline, of what they can become, in order of potential impact:
As Stan Van Gundy has said repeatedly, he was the best offensive player on a playoff team two years ago, the leading fourth-quarter scorer in the league that season and one of the NBA’s very best pick-and-roll operators. He’s averaging 16.4 points with a 3:1 assists-to-turnover ratio. His 3-point shooting (32 percent) is down but trending up and likely to level off between 35 and 40 percent as his conditioning, which necessarily suffered as the Pistons were cautious with him in camp, ramps up. Less noticed – except by Van Gundy and those that matter – is his defensive focus. The snippets we’ve seen so far, though greatly encouraging, are likely to increase in frequency and effectiveness as he settles back into a rhythm and grows more comfortable with the new offensive style Van Gundy has implemented.
The Drummond the Pistons are getting – one who runs the floor hard in both directions, takes ownership of what happens in the paint, embraces his newly created role as offensive facilitator and remains his generation’s dominant rebounder – is the one Van Gundy has been pushing for since Tom Gores put him in charge in May 2014. A return to the All-Star game happens – and the link between All-Star appearances and winning records is immutable – if this trend holds up. And there’s no reason to expect it won’t.
Some of this is the product of opportunity. The trade of Marcus Morris eliminates some measure of skills overlap and pushes plays run for Harris up a rung in the pecking order. More of it is Harris, still only 25, continuing to evolve. His is a fairly rare combination of athleticism and skill. He’s shooting the 3-pointer with palpably more confidence this season – the one he hit in Kevin Durant’s face to push the chances for a win from 55-45 to 80-20 the other night was sublime. He’s not getting much in the way of favorable whistles yet, but just wait until that evens out. He’s a handful to guard.
Teammates love the guy. Easy to see why. The way he plays at both ends is the embodiment of what Van Gundy is asking of the Pistons this year – more ball pressure and consistent effort from second 24 to 0 of the shot clock on defense, more cutting and ball movement on offense and no hesitancy to shoot open shots. Reggie Bullock said the other day that it was Bradley who inspired him to pour more of himself into defense. He’s not the only one.
Fans who remember last season’s curious lack of impact – not just scoring, either – from Johnson might have been ready to write him off after the first three games. But he’s been really good since – and even in the opener, when he shot 0 of 13, Johnson’s impact was underscored by the fact Van Gundy played him 40-plus minutes. He again played 40-plus against Golden State. He’s shot 41 percent from three since the 0 of 6 opener and even getting to league average of around 35 percent – or close to it – will be key for Johnson. He’s becoming the omega to Bradley’s alpha on the defensive end, the killer perimeter duo Van Gundy envisioned after the Morris trade both added Bradley and opened an avenue to opportunity for Johnson.
It’s going to require Van Gundy to be light on his feet and completely open minded about his rotation, but he’s been the leading proponent of the need to be exactly that since painstakingly constructing a roster to give him every tool in the catalog. There’s a lot of shooting on his bench – Bullock, Anthony Tolliver, Langston Galloway, Henry Ellenson, Luke Kennard – and frontcourt versatility with Jon Leuer, Boban Marjanovic, Ellenson and Eric Moreland. The condensed preseason didn’t provide many opportunities to test two-, three-, four- and five-man playing groups, so much of that experimentation remains. All the more encouraging that the Pistons have opened 5-3 with some of their toughest road tests already out of the way.
Let’s see where they’re at after another 10 percent of the schedule is behind them.