When Reggie Jackson was a member of the Thunder, he had license to be assertive only to a point. Jackson was needed to create shots so long as Russell Westbrook wasn’t controlling the ball or Kevin Durant wasn’t calling to, leaving him as an odd third rung in Oklahoma City's trickle-down system. The Thunder needed Jackson to play a role of passive support until a possession swung his way. Then he would be asked to shift to full speed in an instant, whiplash be damned.
It was a role that worked well enough but never really suited him. Detroit, upon acquiring Jackson via trade last season and then pitching him in free agency, offered something quite different: A chance to take the reins of a pick-and-roll-heavy system and initiate on his own terms. Jackson took to those new responsibilities with gusto, signed on the dotted line when the Pistons bowled him over with a five-year, $80 million contract offer, and has been aces for the upstart Pistons ever since.
Jackson now drives a league-leading 15 times per game, utilizing Andre Drummond screens on many occasions. Detroit needs every one; with Brandon Jennings sidelined, Jackson is the only point guard on the roster who can force a defense’s hand to create a point of advantage. That he makes 53% of his attempts on those drives (and very rarely gets blocked) buoys the Piston offense. That Drummond swoops in to rebound nearly a quarter of Jackson’s misses (per data from NBA Savant), though, is what cements Jackson’s off-the-dribble stylings as a viable engine.
Most NBA teams defend the pick-and-roll within a few schematic variations—all of which require a third defender to edge over to help contain the roll man. Most commonly, that third defender’s job is to “tag” the roller by making contact, delaying his course to the rim, and buying time for his teammate to recover. Detroit challenges the fundamental assumptions of that strategy by first having Jackson attack headlong off the dribble and then bringing Drummond in to take advantage of the necessary defensive rotation. Even if the tag arrives on time, the distortion of the play pits Drummond against a defender ill-suited and often unprepared to box him out:
It's terrifying to think how difficult a sequence like this will be to defend when the Pistons further amp up their perimeter shooting and Drummond improves as a screener to the point where he's making better, cleaner contact.
All of the above helps to disguise the fact that the 5–3 Pistons aren’t actually all that effective in scoring on their initial shot attempt. Jackson is having a career year. Marcus Morris has chipped in to churn out points on tough shots. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is flanking the action admirably from the wing and doing a better job of attacking closeouts than he had in previous years. Yet if we exclude opportunities from tip-ins and put-backs, Detroit has shot a lowly 40.9% from the field overall through its first eight games. Jackson has been terrific—as good in his role as anyone could have expected. Yet Detroit, at this stage, is a team that subsists primarily on offensive rebounds and blanketing defense.
This is the purview of Drummond, who has been one of the best players in the league to start the year. There were omens to suggest this might be coming; Drummond had unleashed his full wrath whenever he was featured in a four-out lineup last season, and his post moves had shown a fiery promise since their development was made a priority. So far, his production has more than lived up to those previous glimpses—especially on the offensive glass. To date, Drummond has grabbed an NBA-best 57 offensive rebounds. Knicks rookie Kristaps Porzingis, who ranks second behind Drummond, has only 30. For a broader perspective, Drummond (10.6) outscores six entire teams in second-chance points per 48 minutes. He is a roster’s worth of rebounders rolled into one and a brutally effective finisher, to boot.
It’s because of Drummond that the Pistons can employ an offensive style that often requires Jackson to do no more than drive hard, attract attention, and get the ball up on the rim. What those two lack (as noted by Mike Prada of SB Nation) in direct, assisted baskets, they have in spades as indirect connections.
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Detroit’s defensive success, though, is easily the more striking part of its early charge. It’s been seven years and six coaches since the Pistons were even an above-average defensive team. Stan Van Gundy bucked the trend; it was under his guidance that an incomplete roster made real defensive progress last season, more closely approximating adequacy in spite of its personnel issues. Now, with subtle additions and internal improvement, Detroit is off to a top-10 defensive start.
Some credit for that is due to the fact that the Pistons, at long last, have three perimeter players who can hold ground in their matchups. Caldwell-Pope has been nothing short of tremendous; the 22-year-old isn’t an elite defender, though his ability to apply length and quickness in defending either guard position has shielded the Pistons from all kinds of potential matchup problems. It’s Caldwell-Pope who draws the unenviable assignment of chasing Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard around screens, and one would presume it’ll be his job to contain explosive drivers like Russell Westbrook and John Wall just the same. There’s no real lockdown element to his game—only a certain level of uncomfortable constraint applied to top scorers consistently over the course of a full game.
Paired with Caldwell-Pope is Morris, who works as a perfect counterpoint for his contrast in body type. Whereas Caldwell-Pope is lithe and agile, Morris is a stronger, more physical sort. He’s perfectly equipped to handle a range of matchups that might be a challenge for Caldwell-Pope or the Pistons’ other wings, giving Detroit all kinds of freedom to cross-match and switch as needed. With that kind of flexible talent working hard and supported by a huge, athletic shot-blocker on the back line, Detroit is able to thwart all kinds of action:
Jackson is easily the lesser defender of the Pistons’ three perimeter starters, but even he isn’t bad in the right context. It’s easy to forget when watching him knife through opposing defenses how big Jackson, at 6’3” with a seven-foot wingspan, is relative to other point guards. That allows him to slide over to defend wings without much need for help, and while still contributing within Detroit’s help principles as those positions require.
Having a stronger front to the defense—at least within the starting lineup—has helped Drummond considerably. For three years, Drummond had been a good, bothersome shot-blocker with inconsistent positioning. Working behind a more reliable perimeter defense (and under a well-prepared staff) allows him to more easily anticipate where to be and when, bringing his gifts for swatting away layups and runners into even greater focus. The bailouts are fewer and with them, Drummond’s fouls; Wednesday was the first time this season that Drummond registered five fouls in a game, a mark he hit with regularity (17 times, second only to DeMarcus Cousins) last year. Keeping Drummond on the floor completes the picture in so many ways for the Pistons: It bolsters their rebounding, feeds their offense, and ensures that a group of committed perimeter defenders are afforded some measure of protection.
The flaws in the product to date are clear: Detroit could do with more shot creators; the bench is a mess; Drummond’s free-throw shooting will only become a bigger problem in time; the Pistons’ perimeter shooters in general aren’t quite good enough; and the Ersan Ilyasova-Anthony Tolliver power forward tandem isn’t exactly the most secure. But at long last, Detroit has a worthwhile foundation worth investing in and committing to, fully. A team that's been subpar for so long isn’t chasing perfection—only meaningful, measurable progress.