Sunday, November 1, 2015

Breaking Down the Pistons' 3-0 Start

Even the most optimistic Pistons fans probably wouldn't have felt confident telling you that Detroit would start the season 3-0.  With a road game against the Eastern Conference's reigning regular season champ, a home game on a back-to-back against the league's best defensive team from the second half of last season and another home game against a division rival who has dominated recent play, I would have been ecstatic with a 2-1 open and understanding of a 1-2 start.  However, on the strength of their team defense, good ball security and reliable offensive rebounding, the Pistons already have three wins.  At this point, the Pistons would have to go 2-23 over their next 25 games to repeat the 5-23 hole they dug themselves into last year.  With almost half the roster turned over from last season, let's take a look at what the Pistons have done right to stay perfect through the first week of the season.  Obvious caveat here, all of these things have happened in a three game sample and are far, far from guaranteed to continue.

The defense is carrying an offense that has taken a step back from last year
StatDef. RatingOpp. eFG%Opp. TOV%DReb%Opp. FTr
2014-15 Rank1st3rdT-3rd1st10th
2014-15 rank provided because it makes slightly more sense to frame results this way.  Again, sample size is very important here.

Through Friday night's games, the Pistons rank 5th in the league in Defensive Rating, only allowing 93.9 points per 100 possessions.  For reference, that's over 7 pts per 100 better than last year's Warriors defense, which led the league at 101.4, and over 12 pts per 100 better than last year's Pistons defense, which finished at 106.4.  What does that all mean?  First and foremost, it means that the Pistons offense is going to need to pick up the slack, and soon.  The Pistons most certainly cannot continue to assert this level of dominance at the defensive end of the floor.  When you look closer at how the Pistons are doing it though, I think this could possibly be a top ten defense in the league.  I had said differently in the recap of the win over the Bulls, but I've changed my tune slightly after looking at a few things. First among those is the fact that the Pistons are rebounding approximately 85.1% of their opponents' missed shots.  There wasn't a single team in the league who topped 80% last season.  The Pistons won't keep up their current level of glass control, but with above average rebounders at three of their five starting spots (Reggie, Morris, Drummond), I don't think they'll just fall off.  When you're not allowing opponents to get second chance points, sometimes it doesn't matter how well they shoot.

Among other reasons the defense has carried the Pistons through the first three games, is that they don't have any glaring weaknesses.  They've forced a reasonable amount of turnovers, posting an Opponnet TOV% of 14.9%, which would have tied for 3rd in the league last season.  Give credit to guys like Ersan Ilyasova for that number.  Ilyasova has drawn 6 charges this season, twice as many as any other player in the league.  Those equate to turnovers, and Ilyasova may as well be averaging those as 2 steals per game as opposed to 2 charges per game.  As a team, the Pistons have accrued 10 charges drawn, or 3.67 per game.  That number would have led the league by a relatively large margin in any of the last three seasons.  Another thing the Pistons have done well, is limiting their opponents' free throw opportunities.  With an opponent Free Throw Rate of .191, Detroit is hovering in a range that would normally finish in the top ten in the league.  Coupled with their defensive rebounding and ability to turn opponents over, on a regular night, Detroit's not going to give up a lot of points unless their opponent is scorching hot from the field.

The offense is being kept afloat by second chance points, free throws and ball security
StatOff. RatingeFG%TOV%OReb%FTr
2014-15 Rank28th30thT-3rd1stT-8th
Same thing as above for the 2014-15 ranks

If the Pistons were 1-2 or 0-3, we would be complaining about just how bad the offense has been to this point.  So far, it's just been just good enough in each contest to reward the defense's performance.  The biggest problem, as simple as it sounds, has been getting shots to fall.  If ranked among last year's numbers, the Pistons would be dead last in the league in 2P% and FT%, and rank 27th in 3P%.  Losing Greg Monroe has surely had an affect on the offense, but I think what we've seen is a team that has fallen victim to cold shooting in a small sample size.  The shooting, especially from deep, should pick up as the season goes on.  The encouraging marks come from the team's ability to take care of the ball, and then Andre Drummond's beastly performance on the offensive glass.  I'm not sure how well this team is going to be able to keep up the low turnover marks, because Reggie Jackson (16.7 TOV%) hasn't exactly played mistake-free basketball.  However, I am sold that they'll continue to dominate the offensive glass.  There isn't a better offensive rebounder in the game than Andre Drummond.  As long as he's on the floor, the Pistons will continue to generate multiple chances per trip down the floor.  This isn't going to be a good offense, it just needs to be average so the defense can do its thing.

With the crucial consideration that these things have happened in a small sample size, it looks like the Pistons are going to have to ride their defense to a playoff berth this season.  While the offense can't possibly play much worse than they did through three games, it's hard to see this group getting into the top half of the league in offensive efficiency.  That means that the Pistons are going to have to keep cleaning the glass at both ends of the floor, winning the turnover battle and getting to the free throw line more than they give trips away.  While the emotional high of the 3-0 start has been great, I'm expecting the Pistons to fall into a range where they're at best fighting for the 6th seed in the Eastern Conference, or at worst holding on for dear life in the mix for the 8th seed.  Considering what we've seen since Joe Dumars started to deconstruct the Going to Work era teams, I'll gladly take those results, with a roster and a franchise built for the future.  We can review those expectations in a couple of weeks if the trip out West plays out better than expected.

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