Detroit Pistons: See You In the Playoffs?

It’s startling how quickly fortunes change in the NBA.

A short ten years ago, the Detroit Pistons were regarded as one of the premiere franchises in the league, making seven straight Eastern Conference Finals appearances, and winning the franchise’s third championship title in 2004.

It was an interesting cast of characters in that Finals series. The glitz and glamor Lakers, featuring Hall of Fame mercenaries Gary Payton and Karl Malone, alongside surefire first-ballot Hall of Famers Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, faced off against the hard-nosed, starless Pistons.

The Detroit starting lineup included an eclectic group of seemingly misfit parts: Chauncey Billups, cast off from multiple teams before catching on in Detroit; Rip Hamilton running his defender through countless baseline screens, looking for his midrange jumper; Tayshaun Prince with his relentless, lanky defense; Rasheed Wallace having been dismissed as a hot-head incapable of leading a team; and Ben Wallace, the undersized center who defended the post as well as anyone during his prime.

The team mirrored the city they wore on their jersey and the Motor City packed The Palace on a nightly basis to show their appreciation for them.

A lot has changed since then, though. In the seven seasons since Detroit has made the playoffs, the team has put up just a .361 winning percentage, giving those same fans little reason for hope in recent years.

However, this year the Pistons got off to one of the most surprising starts in the league, winning five of their first six games, defeating some of the East’s best in both the Bulls and last year’s winningest Eastern Conference squad in the Hawks.

The biggest standout from this year’s Pistons team in both stature and stat-stuffing is center Andre Drummond . Going on his fourth year in the league, the old-timey veteran just turned twenty (bleeping) two this offseason, and apparently in his time off made it his business to become the best center in the NBA.

Through his first 19 games this season, Drummond has averaged 18.4 points, 16.7 rebounds, and has the highest defensive rating among centers. Only Drummond and DeAndre Jordan have defensive ratings over 30.0 (Jordan’s is 32.8, Drummond 35.6). To put into perspective exactly what kind of numbers he’s been putting up early on, Drummond is the first player to post at least 185 points and 190 rebounds in the first 10 games of the season since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did it way back when.

Much like Chauncey Billups, the team is also led by another backcourt castoff in Reggie Jackson. After being traded from OKC where he never put up a player efficiency rating higher than 17.2, Jackson has paid dividends for Detroit scoring a 21.8 PER this year with the Pistons. This season, Jackson has averaged 19 points and 6.7 assists per game for his team and is averaging the 8th best PER among all point guards this year.

With the eyes of league upon them after their 5-1 start, the Pistons faltered down the stretch of their five game road trip, auspiciously losing games to the Kings and Lakers. However the team rebounded at home with a win against the Eastern Conference leading Cavs, the Heat, an overtime win against the Suns and a road win against the Timberwolves.

Having just run his first full court, full activity practice this year, the team expects backcourt running mate Brandon Jennings back from last season’s torn Achilles injury by the unofficial (but universally recognized) real start of the season on Christmas Day.

Jennings was off to the best start of his five year NBA career last season, averaging 15.4 points and 6.6 assists per game. Through 41 games last year, the young Compton, CA native managed to post the league’s 10th highest PER among point guards, just like Jackson is doing this year. If Detroit can keep their heads above water and continue to overwhelm opponents with their potent frontcourt and inside-out attack, the Pistons will be primed for a playoff run once Jennings makes his return.

With Andre Drummond playing like the best center in the NBA, Reggie Jackson proving himself as one of the league’s most competent combo guards, and the impending return of Brandon Jennings, this Pistons team clearly has a different identity than the one of a decade ago. Once a rugged group of grizzled old also-rans, this year’s squad is filled with young, somewhat inexperienced talent, and yet it seems this group of upstarts is ready to take over the mantle for their predecessors and make a run for the playoffs for this first time since 2008.

photo via llananba