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Faster pace, balanced defense driving Pistons surge

Over the past month, the Pistons have gone from mediocre to a consistently competitive team. What has been the spark?

Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

On the morning of November 30, the Detroit Pistons were 8-9. After an exciting 5-1 start, the team was at a crossroads in what really has turned out to be a more competitive Eastern Conference.

If the Pistons had maintained that pace, they'd be better than last year, sure. But also afterthoughts in the East looking up at 11 or 12 teams in the standings. Instead, they've taken the leap from average to legitimate eyebrow-raisers.

And Nov. 30 seems to represent a turning point for the Pistons. Since then they are 9-4, but what's even more encouraging are the numbers behind that record.

To me, it was always a bit concerning that the Pistons were struggling to keep their head above .500 despite 18 points and 17 rebounds per night from Andre Drummond. Red flags like the league worst true shooting percentage, Drummond's points per possessions on post ups, the defense's effective field goal percentage they were allowing. Sure, there were understandable reasons for those red flags, but results are always better than reasons. Too often reasons sound like excuses.

The numbers driving their current success look much more sustainable, like the type of team you don't want to square off against in April.

Offensive improvement

The most dramatic change has been the Pistons climb offensively. It was like the team woke up on Nov. 30 (for the second night of a back-to-back, no less) and a lightbulb went off.

Up until that night, the Pistons had been 27th in the league in offensive rating at 97 points per 100 possessions and dead last in true shooting percentage at 58.5 percent. From then on, they've been 7th in offensive rating at 105 points per 100 possessions and 21st in true shooting percentage at a reasonable 53.3 percent.

That makes for a sexy trendline.

It's tough to say exactly what's been driving this drastic improvement. Sure, guys are shooting better. Stanley Johnson, Steve Blake, and Anthony Tolliver have gone from playing like stale cat puke to legitimately well. Reggie Jackson and Marcus Morris have been oustanding, while Drummond has been same old, same old dominant.

But saying players are playing better which is yielding better results is boring. There's got to be more too it than that.

One clear change has been the increase in pace. Across the board, the team is playing faster. They've gone from the 8th slowest team in the league to the 10th fastest between those two stretches.

A major contributor to that change may be Steve Blake. Now, the pace has increased for most folks on the team, but Blake has increased his pace from 95.27 until Nov. 29 to 98.17 since then. This might represent Blake getting comfortable after missing the preseason from a concussion, and a "Yeah, I might have been wrong about that" for me. I was calling emphatically for Spencer Dinwiddie to get Blake's backup point guard minutes, even though Dinwiddie struggles to move the ball quickly. Dinwiddie played 99 minutes from opening day to November 29, just 12 minutes since then.

Ideally, what comes with an increased pace is fast break buckets. Should seem obvious, but hey, sometimes those things aren't always related. I'll get to that with the defense. But in this case, things have worked out. The team has jumped from 28th in the league in fast break points at 10.5 per game to 9th in the league with 13.2 per game.

Tip your hat to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Reggie Jackson. KCP has jumped to 15th in the league in points in transition, with a sterling 1.23 points per possesion, one of the best marks in the league.

One of the more interesting aspects of the Pistons offensive surge is that it hasn't really come from ball movement. At least, it's not readily apparent in the numbers.

Stan Van Gundy lamented ball movement early, understandable as the Pistons marched off to a dead last performance in assist percentage in that early stretch leading up to Nov. 29 at 48.2 percent. But since then as the Pistons have seen their offense improve, they haven't budged their assist percentage - still last in the league in the stretch since Nov. 30, still only 48.3 percent.

They've actually decreased their number of passes per game, from 277 prior to Nov. 30 and 269.5 since then. Most sincerely, thank you NBA for tracking and sorting pretty much every number possible. It's one of the things I love you for.

And the defense?

Detroit's D carried them through the early part of the season, a surprise after most of the offseason acquisitions seemed tailored toward the offense.

The team's defensive rating was the 8th best in the league, carried heavily by limiting offensive rebounds (fewest in NBA allowed per game) and forcing turnovers (9th in league). They also did a nice job at avoiding fouling, with the 4th fewest opponent free throw attempts per game.

But as I mentioned earlier, they allowed a pretty generous effective field goal percentage with opposing teams shooting the 10th best in the league. So what happens if they play a team with a dynamite offensive rebounder or a fella who draws the superstar calls?

Also, it wasn't yielding a whole lot for the offensive end. With a team dominating the defensive glass and forcing turnovers, you'd think they'd be able to get some points out of those opportunities. It wasn't the case though. That's what I was referring to earlier, about those things not always being related. During the early part of the season, Detroit was 28th in fast break points and 20th in points off turnovers.

Well, things have since started to balance out. Since Nov. 30, teams have gotten to the offensive glass with Detroit actually allowing the third most in the league. They've still been solid at forcing turnovers and limiting free throw attempts, but more toward the middle of the pack.

Yet they remain an above average defensive team, still at 13th. Their defensive rating has only dropped from 98.8 to 101.8. The reason is because of that effective field goal percentage. They've been much improved at limiting makes, going from 21st in the league early on to 9th over the past stretch.

Perhaps the coolest thing defensively has been their crunch time performance. According to NBA stats figures, the Pistons have performed well in tight situations all season with a +20.4 net rating (difference between offensive and defensive ratings.

But they've been particularly tough on the defensive side of the ball, with the third best clutch defensive rating in the league. They've put the clamps down on opposing shooters, allowing just 38.3 percent effective field goal percentage (fourth best in league), the sixth best opposing team free throw rate, 10th best opposing team turnover rate, and a solid opposing offensive rebound percentage.

Or in other words, when the game is on the line the Pistons have shown the ability to put it all together defensively.

So what to make of all this?

It's not particularly ground-breaking stuff, I know. We've all seen the Pistons and their Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde act all season.

But what's cool is that this shows some qualitative evidence that those reasons for optimism early on, including from our Kool-Aid Peddler-in-Chief, were valid. The struggles the team bumped up against likely had more to do with the chemistry involved with 7 out of the 9 members of your rotation having been there for less than a year rather than a problem with the system or talent, and now there are numbers to support that notion.

It remains to be seen if the Pistons can make Nov. 30 a day we look back to as a permanent turning point, or if it's just a flash in the pan. But with that trendline pointing up for the first time in eight years, it'll at least be fun to watch.