The Pistons are 2-1 to start the year, which is exciting not because of who they’ve played, but how they’ve played. The big pieces of that success are obviously Reggie Jackson’s improved health (starting with his ability to play - and play well - on a back-to-back), Andre Drummond’s free throw shooting (100 percent!?!?!?! through three games), and Tobias Harris’ scoring ability (47 percent from three, averaging a nudge over 24 points per game).
We shouldn't ignore those pillars: They’re quite important to the continued success of the Pistons. But, there are a few under-the-radar things that I think deserve praise - or at the very least, things to keep an eye on as the sample size of games played increases.
Here are the top three underappreciated things I'm really happy with:
The Pistons’ starting power forward has been lighting up the scoreboard, but he’s also back up to six rebounds a game and a total rebound percentage of 10.5. That’s slightly below his career avg, but much improved over his 8.8 total rebound percentage of last year.
What’s even more eye-opening is how that number has increased: A lot of the improvement in his rebounding is coming on the offensive glass. Tobias’ average offensive rebound percentage in his time in Detroit has hovered under three percent. So far in this young season, it’s double that, around six percent.
One of the major critiques of Tobias has been his lack of rebounding (that’s behind a lot of my reticence to play him at power forward), but’s been great to see him attack the glass. This point bears watching - if his dedication in this area is more than small sample size theater, it’s just one more thing teams have to account for when playing Detroit.
Stan Van Gundy’s bench utilization
A huge gripe about the Stan of seasons past was his inability to look beyond a nine-man rotation. Whether it was his insistence on playing Stanley Johnson at shooting guard or the inability of Boban Marjanovic to get playing time, Stan has always been pretty rigid about who plays and why.
This year, that hasn’t been the case. Henry Ellenson has played (and played well). Luke Kennard has played (and played well). Anthony Tolliver was inactive for opening night, then called upon to help contain Kristaps Porzingis, to great effect. Jon Leuer, the de-facto backup power forward, has played a good chunk of his minutes at center.
Part of this is Stan figuring out an early-season rotation, but part of it I hope is an acknowledgement of the plurality of skillsets on this team. Luke Kennard has been great as a ball-mover and perimeter threat. Anthony Tolliver offers perimeter shooting and surprising defense next to Leuer at center. Yes, Boban has only played a single game, but the matchups for him haven’t been there, and when they are Stan will play him, I’m sure.
Stan won't go 11 deep forever - that’s not who he is - but having a level of trust that everyone on the team can contribute in their way has to be helpful for him.
Oh, and when Reggie Bullock returns from his suspension, expect to see him get an opportunity to break into the rotation, as well.
Avery Bradley’s osmosis on defense
I cannot remember the Pistons having such active hands on defense last year, and part of that has to be due to “The Bradley Effect” on defense. He competes so hard on that end, and you see - especially in the starters - a lot of pride being taken on that end of the court. Even when Reggie Jackson was healthy, you didn’t see him play passing lanes quite like he has alongside Bradley.
On the morning of Oct 22, the Pistons led the league in steals - not something any analyst would have expected at any point during the season.
The Pistons were a good defensive team last year, but a lot of that was because of the style and pace they played: Allow few transition opportunities, allow few three-pointers by the opponents, try to lull the opposing offense into taking 18-footers, etc. This year, they rank lower in defensive rating (No. 17), but when the defense is keyed in, they are the aggressors, trying to force turnovers and create transition opportunities for themselves - exactly like Avery Bradley.
It’s the beginning of a long season, but there are definitely reasons, big and small, to be excited for Detroit Basketball. For every made Andre free throw and Tobias point explosion, fans should keep an eye on these little things, too.