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The Close Out: A season’s worth of positive Pistons trends

Reviewing the handful of noteworthy on-court accomplishments of the Detroit Pistons.

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Detroit Pistons Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

At 39-43, the Detroit Pistons missed the playoffs and got a head start on their summer vacation. Believe it or not, though, they did some things well. Below, in no particular order, are the major trends and themes that caught my eye in a positive way.

Don’t worry, the negative trends will be published soon too but I needed time to collect my thoughts as there are many.

Reggie Bullock and Anthony Tolliver on the cheap

Bullock and Tolliver made a combined $5.8 million dollars this year. You would be hard-pressed to find a better value on any two non-rookie deal throughout the entire league.

Bullock’s career-year took hold on December 12th when he was finally thrusted into the starting lineup. From there, he seized the opportunity and statistical highs in every meaningful category pleasantly followed.

Tolliver came back to Detroit after spending the 2016-17 season in Sacramento. He connected on 43 percent of three-pointers (at over 4.5 attempts per game) and showed a newly found willingness to drive to the hoop. At 32-years-old, he might be peaking.

According to Cleaning the Glass (which takes out garbage time) both Bullock and Tolliver were in the 93rd percentile (or higher) for their positions in points per shot which is a glowing testament to their efficiency.

Hidden somewhere among the eyebrow-raising offensive numbers each put up was their commitment to become reliable defenders.

Detroit’s sometimes switch-y defense landed Bullock on some high-profile ball-handlers while also checking the elite NBA wings:

Tolliver, maybe Detroit’s best team-defender, had to battle with wings and bigs of all shapes and sizes:

It’s hard not to be a fan of the way these guys played.

Reggie Bullock is under contract ($2.5 million!?) for the 2018-19 season while Anthony Tolliver is not. Does anyone feel comfortable with Jon Leuer or Henry Ellenson taking AT’s minutes?

The arrival of Griffin

I was a fan on day one of the trade and still remain so.

Early in his career, Griffin was pigeonholed as a phenomenal and exciting athlete with decent acting chops but not much else. On the court and in a Pistons’ uniform, has he done anything suggesting his current style of play isn’t sustainable? Is he relying on quickness or an out-of-this-world jumping prowess to average 20 points per game? What part of his game won’t age well?

Nothing we’ve witnessed (albeit “so far”) makes a 31 or 32-year-old Blake Griffin less relevant or effective. It doesn’t mean he’s not a considerably above average athelte it just indicates he’s not solely dependent on it.

He’s a banger.

In late-March, the Pistons lost to the Houston Rockets in overtime 100-96. The game was far from aesthetically pleasing as the two teams seemingly traded turns hoisting up junk shots. As things got ugly, the Pistons leaned on Griffin to bang away at mismatches and he did just that:

This is what May and June postseason basketball can look like, and in a pre-Blake world, this choice for Detroit didn’t exist.

Per Cleaning the Glass, Griffin accounted for 31 percent of the team’s assists while on the floor which pits him in the 100th percentile of all bigs. He bends the defense as soon as he touches the ball and it’s up to his teammates to come through:

A lot of the critiques surrounding the trade center around the “fit.” Sorry (not sorry), I still don’t see it as a valid argument.

Griffin is a do-everything-player that, under the right direction, can be a true force on offense. Both he and Reggie Jackson are able to ignite offense from the pick-and-roll and Andre Drummond is the natural finisher of such a sequence.

As much as people hate on conducting business from the post, it’s still a viable option (for the right player) - even in 2018. As we’ve all witnessed, Griffin loves the left block (with a slash of the right block mixed in):

At .93 PPP in the post, Griffin is more than a handful. What should have you excited, though, is his ability to distribute out of the post. The entire post-area is a playmaking focal-point that all good smart teams use to their distinct advantage (here, maybe).

You cannot convince me that a 6-foot-10, strong-as-an-ox big with handles who recently added a three-point shot doesn’t have a place in Detroit. This is a hill I’m willing to die on.

It’s not a question of fit, rather, a it’s a question of basketball intelligence. It’s up to SVG, his staff, and, to a slightly lesser degree, myself, to figure this thing out.

Three-point shooting

At a lowly 33 percent, the 2016-17 Pistons finished 28th in the league in three-point shooting. The 2017-18 version connected on 37.5 percent of threes and finished fifth in the NBA.

That’s a sizable leap.

A healthy chunk of the uptick came from an increase in early-offense production. Detroit shot the long-ball at a 43 percent clip during attempts (4.6 per game) that came with the shot clock between 18 and 22 seconds remaining. Last year? 34 percent.

Effective three-point shooting became so commonplace in Detroit that even an Ish Smith could do it:

Smith finished at a respectable 34 percent.

With 113 attempts - a career-high at the time - Blake Griffin started dabbling in the three-ball last year in Los Angeles and his volume spiked this year to 322 trys despite missing 24 games. Essentially, it’s a new facet of his game and consistency will be a key.

The subtleties of Luke Kennard

This ill-informed tweet, genuinely, made laugh out loud:

You’re killing me, Rick. Why? because he was drafted ahead of Donovan Mitchell? If that is the reasoning, it’s supremely faulty logic.

Despite what Rick says, Luke Kennard had an effective first year. Coming out of Duke, Kennard was sold mostly as a shooter and he didn’t disappoint. He connected on 41 percent of threes (195 attempts) which is exactly what the Pistons were looking for.

Chicks dig the long-ball but Mike Snyder digs the nuances of Kennard’s game and I think we all know whose acknowledgement is more important. Moving forward, I’d love to see the ball in his hands a bit more, especially in the half-court.

One of the best indicators of half-court ball-handling success is how well the player does in transition, or at the very least, when then the defense isn’t set. If a player makes bad decisions when the offense has a clear advantage, they have no chance in the half-court. Thankfully for the Pistons, Kennard thrived in these scenarios.

Leading the fast or secondary break, Kennard was never in a rush. Instead, he patiently waited - a trait proving to be incredibly difficult for youngsters - for the play to develop and allowed his teammates to fill their lanes or spot-up:

His understanding of game flow and subsequent diagnoses of who is open (or will be) made life easy for teammates:

The rookie also showed an awareness of when to push the ball ahead for easy buckets:

Next year, he deserves to have more possessions end on his watch.

Now, is any of this as impressive as Donovan Mitchell’s rookie campaign? Of course not, but get over it - it’s your only choice.

Drummond’s able passing

Before the arrival of Blake Griffin, Stan Van Gundy smartly hijacked the post-up possessions used by Andre Drummond. Instead, SVG placed Dre in-and-around the elbow(s) or the top of the key in an effort to use Drummond as a facilitator.

It’s a role the big guy thrived in:

Although his assist totals took a dive once Griffin slapped on a Pistons’ uniform, Drummond proved to be a willing and able distributor. In his previous five seasons, Drummond totaled a combined 277 assists. In the 2017-18 season alone, he collected 237 dimes.

Let’s get one thing straight before we move on: Dre is a capable passer and not a “point-center,” and that’s perfectly fine! He logged those assists because of the positioning on the floor not because he’s a playmaker. For reference, Eric Moreland’s averaged a higher per-36 assist total than Drummond.

It’s not a knock and it doesn’t take away from the hard-to-argue opinion that he performed well with his new role. Add in his free throw improvement and his offensive game, although still limited, is growing.

Drummond’s defensive improvement

Last year, and this side of Steve Hinson, I don’t think anyone on the internet was harder on Andre Drummond’s defensive shortcomings than myself, for good reason too. Drummond’s lack of recognition (or slow to react) of what was happening in front of him continually made me chuck any, and all, throwable objects at the TV.

He’s a mountain of a man with bounciness of a pogo stick and he finally put it to good use this year.

Coaches will sometimes demand their guys to be aggressive on pick-and-roll coverages, if for no other reason, than to wake up a disinterested player. Drummond has been guilty on more than occasion of being somewhat aloof on defense and it wouldn’t surprise me if Van Gundy ordered him to be a more combative PNR defender to simply get his feet moving:

We certainly saw our fair share of drop PNR coverage but nothing like seasons’ past.

It’s comically obvious of when Drummond is engaged. Below is an example of two possessions with the same flare screen look:

We witnessed more of the latter this year and the difference is night and day.

Fans of DeAndre Jordan and Rudy Gobert might take sliding over from the weak-side to protect the rim for granted, but to Detroit fans, this is amazing:

Yes, he still has a long way to go to fully live up to defensive expectations but the 2017-18 season was a step forward.

Reggie Jackson’s continued maturity

Reggie Jackson’s skill set isn’t going to wow anyone but it was painfully clear the Pistons aren’t the Pistons without him.

I was impressed with the way Jackson started the year. He seemed to have more confidence in the guys around him and it showed in the PNR:

And, of course, with a rolling Drummond:

The Pistons scored 1.07 PPP (2nd in the league) on spot-up opportunities thanks in part to Jackson’s ability to touch paint and then kick it out.

During the 118-108 win in Boston, Avery Bradley cross-matched with Kyrie Irving which left Jackson with Jaylen Brown - who has four inches and thirty pounds on the Pistons’ point guard. Jackson didn’t budge:

Like Drummond, he took a step forward on defense this year. He’s never going to be confused with a lockdown defender but with his over-sized and lengthy appendages, he can wreck havoc in the passing lanes and make life difficult for smaller ball-handlers.

Without a doubt, he’s the straw that stirs the Pistons’ drink.