When the Boston Celtics face the Detroit Pistons tonight at TD Banknorth Garden in a game televised nationally on ESPN, a team off to a surprisingly strong start against a questionable schedule will be looking to prove its legitimacy. Oh yes, and the Celtics will have something to prove as well.
For the Pistons, a 17-7 start is hardly something new. Detroit was 16-8 this time a year ago and 21-3 during 2005-06, the team's 64-win season. Still, with a win over Boston, the Pistons have a chance to reassert themselves as contenders in the Eastern Conference, which has virtually been ceded to the Celtics in the wake of their 20-2 start. Quietly, Detroit has posted the fourth-best record in the NBA, just a game back of anyone besides Boston. While some of that can be traced to weak opposition (their opponents have an aggregate .475 winning percentage; only two teams have a lower strength of schedule by this measure), the Pistons also own the second-best point differential in the NBA at +8.5 points per game, trailing only the Celtics.
For Detroit to be playing so well isn't, apparently, as much of a surprise as I figured before beginning my research for this column. My memory was that the Pistons had slipped well behind Boston, Chicago and Cleveland in terms of preseason hype, but while the Bulls were the preseason favorite in the East, plenty of ESPN.com's experts took Detroit. I even managed to forget that I predicted the Pistons to finish with the East's best record before falling victim to another Eastern Conference Finals upset at the hands of their rivals from Chicago. Still, there was a sizeable group out there who believed Detroit President of Basketball Operations Joe Dumars erred in not making substantial changes in the wake of last year's loss to the Cavaliers. Strong play in May and June, not November and December, will counter those critics, but there is no question the Pistons have started well.
To get additional perspective on Detroit, I used NBA.com's League Pass archive to watch Sunday's 109-87 win over Golden State. As the great Kelly Dwyer noted at his new Yahoo! blog, the lopsided final margin owed much to scheduling, as the Warriors had to fly cross-country on Saturday for a tip-off that seemed like 9 a.m. to the visitors, not yet accustomed to Eastern time. That Golden State shot 6-for-22 from three-point range probably had as much to do with travel as it did great rotations by the Pistons, but give Detroit credit for taking away the easy buckets that could have kept the Warriors in the game.
One of the first things that jumped out at me watching the game was the number of post-ups run by the Pistons. We don't think of them as a post-based team because Detroit doesn't have a go-to scorer in the paint, but a unique feature of the Pistons' starting lineup is that any of the five players can be effective playing with their back to the basket depending on the matchup.
In this game, that meant copious opportunities for big men Antonio McDyess, Jason Maxiell and Rasheed Wallace against the smallish Warriors' front line. Richard Hamilton also utilized his advantages in size and strength against Monta Ellis, though Hamilton's only real "move" in the post is backing his defender down before shooting a turnaround jumper. Against the Celtics, Hamilton against Ray Allen might be Detroit's best matchup, along with Chauncey Billups against Rajon Rondo. The next night it could be Tayshaun Prince working against an undersized small forward. You never know with the Pistons. Versatility might be the signature strength of a Detroit offense that ranks second in the NBA in points per 100 possessions (113.9). McDyess lacks range beyond about 18 feet; otherwise, every Pistons starter can score from just about anywhere on the floor. Flip Saunders has always run excellent offensive sets and his teams perennially post low turnover rates; this year's group is no exception, turning it over less frequently than any other team in the league.
The more impressive efficiency stat is that Detroit is fourth in the NBA in Defensive Rating at 104.3 points allowed per 100 possessions. There were plenty of people who believed the Pistons could survive the loss of Ben Wallace to Chicago because the team would improve on offense, but I don't know that anyone projected that Detroit would basically see no drop-off on defense without the four-time Defensive Player of the Year. This is not the dominant defense that carried the Pistons to the championship in 2004, but it's easily stout enough to win another title.
The other Wallace, Rasheed, is an underrated cog for Detroit on defense. I guess I've underrated him too, since I didn't have him as one of my top five defensive power forwards a season ago (in 2005-06, I had him on my All-Defensive Second Team). Wallace's and McDyess' ability to step out and defend against pick-and-rolls is one of the core components of the Pistons' success on defense. Against the Warriors, Detroit opted to show hard against the pick-and-roll, meaning the player defending the player setting the screen jumped out into the path of the ballhandler before recovering to his own man. The Pistons did an excellent job of bringing a weak-side defender into the paint to keep Golden State from being able to score by hitting the screen-setter as he rolled to the basket while his defender was getting back. Detroit was less adept at rotating back out to shooters, but did not pay for it in this game.
Saunders has long been considered a master of the zone defense (how many other NBA head coaches have produced zone videos?), but against the Warriors I didn't see more than a possession or two of the zone. What was fascinating to me was to see how much the Pistons use match-up zone fundamentals within their man-to-man half-court defense. Early in the game, I wasn't entirely sure Detroit was playing man because of the way cutters were passed off and players on the weak side were left unguarded. I was reminded of the old adage that good coaches found a way to play zone even during the illegal-defense era; Saunders doesn't need to skirt the rules, but his defense likewise takes advantage of both man and zone together.
The other noteworthy aspect of the Pistons' defense against the Warriors was their excellent transition D. There were a couple of lapses, but Golden State got just nine fast-break points; it's hard for the Warriors to win without getting out in transition more frequently than that. This is an area where the Detroit offense helps the defense; as noted, the Pistons rarely turn the ball over and they also limit forced, early shot attempts, leaving the floor well balanced and allowing players to get back quickly.
So far, I've basically talked about the starting five, but if Detroit is to be better in this year's postseason, it won't happen because of a lineup that has four of five starters back (McDyess was the team's sixth man last year). Instead, the young bench will have to show improvement. So far, only one rotation player off the bench (rookie Arron Afflalo) has a positive net plus-minus rating, not a good sign.
The Pistons have certainly found a sixth man in third-year post player Jason Maxiell, who is averaging 9.3 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game (including a career-high six rejections against the Warriors). Given the opportunity to add minutes with the departure of Chris Webber, Maxiell has stepped in nicely and could easily slide into the starting lineup if Detroit had an injury up front. Several teams picking ahead of Detroit missed on Maxiell, who is undersized but separates himself from other big men of his ilk with his explosive athleticism and 7'2" wingspan.
Where improvement is needed is on the perimeter. At 37, Lindsey Hunter is no longer a good enough defender to make up for his impotent offense. Flip Murray is too erratic, though the Pistons have had success using him as a designated scorer in the fourth quarter. Newcomer Jarvis Hayes shot the ball well early in the season, but in December he hasn't made nearly enough of his shots for a relatively one-dimensional player.
Hope for Detroit comes in the form of rookies Afflalo and Rodney Stuckey, both first-round picks in June. Afflalo, a UCLA product, has played decently in limited minutes, though he has yet to find NBA three-point range (3-for-20 from downtown). He was terrific as part of the unit that led a 19-1 second-quarter run against Golden State, scoring a career-high 11 points and making a brilliant hustle play to strip a Warriors player in the backcourt and turn it into a layup. Stuckey's NBA debut has been delayed, probably until January, by a broken bone in his right hand. Before the injury, Stuckey was dazzling in the NBA Summer League and demonstrated impressive ability to get to the free-throw line in the preseason.
In truth, while tonight's game is an interesting test for both Boston and Detroit, it won't tell us much about either team. That's especially true for the Pistons, seeing as the core of the team remains relatively unchanged. As noted, the real test for Detroit can only come in the postseason, when we will see if the bench has improved and whether the Pistons can put it together in the Eastern Conference Finals should they make it that far. Still, a competitive game against the Celtics could be a useful reminder that there's more than just one contender in the East.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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