A closer look at the Detroit Pistons’ three-man core

The Detroit Pistons’ stunning 5-2 start hasn’t gone unnoticed around the NBA, and the league and pundits alike are taking notice of what this surprising young team has been doing.

A number of respected NBA power rankings have included the Pistons in their top-10s before last night’s game against the Golden State Warriors:

NBA.com has the Pistons ranked third

ESPN.com has the Pistons ranked fifth

CBS Sports has the Pistons ranked 10th

Fox Sports has the Pistons ranked eighth

And of course the Piston Powered Power Rankings have the Pistons in third.

These accolades are new for the young Pistons, but the praise is not undeserved.

The Pistons have victories over the 7-2 Atlanta Hawks, the 5-3 Chicago Bulls, the 4-2 Utah Jazz, and road wins over the 3-4 Phoenix Suns and the 4-4 Portland Trail Blazers. Certainly not an easy win in that mix.

The biggest reason for the Pistons emergence as a possible Eastern Conference power this season is the three-headed monster they have at their core. The three-man unit of Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope have been torching their opponents on the offensive end and shutting them down on the defensive end.

According to NBA Wowy, which analyzes the statistics produced by player combinations, the triumvirate has played 208 minutes together, spanning 415 possessions. They are outscoring their opponents 111.1 to 93.3 points per 100 possessions, for a net rating of +17.8.

As a point of reference, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s top three-man unit of Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka and Russell Westbrook is outscoring their opponents by a mark of 117.4 to 105.4 per 100 possessions, which produces a net rating of +12.

As another, the Los Angeles Clippers three-man core of Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Chris Paul is outscoring their opposition 116.7 to 100.6 points per possession, good for a net rating of +16.1.

As a collective, the Pistons success has stemmed largely from the pick-and-roll heavy, one-in-four-out offense they are running, and supporting it with responsible defense. On the offensive end, Andre Drummond has been an absolute battering ram, a ferocious presence under the basket and in the paint, and he just happens to have developed a nasty post game as you can see below.

 

Drummond’s numbers are eye-popping after seven games of regular season action. He’s averaging 19.4 points and 19.6 rebounds, to go with 1.9 steals and 1.9 blocks per game. He’s shooting 53.3% from the floor, and he’s committing a career-low of just 3.2 fouls per 36 minutes which is allowing him to stay on the floor to the tune of 37.4 minutes per game.

Not that long ago, Drummond’s offense came almost exclusively from put-back jams and alley-oops, and his back-to-the-basket ability was limited. The work that he’s put into his post game has paid off.

Aside from the post-ups, let’s not pretend that Drummond isn’t getting his share of alley-oops. Defenses can’t keep the 6-foot-11, 279 lbs big man out of the paint either with the ball in his hands or off the ball.

 

As the prime facilitator of the Pistons’ offense, Reggie Jackson has been on fire. Thanks in no small part to his absurd 40-point effort against the Portland Trail Blazers, 26 of which came in an incredible fourth quarter, Jackson is putting up career numbers.

Jackson is averaging 22.7 points per game, along with 4.3 rebounds and 5.6 assists. He’s doing this while shooting 44.3% from the floor, and 39.3% from behind the three-point line, which would be a career-high by a long shot.

His five-year, $80 million contract that was widely panned as unnecessary spending from the Pistons is also beginning to be revisited as money better spent than originally thought.

 

The chemistry between Jackson and Drummond right now is incredible, and it’s propelling the Pistons offense.

As for the third of the trio, last but not least is key three-and-D man Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. I’ll admit that his defense in the past hasn’t especially impressed me, but he’s taken a big leap forward so far this season.

KCP has shown a willingness to be a defensive stopper, as we can see from Pope fighting through a screen to block this potential game-tying shot from Rodney Hood in the Pistons’ home opener against the Utah Jazz.

KCP is averaging career highs in pretty much every counting stat. He’s averaging 14.9 points, 3.9 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game while shooting 43.7% from the floor.

He’s shooting just 31.3% from the three-point line, which could come up, but with the heavy minutes he’s been playing (averaging 38 minutes per game, 6.5 more than last season) and his production in other categories, maybe we’ll let that number slide for now.

We’re still not sure where the Pistons’ ceiling is. They put up a valiant fight on Monday night against the Golden State Warriors, but the defending champs were just too much. The rest of this Western Conference swing looks pretty winnable, with games against the Sacramento Kings, Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers. The Pistons should be able to return home from this road trip of death with a 4-2 record even if they can’t beat the Clippers and a 9-3 record overall, which nobody would have predicted to start this season.

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