Just How Legitimate are the Detroit Pistons?


Allen Einstein/NBAE via Getty Images
Allen Einstein/NBAE via Getty Images

They are five games in, and the Detroit Pistons already have the same amount of wins it took them 23 games to get last season. Detroit is beginning to establish themselves as a playoff team in the Eastern Conference by playing the same brand of no-nonsense defense that many of the historic Detroit Piston teams did. Through five games, Detroit has averaged 92.2 points allowed per game against high powered offenses like Chicago, Atlanta, and Indiana. While all of this is great for Detroit, a team that has not made the playoffs since the 2008-2009 season, just how much of their success is sustainable? The 2014-2015 Sacramento Kings were in a very similar situation last season, but after starting 6-1, they ended up with a record of 29-53.  How legitimate is Detroit?

The fact that the calling card of the Pistons is defense is good news. Defensively sound teams like Detroit so far tend to fluctuate less than offensively focused teams who’s performance is proportional to hot and cold shooting nights. Below are all of the teams since the 2008-2009 season that are similar in defense:

Opponent Per Game
Rk Season Tm G W L W/L% PTS
1 2015-16 UTA 6 4 2 .667 85.0
2 2011-12 CHI* 66 50 16 .758 88.2
3 2011-12 BOS* 66 39 27 .591 89.3
4 2012-13 MEM* 82 56 26 .683 89.3
5 2011-12 PHI* 66 35 31 .530 89.4
6 2012-13 IND* 81 49 32 .605 90.7
7 2010-11 BOS* 82 56 26 .683 91.1
8 2010-11 CHI* 82 62 20 .756 91.3
9 2008-09 CLE* 82 66 16 .805 91.4
10 2013-14 CHI* 82 48 34 .585 91.8
11 2015-16 DET 5 4 1 .800 92.2
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 11/8/2015.

Three Chicago Bulls Thibodeau teams are on this list, a very good sign for Detroit, so are dynasties like the Doc Rivers‘ Boston Celtics, the LeBron James-led Cavaliers, and the Grindhouse Memphis Grizzlies. All of these teams besides the 2013-2014 Chicago Bulls and obviously the 2015-2016 Utah Jazz played multiple rounds in to the playoffs. If Detroit can maintain its defensive tenacity, great things are in sight.


Regular Season Playoffs
Season Tm G W L W/L% W > .500 Finish G W L W/L% Notes
2003-04 MIA 82 42 40 .512 1.0 2 13 6 7 .462
2004-05 MIA 82 59 23 .720 18.0 1 15 11 4 .733
2005-06 MIA 21 11 10 .524 0.5 1
2007-08 ORL 82 52 30 .634 11.0 1 10 5 5 .500
2008-09 ORL 82 59 23 .720 18.0 1 24 13 11 .542 EC Champions
2009-10 ORL 82 59 23 .720 18.0 1 14 10 4 .714
2010-11 ORL 82 52 30 .634 11.0 2 6 2 4 .333
2011-12 ORL 66 37 29 .561 4.0 3 5 1 4 .200
2014-15 DET 82 32 50 .390 -9.0 5 0 0 0
2015-16 DET 5 4 1 .800 1.5 2 0 0 0
Career 666 407 259 .611 74.0 87 48 39 .552
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 11/8/2015.

The mastermind behind Detroit’s defense is none other than Stan Van Gundy. Van Gundy is a well-established coach that, besides last year with Detroit, has never had a season as head coach with an under .500 record. Even in the playoffs Van Gundy has a .552 winning percentage. It would not be far-fetched to say that Stan Van Gundy is the best coach in the Eastern Conference. While Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer comes from a better pedigree in the San Antonio Spurs organization, Van Gundy comes from a nearly equal Heat organization, and has more experience and success at the head coaching level. If the Pistons get beat, there is a very high probability that it will not be from being out-coached.

 Allen Einstein/NBAE via Getty Images
Allen Einstein/NBAE via Getty Images

The starters Van Gundy selected have been excellent thus far. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has been a great shooting guard, Marcus Morris is outplaying his brother for the first time in his career and in doing so he is gaining recognition, Ersan Ilyasova has been the floor spacer the Pistons have needed for so long, and Reggie Jackson has been playing like an all-star. Jackson has been the best point guard in the Central Divison so far, and there is a case for him as the best in the entire Eastern Conference. but more than anyone, Andre Drummond has played like a hall of famer.

The accolades go on and on; Drummond is the first player since Moses Malone to have 90 points and 90 rebounds through five games, Drummond leads the league with 19.0 rebounds per game, he also leads it in offensive rebounds and total rebounds despite having played only five games compared to the eight games other teams have played. Drummond is top ten in many other statistics as well, and while his play has been excellent, it is when Drummond, and the every other starter, is not playing that is a bad sign for Detroit.

Detroit has not been able to play without their starters so far. Jackson, Caldwell-Pope, Morris, Ilyaosva, and Drummond have had on-off net offensive ratings of +29.2, +28.0, +28.0, +11.2, and +54.6 respectively. In other words, those numbers are the amount of points Detroit has outscored their opponents by with each player on the court minus when they were ont he bench. While Detroit has been winning games, none of them have been major blow-outs. Detroit’s starters’ massive success has been the opposite of their bench’s massive woes.

Allen Einstein/NBAE via Getty Images
Allen Einstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Stanley Johnson, Anthony Tolliver, Steve Blake, Aron Baynes, Reggie Bullock, Jodie Meeks, and Spencer Dinwiddie, are all of the players that have come off the bench for Detroit, and they have been outscored by their opponents by 8.4, 2.4, 17.3, 38.7, 43.3, 2.9, and 0.0 points per 100 possessions respectively. Detroit will not be a legitimate contender until they have a bench. Golden State, San Antonio, and all of the other championship teams that don’t have LeBron James all have reliable benches. Brandon Jennings‘ return will, of course, help in this effort, but how much?

Detroit has overplayed its starters so far. The best teams in the league rest their starters in effort to maximize their potential in the playoffs. Jackson and Ilyasova have played a good amount of minutes, but 38.6 minutes per game for Marcus Morris, 38.4 for Andre Drummond, and 37.8 for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, are all too much. With the way the bench has performed so far, it is understandable that Van Gundy has played these effective starters a lot, but as the season progresses and the bench develops, it is in Detroit’s best interest to rest their starters more.

Most signs point toward Detroit to make the playoffs for the first time since 2009. They have a lot to prove, and the playoffs are still many games away, but Detroit is simply doing great things.

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