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It’s Time to Take Andre Drummond and the Pistons Seriously

Detroit is not just a small-sample success story. With their traditional center somehow thriving on the perimeter, the Pistons’ offense has found a new gear.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It never became an urban legend like Yi Jianlian’s chair workout, but Andre Drummond’s self-evaluation leading into the 2012 draft certainly ranks among the more curious pre-draft story lines. While scouts and team executives projected the 18-year-old UConn big man as the next Dwight Howard, Drummond reportedly envisioned a future in which he played more like Kevin Durant. “Like a lot of young bigs, [Drummond] thinks he can do more than he can,” then-ESPN draft analyst Chad Ford said in a June 2012 radio interview. “He thinks he can dribble, he thinks he can shoot, he thinks he wants to play a little on the perimeter. He wants to be more Kevin Durant than Dwight Howard. Usually that's a very difficult thing to get out of players’ heads, to get them to accept what they do well in the NBA.”

It was a different NBA in 2012; lest we forget, Drummond’s draft class also ushered in Draymond Green, who was still years away from destroying the center archetype as we knew it. Back then, there was a certain honor in rigidly adhering to the limits imposed by positional norms. And so Drummond worked to meet the standard everyone had set for him, and in response became a caricature of the archetype he was meant to embody.

He developed a crude back-to-the-basket game, which has always been less a standalone tool than an apparatus that enabled his more successful putback attempts. He is both the best offensive rebounder of the past two decades (and one of the very best ever) and the worst free throw shooter in NBA history. He’d done it; he became Dwight—but without the all-world defense, which basically made him an expensive oxymoron. But by the time he’d gotten to that juncture, bigs became small, stretch 4s became stretch 5s, and a new crop of giants grew wings and horns. Just when he started showing the outline of the center everyone wanted him to be, he became an anachronism, the subject of 95 theses on the value of traditional big men in a pace-and-space league.

After a stagnant 2016-17 season in which all the joy was drained from Drummond’s play, both he and the Pistons took it back to the beginning, asking a question he’d answered all those years earlier, but which fell on deaf ears: What kind of player do you want to be?

The Pistons’ 14-6 record is the result of a strange confluence of seemingly minor changes to the team dynamic. Detroit helped facilitate the Celtics’ power moves by taking on Avery Bradley in an offseason trade, then spent the rest of the summer picking up Anthony Tolliver, Langston Galloway, and Eric Moreland on minor contracts. Drummond has famously raised his free throw percentage from 38.6 percent last season to 63 percent—which is still below league average, but effectively makes the 2017-18 version of Drummond the Steve Nash of Andre Drummonds.

In the shadow of one of the busiest, most superstar-driven offseasons in NBA history, the Pistons appeared to be giving up, spending what little money they had frugally. The team had no hype to prop itself up behind, no buzzy unicorn. It was practically left for dead in what was supposed to be a weak Eastern Conference. But in those shadows, Stan Van Gundy secretly fortified the motion offense he’d installed a season prior. It failed then because he didn’t have the right pieces. Now he does.

No longer weighed down by a complete lack of confidence in his free throw shooting, Drummond’s face-up game—a talent he’d boasted about as a 18-year-old, but buried in his quest to be Dwight—has blossomed in unexpected ways. At the heart of the Pistons’ resurgence is Drummond’s embrace of the dribble handoff. It functions more or less like a standard pick-and-roll, but it inverts the power dynamic, enabling Drummond to make reads out on the perimeter for his guards and wings, not unlike the way Terry Stotts deploys Jusuf Nurkic (and previously, Mason Plumlee) within the Blazers offense. By eschewing post-ups almost entirely and placing Drummond at the top of the arc, Van Gundy has MacGyvered a pseudo-five-out offense where Drummond’s nonexistent shooting is nullified by using him as the spearhead of an attack. Pulling Drummond so far away from the hoop allows off-ball specialists like Bradley to work their magic in open space. Here is a classic DHO play between the two:

It would be hard to imagine the Pistons’ motion offense working so well without Bradley’s influence. While Drummond has increasingly been the pilot behind the wheel on offense, Bradley is the team’s navigation system, getting a full read of the defense with every rip through a curl. He is a human gyroscope, and some of the Pistons’ best plays simply wouldn’t work without Bradley’s decisive, full-momentum cuts creating both avenues for the offense and misdirections for the defense. Here’s one of my favorites from the Pistons’ 118-108 statement win against the Celtics on Monday:

Bradley and Tobias Harris put rookie Jayson Tatum through the ringer here. Harris enters the ball to Drummond at the top of the key as if to initiate a dribble handoff with his center. Bradley immediately darts toward Drummond upon the catch, forcing Tatum to take into account his whereabouts. With Tatum’s head swiveled in Bradley’s direction, Harris plants his right foot as though he’s going to take the handoff on the right side, which pulls Tatum in two different directions. While the rookie’s frozen, caught between two different reads, Bradley pulls off an Antonio Brown double move to draw Tatum closer toward him. That’s all Drummond needs to fire a pass to Harris on the left wing for a wide-open catch-and-shoot 3. The onus is still on Drummond to make the right pass, but Bradley often points out Occam’s razor in stride. The team’s off-ball synergy has produced a career season in assists for Drummond, whose six best assist performances have all come this season. Like most players who have newly discovered the joys of passing, Drummond, who’s had a low turnover rate his entire career prior to this season, has had to learn how to balance his creative impulses with more risk-averse measures. But like rookie point guards, you live with the mistakes.

Detroit as a whole utilizes handoffs more than any other team in the league, with the play accounting for 11.6 percent of their possessions; six of their players are among the top-50 in handoff recipients in the league, and Bradley’s number of possessions (102) nearly doubles that of Kyrie Irving, who is in distant second. But the play isn’t their be-all, end-all. The whole point of bringing Drummond further away from the basket is to allow players the room to breathe. And within the outline of Van Gundy’s motion offense are pockets of time and space where Tobias Harris can be store-brand Carmelo Anthony or Reggie Jackson (who still operates in the pick-and-roll on nearly half his possessions) can live out his VR dreams of being a better ball-dominant point guard than his former mentor, Russell Westbrook.

It almost sounds idyllic; every player in the Pistons starting lineup gets a slice of what they want. So then why is their bench outperforming them in every meaningful metric?

I wish there were a revelatory answer, but there isn’t—Van Gundy has simply built a fluid, interchangeable roster of one mind. The plays run for the starters are the plays run for reserves. Every position has at least one functional doppelganger. Ish Smith, who successfully led the Pistons last season in Jackson’s absence, reprises his role as a high-speed metronome; Moreland, an anonymous journeyman big who previously had thimbles of coffee with the Kings, fills the Drummond role as an athletic, high-energy pivot who is comfortable handing the ball off out on the perimeter; Galloway ably replicates Bradley’s role as an off-ball surveyor; rookie Luke Kennard has the high-level catch-and-shoot prowess that Harris has demonstrated thus far this season; and Tolliver is the versatile forward who demonstrates all the skills the team hopes Stanley Johnson might one day be able to consistently provide (but, you know, better).

The reserve unit plays a tick faster with Smith at the helm, but beyond that, the offense does not diverge from the team’s core conceit. The staggering disparity in on/off numbers and net rating between the starting lineup and the bench reflect the quality of competition each player is generally matched up against. Detroit’s second unit is not as talented as the Celtics’ Fake-Death Lineup of Irving, Tatum, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, and Al Horford, despite a two-point edge in net rating, but it doesn’t need to be. The Pistons are leveraging their continuity and depth to find success, and it’d be tempting to suggest a level of unsustainability in the results if the process weren’t sound.

The numbers don’t quite see Detroit as an elite threat just yet. Through the first 20 games, they’ve been the seventh-best offense in the league and the 12th-best defense against a schedule rated the sixth-toughest by ESPN, though their win count was buttressed by a win streak in early November against a cluster of middling teams. It’s about to get much tougher, with their next six games against the Wizards, Sixers, Spurs, Bucks, Warriors, and Celtics—the first four of which will be on the road. Four of those six opponents have played top-10 defense so far this season, and it will be interesting to see how teams begin to prevent the dribble handoff and exploit Drummond’s lack of individual scoring ability out on the perimeter. The effectiveness of the handoff thus far has allowed Drummond to execute some clever fakes, which work because his defender is usually sagged off of him.

It will get tougher as the season progresses and scouting reports grow more robust, but there’s a spirit and levity to Drummond’s game now that had been absent in years past. Though he still isn’t anyone’s idea of a perfect modern big man, his physical talent offers him a margin for error most Jurassic-era centers aren’t afforded; might as well test his limits not as a 5, but as a basketball player. Dwight Howard was about the same age as Drummond is now when Stan Van Gundy figured out the four-out scheme that would elevate Dwight’s game to MVP-caliber levels. Nearly a decade later, he’s found a way to sneak Drummond into the future.

An earlier version of this story suggested the Pistons had a low strength of schedule in their first 20 games. They have the sixth-rated SOS in the NBA so far.