The Detroit Pistons have young talent and veterans with plenty to prove. But the true X-Factor to control their franchise’s destiny is Andre Drummond.
The 2016 Detroit Pistons were a team on the rise.
After six straight seasons of missing the playoffs, things were looking up in the Motor City. Stan Van Gundy was in place as head coach and president of basketball operations, and had given the roster a face lift. He was praised for a number of trades, turning expiring contracts and middling players into young, versatile pieces for the future.
The Pistons qualified for the playoffs and a meeting with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Although they were ultimately swept, each game was competitive and rookie wing Stanley Johnson seemed poised to grow into a bully on the wing, a two-way combo forward who could tussle with LeBron James on defense while scoring on the opposite end.
Tobias Harris, Marcus Morris and Johnson were all relatively young and looking like the future of the league as combo forwards. Reggie Jackson looked like the latest young player to spread his wings after leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was developing into an elite guard defender and toying with a knockdown jumper.
All of these pieces revolved around the Pistons’ star, center Andre Drummond. In the 2015-16 season, a 22 year-old Drummond led the league in rebounding with 14.8 boards per game, putting up 66 double-doubles – 12 more than second-place Russell Westbrook. Drummond went to Toronto as one of the Eastern Conference’s All-Stars, and at the end of the year was selected to an All-NBA team.
With Drummond about to sign a max-contract, a sky-rocketing cap giving Detroit plenty of room to add talent, and the team’s core under control for years to come, the Pistons had a bright future.
That future may not be extinguished, but it’s certainly in jeopardy just one year later. The Pistons’ cap sheet is now loaded with overpaid veterans, Reggie Jackson may not be a starting point guard, and Caldwell-Pope was allowed to walk so that the team could sign Langston Galloway. Rather than contending, the Pistons will be fighting just to return to the playoffs.
The key to their future lies with Drummond, whose rise towards dominance has flat-lined. 16.2 points and 14.8 rebounds per game in his fourth season fell back into 13.6 points and 13.8 rebounds per game. He blocked just 1.1 shots per game, a career-low, and ranked just eighth in double-doubles.
ESPN’s real plus-minus seeks to track a player’s impact while on the court. After ranking sixth among centers in 2015-16, Drummond was just 38th among centers last season – rating out as a negative player for Detroit. Again, the Pistons’ franchise player hurt the team when he took the floor last season.
For the club to turn things around, they will need contributions across the board. But Drummond is the key. As teams shift to smaller and smaller lineups, his ability to dominate the glass and extend possessions – or snuff them out on defense – can help Detroit gain an edge other teams don’t have.
But for their offense to unlock, Drummond needs to stop demanding post touches. Entering the ball to the post is a valuable tactic for players who can dominate one-on-one, especially when attacking mismatches. Forcing a double team opens up the floor for passes to open shooters. But Drummond is not one of those players. Through five seasons, he has failed to develop the type of post game that deserves post touches.
Instead, Drummond should fully commit to his bread-and-butter: the pick-and-roll. His athleticism on the roll forces defenses to cover horizontal and vertical space, which triggers a collapse into the paint. Thus open shots are created on the perimeter. If defenders stay home, Drummond can punish them in the lob game. It’s simple, but it’s the way of the league now.
This type of game will help Drummond avoid the free-throw line, where he continues to look lost. For his career, he has shot just 38.1 percent from the stripe, a number much too low to avoid teams sending him to the line at every opportunity. By running plays where Drummond only touches the ball when he’s throwing it into the hoop, it decreases opportunities for intentional fouling.
Drummond is also the key to the Pistons’ defensive future as well. The team did trade for an elite one-on-one defender in Avery Bradley, but they swapped out Caldwell-Pope, a great defender in his own right. Defending the rim is the core of any great defense, and no one on this roster can do that besides Andre.
Last season may have been a lost one for the entire team, one that should be filed away under “lessons learned” and moved on from. Avery Bradley could be a great veteran addition, Reggie Jackson could return fully healthy, and this team could leap back into the postseason.
But for this team to head somewhere and not simply wallow in mediocrity, they need last season to be a one-time aberration for their franchise big man. Andre Drummond has the talent to be a difference-maker in the league. Whether he will become that or not makes him the X-Factor for the Detroit Pistons.