The Pistons are nobody’s idea of a great basketball team, and yet after a weekend that should have seem them shredded by two Western Conference giants, they are instead sitting on top of the Eastern Conference at 5-2. The team traveled to California and handed the Clippers their first loss of the year on Saturday, and then won at Golden State the very next night.
Both wins were by eight points, and both saw Detroit making impressive comebacks. Down 55-45 at halftime against Los Angeles, the Pistons rode hot shooting from Tobias Harris and Langston Galloway and held the Clippers to just 32 points in the last two quarters. Against the Warriors, Detroit was down 37-27 early in the second quarter, but an offensive explosion led by guards Reggie Jackson, Ish Smith, and Avery Bradley, coupled with some clutch late shots from Tobias Harris, put them on top.
The weirdest thing about these kind-of-good Pistons is that, in their current form, the starting lineup is terrible. It’s early, but Detroit’s first five of Andre Drummond, Jackson, Bradley, Harris, and Stanley Johnson has started the year with an embarrassing net rating of -16.2. By total plus/minus, only the Phoenix Suns have a worse unit, and it’s no surprise that it leads to consistent early deficits for Detroit.
The poor starting-five play hasn’t reversed itself at all in these impressive wins either, particularly against Golden State, where that unit was -10 in 22 minutes together. They were bailed out by role players like Reggie Bullock and Anthony Toliver, who were a ridiculous +26 and +21, respectively.
So the Pistons are winning despite running out a pretty dismal Plan A and getting themselves into early holes. All of Detroit’s starters—with the exception of the still-learning Johnson—have put up very good numbers when you look at them individually; they just haven’t gelled. All but Johnson have positive individual plus-minuses, and all but Johnson and Bradley have positive net ratings.
Andre Drummond in particular, despite a 4-for-17 night on Sunday, has shown some real improvement, especially as a free-throw shooter. Harris is a reliable stat sheet-filler with the ability to get points both inside and out. Avery Bradley has, at least in the short term, been an improvement over Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Reggie Jackson may still be pass-second point guard, but his scoring contributions have been key to these big wins. These pieces don’t seem to fit well together, but they still have their individual talents.
The right combination of players needed to make a good starting five has so far eluded coach Stan Van Gundy, but in a way, that’s good news for Detroit. The Pistons just managed to win back-to-back games against supremely tough opponents despite having a malfunctioning starting lineup. Maybe that bodes well for a future in which the starting five finally coheres a bit and Van Gundy figures out how to maximize his lineups. The Pistons are stumbling into wins for now, but that doesn’t mean they can’t stride into them later.