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The List: The Pistons are better than you think

The Detroit Pistons are contending in the Eastern Conference. The List explains how.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Pistons are a good team. At 13-6, they’ve already recorded wins over both the Warriors and Celtics on the road. Their early-season success is a bit of a surprise considering they slumped to 37 wins with mostly the same roster last season. Of course, their performance last season was viewed as a major disappointment, so perhaps they were merely a year away from reaching expectations.

Speaking of expectations, let’s turn it over to Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy for his view on the subject. Take it away, Stan: “I don’t envision anything ever. I haven’t been around that long, but I’ve been in the league over 20 years and all of your expectations good and bad tend to not be true.”

So there you go. The Pistons are good and we should probably come to terms with this, because their early-season success is a bit convoluted. Here are a few reasons:

The Pistons Piston really well: At first glance, the Pistons don’t really fit the mold of a contender. They’re a top-10 offense (barely) by Basketball-Reference and a top-13 defense. They’re not really great at any one thing, but they’re not deficient in too many areas either.

This is clearly a Stan Van Gundy team. The Pistons run teams off the three-point line and defend without fouling. While they don’t shoot a ton of three’s, they make them at a high percentage. They’re active on defense and strong on the glass. If you’re going to beat them, you’re going to have to earn it.

The starting lineup has not been good: Their five starters have played more minutes together than any other five-man unit in the league except for the Wolves’, and they are eight points worse per 100 possessions than their opponents. That’s been especially true in the first quarter where they were the absolute worst team in the league entering Monday night’s game against the Celtics. (Detroit flipped the script against Boston, racing out to an 11-point lead.)

All told, the Pistons were 10 points worse than their opponents per 100 possessions in the opening quarter. That’s Bulls/Kings/Mavs territory. On the flipside, they’ve been one of the best fourth-quarter teams in the league, outscoring the opposition by more than 12 points per 100 possessions. That’s Warriors/Celtics turf.

In related news, they have a knack for coming back: The Pistons have rallied seven times from double-digit deficits, representing more than half their victories this season. That’s more than any other team and only four fewer than they recorded all of last season. That’s not sustainable, but it’s a credit to their bench units that are among the best in the league, defensively.

You can be forgiven if you’re not familiar with the work of Ish Smith, Anthony Tolliver, and Langston Galloway. None of them are going to win Sixth Man of the Year, but collectively they’ve been outstanding. Galloway, in particular, is a plus/minus All-Star.

NBA: Miami Heat at Detroit Pistons Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

“We’re the Bench Mob,” Galloway told me. “We’re going to bring a lot of energy and passion.”

When I suggested that Bench Mob was too generic a nickname for this crew, Galloway considered this for a minute.

“Right now we’re going to stick with the Bench Mob,” he said. “If we continue to have success, maybe we’ll come up with something else.”

Let it be so.

Andre Drummond, superstar: It was only a year ago when we were beginning to have doubts about Drummond. Big centers were passe, and Drummond seemed to stagnate along with his woeful free-throw shooting. Lo and behold, Drummond worked on his routine, and while he’ll never be Steph Curry, he’s become a 60 percent shooter at the line. That, plus a renewed focus on conditioning, has made him a different player.

Drummond has always been a beast on the boards, and he’s leading the league in rebounding. Where he was once a one-dimensional rim-runner, he’s become a nifty playmaker at the top of the key, averaging better than three assists per game. He’s also extremely active as a defender, generating steals and blocks and creating chaos wherever he goes.

In short, Drummond is a handful. Few players can match up with him physically, and he’s a good enough athlete to chase smaller players around while still protecting the rim. He’s the key difference-maker for this team.

Tobias Harris is coming into his own: It’s hard to believe that Harris has been in the league for seven years and is still just 25 years old. Harris has essentially been a journeyman since he was traded from Charlotte to Milwaukee on draft night. The Bucks later traded him for J.J. Redick, and the Magic gave up on him in a weird deadline deal for Ersan Ilyasova and Brandon Jennings. But he’s finally found a stable groove in Detroit.

Harris can do just about everything, although not at the elite level of other superstar forwards. He’s shooting better than 45 percent from behind the arc, which may not last, but at a tick under 20 points a game, he’s become their version of a go-to scorer.

A healthy Reggie Jackson makes a big difference: Jackson missed 30 games last season with an ankle injury and wasn’t himself even when he did play. The point guard is an integral part of Van Gundy’s spread offense, and while Ish Smith played well in Jackson’s absence, Smith is more suited to a reserve role where he can change the pace of a game.

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Detroit Pistons Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Jackson has been reliably solid, giving Detroit 15 and six with solid shooting and playmaking. He and Drummond have developed a nice rhythm on high pick-and-rolls and he’s stayed within himself this season, rather than operating in takeover mode.

Avery Bradley, professional basketball player: The Pistons didn’t want to trade Marcus Morris, but when they couldn’t come to terms with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, they were more than happy to grab Bradley from the Celtics. (The trade also opened up playing time for Stanley Johnson and allowed Harris to fulfill his destiny as a versatile wing.)

“(Bradley’s) exactly what we expected, which is good because we expected a lot,” Van Gundy said. “He comes to play every time. He comes to work all the time. He’s serious. He’s unselfish. He plays hard. There’s no negatives on him.”

While the metrics have never been kind to his game, Bradley is a monster on-ball defender and excellent shooter. He’s a solid fit next to Jackson in the backcourt and a mature presence in the locker room. He’s also a free agent after this season, but they’ll worry about all of that in the spring.

Right now, Bradley is playing well and the Pistons are better than we thought. So much for your expectations. Take it from Stan. Whatever your perceptions were, they don’t mean much once the season begins.