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The 2 ways the surging Pistons are different from Stan Van Gundy's old teams

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There's more than meets the eye with Detroit's new spread attack. Here's how the Pistons are blitzing the NBA.

Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Superficially, the Detroit Pistons are following the classic Stan Van Gundy formula. They're centered around the pick-and-roll combination of a dominant center and an emerging point guard. They put lots of shooting around that combination, especially at the power forward position. They succeed defensively by funneling drivers into their star center, staying disciplined with their positioning and inducing inefficient shot attempts.

Yet it would be a mistake to draw an exact parallel between Van Gundy's great Magic teams and these Pistons, who are now 5-1 after a stunning comeback victory in Portland. They may look similar on the aggregate, but there are a couple notable differences in their execution.

The Drummond-Jackson pick-and-roll

The Reggie Jackson/Andre Drummond combination has been deadly for the Pistons, yet not in the way a traditional pick-and-roll tandem usually is.

One would think it works because Jackson and Drummond have great two-man chemistry, but that hasn't really been the case this year. Jackson's assist percentage, which was among the highest in the NBA after he came to Detroit last February, has dropped to a level more in line with his career norms. Drummond, meanwhile, has caught and finished a pick-and-roll only 13 times this season, per Synergy Sports data. That's the same number as nondescript Pacers big man Jordan Hill. In fact, Jackson has only assisted Drummond in a pick-and-roll between the two of them four times all season, even though that two-man action is the very foundation of Detroit's offense.

How can a pick-and-roll combination succeed with such an infrequent connection? Because of everything else it sets up.

Much of that is due to the threat Drummond presents. He is so dangerous as a roll man and offensive rebounder that opponents don't want to leave him alone. This creates openings for others, but it especially creates openings for Jackson to score. When Jackson comes off a Drummond screen, he can slowly advance to the hoop without the defending big man really being there to stop him.

Jackson therefore owes a lot of his points to Drummond's presence. Drummond may as well be credited with assists on those shots.

Sometimes, the threat of Drummond is so dangerous that it sucks perimeter defenders into the lane, opening up three-pointers for everyone else. That benefits Jackson, too. There's a reason more of his assists are to open shooters than to Drummond directly.

Yet it would be unfair to say that Drummond is the only reason this pick-and-roll works. Drummond does still get his points despite all that defensive attention, after all, and a significant number of those are coming on the offensive glass. He's snaring more than seven offensive boards per game, and six of those are with others contesting him, per NBA.com's player tracking. Putbacks account for 29 percent of his offense; only Sacramento's Willie Cauley-Stein scores a higher percentage of his points on those types of plays. Drummond's post game has improved, but offensive rebounding is still his bread and butter.

On the one hand, this shows just how much of a monster Drummond is. Teams are willing to give his teammates open shots to box him out, yet they still can't do it. Rebounds like this are all him.

On the other hand, this is where Jackson has some hidden value beyond his passing. He's very good at taking and making those in-between floaters that aren't jumpers, but also aren't quite point-blank layups. Those attempts do just enough to nudge the big man out of position, which gives Drummond the head start he needs to snare the rebound if Jackson misses.

Jackson may not set Drummond up with traditional dimes, but he does generate a lot of what Kirk Goldsberry, formerly of Grantland, calls "Kobe Assists." They are logged as missed shots, but they essentially function as assists because of the way Jackson draws just enough attention to himself to give Drummond the right position.

That's how a pick-and-roll partnership between two players who haven't often connected directly can be so effective. Van Gundy's Magic teams had multiple pick-and-roll ball-handlers and better perimeter shooters, and while they also used Dwight Howard as a roll threat, they'd often run pick-and-rolls to get him better post position. Detroit, on the other hand, is bludgeoning teams with one duo fulfilling very specific roles, yet it's good enough to allow others to thrive in unique ways.

That perimeter defense is nasty

As effective as the Jackson/Drummond combination has been, the Pistons' offense isn't the biggest reason they're 5-1. It's actually their suffocating defense, which ranks sixth in the NBA in the early going.

Again, the surface-level analysis suggests typical Stan Van Gundy ethos. The Pistons are shutting off the basket, limiting corner 3s and forcing teams to take mid-range jumpers. Only the Kings allow fewer shot attempts in the restricted area, and that's because they collapse so much that corner threes are left open. Detroit shuts off both areas.

But these Pistons depart from Van Gundy's Magic in one critical way. To get his Magic teams to surrender the right shots, Van Gundy needed to punt on forcing turnovers. In his five seasons in charge, the Magic finished 24th, 25th, 26th, 14th and 25th in opponent turnover percentage. They did not have the defensive talent to overplay on the perimeter and induce inefficient shots. The pragmatic Van Gundy had to prioritize one over the other.

He doesn't need to make that choice with these Pistons. Detroit is forcing opponents to cough it up on more than 17 percent of their possessions, good for sixth in the league. That's because Van Gundy has ballhawks like Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and rookie Stanley Johnson to make life miserable for teams at the point of attack.

As a starting backcourt, Jackson and Caldwell-Pope tower over their matchups. Both are taller, longer and quicker than most players at their positions and they can defend each other's position whenever needed. Van Gundy can feel comfortable that Caldwell-Pope in particular can overplay his man without compromising Detroit's defensive shape.

Drummond himself deters a lot of dribble penetration, but so does Detroit's collective perimeter length. When Jackson, Caldwell-Pope, Johnson and others help off their man, it has more of an effect than if smaller players would. They are also speedy with closeouts, both in terms of actually getting there and staying on balance to prevent easy drives.

That adds up to a terrifying package for top perimeter scorers when every Piston is on his game. They still suffer from mental lapses; Jackson in particular sometimes looks lost off the ball. But when they're dialed in, possessions like this are common.

***

Hot start notwithstanding, there's still more work to be done. The Pistons don't quite have enough perimeter shooting and lack secondary playmaking options when the Jackson/Drummond two-man game breaks down. They are getting away with Ersan Ilyasova and Anthony Tolliver at power forward, but they eventually need to upgrade that position. Their bench has also been a disaster, though the eventual return of Brandon Jennings from an Achilles injury could fix that.

Still, Van Gundy is laying the foundation for his next great team. With Drummond dominating the paint and the Jackson/Caldwell-Pope/Johnson trio poised to lock down the perimeter for the next decade, the pieces are finally coming into place. This isn't a Stan Van Gundy team. This is a Stan Van Gundy 2.0 team.