When the Detroit Pistons traded for Reggie Jackson in February, nobody thought they were uniting two players who would soon combine to form one of the league’s most lethal pick-and-roll combinations. At the time, Jackson was a somewhat maligned talent, someone who appeared to force his way out of Oklahoma City. Andre Drummond was held in higher esteem, but even after Detroit shed itself of Josh Smith, he was still sharing the frontcourt with a fellow low-post behemoth in Greg Monroe.
Fast forward nine months and Jackson and Drummond are running the show for one of the league’s most surprising upstarts: The 5-1 Detroit Pistons. With Monroe sopping up post touches in Milwaukee, Stan Van Gundy’s Pistons are now free to play the spread pick-and-roll game SVG popularized during his tenure with the Orlando Magic, and Detroit is off to the franchise’s best start since 2007-2008.
The Pistons aren’t a carbon copy of Van Gundy’s Magic teams, but his philosophy and his franchise cornerstone are the same as they were when he was in Orlando.
For Drummond, the comparison is easy. The 22-year-old big man resembles a young Dwight Howard on a nightly basis, and the aloof manner with which he posts historically dominant statlines boggles the mind when considering his potential.
Jackson, however, doesn’t mirror any of the point guards who ran the show for Van Gundy in Orlando. A variety of styles and personalities – ranging from the dependable Jameer Nelson to the streaky Rafer Alston to the magician himself, Jason Williams – had the gig, but none of Van Gundy’s point guards were ever persistent scoring threats. Gilbert Arenas was the only shot-first player to run point for SVG, but he did so in name only, for he was a shell of himself by the time he got to Orlando.
Which leaves us with a scary thought: What if Stan Van Gundy has finally got himself a point guard who can act as an effective and volume scorer off the pick-and-roll to go along with the foundational big man he once had in Howard and now has in Drummond?
Perhaps it is too soon to anoint Jackson one of the NBA’s premier pick-and-roll purveyors, but he was good for the Pistons at the end of last season and he has navigated the league’s second heaviest pick-and-roll diet extremely well so far this year. 22.8 percent of Detroit’s offense comes from the ball-handler on the pick-and-roll, which ranks second behind Utah. Individually, nearly three-quarters of Jackson’s offense comes when he’s turning the corner on a screen; 64.4 percent of his offensive possessions come off the pick-and-roll, and he’s shooting 48 percent in such situations.
With Drummond rolling and sucking in the opposing center and shooters spacing the floor at every position, it’s up to Jackson to create offense going downhill. And that is exactly what he is doing.
Jackson is averaging 15.8 drives per game this season – more than all of the Golden State Warriors (15) and five more than Russell Westbrook and James Harden. He’s shooting 56.6 percent on his drives, and although he’s not passing a ton when he penetrates, some of that can be explained by the inevitable strategy of defenses putting a body on Drummond to prevent the lob and sticking with shooters and forcing Jackson to beat them.
So Jackson is making defenses pay. On Sunday night he erupted for 26 points in the fourth quarter against the Blazers, leading Detroit to a massive comeback victory against Portland. Jackson finished with a career-high 40 points, including 10-of-11 shooting in the fourth. Take a look at how Jackson led his team in a decisive 41-11 quarter.
It’s not rocket science. Almost all of Detroit’s half-court possessions in the final eight minutes of the game involved Jackson and Drummond running a high pick-and-roll with Marcus Morris, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Anthony Tolliver spotting up around them. Jackson had one assist in the fourth, but he wasn’t hunting shots or being selfish, which is something he was often accused of during the latter stages of his time in Oklahoma City. As the coaching cliche goes, he was taking what the defense gave him.
Now, Jackson also hit three 3-pointers in the fourth, and for a career 30 percent 3-point shooter, that’s nearly a miracle. Jackson also shot below 40 percent from the midrange last season, and he’s been even worse from that area to begin this year. Damian Lillard and Miles Plumlee could have done a better job of forcing Jackson to live outside the paint, but against a poor defensive duo, Jackson was able to get whatever look he wanted, and the fact that his shot was falling made him unguardable.
Jackson’s game is binary. There will be nights when his shot his falling, like Sunday, and there will be nights when he goes 9-of-24, like in Detroit’s win against Chicago. Efficiency has never been his calling card, and he’s going to struggle against good defensive teams if he’s not hitting jumpers because he’s not an elite athlete that can finish over the top of sound bigs or draw an inordinate amount of fouls.
But that dichotomy might be fine in Van Gundy’s system. The mere presence of a volume scorer at the point guard spot, whether he’s shooting 40 percent or 50 percent, is a luxury because it gives Detroit the ability to test a defense’s discipline on every possession. If Jackson is on, teams might go against its principles to cover him, which will open things up for Drummond or Detroit’s bevy of shooters. If opponents elect to stay at home, as Portland did in the fourth quarter Sunday, then Jackson will have space to create shots for himself.
It helps that Jackson is partnered with one of the league’s most devastating pick-and-roll finishers. Drummond’s gravitational pull is pronounced, as is his impact on the offensive glass. Defenses can play a Jackson/Drummond pick-and-roll perfectly and force Jackson into a low-percentage look, only to have Drummond rescue the possession by snatching the ball off the glass and putting it back it. Drummond has already attempted 34 shots on putbacks, nearly double the shot count for Enes Kanter, who ranks second at 18 in one more game.
With his presence on the roll and the glass, Drummond is doing a good job of following the Dwight Howard’s developmental trajectory offensively, and his defense is coming along as well. The Pistons only allow 91.9 points per 100 possessions with Drummond on the floor, and you can see how big of a factor he was in the Blazers’ anemic fourth quarter effort.
Whether it was corralling Lillard and C.J. McCollum as they came off screens, changing shots at the rim or gobbling up every available rebound, Drummond had a remarkable fourth quarter as Detroit’s defensive anchor. He was engaged, mobile and smart, making perfect decisions on how long to linger with the ball-handlers before retreating to clean up on the glass.
18-19, 18-10, 20-20, 25-29, 12-17, 29-27. Those aren’t NFL scores; those are Drummond’s point and rebound totals in Detroit’s six games this season. Drummond pulls down 69.7 percent of his rebound chances (defined as boards within 3.5 feet of him), and he leads the league in uncontested and contested rebounds per game. Drummond pulls down an average of 10 contested rebounds per game – second on the list is Rudy Gobert at 5.5.
He’s not just a menace on the glass, either. Drummond is averaging 9.3 post touches per game, the third most in the NBA behind Dwight Howard and Marc Gasol. Drummond is taking seven shots from the post per game this season and he’s converting on 55.8 percent of them. He’s far from a finished product, but Drummond has showcased some polish and precision on the block, and his touch around the basket has never been better. His lone Achilles’ heel on offense, in typical Howard fashion, might end up being free throws.
Between he and Jackson, Drummond has the most potential, and if he puts together an entire season at his current pace – averaging 20 points and 20 boards with two blocks – then he will enter the conversation as one of the best bigs in basketball. We’ve already seen what Van Gundy can do with that kind of a talent at center, and the early returns on pairing Drummond with a score-first pick-and-roll partner in Jackson have been encouraging. Take a look at some of the efficiency numbers for the duo of Jackson and Drummond versus that of some of Howard’s best pairings, as well as a couple of Chris Paul combos.
Small sample size aside, you can see why Van Gundy should be feeling pretty good about his new dynamic duo in Detroit. Drummond is the linchpin of a defensive unit that has been one of the best in the league to start the season, and Jackson has kept things flowing offensively, averaging 23 points, six assists and five rebounds per game while shooting 46 percent, which would tie a career high.
Elsewhere on the roster, Marcus Morris and Ersan Ilyasova are doing passable Rashard Lewis and Ryan Anderson impersonations. Anthony Tolliver comes off the bench and spaces the floor at the power forward spot. Aron Baynes got $20 million to play 10 minutes a game because Drummond never comes off the floor. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is having a solid sophomore season, offering Detroit solid wing scoring and playmaking ability on weakside pick-and-rolls when the ball reverses. Stanley Johnson is the new Caldwell-Pope, right down to the pick they were selected with (8th overall).
There id a lot to like about the team Van Gundy has assembled in Detroit. The Pistons are still missing a J.J. Redick-caliber marksman who can take their spacing to the next level (perhaps Jodie Meeks will be that guy when he returns from injury), and who knows what will happen when Brandon Jennings returns. But this team makes sense, structurally and in the way they play. Detroit grinds out games on both ends of the floor, relying on Drummond to anchor its defense and to combine with Jackson to diversify its offensive attack.
It’s early, and they will regress, but the Pistons look like a surefire playoff team in the Eastern Conference. And things can only get better as Drummond and Jackson evolve together.
All stats in the piece are courtesy of NBA.com/Stats.