Five reasons for the Pistons' hot start

Rod Beard
The Detroit News
Andre Drummond

Portland, Ore. — A peek at the NBA standings after the first 10 days shows mostly predictable results: The Golden State Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers and Atlanta Hawks sit atop their respective conferences.

Digging a little deeper, there are a couple of surprises, including the Pistons among the four one-loss teams in the league. Last season, during their horrendous 5-23 start, the Pistons didn't win their fourth game until they mercifully ended a 13-game losing streak with a win over the Phoenix Suns; by then, they already had 19 losses.

So far this season, the Pistons are looking like a different team — though coach Stan Van Gundy warns it's still too early to judge anything. But road wins at Atlanta and Phoenix, and home against Utah and Chicago, have fans buying into Van Gundy's retooled roster, featuring two new starters and a bevy of new bench players.

Why have the Pistons been so successful early in the season? Here are five keys to the hot start:

Doing it with defense: Through their first five games, the Pistons rank third in the league, allowing just 92.2 points per game. They haven't given up 100 points and have defended better on the pick-and-roll, with the help of a more versatile group of power forwards.

"We're playing really, really hard. Our big guys have been really active on pick-and-rolls," Van Gundy said. "Our guards have worked much, much harder than we did a year ago to get over or under picks and back in front of the ball."

Andre Drummond has improved as a rim protector and not letting as many guards get by him.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has become one of the team's best defenders, with a standout game guarding the Hawks' Kyle Korver and the Jazz's Gordon Hayward. While the current western — with upcoming games against the Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers — will challenge their defense more, they've passed the initial tests.

Marcus Morris

Making the most of Morris: The Pistons got Marcus Morris — along with Reggie Bullock and the since-waived Danny Granger — in a trade with the Suns for a 2020 second-round draft pick. That could go down as the best deal of the offseason. Morris has been a perfect fit in the starting lineup, providing a post-up option with a solid jump shot, even out to 3-point range, where he's shooting 41 percent.

He leads the team in minutes (38.6), ranks third in scoring (17.8) and second in rebounding (7.2). But his versatility in being able to play both forward positions enables Van Gundy to use him in various roles.

More than anything, though, Morris has brought a sense of toughness that the Pistons hadn't had in previous years. That shows on defense and just grinding out possessions, where Morris can create his own shot.

Man in the middle: Although Drummond (18.6 points, 19 rebounds) opted to suspend negotiations on a long-term contract, he's playing as if he has something to prove. He's showing himself to be one of the best rebounders in the league, including a career-best 29 boards in the loss to the Pacers.

His post moves have gotten a little better, but he's a menace on the offensive glass and building chemistry with point guard Reggie Jackson.

Of course, his free-throw shooting is an issue — including the 2-of-13 struggle against the Suns on Friday — but he had improved in the first few games of the year. Van Gundy could face some "Hack-a-Drummond" dilemmas late in games if the percentages don't inch up.

Flexibility at the 4: After moving on from Greg Monroe at power forward last season, the Pistons have settled in with a combination of Ersan Ilyasova and Morris. Ilyasova (8.8 points, 4.4 rebounds) appears to be a defensive upgrade, drawing eight offensive fouls in five games, while adding much-needed outside shooting (40 percent on 3-pointers).

Having Ilyasova and Morris working from the outside has cleared space in the middle for Drummond, without losing much in terms of rebounding. With Anthony Tolliver coming off the bench, the Pistons get another outside-shooting big man who can play good defense.

The Van Gundy effect: In his second season, Van Gundy has put his stamp on this roster, with a complete revamp in a little over a year. Signing Reggie Jackson to a long-term deal in the offseason was a risk, but is paying off, as he leads the team in scoring (19.8), including a masterful takeover in the fourth quarter in the win against the Suns.

While it remains to be seen whether the Pistons will fare as well against the NBA's elite teams, they've done well enough against the middle of the pack, which wasn't always true in past years. There's a different mentality with this group, led by Drummond, Jackson and Morris, and it's starting to show all over the court.

The roster is starting to jell, though Van Gundy cautions against judging too much from the first few games, especially on defense, where things can go haywire quickly.

"I'm really happy, but we're five games in," he said. "There's a long way to go and there will be challenges along the way and nights where we don't play as well as we would like."

Pistons vs. Warriors

Tipoff: Monday, 10:30 p.m., Oracle Arena, Oakland, Calif.

TV / radio: FSD / WMGC

Outlook: The Pistons will get their biggest test of the season, facing the defending champions, with Stephen Curry (33.9 points). If the Warriors go to a smaller lineup, the Pistons are better equipped to match up, with a more versatile lineup.