Tobias Harris talks about the Pistons' new motion offense. Rod Beard, The Detroit News
Auburn Hills — In his 12th season, Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy is comfortable with his philosophy. In his past stops with the Miami Heat, when he had Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O’Neal or his days with the Orlando Magic with Dwight Howard, Van Gundy has been a leopard that’s slow to try to change his spots.
Until this year, with center Andre Drummond.
Drummond is not Howard and he’s not O’Neal. In some ways, he’s the upgraded version, an athletic big man who can post up but can also be the hub of the offense. Instead of just camping in the paint, Drummond has emerged in a new role in a motion offense, which is one of the biggest reasons the Pistons are off to a 7-3 start, second-best in the Eastern Conference.
The Pistons’ offense is vastly different, mostly at the behest of associate head coach Bob Beyer and the coaching staff, along with Van Gundy.
Not that Van Gundy — Stan’s younger brother, Jeff, the ESPN analyst and former coach.
“The three biggest influences on (the change) are watching the film and Bob has had a big influence on me on the way we play and my brother has had an influence on the changes we’ve made,” Stan said Tuesday. “(Jeff) watched a lot of games this summer, he’s watched every minute of every game this year from the preseason on and came into training camp. He’s really pushed me to (accept it).”
It’s been an evolution. No longer are the Pistons heavily reliant on their bread-and-butter pick-and-roll action. Rarely is Drummond camped out in the paint with shooters flanked in the corners, waiting for a pass to the perimeter, as he hoists a 15-foot hook shot.
In the motion offense, more players are touching the ball, which makes it harder for defenses to guard — and it’s gotten more buy-in and enthusiasm across the board.
“Everybody is more involved,” said forward Tobias Harris, who leads the Pistons in scoring at 19.7 points. “Obviously, I like it.”
The new philosophy has helped jump-start the offense, with scoring up from 101.3 points last season (26th in the league) to 104.8 (17th).
It’s a small sample size, but it’s also passing the eye test. They can augment using point guard Reggie Jackson in the pick-and-roll with dribble-handoffs between Drummond and Harris or shooting guard Avery Bradley.
Another advocate of the motion offense is assistant coach Tim Hardaway, who was an All-Star point guard. Van Gundy said even in their first year with the Pistons, Hardaway was a proponent of more motion and less pick-and-roll.
“That’s what’s working in today’s NBA. Everything is motion — moving the ball and moving the defense from side to side,” Hardaway said. “If you look at the Celtics or Warriors, that’s how they run their offense: movement and then they got to a guy they can go to.
“We don’t have a go-to guy who, if you give him the ball, he’ll give you points like a Tim Duncan or Kyrie Irving or LeBron James. We don’t have that guy. We have to move the ball, move ourselves, move the defense, set screens and create opportunities for ourselves.”
It’s still new, but it’s growing on Van Gundy, who has had to exercise some patience in trying something different, especially when the offense goes into lulls — and it isn’t working as well as his tried-and-true strategy.
“I’ve never really played like this as a coach. I’ve been pick-and-roll 90 percent of the time,” Van Gundy said. “It’s a little bit out of my comfort zone. Both my brother and my coaching staff have done a really good job of (settling me down) when I get frustrated and it’s not looking good. We were a week into camp and I didn’t like it.
“The easiest thing for me is to revert back to what I know. All of them, plus (assistant coach Rex Walters), have been on me that we’ll get better at it. It’s the same thing all the time: give it a chance and we’ll get better at it. There’s still times, like the Sacramento or Lakers games (win and loss) where it was bad.”
Focus on strengths
Van Gundy said there was no moment of epiphany in the summer that spurred him to try something new; rather, at different times, the coaching staff and his brother focused on the roster and the different players’ strengths.
For Drummond, it was ball-handling, passing ability and an uncommon knack for finishing at the rim. That became the starting point — and spread to other strengths.
“A lot of it is coach maturing and opening up the mindset and figuring out a way for us to play, other than pick-and-roll,” Jackson said. “It’s the maturity of Andre … when we get in half-court, his unique ability to be a willing passer, as well as putting it on the deck to get dribble-handoffs and rolling hard is suiting his skill set and working well for us.”
The new hub role has Drummond as the focal point much more — and it’s showing in the statistics, as he’s displaying a revamped all-around game and is posting career numbers: 14 points, 14.7 rebounds and a career-best 2.7 assists.
With the addition of Bradley, the Pistons have another potent option, with more ways to score, including more open 3-pointers and easy baskets for Drummond on residual action. It’s an uncommon role as a point-center, but Drummond has excelled, which has kept him engaged on both ends of the court.
“It does help having a player like Dre willing to sacrifice for the team and make the right play. It’s working for him as well because he’s a very good player and we’re using him to his strengths, letting him make plays for our team,” Bradley said. “He’s one of the most special players I’ve ever played with or ever had a chance to watch play basketball.
“This year can be special for him and special for our team.”
'A nice curveball'
The new philosophy also is a change for Jackson, who runs less pick-and-roll now, which allows him to conserve energy to use on the defensive end, where he’s improved considerably this season.
Jackson’s scoring (15.5) is up a full point from last season, and he’s increased his assists (6.3) by one. It’s a new look, with more options and better results.
That doesn’t mean it’s an easy adjustment — but the improvement makes it worth the growing pains. In baseball terms, the Pistons’ offense has added a pitch to its repertoire.
“It’s making it difficult. Everybody knows what our fastball is, but now you have a nice curveball,” Jackson said. “It’s finding a balance. I have to be aggressive at the end of games to make the right decisions out of pick-and-roll; we rely heavily on it.
“Would I love to just run pick-and-rolls? I probably would have before, but we’re finding success. That’s all I’m about — finding a way to get wins. As long as we’re accumulating wins, I don’t have a problem with it because we’re all free-flowing and playing well.”
But like any evolution, it’s about adding a layer, something else for the defense to worry about. The Pistons are off to their best start since 2008-09, which is proof enough.
“That’s what it’s about — we’re not stagnant and we don’t have just that fastball,” Hardaway said. “Now, we have multiple things we can use: a change-up and a curveball. It’s three or four different things they have to scout and worry about.
“We can always go back to the pick-and-roll if we see something going and we use it effectively — that’s not out — it’s just something we have when we need it.”
Pistons vs. Pacers
Tip-off: 7 Wednesday, Little Caesars Arena, Detroit
Outlook: The Pistons (7-3) are one of the hottest teams in the league, posting a 4-1 record at home. The Pacers (5-5) are playing their third game in four nights and are led by Victor Oladipo (23.8 points).