Wojo: Pistons turning heads, pumping expectations

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Reggie Jackson

In case you haven’t noticed, the Pistons are serving notice. They’ve done it enough times and enough ways now that it feels real, that something truly might be forming here.

It didn’t begin with their stirring 118-108 victory in Boston, but that’s the moment that’ll be remembered if the climb continues. We’re nearly a quarter into the season and the Pistons are 13-6, second in the East to the Celtics’ 18-4. The sample size is growing and so is the Pistons’ identity, and so are the possibilities.

They’ve done it with depth and 3-point shooting and a heightened competitive spirit. They’ve done it in the toughest places – at Boston, at Golden State, at Minnesota, at Oklahoma City – and if they handle Phoenix Wednesday night at Little Caesars Arena, they’d have the fourth-best record in the NBA. Of course, the Pistons started generating interest precisely a week ago and promptly lost by 28 at home to Cleveland, so we don’t have to fully anoint them yet.

But we do have to figure out what’s happening here, because the goal no longer should be just to make the playoffs. It should be to finish as a top-four seed in the East, minimum.

That’s a risky proclamation considering the Pistons don’t have the normal makeup of a top-tier team. They don’t have a superstar or two, although Andre Drummond, still only 24, is officially stamping his intentions. But while others in the league follow the same tedious pattern – plan for the future, pine for a superstar – the Pistons are attempting something unusual. Stan Van Gundy put together a more-mature team that can win in different ways, with different pieces emerging at different times.

Is it the standard formula to win big in the NBA? No, it’s not. But it’s better than sitting around hoping lottery luck delivers you a centerpiece.

It begins with Drummond’s revival and Avery Bradley’s arrival, although it’s more than that. Reggie Jackson looks healthy again and Tobias Harris has expanded his arsenal. In the Pistons’ revamped motion offense, any of those four players can lead the team in scoring on any given night.

Against the Celtics, Drummond was incredible with 26 points, 22 rebounds and six assists, part of a team effort that was so exuberant, Van Gundy couldn’t help himself as he walked off the floor, shouting “This (stuff) is getting fun!” Harris tallied 31, and might be the quietest team-leading scorer in the NBA, topping the Pistons at 19.1 while hitting 47.4 percent on 3-pointers.

“We’ve been sharing the ball all year – this is a really, really unselfish team,” Van Gundy said. “We play for each other. Literally not one time this year has anybody complained about not getting shots, not getting the ball, any of that. Part of that is because the ball does always move.”

Spreading it around

Jackson doesn’t feel compelled to do too much, so he doesn’t shoot too much. He’s hitting 45.7 percent from the field and 38.4 percent on 3-pointers, best of his career.

But this 19-game start isn’t about the points – it’s about the professionalism. You can see the selfless influence in veterans like Bradley, Anthony Tolliver and Ish Smith. You see it in the Pistons’ defensive effort and their seven comebacks from double-digit deficits. In the absence of singular stars, Van Gundy can find fresh options late in games, which is why the Pistons have the league’s best fourth-quarter point differential.

Andre Drummond

“That’s what kind of team we need to be – any guy can be going on any night,” Bradley said. “We just have to continue to move the ball and play free. I think it’s gonna be hard for teams to beat us if we’re playing that way.”

They’ve loosened up in all sorts of ways, and give Van Gundy credit for recognizing he couldn’t rely so heavily on the plodding, pick-and-roll plan with Drummond and Jackson. Instead of planting himself in the post, Drummond is all over the floor, often positioned at the elbow to facilitate offense for others. He leads the NBA in rebounding (15.6 per game) but here’s a number to illustrate his evolution: He’s averaging 3.5 assists per game, having never averaged more than 1.1 in his previous five seasons.

He’s in better shape and far more energetic after offseason sinus surgery, and his improved free-throw percentage (38.6 last season to 61.8) changes the whole game. When Celtics coach Brad Stevens ordered Drummond to be intentionally fouled with 5:36 left and Boston ahead 100-99, it backfired. Drummond made 1-of-2 (6-for-8 in the game) and the Pistons never trailed again.

‘Having a lot of fun’

It was just one victory, yes, but don’t worry, there will be plenty of opportunities to test the Pistons’ legitimacy. In 10 days, they have weekend home games against Golden State and Boston, when the narrative about empty seats at Little Caesars Arena is most likely to be challenged.

The Pistons know they had to earn back the fans’ trust after last year’s plummet to 37-45. They know a new arena is a nice attraction, but winning has to be the draw. I won’t insult legacies or sensibilities and make any early comparisons to the Goin’-to-Work Pistons of the 2000s, but I will say this group is playing with an edge and a chemistry that’s starting to look familiar.

More: ‘Try it again’: Pistons’ Drummond feeling it with FTs

“We’re having a lot of fun,” Drummond said. “To see Stan actually smile for once – that’s a very, very uptight guy, he overthinks a lot, he’s a guy that wants to win really bad. For us to have this type of success, it gives him some peace of mind so he can actually relax and not cuss us out every 10 minutes.”

Drummond let out a hearty laugh, something he didn’t often do last season, when his free-throw woes affected his entire mood. Interestingly, the less focus on Drummond, the more focused he plays, and the less the Pistons lean on Jackson, the more he gets others involved.

All 14 players on the roster have contributed at some point, and that’s pretty much how the Pistons have to roll, while roles evolve. The NBA is taking notice, including the Celtics, who already were talking about the return date in Detroit, with Kyrie Irving saying he “can’t wait” for that meeting.

He’s not the only one. The Pistons are making a point to be appointment viewing, and if they don’t stray from their formula, the attention is just starting.