The game between the Detroit Pistons and the Atlanta Hawks was the only one that didn’t make the cut for national TV on Opening Night, but it might have been the most interesting when it comes to subplots to watch over the course of the season. It was our first chance to see Stan Van Gundy’s pure 4-out creation in Detroit and our first chance to see what Atlanta would look like without Demarre Carroll. And while it was only one game, the Pistons' 106-94 victory over the Hawks was a perfect example of what the Van Gundy blueprint is supposed to look like.
With Ersan Ilyasova taking Greg Monroe’s spot in the starting line-up, Detroit exchanged size and post scoring in favor of three-point shooting and playmaking at the power forward spot. At least on the offensive side of the ball, it’s the same basic idea as Draymond Green for David Lee and Nikola Mirotic for Joakim Noah. Everyone on the Pistons can play in more space, as the opposing defense has to guard four shooters stretched out along the three-point line.
The numbers checked out on Tuesday - all five of their starters played well and posted the type of plus/minus numbers we saw from the Hawks' starting five a season ago. Reggie Jackson was 4-10 from the field but he got to the line 5 times and took advantage of the extra space to hand out 8 assists on only 2 turnovers. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope went 7-14 (4-7 from 3) and Ilyasova went 6-12 (3-6 from 3), with both getting plenty of open looks over the course of the game. Marcus Morris only went 6-19 but he was able to kill the smaller Hawks wing players in the box with Ilyasova lifted up to the three-point line. Most importantly, Andre Drummond posted a monster stat-line of 18 points, 19 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 blocks on 6-16 shooting.
Drummond’s efficiency numbers were a bit deceiving because the Pistons insisted on forcing the ball into him in the post, which is not the strength of his game. Even though he had a big size advantage on Horford, he has very little feel with his back to the basket and no real game-plan for how to create shots. He went 0-7 from the post, forcing up ugly hooks over both shoulders and either spinning too quickly and rushing shots or taking his time and not creating any angles to the basket when he finally went into his moves.
When you take away his post-up opportunities, Drummond becomes a hyper-efficient dunking and rebounding machine. It’s probably too soon in his career to put a ceiling on his game, but taking some of those shots away is an ace in the hole that Van Gundy can use at anytime to instantly increase the value of his best player. According to Synergy, Drummond took 27.5% of his shots from the post last season, which decreased his field goal percentage almost five points, from 56.4% to 51.4%.
Drummond didn’t get a ton of opportunities on Tuesday when he was setting picks because the Hawks were so concerned with crowding the paint and preventing him from getting any open looks at the rim. He was slipping a lot of screens, not creating contact but drawing enough attention that he opened up the floor for everyone else. It’s an easy way to start the Pistons offense and those are the type of possessions where the only way you can see Drummond’s impact on the game is the plus-minus.
Where he really took over against Atlanta was on the offensive glass. The Hawks have one of the smallest frontcourts in the league and they struggled with rebounding last season, which is the last thing you want when going up against a freak of nature like Drummond. He’s 6’11 280 with a 7’6 wingspan and he runs and jumps like a guard - there’s no way for normal-sized 7’0 like Tiago Splitter to box him out 1-on-1, much less undersized big men like Al Horford and Paul Millsapp. Even when he didn’t get the offensive board himself, Drummond drew so much attention that he created opportunities for everyone else. The difference in the game was the Pistons' edge on the offensive boards (23-7), which is kind of amazing when you consider they let one of the best rebounders in the NBA (Monroe) walk in free agency.
Drummond is a one-man wrecking crew on the boards. Last season, at only 21 years old, he was second in the league at total rebounding percentage (24.0), third in defensive rebounding percentage (30.1) and first in the league in offensive rebounding percentage (18.1). The nice thing about his skill-set is that it allows the Pistons to walk the line between crashing the offensive boards and getting back on defense because they can send just about everyone else back and give Drummond the space to do what he does best. If you don’t get a body on him, he’s going to get the board pretty much every time.
The way he’s able to play when operating in a 4-out offense means that the Pistons don’t really have to run offense for him in order for him to put up huge stats. He can be an All-Star caliber player just by running to the rim, crashing the boards and catching lobs whenever one of the Detroit guards can get by their men. Grantland’s Andrew Sharp downplayed the Pistons before the start of the season because he said they were DeAndre Jordan without Blake Griffin but DeAndre posted crazy numbers when Blake was out last season - 16.1 points and 20.2 rebounds a game in the first month after Blake’s elbow injury.
What Drummond could do this season is what the Mavericks envisioned DeAndre doing in Dallas. If you put a hyper-athletic 7’0 monster in a pure 4-out offense and feature him repeatedly in the pick-and-roll over the course of the game, good things are going to happen and they are going to happen a lot. There’s only a small handful of big men in the league who can run and jump with Drummond and most of them play out West. He’s going to have a ton of space to operate in all season next to all the stretch 4’s and combo forwards in Detroit and there’s not much other teams are going to be able to do to stop him from posting huge numbers.
Andre Drummond is a Mack Truck with the engine of a Ferrari that is getting off the lot for the first time. For the first time in his career, he’s playing without any other traditional big men clogging up the lane next to him. He can use his size to ram the other cars out of the lane and use his speed to blow by any who try to keep up with him. Lord forbid he ever developed any type of consistency in his post game or at the free-throw line because there’s no telling what type of stats he could put up. Stan Van Gundy is about to unleash him on the rest of the league and it’s one of the things I’m most looking forward to watching over the course of the season.