The Cleveland Cavaliers are the number one seed in the Eastern Conference as we begin playoff action on Sunday. They will face the Detroit Pistons, who are a familiar opponent; the two teams played last night, with the Pistons winning 112-110 in OT in Cleveland. This matchup should be an excellent one from a narrative perspective, as it pits the Cavs against an old rival, and the Pistons are making their first playoff appearance since the 2008-2009 season. While we know the Cavs have overwhelming odds to advance, the Pistons are far from the matchup dream the Boston Celtics were last year. Detroit can give the Cavs some challenges, so let’s dive in and get to know the Pistons a little better.
At a Glance
The Pistons are a middle of the pack team in pretty much every sense of the word. They finished with a record of 44-38, and were a middle of the road team in terms of efficiency, finishing 18th in offensive rating and 13th in defensive rating. Detroit overcame a slow start and a five-game losing streak around the All-Star Break to make a late playoff push, going 17-9 since that losing streak to secure a playoff spot over the Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards.
Starters: Reggie Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Marcus Morris, Tobias Harris, Andre Drummond
Key Role Players: Anthony Tolliver, Aron Baynes, Stanley Johnson, Steve Blake
End of the Bench: Joel Anthony, Darrun Hilliard, Reggie Bullock, Spencer Dinwiddie
The Pistons are built around Drummond, their lone All-Star and franchise center. The rest of the roster plays off of Drummond and Jackson’s pick-and-roll game, with Johnson and Harris back-cutting, Caldwell-Pope as a secondary shot creator, and Blake, Morris and Tolliver spacing the floor. Defensively, the Pistons attempt to funnel things towards one of the game’s best rim protectors, and they’re not afraid to get physical in the paint or the backcourt. Harris has been a fantastic addition since being acquired at the trade deadline from the Orlando Magic, averaging 16.6 points and shooting 37.5 percent from three. The Pistons’ wide array of versatile wings allows them to rely heavily on Caldwell-Pope, Morris, and Harris for flexibility (those three lead the team in minutes per game), and they will throw a lot of funky small-ball lineups around, allowing Jackson and Drummond to get adequate rest so they don’t wear down for the fourth quarter. This is a versatile roster that can spread the floor and make you work for points in the paint.
Stan Van Gundy, the raspy-yelling, ****ing wall-forming, rap-album cover-posing Diet Pepsi aficionado who we’re all familiar with as the coach of the late 2000’s Magic. Van Gundy has done excellent work in creating a team that can play to the strengths of Drummond and Jackson. The Pistons embody what he wants in his team, as they’re mentally tough, spread the floor, play sound if somewhat underwhelming defense, and are exciting on the break even though they play at a slower pace, overall. He's perhaps the most underrated coach in the league, and he’s experienced with the playoff atmosphere. Tasked with defending LeBron James and attempting to take advantage of the Cavs’ inconsistent perimeter defense, it will be interesting to see what defensive game plan Van Gundy rolls out. If nothing else, he’ll at least be a fun quote for the first round.
The Pistons may be the best rebounding team in the league. They grab 27.1 percent of available rebounds on the offensive end and 79.3 percent on the defensive end, per basketball-reference, both of which are second in the league. A lot of this is Drummond and his 14.8 rebounds per game, of course, but Baynes, Tolliver, and Johnson all have been strong glass-cleaners when called upon. The Pistons do a great job of clearing space for Drummond to use his rebounding talents on both ends, and that’s an area that has helped the Pistons stay in games all season.
Detroit’s defense is sound, but they don’t create a lot of havoc on the defensive end, forcing turnovers on 12.6 percent of opponent possessions. Drummond’s rim protection is big, but even he’s only averaging 1.4 blocks per game, and the Pistons appear to be willing to try to force bad shots and end possessions on rebounds rather than try to create turnovers. This is a fine way to operate defensively, but it does create issues against teams that take care of the ball well and are also good in the paint. Cleveland does both of these things, which could mean the Pistons need to take more risks defensively to have a chance.
Biggest Matchup Advantage
The Cavs are not the most sound pick-and-roll team defensively, and there’s potential Detroit is going to get a lot of baskets off of Jackson/Drummond pick-and-roll looks. Jackson runs the PNR for 56 percent of his possessions, and finishes in the 77th percentile in scoring off of them, per NBA synergy data. Drummond is excellent at freeing Jackson for looks in the lane, and he’s a load coming down the paint, finishing in the 78th percentile of scoring as a PNR roll man. Morris also hits 40 percent on catch-and-shoot threes, and the Pistons like to swing the ball off Jackson outlets to Harris or Caldwell-Pope as a secondary attack if you get their initial look stopped. The Pistons offense is designed to exploit the issues the Cavs have defensively, and if Timofey Mozgov isn’t playing well enough to see the floor, there’s potential that the Pistons could make some noise based on this set.
Biggest Matchup Disadvantage
Steve Blake’s been awesome this season, making Brandon Jennings expendable and having somewhat of a renaissance at age 35. But athletically, he’s at a disadvantage against the Cavs, and I really question how the Pistons are going to handle the Cavs’ backcourt defensively. Kyrie Irving and J.R. Smith have size advantages against Jackson and Caldwell-Pope, neither of whom is a spectacular defender. Matthew Dellavedova’s spot-up shooting further complicates the situation for the Pistons. Jackson is also hurt, coming off of an abdominal strain, and and I wonder if Blake has the wheels to be able to handle Irving up top. If he can’t, that could mean Jackson gets stretched a little too thin, and that's a very good thing for Irving in the fourth quarter.
The Pistons will be able to get the Cavs in some spots, particularly on the defensive end where Drummond is going to be a handful and the Pistons could give some issues to Cleveland in the pick-and-roll. Their defense is pretty solid too, although the Cavs will definitely be able to attack their frontcourt with the size advantage Love and LeBron have over Harris and Morris. Ultimately Detroit’s success in this series will likely come down to shooting. How well can this fairly inefficient team shoot from outside, and how well can they defend the Cavs on the perimeter?
To learn more about the Pistons, visit our frenemies at Detroit Bad Boys for more coverage of the series.