As of this writing, the Detroit Pistons are 11-6. Respectable, yet not astounding, the record is good for a top-4 spot in the Eastern Conference and a lead in the Central division. For a team originally slated for 38.5 wins, however, now projected somewhere in the mid-forties and on pace for even more, this is a fantastic start. For a team with only one playoff berth this decade, moreover, this is even better. Seventeen games is still a small sample size, to be sure, but one that keeps getting bigger.
During an especially hectic NBA offseason, the Pistons were relatively quiet. That meant mostly familiar faces would make up the lineup, players whose strengths and faults were already known to a fanbase. Few of these players would be under as much scrutiny as Andre Drummond. Signed to a maximum contract, Drummond bears much of the brunt of the team’s successes and failures. In an era when teams are largely shifting away from centers and towards point guards as cornerstones, Drummond’s max deal raised some eyebrows. It has been interesting to watch the trajectory of discussion surrounding offensive statistics since his contract year.
Two years ago (the lone year the Pistons qualified for the playoffs) the focus was on a positive stat: rebounds. The center led the league in rebounds--the first Piston to do so since Ben Wallace in 2003--with the third-most total rebounds for a season in Pistons’ history. This earned him a max contract during the offseason. The following year (as the Pistons underachieved and missed the playoffs) focus turned to historically poor free throw shooting which made him a late-game liability. His rebounding remained consistent, but the foul shots were the scapegoat for his season. Now that the team is winning games again, it is time to look for positive statistics that contribute to the wins. One stat in particular jumps out: assists.
In his first five seasons in the league, Andre Drummond cracked an average of one assist per game one time--at 1.1. This season, he has more than tripled that average to 3.4. Through seventeen games, Drummond has more assists than in any of his first three seasons. At this rate, he will hit his career best season by the middle of December. Unbelievably, Drummond trails only the two point guards--Reggie Jackson and Ish Smith--in total assists. He even led all Pistons with seven assists in the November 10 game against Atlanta.
What does this mean? The obvious answer is more points. The Pistons are currently posting their highest offensive rating in ten years (since 2007-08), in which they lost in the Eastern Conference Finals. There are numerous other factors involved, of course, but Drummond’s personal offensive rating cannot be discounted. Since Drummond is already pulling down a greater than average number of rebounds, an increase in assists shows that he has an option other than to go right back up and score. He can pass out to a wing for an open shot or look elsewhere to find weak defense.
It also means he is more confident handling the ball at places on the court other than below the basket. This makes him more effective in the eventual pick-and-roll. He can receive a pass and look to set up a play--or get it to someone who can--extending the shot clock.
The increase in assists has led to a higher turnover rate, which is to be expected. This season, Drummond is nearly doubling his career average in turnovers. Short of watching every possession, it is not easy to determine how many turnovers are direct results of attempted assists, but 22 of his 57 turnovers have come from bad passes. It is safe to assume several of these are related to more aggressive passing.
Of course, one statistic is far from enough to determine the success of a team--or even a player. But it is a part of the story: more assists makes for a more well-rounded player. And if Andre Drummond can keep up this level of offensive efficiency by adapting this new role, the Detroit Pistons are better for it.