CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Detroit Pistons basketball has never been pretty. Not at its peak. Not at rock bottom.
Its highest point, of course, resulted in two championships in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as well as a run in the 2000s that culminated with a championship in 2004. Its lowest point, in modern times, was last year (a 17-win season), the year before and the year before that, as Detroit began a rebuild with a bunch of teenagers and 20-somethings in hopes of one day mimicking those days of glory.
Both ends of the spectrum didn’t produce beautiful basketball. Not how we know it today. We know the difference, though. Defense. Elite defense turned the “Bad Boys” Pistons of the ’80s and ’90s and the “Goin’ to Work” Pistons of the 2000s into NBA juggernauts. That end of the floor turned good players into Hall of Famers. Those eras created a standard, a style of play synonymous with the people paying money to go watch — hard-working, gritty and, in the end, overcomers.
That’s what general manager Troy Weaver has tried to get back to since taking over in 2020. He said publicly he wants to put a team on the floor that would make Isaiah Thomas proud. He wants Joe Dumars to smile. He wants Ben Wallace’s approval. He’s exhausted the word defense every time he has spoken publicly. Weaver has wanted to create something the people of Detroit remembered seeing or, depending on age, heard about.
Yet, since the rebuild began, the qualities that made up Detroit’s greatest days have been nonexistent. There’s been no identity. Defense? What’s that? The Pistons have spent the last three seasons prioritizing collecting talent. It’s hard to hang your hat on anything until you do that.
Now, though, things feel different. Two games in, in the fourth year of the rebuild, Weaver’s vision is starting to reveal itself. Finally. After losing to the Miami Heat 103-102 in their season-opening game Wednesday, the Pistons marched into Charlotte and took down the Hornets 111-99. It’s the first time since 2019 that Detroit has held back-to-back opponents to under 105 points in a game. For context, the NBA scoring average was 114 a season ago. The Pistons are putting up these defensive performances all while committing 39 turnovers over two games.
The basketball isn’t pretty, but when has Detroit basketball ever been? The Pistons are a turnover or made bucket away from being 2-0. Why? Because they’re defending.
Weaver’s vision appears to be revealing itself.
“As I told you before, when you have those kinds of turnover numbers and fouls, you have to do something to offset it,” coach Monty Williams said. “It was the defense tonight. I mean, (the Hornets) shot 37 percent from the field. You don’t see that much in an NBA game.
“I thought our physicality had a lot to do with it, guarding the ball had a lot to do with it.”
Detroit has given up 103 points and 99 points in two games. Detroit. The Pistons. Is this 2003?
— James L. Edwards III (@JLEdwardsIII) October 28, 2023
This isn’t a proclamation that Detroit is back. It’s too soon to do that. Nor am I in any way, shape or form comparing this 1-1 basketball team to two of the greatest squads in NBA history. This is an attempt at showing that there, finally, might be an answer to “What is this team’s vision?” since the rebuild began. You don’t take the defending Eastern Conference champions down to the wire with 14 first-half turnovers for 21 points unless you defend. You don’t hold an NBA team to 99 points, in their house, with 23 turnovers to your name and win unless you defend.
The Pistons are still young. In fact, Detroit has the youngest starting lineup in the league. Its oldest player is 22. It’s not going to be perfect anytime soon. Youthful teams make youthful mistakes. But the Pistons, to this point, can overcome those childish errors because they’re defending at a high level. They’re learning they don’t need to try to make up for the turnovers with pressing offense because the defense can hold them down. They’re learning good defense turns into easy offense.
This is still a learning stage for Detroit at this point in its rebuild, only this time it’s coming with acceptable results because, again, defense.
“Like you said, we can’t rely on the defense to win when we still have all those turnovers (going forward),” said Jalen Duren, who had 14 points and 17 rebounds Friday night in the win over Charlotte. “It’s going to be hard. We weren’t able to pull it out in Miami because of that. A lot of these veteran teams, it’s going to be harder to win with that amount of turnovers and mishaps on the offensive end. We can’t rely on that, but the defensive end helps us. It keeps the game close. Being able to get three, four or five stops in a row and then capitalize on those stops is everything. That’s something we can build our foundation off of.”
Weaver’s obsession with turning Detroit into a respectable defense again shows itself in the form of Isaiah Stewart, Duren, Ausar Thompson and a few others. The Pistons are a big, long and physical team. Stewart’s switchability has been huge for Detroit through two games. Duren has been impressive over the last 1.5 games on that end as a rim protector and defensive rebounder. Thompson, a wing, had five blocks in his first NBA game. As a trio, the three combined for 36 rebounds against Charlotte. They had 35 against Miami. Killian Hayes’ defense late against Tyler Herro was a big reason the Pistons almost beat the Heat. Cade Cunningham is more than respectable on that end.
Detroit is sacrificing spacing for the sake of setting a precedent defensively. Weaver and Williams believe in defense so much that the latter is trotting out a starting lineup whose best 3-point shooter, Stewart, knocked down 32 percent last year — though that’ll change when Bojan Bogdanovic returns from injury. It’s hard to argue against it so far. The Pistons should be 2-0.
“That’s the standard we’re trying to meet every single day and every single game,” said Stewart, who scored 11 of his 15 points against Charlotte in the fourth quarter, which included two 3-pointers, of the Pistons’ defensive performances so far. “Obviously, we have stuff to clean up; the turnovers and fouls. We’re just going to continue to come and meet that standard every single day, and work hard.”
There’s a synergy between the general manager and coach that is obvious through Detroit’s first two games. I’ve mentioned Weaver’s insistence about crafting a team that is capable defensively, but he’s got a coach now who is equally insistent. With Bogdanovic out, most coaches would look to add more surefire floor spacing in Detroit’s starting group. Williams hasn’t. He’s trotted out his best five defenders to start games. It’s hurt the offense at times, but all of those players have had significant moments individually and collectively this week.
“I credit the guys we have, we understand the game more, but Monty coming in, putting in a system that we can follow easily, and the standard he’s set on the defensive end,” Duren said. “Everyone is buying into it. We’ve got guys taking that end very seriously. When everyone is buying into that side of the basketball, this is the outcome.
“The chemistry that we were able to build throughout the summer, and even last year, having guys come in like (Ausar Thompson) and (Marcus Sasser), who also lock up. It just helps us out.”
The season is so young. The Pistons might fail over their next three games and all of this means nothing. However, until then, for the first time during this rebuild, the vision is not only clear but also has led to marginal success.
Detroit might have an identity once again. Maybe you remember it.
(Photo of Jalen Duren: David Jensen / Getty Images)