By Chris Molicki
Nobody was more active at the trade deadline than the Detroit Pistons, who acquired Tobias Harris and just narrowly missed out on Donatas Motiejunas. Despite not getting the Lithuanian big man, Harris was an important upgrade, and it looks like Stan Van Gundy’s vision for his team is starting to come together.
Since getting Harris, Detroit lost in his debut to the Wizards, got bombarded by an unstoppable Anthony Davis freight train, but then reeled off four straight wins, including victories over the top two teams in the East, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors. This has them right in the thick of the playoff race.
We always knew Van Gundy was a good coach. He’s been to the NBA finals before, and he did it with a team built around a big man, not an easy feat. But his GM skills were up for debate. We often see coach/general managers flounder in the dual role (see Rivers, Doc), but Van Gundy may have things figured out.
His first big move was cutting Josh Smith, who was overrated and a terrible fit for their team. Then, Van Gundy grabbed Reggie Jackson and paid him, a move questioned at the time. But Jackson is averaging 19.4 points and 6.2 assists a game, while also developing a deadly pick and roll connection with Andre Drummond.
Stan the Man followed these moves up by letting Greg Monroe walk, getting Marcus Morris, and drafting Stanley Johnson, all looking like very smart moves at the moment. And then there’s Harris, who may be able to put this team over the edge.
Harris is a versatile player who can do a lot of things offensively. He’s one of those valuable forwards in the NBA who can take advantage of small forwards down low, while using his speed to beat power forwards off the dribble. He needs to work on his defense as well as his three-point shooting (although he’s shooting 43% from deep since coming to Detroit), but at 23, he’s still incredibly young and can improve on those shortcomings.
The flexibility that Harris gives Van Gundy could become a secret weapon come playoff time. Tobias has been starting at the 4, but Van Gundy could opt to start Anthony Tolliver, a plus three-point shooter, and bring Harris off the bench. This would allow him to feast on other teams’ second units, as well as give the Detroit bench the boost it desperately needs. After losing Brandon Jennings, there’s not much there besides the rookie Johnson. To unlock Harris’s potential, Van Gundy will have to get the matchups right. But he’s proven that he knows what he’s doing.
In six games with the Pistons, Harris is averaging 17 points, three points better than his average in Orlando this season. And some of the other players are improving with the presence of Harris. Jackson is averaging nearly 22 points since the All Star break. With another option to give the ball to, the multi-skilled Morris is dishing out 4 assists per contest. And while Drummond hasn’t seen a major statistical improvement, he’s humming right along, evident by putting up 15 points and 18 boards in a win over Toronto.
Six games is a very small sample size, I understand that. But the point is, it’s much easier to believe this is a trend and not a fluke if you believe in Harris, and even more so if you believe in Van Gundy. The potential is there for this Detroit team to build around its young core and its smart head coach, and to really make some major leaps over the next few years.
The entire Pistons’ starting lineup, plus Johnson, is 26 or younger. Harris, Drummond, Johnson, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are all 23 or younger. All of these players are locked up through next season with the exception of Drummond, who the Pistons will absolutely not let go.
This is going to be a very good team. And it could happen much quicker than expected, as long as Van Gundy continues to press all the right buttons.