The Detroit Pistons are one of the surprise stories in the Eastern Conference this year. After sitting at 34-34 about three weeks ago, the Pistons have gone 9-3 in their last 12 games and pushed the Chicago Bulls out of the playoff picture, clinching a playoff spot in the process. At this point the only question is whether they will play the Cleveland Cavaliers or the Toronto Raptors in the first round of the playoffs.
It’s an exciting and natural step for a young team that’s built around players who are making their first appearance in the postseason. The Pistons are led by point guard Reggie Jackson, who averaged 18.8 points per game this season, 22-year-old shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, forward Marcus Morris, and — quite possibly their most important player — enigmatic center Andre Drummond.
Detroit took Drummond with the ninth pick in the 2012 NBA draft after he played just one season at UConn. He had tremendous skills as a true NBA big man, but there were questions about his abilities as well as holes in his game. He can score in the post, rebound, defend, and block shots. He’s an outstanding offensive rebounder, one of the best defenders in the league, and he even made his first All-Star team this season.
So, the Pistons have a star player who will lead their young team to future success, right? There’s just one hiccup in Drummond’s game — he can’t make free throws. The center is going to set an NBA record in futility for free throw percentage this season, shooting just 35.6% from the field on the year. This shouldn’t surprise anyone, as he has a 38% clip for his four-year career.
The real question is whether or not the Pistons can build a contender around Drummond. Removing from the equation the notion of building a contender around a big man, could any team that has Drummond as their best player realistically win the NBA championship? It doesn’t seem likely, unless he’s able to improve his free throw percentage dramatically.
Recent history isn’t too kind in this regard. The 2008-09 Orlando Magic were build around Dwight Howard, who is similar to Drummond in almost every way. He scores well around the basket, rebounds, blocks shots, defends, and oh yeah, he struggles from the free throw line. That season, the Magic reached the NBA finals before being discarded by the Los Angeles Lakers.
The struggle for Howard at the free throw line is more harsh to remember than it was in reality, as he shot 59.6% from the line during that season. The Lakers made Howard shoot 11.6 free throws per game in that series, and while the Magic certainly didn’t lose just because Howard couldn’t hit free throws reasonably, it was a factor.
It’ll be interesting to see what happens with Drummond, who is a far worse free-throw shooter than Howard was in his prime. We’ve already seen examples of what teams are doing to him during the regular season. Recently, the Bulls employed the strategy of fouling Drummond intentionally with about five minutes remaining in the game — and it worked in that regard. Drummond finished 1-for-10 from the free throw line in that game, but the Bulls lost anyway.
But that’s not even the worst of it for Drummond. In a game on January 20 against the Rockets, Houston put Drummond on the free throw line as frequently as possible. Despite only taking four official field-goal attempts, Drummond shot 36 free throws — hitting just 13 of them — in that game. He finished with 17 points on the night and the Pistons escaped with a four-point victory.
But the question is pretty fair. With teams such as the Golden State Warriors building their roster around good shooters — and not only that, but quick guards who can shoot from the outside — and becoming championship contenders, can a team like the Pistons rise to the top of their conference with a big man who can’t shoot as their best player?
It’ll be interesting to see what happens in the Pistons’ playoff series this season. With the opportunity to game plan for Drummond on a more serious, game-to-game basis, it’s hard not to see a quality team like the Cavaliers finding and exploiting that weakness.
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Statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.