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The Close Out: A critical look at Avery Bradley’s defense

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Avery Bradley is hailed as one of the best defenders at his position, but two ugly aspects of his defensive game keep coming up

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

With a healthy 14-8 record, the Detroit Pistons are probably doing better than you had them pegged after 22 games (except for Hypnowheel who predicted a modest 21-1 record thus far).

With success, though, comes a change of expectations.

The Pistons—who received tons of love from the national guys recently — went 2-2 over this past week by winning in Boston, demolishing a visiting Phoenix team and followed those with back-to-back losses at Washington and at Philadelphia.

The loss at Washington - that’s the one that bothers me.

The Wizards were without All Star John Wall while also competing in their third game in four nights, which should’ve been a recipe for an appetizing Pistons’ win. Detroit was up six at halftime but a disastrous third quarter (outscored 35-15) sunk the Pistons’ ship.

If Detroit was hovering around .500 and more or less playing like the depressing 2016-17 squad then I probably wouldn’t have given it a second thought.

Quite frankly, it’s a game they should’ve won.

In this week’s Close Out, we’ll explore two ugly habits hurting Avery Bradley’s defense, dig deeper into the loss against the Wizards while also checking in on Reggie Jackson’s defensive effort and how the Pistons make defenders pay for cheating.

Inside the Pistons’ playbook

Like any team, the Pistons have a go-to collection of sets and play types. Here we’ll break down the plays used often by the Pistons, along with variations and break down the process and the results.

Motion offense is free-flowing while also including various if/then options which makes it incredibly difficult to defend even (especially) if you think you know what’s coming:

Bradley almost always generates a good look from himself or others after starting in the corner (opposite corner for the left-handed Luke Kennard) and collecting pin down screens and eventually a hand-off from Drummond.

As the Pistons put more reps on film it’s important to add variance to keep the defense on their toes. The Suns burned themselves by jumping Bradley’s route:

Tobias Harris also enjoyed a wide open back door after Phoenix assumed the on-film DHO:

(Too bad we don’t have a couple more Phoenix Suns game queued up)

Teams must also prepare for Bradley’s flair screen:

DBB’s Laz Jackson’s detailed piece last week highlighted the Pistons’ early season mastery of the fourth quarter including how they utilize the pick-and-roll in late game situations. The difference between last year’s PNR and the current version is simply how they camouflage the action. Instead of crossing the timeline and heading right into the pick-and-roll, the Pistons smartly run through offense until they get a matchup or area on the floor they feel offers an advantage:

Of course, there are instances in which there are no smoke and mirrors (again, most notably in the fourth quarter) but it’s nowhere near as painfully repetitive as Pistons’ past.

This Week’s Trends and Dead Ends

A closer look at the habits —both good and bad—of players, coaches, and maybe even DBB commentators. Discover what the Pistons are doing really well, and understand what to look out for going forward.

Positive

When Avery Bradley checks the opposing perimeter alpha dog two things happen: said alpha dog’s job becomes increasingly taxing and Reggie Jackson must cross-match. In the Boston game, Bradley hounded Kyrie Irving while Jackson’s responsibility became 6-foot-7 Jaylen Brown:

Despite obvious attempts to exploit the perceived mismatch, Brown finished with a pedestrian nine points (six below average) on 4-of-10 shooting. We saw a similar style when Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was in Detroit in which he’d check the lead guard but Jackson has noticeably upgraded his defense since those days.

The makeover of the Pistons’ offense grabs the headlines but their defending of the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll is experiencing a near identical rise.

I’ve harped on Drummond’s lazy depth coverage as a big defender and he seemed to take it to heart as he’s making Boban-sized leaps in the positive direction. Maybe not as fun to pick on but almost equally as important is Detroit’s improved rearview pursuit from the on-ball defender.

How many times have we witnessed guards (I won’t mention any names) die after running into a screen? Whether it’s a PNR or navigating through off-ball screens, the Pistons’ effort in continuing to defend after being screened has experienced a welcoming uptick:

Multiple efforts during each possession is how you win games. Ball-handlers scored .858 PPP in the PNR and teams scored .991 PPP after using a screen last year. It’s .791 and .930 PPP during the first 22 games this year on the same looks.

Negative

Avery Bradley’s calling card has been man-to-man defense since making a name for himself in Boston after he was drafted in 2010. It’s also been simultaneously heavily scrutinized by the analytics crowd.

The question of Bradley’s defensive prowess took a lead role on NBA Twitter late last Friday with everyone taking a stab at how or why Bradley’s reputation doesn’t match what analytics are telling us.

First, lets clear something up. There are maybe three or four on-ball defenders in the entire league that could be categorized as elite and Bradley is firmly lodged in that bar-room conversation.

So where does he go wrong?

Since he’s arrived in Detroit, he’s showcased round-the-clock effort but two components to his team defense have stuck out and this past week was no different.

Either he’s not a believer in helping on a typical screen (unlikely) or the laser focus on his assignment creates an environment of non-recognition of those screens (my educated guess).

Second, his close out on shooters beyond the arc usually takes him completely out of the play and in turn, leaves his teammates scrambling.

What do those descriptions look like? Something like this:

The problem with diagnosing these problems is that I don’t know what Stan Van Gundy is telling him and since he won’t return my calls, I may never know :(

I’ve read theories in which people conclude that SVG must be telling him to only worry about his man (the JJ Redicks and Devin Bookers of the world) and ignore all other action. It would certainly explain the lack of screen help but I highly doubt it’s the case.

First, teams and players are too smart and talented to not exploit the Deion Sanders coverage. Over the course of the game, offering no weak-side or screen help doesn’t win a pick-up game let alone in the League.

That type of strategy might work on a single possession (for instance: whatever you do, don’t leave Robert Horry alone when the game is one the line) but over a full 48, it’s not realistic.

Next and hard to refute, he digs at the post-up/penetration and switches all the time (example, if needed) which kinda puts a major dent in the “only focus on your man” take.

I’m left to believe it’s an awareness thing.

Properly closing out on a spot-up shooter is a skill in and of itself and it’s something Bradley continually lapses on. Leaving your teammates out to dry is a good way to earn a shitty plus/minus.

Make no mistake, every team would gladly take Avery Bradley on their team but there are definitely facets to his defensive game that need work.

Moving on.

The Pistons were out rebounded 49-32 in Washington including allowing 16 offensive Wiz rebounds and 47-36 in Philadelphia while giving up 17 offensive rebounds to the 76ers.

Equal parts of poor boxing out and bad luck seem to be the main culprits. The Pistons are a good rebounding team when they’ve got to be but I wouldn’t be doing my job if I let it slide:

Lost in the team’s hot start—and I take full responsibility for the oversight—is Tim Hardaway’s suit game:

What am I suppose to do with this, Tim? You know about tailors, right? Honestly, this is probably one of Hardaway’s better looks but those pants - you were a point guard, why do you have power forward-sized pants?

Your suit—well to me—look like a nightgown. Make your Momma proud and take that thing two sizes down.

I walk it out.

High/Low: One Highlight, One Lowlight of the week

Not all good and bad plays are created equal. Some stick out and make you take notice. Or they’re just so funky they deserve a special place of their own.

High

When the ball changes possession, Tobias Harris is the furthest person on the floor from his own basket. It didn’t stay that way:

Low

As the ball pops loose and Drummond properly locates a ball-handler, the rock is sent right back to him in an extended give-and-go. It’s a bang-bang defensive play and had Stanley led the charge instead of forcing Dre to all the leg work it probably would’ve finished like Bradley-Drummond fast break.

Peering into the Crystal Ball

What to look for in the next week.

Another four-game work week is in store for Detroit and it’s comically loaded: at San Antonio and Milwaukee and home for Golden State and Boston. What, the ‘96 Bulls were unavailable? Good lord.

Is 0-4 in play?

Absolutely.

Would it be the end of the world?

Hardly.

There is something different with these Pistons and even assuming an 0-4 worst case scenario doesn’t change their trajectory.

There is no way you made it the whole way through each video and I don’t blame you because I barely did. Even so, thanks for tuning in and catch you next Monday.

Let the DBB Book of Records show:

Pistons 104, Best franchise over the past 15 years-Greek Freak-defending champion-best record in the league 100.

Book it.