As an NBA player you’re allowed to be unlucky. Good looks don’t always go in, and great defense can be bested by great offense. What you can never be is soft. And as the season continues to slip away, the Detroit Pistons, players and coaches alike, have to ask themselves an uncomfortable question – are we soft?
This is not a charge to make lightly. Nobody but those players and coaches are in that gym 80 hours per week. But for the outside observer, there are troubling signs everywhere.
If the answer is no, and the team’s swoon is more about minor tweaks, practice time and catching some breaks, then Detroit is still on the path to being one of the more intriguing young teams in the NBA.
No amount of tweaking of changing the scheme, however, can improve a player’s intensity, focus or hustle. It’s either in your DNA or it’s not. Pistons fans know this well. You were either a Bad Boy or you weren’t. You were either a Going to Work player or not. Those players came together and brought home championships.
If these players truly are just destined to be soft then there is only one solution -- new players.
Both coach Stan Van Gundy and President of Basketball Operations Stan Van Gundy have been on the receiving end of intense criticism for the disappointment of the season so far. It’s warranted insofar as he’s responsible for bringing these players in. However, I think it was a fair expectation to expect those young, talented players he targeted to grow, mature and harden.
Instead they play a tissue-thin brand of defense and don’t bring the needed effort, intensity and focus on too many nights. Soft.
To the critics of coach Van Gundy, I’d say it would be remarkably easy if this were a scheme issue. But it isn’t. As DBB’s Steve Hinson explains, the scheme is doing exactly as it was designed to do – win the rebound battle, take away transition opportunities, don’t foul and limit the volume of 3-point shots. No team gives up less points off turnovers, second-chance points or fastbreak points than the Pistons. The scheme isn’t the problem.
The problem is everything the Pistons don’t do. They don’t get to the free-throw line – ranking last in NBA in percent of points from the charity stripe.
There are defensive issues all over the floor but the two biggest culprits also play at the two most important positions on the floor and are the Pistons’ highest-paid players – center Andre Drummond who operates as the last line of defense and “protects” the paint, and Reggie Jackson, point guard and someone ostensibly responsible for defending the point of attack.
Jackson was off the Oklahoma City bench and given the starting role and big contract he always wanted. Jackson always says the right things, but on the floor he’s responsible for every sort of bad habit and lapse of judgement that typifies these Pistons. His defense has been horrendous all year, and he either needs to start putting action to his words or the Pistons need to find a new point guard.
Jackson has a team-worst defensive rating on the court. With Jackson on the court opponents are hitting 42.3 percent on three-pointers per NBAwowy. Per NBA stats, Jackson’s defensive assignment hits 45.4 percent on threes. That is the second-worst mark in the NBA for players defending at least four threes per game.
The Pistons give up the sixth-most points per possession on pick-and-rolls to the ball handler. That is despite their starting point guard measuring in at 6-foot-3 and 180 pounds. Jackson is helpless at the point of attack. He lunges, he avoids contact and he gets completely lost on screens.
Jackson lunges and gets torched at point of attack
Jackson is not the only player who has these difficulties, but his poor defense compounds a team-wide problem. On many nights Jackson doesn’t even guard the opposing team’s point guard, leaving point of attack defense to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Stanley Johnson, Marcus Morris, etc. But these players are bigger and slower than many of the NBA’s jitterbug point guards and their struggles are easier to understand.
Jackson plays a lazy, sloppy brand of defense that completely short circuits many possessions. Soft.
Jackson offers no fight against screen, gives up a 3
Twofer, bad Jackson defense leads to poor Drummond contest
What of his high-priced running mate, Andre Drummond? As the last line of defense, Drummond’s defense is often pitiful. Of players defending at least five baskets at the rim, Dre is allowing opponents to shoot 53.7 percent, sixth-worst in the NBA.
Drummond has the second-worst defensive rating on the team behind Jackson. He gives up position too easily in the post (15th percentile against post-ups), constantly lets defenders around him as he reaches for steals and his closeouts are consistently a second too late and with lackluster speed and energy.
Drummond in no man’s land on screen
Drummond gets lost , can’t recover
Drummond poor footwork, gets pushed around
The truth is, with every passing day, it looks as if the defense this team played at the beginning of the year was the exception, not the rule. Every game is providing more evidence that Reggie Jackson is either still not fully healthy, a hopeless defender you can’t expect to start games on a playoff-caliber team, or both. And with every blown defensive assignment, lazy contest and shoulder slump as he jogs back down the floor, we have to ask the question – has Andre Drummond improved in any meaningful way on defense in three years under Stan Van Gundy?
The Pistons have talented players on their roster, but if they have one common flaw it is that there is no bad in these boys. And the people of Detroit know that it takes a certain mentality, a certain tenacity to have success, especially in the playoffs. Nobody gives you anything, you just have to take it.
If these players can’t get it done, and especially if one of those players is a supposed building block of your franchise, then it’s time to admit it and move on.
While this assessment is harsh, I view it more as a call to arms. A come to Jesus moment. For the players in general, and Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond in particular — the only people you’re fooling are yourselves. Without a commitment to defense, intensity and execution you will achieve nothing except a big contract and the label of disappointment.