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Andre Drummond’s issues on defense run deep

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Does the big man have what it takes to improve defensively?

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Toronto Raptors Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a big season for Andre Drummond, with huge improvements needed on both sides of the ball. I’ve written a lot of words and posted a lot of clips about the offensive side, but have generally just alluded to the issues on the defensive end. Let’s change that.

It’s generally not that easy to do a comprehensive analysis of a player on the defensive end. There are so many important aspects to that side of the ball and us amateurs watching it from the office chair can’t know about what the various assignments are on any given play.

But with Drummond, it’s relatively easy. Especially since his big man counterpart of Aron Baynes was around to provide a stark contrast as to what Stan Van Gundy is looking for out of his big man.

I tell you friends, watching Drummond brick a million post ups pales in comparison to watching an entire season’s worth of plays from him on the defensive end. It was rough.

The numbers have always been a contrast of extremes for Drummond, allowing fans to draw the conclusion that feels best. You can get the warm fuzzies from his league best defensive rating by Basketball Reference’s calcuation, his defensive box score plus-minus, or his defensive win shares. Or you could be appaled by his opponent field goal percentage, defensive real plus-minus, or NBA Stats’ calculation of his defensive rating.

The general takeaway is that Drummond does some great things on the box score stats, like rebounding, steals, and, to a lesser extent, blocked shots. But opposing teams’ offenses are far better with Drummond on the court, and he does a poor job defending his man. This isn’t going to be a stats-heavy breakdown, it’s going to be a video-heavy breakdown. Eye testers, rejoice. (But not too hard, all of these observations are backed up with a quantitative basis. So there.)

Typically when we talk about Drummond’s issues on defense, we fall into a bunch of banal generalities. Poor effort, bad recognition, lousy decision-making. Unfortunately, these generalities are actually accurate.

In guarding his man, several issues were maddeningly consistent with Drummond last year.

First, his close outs. Too often he’d fail to effectively challenge shots, seeming to just go through the motions of getting a hand up but really only providing token resistence. And to make it worse, it’s not like he made up for it by keeping his man from the basket, as he was regularly burned to the hoop on closeout attempts.

Second, he showed lousy awareness both on the ball and as a help defender. It’s easy to set this down at the feet of his teammates, but the problem was generally Drummond. This was one of those spots where it was helpful having Baynes around, demonstrating that on plays that assignments broke down really were usually caused by Dre.

Third, those gambles. Surely they can’t all be green-lighted by Stan Van Gundy. Drummond has great hands for a big man and does pull off an impressive number of steals. But last year, the risks he took to rack them up were nowhere near the rewards.

Challenging shots

When folks talk about Drummond’s effort on the court last season, this is where it’s at. As Stan Van Gundy has said about what it takes for Drummond’s defense to improve, “It's effort and focus and really taking it to heart to do that. There's not much more to it."

Here’s an example guarding Marc Gasol.

Drummond is in position, he looks ready to defend. But he doesn’t have a dang hand up. Gasol nearly has the ball released and both of Drummond’s hands are below Gasol’s hips. When you watch the play in real time, it looks like Drummond gives it a good challenge. But the frame is damning. Drummond was just going through the motions.

Gasol was getting a practice shot look from 10 feet. He went on to drop 38 points on 14-17 shooting in that game.

You see the same thing here against Nikola Vucevic.

Vucevic is able to just jab his way into an extremely open look and Drummond has his hands again below his waist while Vuc nearly has the shot completed. Drummond looks to have challenged the shot, but it’s already in the air by the time he actually does.

Andre Drummond is 6’11 with a 7’6 wingspan and excellent quickness. There’s no reason players should be able to get looks like that against him.

This is what good defense looks like in that situation.

Some of it is bad mechanics, but the bigger issue here goes back to SVG’s words. Check out what Brook Lopez does to him and consider Drummond’s effort, focus, and taking defense to heart on these plays.

Brook Lopez dropped 34 points on the Pistons and got the Nets one of their 20 wins of the season in pretty easy order. On each one of those plays, Drummond seems to be going half-speed and just basically seems to be present - not actually offering locked in defense.

The particularly frustrating thing is that Drummond is capable. Like this possession:

Drummond gets a hand up to take away the jumper, is physical, keeps his hands active, and finishes the play to the end. If Drummond played like that every possession, he’d be a Defensive Player of the Year candidate.

Unfortunately, that was one of the lone examples of good defense from Drummond on the night. But it really does seem to be a matter of effort, of locking in and deciding to play tough defense.

There were times when things got pretty galling.

Aye.

And it’d be one thing if he was at least shutting down the drive. But Drummond would regularly get burned with ease when closing out his man.

Just bad all around.

Awareness

This may be the toughest part of a defense to critique since it’s impossible for an observer to know what the player is being instructed to do. But there are some parts that are pretty obvious.

Take this play, for instance:

That’s Andrew Harrison running the pick and roll. Andrew Harrison was a rookie who shot 32 percent last season. Marc Gasol averaged 19.5 points per game. It’s safe to assume the gameplan wasn’t to double team Andrew Harrison in favor of leaving Marc Gasol wide open. (Editor’s note: My favorite part of this play is Andre THROWING Ish at Marc Gasol, like Ish can challenge a shot from a seven-footer)

Plus Ish Smith didn’t even need Drummond’s help. Harrison declined the screen and Ish was able to keep in front of Harrison. If you find your defense looking like this, something went wrong.

Drummond also had a habit of ducking screens, which left him woefully out of position. It bit him hard here.

But also, Drummond should have been able to read the situation. With DeAndre Jordan set up on the baseline and J.J. Redick coming over to set the screen, it was a pretty obvious playcall to get Jordan a touch early in the game. Not to mention, Blake Griffin was staring Jordan down all the way. Drummond’s lack of awareness and unwillingness to be physical allowed a 6’2, 190 pound guy to take him out of the play. That’s a problem.

It was a problem that allowed savvy offensive players to take advantage of him all season.

Marcin Gortat had a true shooting percentage of 61 percent and an offensive rating of 136 (!) in his three games against the Pistons last season. Robin Lopez’s true shooting percentage was five points above his season average against the Pistons.

It was also an issue with his team defense.

This is where it gets into the gray area though. Perhaps the gameplan in the first clip was to bring help when Jimmy Butler drives. But he can’t just leave his assignment completely alone with no one available to rotate. His over-commitment to Butler made for an easy read and easy two points.

Perhaps if he was blocking three shots per game, it’d be forgivable. But Drummond isn’t blocking three shots per game.

In the Gobert clip, he again fails to recognize the bigger threat. Joe Ingles doesn’t take a lot of shots, only eight per 36 minutes. The goal of an Ingles-Rudy Gobert pick and roll is to get Gobert on the cut. Drummond provides absolutely no value with his defense on that play. Marcus Morris recovered on the screen to get back to Ingles and Drummond again leaves his assignment completely unguarded.

I don’t even know what’s happening on this one.

Yeah, it’s tough on a big man to defend the pick and roll. But Aron Baynes managed to do it.

I wish that clip showed the setup of the play as well, but Baynes is able to recognize that the ball handler is Boris Diaw - a guy who is going to be looking to pass. Baynes provides just enough of a threat to Diaw to give Tobias Harris a chance to recover while still keeping his commitment to Gobert and break up the play.

Andre Drummond is entering the sixth year of his career. At this point, there’s no excuse for these consistent lapses.

Gambles

Drummond finished last season No. 13 in steals in the league. Only Draymond Green had more among big men. Since he first entered the league, he’s always had a knack for generating turnovers.

It leads to some fun moments.

Those are great. It’s a big part of what can make Drummond so valuable, being a disruptive force on the defensive end and creating transition opportunities.

But there’s a difference between being disruptive and reckless. Too often, Drummond fell on the latter side of that line last season.

Drummond’s head scratching double teams where he’d just abandon his man unnecessarily to offer an easy score was a fixture in Mike Snyder’s High/Low columns.

With his teammates not prepared to rotate, they seemed to be entirely rogue - and entirely a bad idea.

With Drummond’s size, speed, and athleticism, risks aren’t necessarily a bad thing. But he can’t just take himself out of the play on them.

Drummond very nearly makes the steal. He read the pass right, broke quickly enough. That wasn’t a terrible risk. The problem was that when he didn’t make the steal, he just gave up on the play. They’re both at the three point line when Gasol secures possession. For whatever reason, Drummond continued running to near half court and never re-entered the play. He should have been able to recover and perhaps shut the broken play back down. He just didn’t.

Then there were the unreasonable risks.

Drummond was trailing Lopez through the screen, Lopez had better positioning with the pass, and Drummond really never came close for making the steal. The worst part is that if he failed to make the steal, Lopez will have the definite and easy bucket.

A regular issue with his double teams was just the complete neglect of his man.

So the Pistons are triple teaming Victor freaking Oladipo. Ok. That was a thing that happened. When Morris leaves Roberson, he at least has Jon Leuer ready to help close out on the pass and he starts making his way back out to his man after the pass. But Drummond acts like he’s never seen Steven Adams before. You’d think a seven foot sasquatch with a New Zealand accent would be more memorable, but whatever.

Dominant Drummond defense

There were moments where Drummond was locked in defensively and shined. One of the more memorable games was his absolute domination of Hassan Whiteside.

In his pick and roll defense, he did a good job of keeping his commitment to Whiteside while still being enough of a threat to the ball handler that he forced the pass. Then when the time came to challenge the shot, Drummond did so with explosiveness and effectiveness rather than just going through the motions.

In his post defense, Drummond was physical, stayed with the play throughout, and again made challenging the shot count. That last block, yeah? Whew.

But I’m not sure there was another game all season where Drummond came anywhere close to that sort of play on the defensive end. There were moments here and there, but they were too few and too far between.

***

It’s a huge year for Drummond on the offensive end, needing to establish himself as something more than just an inefficient chucker of bad hooks who’ll miss 60-odd percent of his free throws. But his performance on the defensive end may be even more important.

The Pistons lost their best post defensive player over the summer in Aron Baynes. Boban Marjanovic has, of course, been incredibly productive on a per minute basis, but he had some challenges on defense. It’s likely that there’ll be some parts on defense that Boban will just inherently struggle with due to his stature.

The Pistons really need Drummond to be a good defensive player. Not just an adequate one. But an actually good one.

That will be a huge flip on last season from Drummond. Make no mistake, he was a legitimate trainwreck defensively last year. These clips aren’t just cherry-picked. Cue up any game from last season and you’ll see examples. As much as his offense will require a huge change in mentality, seeing himself as a finisher rather than a guy who you feed for a post up, his defense will take just as much of a change.

It’s part of what continues to keep Drummond as such a tantalizing player. The physical tools are all there. There are some aspects of his game that are extremely dynamic. But as a whole, Drummond was just awful defensively.

And it’s nearly impossible to predict whether Drummond has improvement in store. Yes, it’s as easy as him just committing. But no, we’ve seen no indication that he’s willing to make that commitment. Maybe that nose thing? Maybe. Probably not.

All we can do is see how he comes out next season. But how do we know if his defense is improved next year, you ask? After all, those defensive statistics can be a bit tough to draw decisive conclusions from.

Well, an easy thing to follow will be whether the opposing center is leaving the building with 30 points or shooting 60-70 percent from the field. That was the case far too often last season. If it continues into next season, it’ll be decision time for Stan Van Gundy.