Ten games into the season, the Pistons have been equally bad on each side of the floor. They rank 24th in the league in both offensive and defensive rating through Jan. 10 games.
The offensive struggles are understandable given Detroit started a 19-year-old rookie point guard for most of that stretch and an ailing Blake Griffin leaves them without a truly dynamic creator. Yes, Jerami Grant has been terrific, but he’s certainly not an ideal No. 1 option.
The terrible defense has fewer excuses for its poor play.
Griffin’s lack of mobility is a definite factor (which we’ll see shortly) but it doesn’t in and of itself justify the poor perimeter defense Pistons fans have sat through thus far. Those issues were particularly evident this past week when Dwane Casey employed a zone defense for much of the game against the Phoenix Suns after Detroit was torched early. The zone was effective, but it’s not something that is sustainable over a 72-game season.
The perimeter issues are evident when looking at opponents’ shooting numbers. Detroit ranks dead last in opponents’ two-point field goal percentage, a natural consequence of not stopping anyone at the point of attack. There may be some amount of variance in the actual shooting percentage, but the Pistons have to tighten that up regardless.
There is decidedly less variance involved in how often Pistons’ opponents are attempting shots from deep because of defensive breakdowns. Detroit allows a higher percentage of threes than all but four teams in the league. It’s widely accepted that three-point defense is more about suppressing attempts than “forcing” misses, so that’s a clear area for the Pistons to clean up.
Given that, let’s take a look at some of the problems Detroit is having defending the deep ball.
Back to Blake’s defense. It’s rough.
Sometimes it manifests itself in more obvious ways, particularly any time he’s forced to defend in space.
Griffin’s limitations force him into drop coverage here against the Milwaukee Bucks, inviting a Khris Middleton open three:
Knowing Blake can’t really stay with any smaller player, Detroit is forced to play a lot of this type of coverage which leads to a lot of uncontested shots from behind the arc. But even when Griffin is dropping to better defend a drive, the scheme accounts for his lack of mobility.
Watch how he drops against D.J. Augustin but still produces no defensive impact on the play, leading to another open look from deep:
Not only does Blake not affect the play, you can see Isaiah Stewart is forced to switch onto the screener with Rose helping on the ball handler. Wayne Ellington is forced to choose between open shooters when the Bucks space out along the perimeter and Brook Lopez ends up with a wide open shot.
At a critical point in the Suns game, Griffin makes no attempt to chase Cam Johnson along the perimeter and his teammates can’t recover quickly enough for to contest:
Contrast that with how he makes a great contest in one of the final possessions of regulation:
Not having to chase and having a shorter area to close makes this do-able for Blake. The basic adjustment is to simply have him defend the corner in this role more often, but smart offenses will exploit this by simply moving corner shooters around. There’s little Detroit can do against smaller opponents to prevent this extra stress on the defense outside of Blake moving a whole lot more freely.
Let’s be clear, however. It’s not all on Blake Griffin. The Pistons have coverage issues across the board on a nightly basis.
Early in the Phoenix game, Delon Wright and Mason Plumlee blitz Devin Booker when he comes across a pair of token screens. Griffin has to defend the cutting Deandre Ayton and neither Wright nor Plumlee drop back to defend a waiting Jae Crowder:
Against the Bucks, Wright and Jerami Grant don’t communicate and neither defends Augustin who slides to open space for an in-rhythm three:
Earlier in the game, Augustin beats Derrick Rose off the dribble and Milwaukee runs some off-ball action which causes all kinds of confusion for Detroit. With no big waiting to protect the rim, Svi Mykhailiuk cheats to slow down Augustin creating an open corner jumper:
A little later, Rose whiffs on a drive while near the elbow leaving the corner open once again:
Detroit’s struggles in defending the long line have come in all shapes and forms. The miscommunication can be partially chalked up to a new team developing chemistry, but there’s real systemic issues that need to be fixed by both the coaches and players.
Until some of these things are fixed, the Pistons will continue to struggle defensively.