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Film Don’t Lie: Checking in on the Pistons Defense

I go to the film for a three-game stretch to see where I think the defensive improvements can come

NBA: Miami Heat at Detroit Pistons Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

I truly feel bad that every defensive breakdown I do ends up being from such a negative perspective. There are areas (and individuals) where the Detroit Pistons defense is performing well that could be highlighted. I think everyone in the Pistons fan base would agree that there is plenty of room to get better, especially based on what we have seen from two of the games over the three-game stretch I will be analyzing.

The thing about the NBA (and really any level of basketball) is you are going to give up points to good offenses. Players are going to make plays and coaches are going to draw up tough actions to defend. The key to long-term defensive success is eliminating mistakes and opportunities for your opponent to get buckets outside of those situations where you say “that’s just better offense.” I wanted to take a look at a few areas where I believe this team could make some strides in improving their 22nd-ranked defensive rating that doesn’t involve the other team simply missing more shots.

To give just a little bit of reference on the three teams that I used for this breakdown. Last Thursday, the Pistons played the Indiana Pacers who are 11th in the NBA in offensive rating. They played that game against Detroit without leading scorer Malcolm Brogdon. On Saturday, the Pistons hosted the Houston Rockets who are actually 27th in offense and were without two of their top four scorers in Jalen Green and Kevin Porter Jr, but who are also players who are terribly inefficient. Finally, on Sunday they faced off against the ninth-ranked offense in the Miami Heat who played without Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, and Jimmy Butler.

The Heat game was BY FAR the best performance from the defense of these three games, and it’s noteworthy it happened on the second night of a back-to-back AND was a major factor in breaking the 14-game losing streak. There were still plenty of possessions from that game that will be highlighted and could have been better, though.

I also think it is important to note that all three games were played since the Jerami Grant injury, who is one of Detroit’s best defenders, and Kelly Olynyk, who I personally believe is a good positional defender although the individual defensive rating numbers would not agree with me. That is PLENTY from the data and stats department for me though, let’s see what the film says.

I do want to make a quick note that I will again highlight some aspects of the defense from my breakdown in early November. In that breakdown, I also highlighted the lack of communication and focus on that end of the floor that I believe still shows up with this team for stretches but is not something I will focus on with this article.

How the Offense/TOs leads to buckets

The easiest thing to explain to even the most casual NBA observer is that the Pistons’ offense stinks. You watch it for five seconds and you’ll see it. Let’s not dwell on that today. What I do want to show is how some of the issues on that end of the floor are making the job of the defense that much harder. Detroit averages 15.4 TOPG which is good for 26th in the league. When you watch the film you see how quickly those turnovers are turning into points on the other end as the team is even worse in that category coming in at No. 29. I believe this is because a majority of the turnovers we see are of the “live ball” variety which immediately translates into advantageous opportunities for the opponent. Live ball vs “dead ball” turnovers is something I constantly preach to the teams I coach. Of course, you don’t want any turnovers, but every team turns the ball over. However, if you are going to commit a turnover, one that allows our team to set our half-court defense is much more easily managed.

Along with the sheer amount of turnovers being committed by the Pistons, you will also see that bad shots and missed good shots are leading to easy transition for opponents as well. It almost never fails that when you miss a shot at the rim that should be made your opponent will immediately make you pay on the other end with a bucket of their own. Simply making more of these attempts, eliminating as many bad shot attempts as possible, AND cutting down on live-ball turnovers could go a long way in improving the defensive output we see night in and night out.

The Good/Bad of the Aggressive Style

Let’s start with something positive for this one. This Pistons defense is actually 10th in steals in the NBA, and you can find multiple instances throughout a game where you see them disrupting their opponents. We have seen them employ a three-quarter press and trap in the half-court late in quarters/shot clock situations. We have definitely seen this be beneficial for the team … at times.

The negative aspect of this is what you can possibly give up on the back end of the aggressive style of play. There has been plenty of talk by fans and everyone here at DBB about the foul trouble from players like Killian, Cade, and Stewart. When you play with the aggressive nature this defense does, it will lend itself to putting personnel in positions to be more susceptible to fouls.

Part of the foul trouble for a player like Isaiah Stewart comes from being asked to protect the rim on the backend of this aggressive defense. This leads me to one of my biggest “concerns” with playing this style defensively. I am not sure this team has the personnel to really defend the rim at the rate you need to when you will inevitably give up driving lanes and backdoors from playing too high in passing lanes.

Now, I am not saying that I completely disagree with the strategy or they should just get rid of it altogether. I am more so trying to say that I think this team could be/will be more effective in employing it as personnel gets more comfortable playing aggressively on the ball, in passing lanes, executing rotations AND as Troy Weaver acquires players who fit that mold better.

Isolations, Rotations and Defensive Rebounding

Part of that aggressive style also shows up in the first of these three areas that I feel like work together. At times the personnel is pressuring the ball so hard that it would be hard to ask anyone to stay in front in an isolation situation. I also think we just simply have to hope to see improvement from the young core as on-ball defenders as they get more comfortable guarding NBA talent.

But as Draymond Green says in a recent interview with Doris Burke, “at some point your defense is going to get broken down.” When that happens you have to rely on your defensive rotations. There are times where we see this team really locked in and executing these rotations but all too often we will see the opposite result.

Finally, I will highlight how ALL of these different aspects are contributing to the Pistons 15th (has been as low as 23rd recently) ranked defensive rebounding percentage. Yes, yes, yes, I know that playing as small as Detroit does for the majority of games plays a factor into this as well but it is not the only thing contributing to the drop from 6th in that category when I did my first defensive breakdown at the beginning of November.

As I said to start off that November article, I know defense is not the most “sexy” aspect of the game of basketball but I really love nerding out and breaking it down. While it may not be entertainment, I hope that all of you can take something to watch for moving forward from this breakdown. I know for me, I will be focused on these particular areas that I believe can be controlled by the coaching staff and personnel and see if we have any improvements throughout the rest of this season.