There are many contributing factors to the Detroit Pistons having the second-worst defensive rating in the NBA after 17 games, 116.7, and 29th in points per game against, 117.5, according to NBA.com.
Poor transition defense and lack of defensive rebounding have been the biggest factors, with the Pistons giving up the 3rd most offensive rebounds per 100 possessions, via NBA.com. Another factor may be from an adjustment in defensive philosophy that the Pistons’ fanbase has been calling for Detroit to implement.
Last season, the frustration was palpable as the young Pistons roster soft switched everything and allowed opponents to get any matchup they wanted. As fun as it was watching Isaiah Stewart lockdown perimeter guards, it was the opposite of fun watching Detroit’s smaller guards get brutalized by big men in the paint.
Fast forward to this season, and while the defensive philosophy still has plenty of switching, the prevalence of switching is not nearly as extreme. Even some of the switches, which we will point out, are not by design but out of necessity when the called coverage is not executed correctly.
This breakdown will have PLENTY of negatives as this young roster tries to learn and navigate these on-ball coverages. It is important to keep in mind that this is still a relatively small sample size, 18%, in the big picture of this season and the years to come.
The growing pains of implementing less switching and more drop/ice coverage should pay dividends years down the road as long as these first-, second-, and third-year players learn and grow from their mistakes.
The Pistons seem to be switching like-sized screens (ie. 1 through 3 or 1 through 4) and drop or icing guard-big screens. It is important to note the level of communication and awareness that must come with EVERY single screen when doing this. When soft switching, you simply switch any screen that is set. In the current scheme, however, you must know not only who is setting the screen but where on the floor that screen is being set.
It is also important to emphasize that some of the possessions that end up in switches were not initially designed to do so. When really diving into these possessions, you can tell by the path of the defender and the communication between players that the switch was called AFTER the screening action happened and was out of necessity because of a lack of execution.
This lack of execution too often starts with the primary on-ball defender for the Pistons. In drop coverage, you are hoping to push up to the ball handler and get over the screen as fast as possible and back in front. This changes if you are guarding a non-shooter and can go under the screen.
Ideally, you get your lead foot over the top foot of the screen and then take a good angle to cut off the ball handler. Even if the on-ball defender gets hung up on the screen, they need to have a sense of urgency to pick a spot and get back in front of the ball handler to force a tough mid-range contested jump shot.
Ultimately, that is what a defense is going to “give up” when playing drop coverage. The execution issue for the Pistons guards, most notably Jaden Ivey and Cade Cunningham, is getting completely erased by these screens or not always giving that extra sense of urgency to contest mid-range shots.
The other trend that became apparent was overplaying to get over the screen and allowing the offensive player to attack away from the screen. This looks similar to ice coverage, something we will break down shortly, with one VERY important difference. The big in drop coverage is on the wrong side of the screen when this happens and is not in position to help.
*Note: Even more than my typical articles and video breakdowns, this analysis can be hard to visualize through words alone so it is highly encouraged to go ahead and watch the breakdown that goes along with the article.
Do not get it twisted though, the lack of execution does not rest solely with the guards. The Detroit Pistons bigs, mostly Isaiah Stewart and Jalen Duren through 15 games, have some blame to take as well.
Stewart, while usually active with his hands, tends to get off the driving line of the ball handler too quickly. This may be due to his size at 6-foot-8, less than elite vertical pop and hesitancy to get too far removed from the rolling big for fear of the lob pass.
The big, along with the gap defender (we will touch on this as well), want to work together to make it look like there is no driving lane for the on ball creator. When Stewart removes himself from that driving lane before the perimeter defender has recovered, it opens up a lane to the rim.
Duren, on the other hand, has some fundamentals to work out, which you would expect from a freshly minted 19-year-old. Far too often, the 6-foot-11 rookie gets his hips turned one way or the other with his back turned to the ball or the rolling big. This makes it almost impossible for him to play both while his teammate is trying to recover.
As alluded to earlier, drop does have many complexities to it and requires all five defenders to be involved to complete a successful possession. The gap defenders must help off, as far as possible depending on shooting capabilities of their man, to take away that driving lane as well. They, along with the big, must use body positioning and play a game of “cat and mouse” to make it look like there is no driving opportunity into the lane.
This also will put pressure on your weak side defense, especially your “low man.” Low man is your defender opposite the ball side that is guarding the offensive player closest to the baseline. He too must play a game of “cat and mouse” by “tagging” the rolling big but also being able to recover to his man in the corner.
There are times where he will have to fully commit to the rolling big and now the fifth defender, usually on the weak side wing, has to get involved with a rotation of their own. If either of the weak side defenders is not engaged or ready to do their job it could end up in a lob, open 3-pointer or offensive rebound.
Essentially, all five players are on a string working together to make for a successful possession.
Ice coverage is very similar to drop but is used when the offensive player is closer to the sideline. When this coverage is called you will see the on ball defender jump to the high side intentionally forcing the ball handler away from the screen.
The Pistons have struggled with this coverage as well for two main reasons, communication and overplaying on the high side. As mentioned earlier, if not communicated correctly the big is going to end up on the wrong side of the screen. When the on ball defender jumps too high it essentially opens up a wide open path into the lane for the ball handler.
Watching every one of these possessions in reverse chronological order it did stand out that a majority of the “good” possessions came early in the film study, correlating to the most recent games. That is a great sign that there has at least been some small improvements in this 15 game sample size. It will be intriguing to watch and see if there are again steps made over the next 15 games and if the coaching staff at any point grows frustrated and switches back to the soft switching scheme we saw at the end of last season.