SVG: Pistons turnaround will start on defensive end

Stan Van Gundy says for the Pistons to contend again for NBA titles, they have to construct a top-10 defense
Defense will be a priority for the Pistons next season.
Richard Rowe (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

The message might well get meted out in fits and starts as Stan Van Gundy makes the rounds to meet individually with Pistons players over the off-season. But when they convene again as a team in early October to open his first training camp, it will come in one concentrated burst: Defense isn’t optional.

“As I’ll say to our players when we get together to start the year, ‘It’s on us.’ At the defensive end, in particular. No excuses here,” Van Gundy said. “With what we have on the roster, we have everything we need physically.

“Now, do we have the commitment? Are we willing to do the hard things that it takes to win basketball games? Do we care about our teammates? Are we going to buy in to the system and do it? Are we going to execute on a daily basis? Those are questions I can’t answer yet, but do we have everything we need to be good defensively? We absolutely do.”

Van Gundy has been able to craft both above-average offensive and defensive teams in his two previous NBA coaching stints, at Miami and Orlando, but there isn’t much doubt which end will take priority when he blows the whistle and practices begin in earnest. It was no mystery to Van Gundy, after a representative sampling of Pistons games last season, why they ranked in the lower third of the NBA is key defensive metrics.

“We’ve put our finger on a lot of things already on the defensive end of the floor,” he said. “Where it really starts, it’s going to start with the players. We can give them a very definitive system. We’ll spend a lot of time drilling it on the floor to build habits, but it’s going to come from a commitment from the players to improve on that end of the floor.

“You can build a team in any style. A lot of options on the offensive end of the floor, but the thing that rings true all the time is, if you’re not at least pretty good defensively, you’re going to have a hard time. If you look at the teams that compete at the level we would like to compete at and contend for a championship in the near future, you’re going to have to be a top-10 defensive team and last year we were a bottom-10 defensive team. The players are going to have to own that. This can’t be about their numbers. It has to be about winning games. There are some things that have to be done on a basketball court that are not statistically oriented that you’ve got to dedicate yourself to if you are truly about winning.”

Chemistry is one of those words that falls under the “easy to spot, hard to describe” category. Whatever it is, exactly, it was plain to see the Pistons never managed to develop it in their deeply disappointing 29-win 2013-14 season. There’s a chicken-or-the-egg component to chemistry, as well. Does success foster good chemistry, or vice versa? And to what extent is great team defense dependent on team chemistry?

“I don’t know, but I’ll tell you this: As you build your team defense and they really become committed to that end of the floor, it’ll enhance your chemistry,” Van Gundy said. “It’ll even enhance your chemistry on the offensive end of the floor because defense – if you’re helping each other and you help the helper and people make multiple efforts, a respect builds between players, an appreciation of each other, and then it carries over to the offensive end of the floor.”

That will be a Van Gundy mantra, it appears, the critical need to think as one, to put team first.

“Job number one for our team right now is to become a team, really a team. I’m not talking about how much talent or even how many games we win, but to become a team that really cares about each other and plays for each other on the floor. Fans have seen that with the great Pistons teams of the past. You’ve seen that – tough defense, physical guys who play together, guys who really care about each other. Detroit fans know what it looks like. You’re not going to fool them.”

Those three NBA championship banners hanging above The Palace floor will serve Van Gundy well, he believes, as he spreads the gospel of team and commitment. He hadn’t yet reached the NBA when the Bad Boys were slaying the Lakers and Celtics and keeping the Bulls at arm’s length, but he coached against the 2004-era Goin’ to Work Pistons.

“A great legacy here,” he said. “All of us, starting with myself, but the players on the floor, have to have great respect for that legacy and try to honor it every time we take the floor. And it starts right now, in the off-season, starting to do things to come together as a team where we really play for each other out there.”

It isn’t lost on Van Gundy that the San Antonio Spurs will play for another NBA title with a roster not populated with great individual defenders, yet the Spurs finished No. 3 in defensive efficiency this season. Golden State was fourth and Charlotte fifth, two more examples of great defenses that were put together around players of various individual defensive merit.

That’s where Van Gundy puts the onus on himself, not only to sell a mind-set but to provide his players the tools to build a top-10 defense.

“What it is defensively is system – and I don’t just mean a system, because everybody’s rules are fairly similar, but a system that you drill and teach every single day. It takes a lot of work on the defensive end of the floor. You’re not going to be a great defensive team if you’re not a great practice team – and it’s system, it’s obvious commitment from the players. And then, the one thing – a physical attribute – that really helps defense is size. And we have size and we have shot-blocking with Andre Drummond and with Josh Smith.”