Push for Progress

Absorbing new defensive system puts Pistons through learning phase

It will take time--during a compressed season, no less--for the Pistons to adapt to Lawrence Frank's defensive system.
Allen Einstein/NBAE/Getty Images
The high scorer no longer around talked to one of his ex-teammates after the team’s 0-2 start, both losses not especially close and rife with defensive lapses, and after the conversation he put this on Twitter: “We agree the guys just need a little time to gel and learn each other’s styles.”

Except it wasn’t Rip Hamilton talking to Tayshaun Prince. It was Peja Stojakovic talking to Dirk Nowitzki. Yeah, that Dirk Nowitzki. Of the defending NBA champion Dallas Mavs.

The Pistons and Mavericks might be miles apart in the current NBA reality, but the larger point remains: If a team with as much continuity and stability as the Mavs acknowledges that familiarity is an issue even for a team that didn’t change coaches, then it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that the Pistons are scrambling to meet somewhere in the same chapter, never mind on the same page, less than three weeks since training camp opened.

It was just three weeks ago, in fact, when Lawrence Frank was meeting every player on his roster for the first time.

Steve Kerr, the TNT analyst who spent 15 years in the NBA and won five rings with Chicago and San Antonio before spending time as general manager in Phoenix, said during the Miami-Boston telecast on Tuesday that he thinks teams with new head coaches are especially disadvantaged by the circumstances of this season. The lockout and the compressed preseason mean teams that had to start the alphabet at A instead of K or W are playing regular-season games with barely preseason preparedness.

Frank abhors excuses, even when they’re more accurately described as explanations. In fact, among the many motivational mantras put into signage form is just that – “No Excuses” – emblazoned above the tunnel entrance to the court from the locker room at The Palace.

So he pushes back when I put Kerr’s assessment to him.

“We said right from day one, we’re not making any excuses,” he said. “It is what it is. I guarantee you, there’s going to be a team with a new coach that finds a way to have one heck of a season. And we want it to be us. You just have to work through it.”

Ben Wallace is a pretty good authority on defense, the NBA’s four-time Defensive Player of the Year. He’s also a pretty good authority on having to absorb new defensive systems, having played under five coaches with the Pistons and spending time in Chicago and Cleveland in his years away from Detroit.

“It’s tough to put a time limit on it,” he said after Thursday’s practice. “It’s a trust factor. You’ve got to realize if you go to help somebody that you’re going to get help. You could be having a bad shooting week or shooting month, you can come in the gym and get more shots up. If you’re having bad timing on defense, that’s something you have to work on in the game, in practice, with the five guys out there. That’s not something you can come in the gym and get better at by yourself. So defense is going to take a little time. But I’m confident we’re headed in the right direction.”

Frank’s marching orders are simple and clear defensively: one, protect the paint; two, take away the 3-point line; three, force contested 2-point shots. But there are scores of details that must be ingrained. And one breakdown, physical or mental, one miscommunication, unravels the thread. Split-second hesitations on defensive rotations cause openings that even mediocre offensive players can exploit for easy baskets. The nuances of how Frank wants pick-and-roll plays defended mean an inside foot planted where the outside foot should be creates a lane that an adroit ballhandler will mine every time.

Until the Pistons soak up all of Frank’s tenets, or at least much more than they’ve soaked up to date, there is going to be hesitation, confusion and miscommunication that enables a team like Cleveland – not a playoff contender but a team in its second year under Byron Scott and with most of its key pieces back and two top-four lottery picks added – to shoot 57 percent and win by 16.

“It’s not rocket science,” Frank said, “but I would say it’s natural, early on, that there’s probably more thinking than instincts going on right now. I’m coaching for the big picture. I’m not just coaching to get ready for game one. I’m getting ready for the whole process. For us to be where we need to be and go where we’ve got to go, that’s what we need to do. Guess what? This is a tough league. It’s a hard league to guard. And in order for us to be the type of defensive team we need to be, these are the type of growing pains we’re going to have to go through.”

Frank’s no-excuses mantra is rubbing off on his players, too. Greg Monroe would only concede inches that the Pistons’ two-game struggle has much to do with unfamiliarity.

“I think it has a little bit to do with it,” he said, “but that’s no excuse for how we’re playing. We have to come out and give a better effort and we have to be better as a team.”

It doesn’t get any easier to be better soon: Next up for the Pistons is Boston. Not only will Friday night’s game be Boston’s home opener, but the Celtics – who’ve played without Paul Pierce for their first three games – will be looking for their first win.

I’ll have more from Frank tomorrow as he talks about last season, which he spent as top assistant coach to Doc Rivers with the Celtics.