Defend, Then Run

When Pistons get stops, Frank frees them from running set plays

Playing solid defense has led to more flexible offense for the Pistons.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images
Lawrence Frank offers players a tantalizing bargain: play good defense and you don’t have to worry about mastering the playbook.

“We give the ultimate gold ticket to players,” he said after a Saturday practice carried out with the lively tempo of a team riding a four-game winning streak. “If we get stops, we just play out of basketball principles. We don’t run set plays off of misses. So if I’m a player and I want freedom, I’m going to get stops.”

Frank counted 27 solid defensive stands in Friday night’s 17-point win over New Jersey in which the Pistons went over 100 points in regulation for the first time this season, finishing with 109. And they produced 24 transition points, even though the official box score listed 17.

It made for a thoroughly entertaining game, not just for the fans but for players, too. It was as animated a bench as the Pistons have had in … well, since four-game winning streaks were taken for granted around The Palace.

“It’s a lot of fun when you’re playing the right way and guys are buying in and you know you’re out there competing,” rookie Brandon Knight said. “You know guys have your back. It makes the game a lot easier and a lot more fun to play. When you’re out there and no one has energy and guys aren’t for one another, that makes the game a lot tougher. But guys have been doing a great job buying in and it makes the game that much more fun when you know you’ve got four other guys that are your brothers backing you up.”

Frank would preach the value of playing the game at a faster pace no matter the makeup of his roster, but Knight – a player Pistons scouts felt was the fastest from end to end with the ball in his hands in college basketball last season – makes it an even easier decision for him.

“The last couple of years, and even the championship years, this was one of the slower-paced teams in the league,” Frank said. “It’s not ‘six seconds or less,’ but we have to attack before the defense is set. You see all the advantages to it. Not only do you get open shot opportunities, but you have so many mismatches. You have big against small, small against big, which may indirectly lead to penetration, may lead to offensive rebounding. There are so many benefits to it, but it all starts with getting stops.”

Even though Knight was limited to just 17 minutes in Friday’s win by early foul trouble, he still managed 13 points. Rodney Stuckey added 19 and Ben Gordon 14, and the 46 points Frank got from his three primary guards came on 27 field-goal attempts, the type of offensive efficiency made possible by solid defense and transition chances. The sheer speed offered by Knight and Stuckey, especially, can help transform the Pistons from the half-court team they’ve been to a more free-flowing one.

“You get the rebound, you outlet the ball as far up the floor as possible,” Frank said. “The first thing you’re going to look to do is, anyone ahead of the ball, you’re going to advance it. If not, we call ’em rack attacks. So you’ve got to attack the rack. We’ve got two guys who are great speed dribblers in those two. We fully encourage it and want them to get into the paint and create and that’s a big part of their game. It has to be an attack mentality.”

“As much as we can, we want to push it,” Knight said, adding the qualifier that shows the melding of the minds Frank has tirelessly worked toward. “But even that starts with defense. You can’t get into transition when you’re taking the ball out of the net the entire game. All of that stuff starts with defense.”