Proof of Progress

Defensive rating shows evidence of Pistons’ improvement

The second half of the Pistons' season shows a marked improvement from the first half.
Dan Lippitt/NBAE/Getty Images
It’s a measure of how far the Pistons have come over the course of Lawrence Frank’s first season that there any fans so much as mildly concerned about the way they won most recently. It took overtime on Saturday at The Palace for them to beat Charlotte, bumping along at a pace that challenges historical NBA lows, less than 24 hours after returning from a whirlwind March road excursion.

And in that game, the Pistons were less than impenetrable defensively, giving up 97 points in regulation to the NBA’s lowest-scoring team, nearly 10 full points over Charlotte’s average.

But it’s been the defensive side of the ball more than anything – and the the thing that would delight Frank more than anything else – that’s enabled the Pistons to post a 15-13 record since their 4-20 start. Whatever roster needs might still remain for the Pistons, whatever familiarity with Frank’s systems and coaching methods might still need to be absorbed, playing at a 15-13 pace over the course of a full season would solidly make the Pistons a 2012-13 playoff team.

In defensive efficiency, the Pistons have made a steady progression over the season’s three months. They were 28th in the handful of December games and 29th in January – the Pistons were 4-19 when January ended – before it began to turn for them. In February, their defensive efficiency standing climbed to 17th and in March, going into Saturday’s March finale, the Pistons were No. 8 in the 30-team NBA.

Not that Frank is anywhere near satisfied. When I asked him if his gut tells him what the numbers bear out – that the Pistons are a top-10 defensive team – he said, “No,” without hesitance. “Long, long way to go, but we’re making some strides. The metric shows we’re better than we were and, month by month, we’ve made strides.”

Defensively efficiency isn’t quite the mainstream statistical measure that points allowed and defensive field-goal percentage are, but it is perhaps the single most accurate gauge of a team’s defensive prowess – and it’s basically a simple formula. It’s the number of points given up per possession, essentially, which allows for variances in pace and takes into account free throws, as well. So a team that uses up all of the 24-second shot clock on offense might artificially reduce their points per game yield and a team that fouls inordinately could have a skewed defensive field-goal percentage figure. The defensive efficiency rating, which multiplies points per possession times 100, doesn’t have those holes.

Frank ticked off the cornerstones of the improvement: “We don’t allow a lot of shots in the paint. We try to force a lot of contested twos. And we don’t give up corner threes. Every month, we get better in those areas.”

Corner threes allowed were a sore point for the Pistons the past few seasons. As NBA teams grow more sophisticated in their use of analytics, the value of the corner 3-pointer – the distance at which the 3-point line is closest to the rim – has risen as offenses design plays to produce those shots. Defenses, accordingly, have to counter to prevent open 3-point attempts.

“From a rotation standpoint, on the strong side, you’re not going to leave that corner open,” Frank said. “And on the weak side, you’re going to have rotations on the back side of your defense to cover for that skip pass to the corner three. We have a lot of work, but statistically we’ve moved up toward the best in the league at giving up the fewest amount.

“It’s not just the makes, it’s the attempts. On any given night, a team can make a bunch on you. But over the course of the season, how many are you allowing? That’s more of importance.”

It’s fair to wonder if the 15-13 record of the past two months would be reflected in the Pistons’ overall record if Frank had been granted the luxury of a normal preseason and training camp. And for their fans wondering when it’s reasonable to assume playoff contention is to be expected, the Pistons’ defensive improvement suggests the answer is next season.