Full Speed Ahead

Frank’s up-tempo philosophy taking hold with Pistons

The Pistons look to increase their playing pace this season.
Allen Einstein/NBAE/Getty Images
For fans who want to see the Pistons flying up and down the court – pretty much all fans – take heart: Lawrence Frank is right there with you. Fans within earshot of the team’s bench last season could frequently hear Frank exhorting the team to “push, push, push” whenever a defensive rebound was secured and the 24-second clock began ticking down.

They might hear “push, push, push” a little less often this season, not because he’s any less desirous of a faster tempo but for a number of other reasons, foremost among them: The Pistons don’t figure to need as much prodding the second time around.

Maybe it starts with Brandon Knight, who enters the season as the starting point guard off of a full and thoroughly productive off-season that finds him stronger and more confident with a clear leadership role. As one of the league’s fastest players and superbly conditioned, running suits Knight ideally.

“It starts there,” Frank said after Tuesday’s practice. “But you can’t be a team that’s going to play up-tempo if you don’t have a minimum of three outlets. I’ve seen a fast, fast, fast point guard who at times had no one to run with him. Eventually, you’ve got to tell him, ‘Just shoot it. Shoot it one-on-three just to prove a point. Fellas, if you ain’t gonna run …’ It’s got to be a team-wide commitment.”

Knight shouldn’t have much trouble finding willing followers.

Rodney Stuckey, a strong open-court player, has long championed playing at a faster tempo. Similarly, Corey Maggette is suited to attack early in the shot clock before defenses are anchored in the paint. If young wings Kim English and Kyle Singler crack the rotation, they will be at Knight’s side at every opportunity, such are their motors and instincts to run. Greg Monroe is in the best shape of his career and has been frequently spotted in camp grabbing defensive rebounds and leading the break himself. And young 7-footers Andre Drummond and Slava Kravtsov can run with most guards.

Frank would ascribe to a “push, push, push” philosophy, though, if he were named coach of an expansion team without a roster. Regardless of personnel, he’s convinced a team’s best opportunity to win must include scoring as many easy baskets as possible. Statistics show, he said, that even the best teams will make a decreasing percentage of their shot attempts as the 24-second shot clock gets closer to zero when broken into six-second increments.

“The reality is you need to try to get as many easy baskets as you can,” he said. “ ‘Push’ doesn’t mean being careless or reckless. It gets you into your offense. You just have more time to operate so now if you don’t have an initial break or an initial early postup or a quick pick and roll, now you want to change sides of the floor and work the game.”

If those more advantageous options don’t present themselves and the offense must then go into a set play, it’s better to do so with 18 or 20 seconds on the shot clock than 10 or 12.

When the Pistons were playing pickup games in the days before training camp opened, they would set the shot clock to 16 seconds just to reinforce the mentality of playing fast. Frank sees evidence of progress in practice.

“We’re getting better at it,” he said. “I want to make sure our defense is getting right – that’s got to be the foundation. Our pushes and pace have improved in practice. We’ll see what it looks like tomorrow (for the preseason opener against Toronto). There are very tangible goals we put forth, offensively and defensively, and every day after practice I always look at that same list and see where we’re at.”

Frank doesn’t get swept up in looking at statistics that measure tempo, believing them to be fundamentally flawed. The Pistons averaged 91.7 possessions per game last year, below the league average. In a vacuum, they might shoot to get up to 95 or 98, but there are variables that can skew the numbers.

“You may really try to push it, but it may take you longer to score,” he said. “And if you’re a good defensive team, you’re going to be a low-pace team because it takes the other team longer to score. That impacts the number of possessions you can have. I look at it as we’ve got to be a low-turnover team. When we broke down every single one of our turnovers, the No. 1 category was not transition. It was other things. I want to see us up-tempo, but I think we’ll get more possessions if we value the basketball more than we have.”

In the heyday of the Goin’ to Work teams that won the 2004 NBA title and played in six straight conference finals, the Pistons were typically one of the slowest-paced teams, in large measure because – as Frank alluded to – their suffocating defense frequently required the opposition to exhaust most of the 24-second clock in search of a reasonable scoring attempt. But those teams, even at their best, weren’t focused on speeding the tempo offensively.

Winning is the ultimate intoxicant for fans, of course, and that’s unquestionably the No. 1 priority for Frank’s Pistons. It just happens to be his conviction that playing fast provides the best opportunity to win. Should be some fun nights at The Palace watching it be put into practice.