Thirteen years after Corey Maggette was drafted and 10 years since Tayshaun Prince joined the Pistons, not much has changed in their eyes.
“From what I’m accustomed to, the Western Conference tries to get up quicker, get shots up quicker,” Prince said before the Pistons embarked on a six-game road trip West, part of a schedule segment that sees them open the season with eight consecutive games against Western Conference opponents. “Eastern Conference teams, more of a slower pace, trying to find loopholes in your defense. It’s always been like that since I’ve been playing and I don’t find it any different as of yet.”
“It’s still the same as far as the West is more an up-and-down tempo and the East is definitely a strong, powerful game,” said Maggette, who spent his first NBA season with Orlando in the East, the next 10 with Golden State and the Los Angeles Clippers in the West, and the last three in the East with Milwaukee, Charlotte and now the Pistons.
“This is going to be a test for us as far as conditioning purposes. These teams that run, they’re going to be able to run a lot faster than us because we’re not accustomed to running that way. That’s going to be our biggest thing. But as far as defense and being strong and tough in the paint, we have an opportunity to win these games. That’s going to be the key for us – being in the right condition, doing the things we need to do defensively and scoring the basketball.”
The Pistons didn’t do the things they intended defensively in Wednesday’s season-opening loss to Houston, Lawrence Frank said after Thursday’s practice. Thirteen of Houston’s first 16 shots came inside the paint, which Frank said was due primarily to weak transition defense.
“We had 74 times, when you add it up individually, not getting back the way you need to get back,” Frank said. “Our problems stem first from transition defense, then on the ball defensively, then next-man help and not losing that trust and being in the proper position.”
Frank began his NBA career as an advance scout and then assistant coach under Brian Hill in Vancouver, but has coached exclusively in the East – New Jersey, Boston and Detroit – for more than a decade. He doesn’t believe the differences are as stark as they once might have been.
“I think there’s still that same stereotype – I think that’s what it is,” he said. “There’s a little something to it, but you really have to go on a team-by-team basis. Every team plays a style, a style that’s conducive to their personnel. There are some teams that have traditionally been very up-tempo and they happen traditionally to be out west. But there are Eastern Conference teams that can get up and down the court, as well.”
Last season, seven of the NBA’s top 10 teams in pace – a measure of how many offensive possessions per game a team records – were from the West. In the preseason, Houston – which scored 105 in Wednesday’s opener and will be the opponent Nov. 10 to wrap up the season’s longest trip – led the NBA in pace and the Rockets inflicted great damage on the Pistons in transition.
Phoenix, the first stop on the road trip, has long been at the vanguard of Western sprint relay teams, but the Suns – now operating without Steve Nash and the greyhounds the team deliberately flanked him with – scored just 85 in losing their home opener to Golden State on Wednesday.
The Pistons also will play Oklahoma City twice in the eight-game opening stretch and at Denver, another team that will push the pace, before playing at Sacramento on back-to-back nights next week. Those games could be classic battles of will.
“The Eastern Conference teams are more of a defensive grind, grind-out games,” Prince said. “Western Conference is more offensive oriented where pretty much, high score wins. Now, when a Western Conference team plays an Eastern Conference team, that’s where it can get a little tricky as far as you trying to get them to play your style and they’re trying to get you to play their style. Whichever ends up being the better part, that’s the team that ends up winning.”
The divide traces at least to the ’80s, when the Celtics – though a high-scoring team thanks to deadly offensive efficiency – of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and Dennis Johnson were physical defensively and executed half-court offense with admirable precision. Their arch-nemesis, the Magic Johnson-led Lakers, brought “Showtime” to life, Johnson orchestrating a breathtaking transition attack with sleek athletes like James Worthy, Byron Scott and Michael Cooper on the wings.
“Maybe going back even prior to that,” Frank said. “And then it was perpetuated through Detroit and the Bad Boys in terms of rugged, tough, and then you keep on moving forward when you had New York when Pat Riley was there. He goes from ‘Showtime’ to winning games in the ’70s. There’s always little shifts, but that’s a stereotype that’s always been perpetuated.”
Frank wants the Pistons to play at a high tempo offensively, but they might never rank as a top-10 team in pace because, first and foremost, he wants the Pistons to be a “defense-first” team. And teams that make defense their focus and become above average defensively often force the opposition to use most of the 24-second shot clock, which limits the number of possessions for both teams. Is Frank concerned that eight straight games against teams predisposed to play fast and loose will soften the Pistons?
“No, because you have to establish a standard,” he said. “We’d like to play up-tempo, also. We’re not trying to walk the ball up the court, but we know we have to get back. We don’t mind playing up-tempo, but we don’t want to play at a style where we’re uncomfortable. One of the missions for this year is to establish what Pistons basketball is. And every night we take the court, there has to be a certain recipe that we stick to.”
They didn’t stick to the recipe for 48 minutes, and especially not in giving up 35 fourth-quarter points, in the season-opening loss. In order to hold their own on a trip loaded with teams looking to similarly challenge their resolve, they’ll have to learn from their experiences – and fast.