Making it Work

Pistons start digesting early returns of Monroe-Drummond pairing

Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe
Lawrence Frank is convinced Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe will grow into a lethal combination.
Ron Hoskins (NBAE/Getty)
The pairing of Andre Drummond with Greg Monroe, an experiment less than a week in the making, opens the door to a world of possibilities for the Pistons. It also poses a number of questions, the answers to which are only in the infancy of being formed.

The Pistons are getting a taste of how teams are going to defend them, though Lawrence Frank says the young pair hasn’t yet risen to the level that they become the focus of opposition defensive schemes. But in the minutiae that makes up a game plan, teams are deciding who guards Monroe and who guards Drummond, and how they can force Frank into having to choose one or the other late in games – or take his chances that a mismatch on one end of the floor will play to his advantage more than a mismatch on the opposite end will inflict damage.

“It’s all about combinations,” Frank said. “If they’re more worried about Andre’s rolls, they’ll probably use their best pick-and-roll defender on Andre. If they’re worried about Greg’s postups, they’ll put their better postup defender on Greg.”

So Monroe isn’t going to automatically be able to go against power forwards over whom he might have a significant size and strength advantage. Teams might still guard Monroe with their center and let their power forward take his chances against Drummond, whose strengths are offensive rebounding and finishing lob dunks off pick-and-roll plays – not posting up.

In their first four games, teams have generally matched up according to position, but only because it fit the strengths of the individuals. In two games against Toronto, Amir Johnson – the superior interior defender to Jonas Valanciunas – guarding Monroe, while Valanciunas’ 7-foot length was an effective tool against Pistons pick and rolls. Against Boston, power forward Brandon Bass guarded Drummond while starting center Chris Wilcox went up against Monroe, quickly picking up two first-quarter fouls.

The larger issue for the Pistons down the road, perhaps, will be how they respond when teams go small late in games, as an increasing number do. In the waning minutes of fourth quarters, top-shelf small forwards Rudy Gay and Luol Deng have moved over from small forward since Drummond’s return. It wasn’t an issue in the Boston game, as Frank rode out a unique frontcourt combination of Monroe-Charlie Villanueva-Jonas Jerebko when the latter two sparked a rally from 18 points behind, but the Celtics often go small to finish games with Jeff Green and Paul Pierce at the power positions in the absence of Kevin Garnett.

“They call it a game of chicken,” Frank said. “Chicago is doing that regardless (of how the Pistons lined up). Toronto is doing it regardless. The bottom line is they’re getting their best players on the floor. In the NBA, when you have ‘position-less basketball,’ you have a lot of talented mid-sized guys and (if) that’s the strength of your team, you’re getting them on the floor. So, yeah, it’s a game of chicken and what you have to weigh is, OK, if your better players are big and their better players are small, you try to exploit that matchup. But if it’s not working in your favor, it’s whatever coach flinches first. And it’s all based on who’s getting the most out of their strengths.”

The Pistons exercised an extra dollop of caution in bringing Drummond back from injury after a 22-game absence as the stress fracture in his lower back healed. But the 10-game sample they’ll get to see of Drummond playing with Monroe together will be a valuable evaluation tool to take into the off-season, he said.

“Big picture, for where we’re going as a building team, the more reps we can get those guys, the better,” he said. “Regardless if they do great or struggle a little bit, it’s not really an indicator of what’s to come. It’s just more things you can use to evaluate as you get into the off-season of what we need to do to get better.”

Ultimately, Frank is confident Drummond and Monroe will mesh, and his confidence is fueled mostly by what he’s come to know about each player’s intent.

“It’s making sacrifices and concessions to make it work,” Frank said. “They definitely can play together and the more they continue to improve their games, the better they’ll be together. And they enjoy playing together, which is a big part of it. Sometimes combinations don’t work because guys just don’t want to make it work. A lot of times you see it at the two and the three when you have two wing scorers that both feel like they have to have the ball at all times. Pettiness gets involved. But with these guys, they’re both very unselfish guys, so it definitely will work.”