Camp Questions: Leaning on D

As offense gels while Pistons integrate new players, can defense dominate?

Pistons Defense
(Editor’s note: We’ll count down the remaining days until the opening of training camp with a critical question the Pistons will be looking to address during the preseason. Today: Can the Pistons’ expected improvement on defense sustain them in the early going as they learn to fit the pieces together on offense?)

Joe Dumars was focused on infusing the Pistons’ roster with talent over the off-season and in grabbing free agents Josh Smith, Brandon Jennings and Gigi Datome and drafting Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, mission accomplished. The Pistons are undeniably bigger, deeper and more athletic than at any time since the waning days of the Goin’ to Work era that included six straight trips to the conference finals.

But Maurice Cheeks has a challenge on his hands in quickly fitting that many new moving parts into a cohesive offensive machine. Even adding one or two key players to a rotation can cause disruption and require time before a level of offensive efficiency required for winning is achieved. The Pistons will likely have two or three new starters and perhaps half of the playing rotation will be first-year Pistons.

While they’re in the getting-to-know-you phase, their defense might have to carry them. And while defense, too, requires a high degree of chemistry and trust, it can and often does come together on that end at a more accelerated pace.

To be sure, the Pistons have the makings of a terrific defensive team. Andre Drummond and Josh Smith give them two phenomenal athletes up front, premier shot-blockers but, more than that, players with ultra-quick hands and feet that force turnovers and jam passing lanes. You can throw rookie Tony Mitchell, widely considered the best athlete in the 2013 draft, into that mix, too, if he can work his way into playing time at a position of depth.

Kyle Singler established his defensive chops as a rookie, holding his own even while playing out of position at shooting guard. Rodney Stuckey’s size and strength make him a versatile and effective perimeter defender when he isn’t shouldering a disproportionate share of the offensive burden, which no longer should be required. Chauncey Billups is 37 and several years removed from his All-Defensive team vote-getting days, but he always has been able to parlay his wile and strength into playing effective positional defense. Caldwell-Pope, if the rookie cracks the rotation, has the mind-set and physical skills to eventually emerge as an elite wing defender.

Cheeks is going to require his point guards to apply ball pressure – it’s every bit as much his idea of what makes an effective point guard as running the offense is – and in Brandon Jennings and Will Bynum he has players with ball-hounding ability. They’ll be encouraged to play responsibly but take judicious chances to create turnovers, given the presence of defenders like Drummond and Smith behind them. If rookie Peyton Siva earns minutes in a deep point guard group, he’ll be a headache for ballhandlers, for sure.

Don’t exclude rebounding as a component of defense, either. Drummond, Monroe and Smith are all superb rebounders. The Pistons have the capacity to play big on the perimeter, too, with Jonas Jerebko a willing defender at either forward spot, Singler proven at shooting guard and Caldwell-Pope projecting to be a plus rebounder. Gigi Datome has great length at small forward and rebounds well for his position.

Their ability to limit teams to one shot will be the first step in the Pistons playing efficiently on offense. Getting stops for this team should lead to increased running opportunities, given the athleticism of their frontcourt and the preference of Jennings, Stuckey and Bynum to get out and run.

Of course, the Pistons aren’t going to have a 15-man rotation. One of Cheeks’ priorities in training camp will be identifying the size and personnel he can reasonably include in his rotation. That leads us to tomorrow’s Camp Question: Which role players will emerge to best complement the Pistons’ certain core players?