Hanging In

Pistons use Thanksgiving to polish defense still finding its way

Maurice Cheeks
The Pistons are bumping along near the bottom of the league in defensive rankings, which explains why Maurice Cheeks had them in the gym on the Thanksgiving holiday.
Stephen Dunn (Getty Images Sport)

The Pistons are bumping along near the bottom of the league in defense, by any way you’d care to measure it.

They are dead last in opponent’s effective field-goal percentage, which accounts for the greater value of a 3-point shot. They’re also last in field-goal percentage by traditional measure, allowing the opposition to make 48.1 percent of shots. They’re 23rd in 3-point percentage and last – again – in 2-point percentage, allowing teams to make 51.8 percent of shots inside the arc, where it figured that the presence of Andre Drummond and Josh Smith would dissuade drivers.

They’re a more reasonable 17th in points per game allowed at 99.9, but 26th in defensive efficiency, a measure of the damage per possession opponents have inflicted. They rank just 22nd in rebounding, though they’re in good company – San Antonio is 21st, Memphis 23rd – and 15th in rebounding percentage, a disappointing number for a team that anticipated it would be dominant in that area.

The good news? The Pistons, for all of their holes on the defensive end, practiced on Thanksgiving Day still entrenched in the Eastern Conference playoff field, holding the No. 8 seed. But Maurice Cheeks, who fashioned a brilliant 15-year playing career on his ability to defend and run a team, knows that with the season just about a week away from the quarter pole, the Pistons need to kick it up a notch or two on defense.

When a team ranks in the bottom third of the league across the defensive spectrum, it surely means there is more than one issue at play. But if Cheeks could wave a magic wand to solve a single facet of team defense?

“Just trying to keep the ball out of the paint,” he said after the holiday practice. “Keep scorers out of the paint. If we could do that, we would be a little bit better defensively. But then that goes two-fold. Sometimes, you keep the ball out of the paint, you give up a lot of 3-point shots. But if there was one thing, I would say for our defense to get better it would be defending the paint a little bit better.”

The Pistons have tipped conventional wisdom about their prognosis entering the season on its head. Their defense was supposed to carry an offense that was expected to struggle with Greg Monroe and Josh Smith both adjusting to new positions and uncertainty over where the Pistons would get consistent 3-point shooting.

The fears about their 3-point effectiveness have rung true – they rank last in 3-point accuracy at 29.3 percent. Couple that with their 30th ranking in free-throw percentage (67.3) and it’s fairly remarkable they’ve been pretty much a middle-of-the-road team offensively.

The Pistons rank 13th, in fact, in offensive efficiency and 11th in field-goal percentage. They’re even 16th in effective field-goal percentage despite their 3-point shortcomings. Their strengths are obvious – second in points in the paint per game and seventh in fast-break points, hewing to Cheeks’ desire to be a team that creates turnovers leading to easy scoring chances.

Add up their offensive extremes and you get a team that’s close to the middle, 18th, in scoring at 98 points per game despite their season-worst 79 points against Chicago on Thanksgiving eve, when the starters shot 2 of 18 after halftime and they endured nearly eight scoreless minutes while Chicago went on a 19-0 fourth-quarter run to turn a five-point deficit into a 24-point chasm.

“I think our offense is better than our defense,” Cheeks said. “We have some decent offensive players, mainly Stuckey. He’s a pretty efficient player, so I think our offense is pretty good. We just have to get our defense up to par with our offense.”

Thus, practice on Thanksgiving Day, a rarity in NBA circles.

“I just thought we needed a little bit of work,” Cheeks said. “I understand Thanksgiving, but I thought we needed a little work and I think it did something for us today. I think it was something we needed to do. It wasn’t like it was punishment. We needed to do it and we did it.”

They’ll put it to the test Friday night, against a team that torched them for 114 points and shot 40 percent from the 3-point line less than two weeks ago, the Lakers.

“We’ve just got to be more consistent in what we’re doing and how we’re doing it,” Cheeks said.