Catching Up

As Drummond evolves and Pistons gain experience, strides on D likely

Andre Drummond
Allen Einstein/NBAE/Getty Images
NEW YORK – For all the cyberspace occupied by analysis of the offensive failings of the Pistons and their supersized frontcourt, it’s been defense – lack of, specifically – that has cost them a playoff run.

The Pistons are an average offensive team, or close to it, depending on your metric of choice. They rank 15th in scoring, 17th in field-goal percentage and 20th in offensive efficiency. Their comparable defensive ratings: 27, 27 and 23. I think we can all agree: The Pistons have bigger issues on the defensive end.

And the numbers argue that if you’re going to be below average on one end or the other, you’re better off being a poor offensive team than a defensive one. Among the teams that rank below the Pistons in offensive efficiency are Charlotte (22), Indiana (23) and Chicago (29) – all safely in the East playoff field.

The good news here for their future starts with Andre Drummond and his vast defensive growth potential. He’s 20 and a long, long way from being a polished diamond. Sometimes that’s easy to forget when he’s jumping over everybody to throw down a lob dunk or errant teammate’s shot with the force of a neutron bomb. Someday, the Pistons expect, he’s going to be a dominant defender, a rim protector of rare pedigree.

But he’s not there yet. As NBA offenses have grown increasingly diverse, defenses have become increasingly sophisticated. Translation: There’s a lot of learning to do. Not just of schemes and rotations and responsibilities, but a catalog of knowledge must be compiled on league personnel, their strengths and tendencies.

“Andre’s got great feet, he’s got great lateral quickness, he’s one of our better guys when we trap pick and rolls,” John Loyer said. “For a guy his size, he gets a lot of steals. He’s got good, active hands. We’re working with him on his natural instincts and keeping his feet moving, but for a guy his size – at his age – I think he’s going to become a terrific pick-and-roll defender.”

For now, it comes and goes. Loyer said earlier this week, after the Pistons snapped a three-game losing streak with a Monday night win over Milwaukee, that Drummond’s fundamentals in simply getting in the proper defensive stance were significantly better in that win than in the two lopsided weekend losses to Miami and Philadelphia.

“You practice it every day,” Loyer said of those fundamentals that Drummond – and he’s not alone, especially among the younger veterans that populate the roster – drills daily when the schedule allows practice time, which, of course, it does not. “This late in the season, you don’t have a lot of practice time, so you make good use of our shootaround days. It’s something we discuss every day. It’s something we work on every day. When it’s not up to par, you work on it a little bit more and, of course, you show tape. Hopefully, we’re turning the corner there.”

The only team with a worse defensive efficiency rating than the Pistons with a shot to make the playoffs is Dallas, currently in a three-way tie for the last two Western playoff berths.

The Pistons are an unconventional offensive team, ranking 29th in 3-point field-goal percentage in a league that increasingly values perimeter shooting, but an effective scoring team despite the fact they get less help at the foul line than any team in the league. The Pistons have ranked last in the NBA in foul shooting throughout the season, hovering right around 67 percent – missing 1 of 3 with dogged consistency – since the early going.

(If the Pistons were even an average foul shooting team, they would go from 15th in scoring to 11th or 12th.)

But if Loyer had to choose which end of the court he’d prefer the Pistons rank among the middle of the pack or better, it wouldn’t cause him any equivocation.

“You’d always choose defense,” he said after Thursday’s practice at the New York Athletic Club in preparation for Friday night’s game against the surging Brooklyn Nets. “That’s something you can do every single night. Shots aren’t always going to go in, but you can always guard.

If you look at Chicago over the years, when they’ve been very good, their points per game – all of that, and they run very, very good offense and have very good offensive players, but that’s not how they’re built. If you look over the years, the better defensive teams are your playoff teams. That’s a given, every year, really – in the NBA, college, at any level.”

To the extent that familiarity contributes to defensive consistency, the Pistons start the race a few steps behind the pack. Greg Monroe has played for four head coaches in his four NBA seasons and every one of them brought a different set of defensive tenets to the equation.

“Yeah, they do. I wouldn’t have thought that, either, but with having a few coaches already, the schemes are different,” Monroe said. “The basic stuff – pick and roll – the coverages are basically the same, based on personnel, but the rotations can be different and they have been for a couple of the coaches.”

Now throw in the fact that Monroe went from exclusively guarding centers for his first three seasons to now guarding the variety of players who comprise the power forward position in the NBA – 3-point shooters to guys who merely set picks and rebound – and centers within the same game, not to mention doing it with a vastly different cast of teammates this year, and you begin to grasp the ground the Pistons must cover to become the defensive team they’d hoped to be when the season began. Familiarity matters.

“Any time you drill the same stuff, year after year after year, day after day, and you’re good at drilling it, it’s going to get better,” Loyer said. “When you have a situation where you have four or five new guys each year, there’s a maturation process with anything you do on both sides of the ball. Look at the better defensive teams. That’s a group that’s been together a while.”

Loyer can’t warp time and compress the process, but even with the season down to its final days he’s encouraged by signs of progress. Of late, he’s seen the big frontcourt – Monroe, Drummond and Josh Smith – become a more stingy unit.

“We’ve had very good Josh-Andre-Greg minutes together,” he said. “They’ve all found their own little niche on ways to score, ways to rebound and, recently, I think our defense has been very solid.”

If solid can become average and go from there, all those glowing predictions that accompanied the Pistons into the season might eventually prove true.