Getting to the elite defense SVG eyes for Pistons might just start with a more consistent offense

AUBURN HILLS – In baseball, where offensive performers are quite often outnumbered on the field of play by a 9:1 ratio, you can argue forcefully that there is little correlation between offensive and defensive team performance.

In football, you could also persuade me that an overpowering offense has little bearing on the performance of the same team’s defensive unit composed of 11 uniformly different players. I’d argue a defense that gets to sit for more than three plays and a punt and usually takes the field with the opponent huddled in the shadow of its goal posts gets a nice head start on respectability, but never mind.

You’ll have a tougher sell in basketball, where the same five players are matched against the same five opponents on both sides of the half-court line.

The Pistons came up one rung short of the Eastern Conference playoff field this season and if you forced me to offer a single compelling reason for the shortfall, I’d offer: injuries. The 37 games Reggie Jackson missed were devastating to a team that sat in the No. 4 spot in the conference with a 19-14 record the morning after he grotesquely twisted his right ankle in a rout of the Indiana Pacers.

They were 12-25 without Jackson and 27-18 with him. You’re overthinking it if you go traipsing off into dark corners looking for more telling reasons than Jackson’s absence for the Pistons heading into the off-season before eight conference brethren.

Jackson’s impact was felt, most tellingly, on the offensive end.

The Pistons finished as the NBA’s No. 11 defense but its No. 19 offense. The gap between their unit performances was more pronounced with Jackson out. In those 37 games he sat from Dec. 27-March 19, the Pistons were the NBA’s No. 27 offense and its No. 12 defense.

When they had Jackson for the first 33 games, they were the No. 15 offense and even that is a little misleading. During their 14-6 start that took them through the end of November, the Pistons ranked No. 7 in offense and No. 11 in defense. They were then awful for the next three weeks, going 3-7, and they ranked No. 28 in offense and No. 21 in defense.

In the 12 games with Jackson back to finish the season, the Pistons were the No. 6 offense and the No. 7 defense.

So take away three weeks in December when they went 3-7 with one of the three worst offenses in the NBA and the Pistons were solidly in the top 10 in offense for the 35 other games Jackson played. And except for those same three weeks when their defense sagged at the same time – in hindsight, we know now this was also the time Avery Bradley began feeling the effects of a groin injury that would ultimately end his season for the Clippers and when his productivity dipped while Tobias Harris’ 3-point roll slowed – they were a top-10 defense over the other 72 games.

Does it seem likely that there’s a fairly direct link between good offense and good defense or do you think that’s all just coincidence?

If you were to poll NBA coaches on the three teams most likely to win the title this season – relative good health in the playoffs as a caveat – the answer certainly would come back: Golden State, Houston, Toronto. Surprise – they rank 1-2-3 in offense and 9-6-5 in defense. The only other NBA team that ranks in the top 10 in both offense and defense barely qualifies; Oklahoma City is 10th at both ends.

A great offensive team elevates a mediocre defensive team and vice versa. Scoring baskets with greater frequency bears tangible and intangible benefits for a defense. Make the other team take the ball out of bounds and your defense sets up with preferred matchups in the case of the former; see two (or, more and more often, three) points added to your side of the scoreboard and there’s a psychological lift that logically results in greater enthusiasm on defense.

Conversely, go four, five, six or more straight possessions without scoring and you’re run ragged and expending scads of your energy reserve scrambling back on defense to find shooters in transition and exposing yourselves to mismatches in the event a fast-break basket is prevented.

Stan Van Gundy puts his faith in defense. Even today, with the game skewing more toward offense, most coaches do. It’s the more reliable commodity in a sport where sometimes it still comes down to “does it go in or does it not.” That’s why his parting message to the Pistons last week was devoted to a significant degree to committing to becoming an elite defense.

But he knows you can’t get by with anything but something close to an elite offense, too.

“You’ve got to be able to play at both ends,” he said last week. “I don’t think we’re in a day or age where you can just play one end of the court. I think there was a time where defense by itself would at least make you decent. You’ve got to be able to play both ends of the floor. There’s always a balance.”

So a better offense surely will help the Pistons become a better defense next season. If they start with a healthy Reggie Jackson and fold in an off-season to open up the playbook they never had time to fully develop for Blake Griffin, that’s a pretty good start.