Pistons adding the pieces to continue defensive rise under SVG

Stan Van Gundy would be the first to tell you his team didn’t play defense well enough to win big last season. But the Pistons are trending in the right direction. And if they can make a similar leap in year two of the Van Gundy era, they’ll be playing meaningful basketball games beyond mid-April for the first time in seven seasons.

In Van Gundy’s first season, the Pistons shaved more than five points per game off their yield, going from 27th in points allowed (104.7 per game) to 15th (99.5). They went from 27th in field-goal percentage defense (.470) to 22nd (.456).

Remember last year on Pistons media day when Van Gundy said his goal for the first day of training camp was for the team to get back on defense? Well, the Pistons went from 23rd in fast-break points allowed (14.1 per game) to fifth (11.3). With the 3-point shot becoming an increasingly larger component of NBA offenses, the Pistons shaved a percentage point off their yield from the arc, going from .365 to .355 – just above the league average of .350.

All of which leads to the critical question: What’s the likelihood the Pistons can continue their improvement this season?

Actually, pretty good.

Defense is about a lot of things. Mindset, toughness and simple effort are necessary ingredients. And after a full season of preaching those staples in a daily drumbeat, it’s reasonable to expect the Pistons to start off a little further ahead this time around. But it goes beyond that.

“It’s all of those things, but I think it’s also intelligence, concentration, focus – it’s not just physical effort,” Van Gundy said shortly after being named Pistons coach and president of basketball operations in May 2014. “There has to be a system in place because NBA players are so talented. I can go out there and play as hard as I want, but if my teammates behind me are not in the correct spots to help support me, I’m going to be hung out to dry.”

Van Gundy feels the Pistons made noticeable gains in one critical area this summer – toughness. Newcomers Marcus Morris, Aron Baynes, Steve Blake, Ersan Ilyasova and rookie Stanley Johnson – and there’s a good chance at least four and perhaps all of them will be in the rotation – all bring something of an edge.

From a physical standpoint, the Pistons appear better equipped to field a defense more in keeping with modern needs. They’re both more athletic and bigger on the wings with the drafting of Johnson and the trade for Morris. Ilyasova is more mobile and more familiar with guarding range-shooting power forwards than Greg Monroe, who was better suited to defending centers.

Andre Drummond went into the summer intent on showing up for 2015-16 in better condition and you could see the evidence of it in his 27-point, 16-rebound outing in last week’s USA Basketball Showcase. That will help Drummond in transition defense but also in how much ground he covers around the rim and in pick-and-roll situations.

In Reggie Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Johnson, the Pistons have the makings of their most athletic defensive perimeter in … forever?

Van Gundy knows it won’t happen overnight. The Pistons again have many new faces to integrate. Chemistry doesn’t often come together in a few weeks of training camp.

But the pieces appear in place. They have the size, athleticism and depth to field a sturdy defense. They have, in Van Gundy, a coach who delivers a consistent, clear message. The Pistons were outscored by a lousy point per game last season – Brooklyn, which nailed the last Eastern Conference playoff berth, was a minus 2.8 per game – so it’s not like they have to reinvent the wheel.

Shave another basket a game and another percentage point off their yield and things could get interesting fast for the 2015-16 Pistons.