Isaiah Stewart

As Pistons offense learns to walk, Casey sees defensive potential within reach of young lineup

Dwane Casey keeps saying the Pistons have to hang their hat on defense. Through nine games, the Pistons rank 21st defensively, which suggests their hat rests on a shaky hook. But scratch the surface and the picture looks a little different.

The Pistons have played among the NBA’s stiffest schedules. Of their nine games, two apiece came against three of the top four teams in the East – Philadelphia, Chicago and Brooklyn – and one apiece against the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks and the team they beat in the Eastern Conference finals, Atlanta.

That’s an awful lot of Zach LaVine, Joel Embiid, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Trae Young over the season’s first 2½ weeks.

And then there’s the millstone the Pistons defense has had to drag around – their 30th-ranked offense. Those things are not unrelated. This isn’t football where the defense heads for the sideline on a change of possession. It’s the same five players transitioning from one side to the other and dealing with the very real effects of having just missed a shot at the other end.

“When guys don’t see the ball go through the hole, their energy level goes down,” Casey said. “It just takes something out of them and your defense does suffer. It shouldn’t happen that way, but it’s human nature that it does.”

The Pistons rank last in shooting (.394) and last in 3-point shooting (.277) and between the tangible impact – all those misses translate into transition scoring chances – and the psychological effect, it’s a wonder they’ve twice managed to hold Chicago under 100 points and limited Brooklyn to 96 in their most recent loss on Friday.

Casey sees myriad areas where the defense can get better, but his 1,000-yard perspective is genuinely optimistic as he looks at the defensive ceiling for a young starting unit in the infancy of figuring out NBA personnel and their strengths and tendencies. It starts with staving off frustration over the lack of early-season wins.

“We’re taking steps,” he said. “Like I told the team, we’re not getting rewarded for it, but we’re doing some good things. The teams we’re playing have something to say about it, but we’ve got to continue to believe in what we’re doing – and I don’t see any letup out of the players. Had a good practice today.”

Between the physical force and motor Isaiah Stewart brings at the heart of the defense, the size and defensive aptitude of a Killian Hayes-Cade Cunningham backcourt and the versatility, length and athleticism on the wings from Jerami Grant and Saddiq Bey, the ingredients are in place to string more sub-100 point yields together.

“Our shot-challenge – I don’t know where it ranks right now – but, to me, it’s very high,” Casey said. “Every shot that was taken (in Friday’s game) was well-contested. That is a plus. I know it sounds trite, but the percentages go way down once you challenge shots the way we did the other night.”

The Pistons rank a respectable 12th in defensive rebound percentage, but Casey sees that as an area where improvement is likely given his team’s perimeter size. He’d like the switches to be more physical and precise and, as always, wants more consistently strong communication.

“A lot of little things we can do better on the defensive end,” Casey said. “But our defense is ahead of our offense.”