Picking up the Pace

PHOENIX – The Pistons have played the tortoise to the hares of the NBA for several seasons, functioning offensively at a slower pace than most of their peers in the days they were going to the NBA Finals and, more recently, winding up in the lottery.

The short takeaway is that pace is no indicator of success. But it’s more complicated than that. Lawrence Frank wants the Pistons to play faster in large measure because he thinks it suits the speed of guards Rodney Stuckey and Brandon Knight, and just maybe because they don’t have a lethal break-you-down star in the mold of LeBron James or Kobe Bryant to thrive consistently in a half-court game.

For the first half of the NBA season, it was tough to see the results of Frank’s daily admonitions to pick up the pace in the statistics. The Pistons still ranked 30th in the NBA in pace through their first 24 games and 18th in fast-break points. Now? Since starting the season 4-20, the Pistons are fifth in the NBA in fast-break points and 13th in pace – the number of possessions a team manages over a 48-minute game. The numbers, Frank said, came from assistant coach Charles Klask, whose specialty is statistical analysis.

What’s led to the turnaround? Frank says – no surprise here – that it starts with defense.

“Defensively, we’ve made some strides,” he said. “So now you’re not constantly taking the ball out of the net. The pace, the attack, guys getting a better feel for how we want to play, being more consistent with it and getting in a rhythm – probably a combination of all of those factors.”

When a Utah reporter asked Frank the other day why the Pistons had suddenly begun to play better – since that 4-20 start, they’re 12-7 – he said they’d made incremental improvements across the board in “18 different areas.” It’s not only in transition the Pistons have increased their offensive potency and efficiency. Their half-court attack, as well, is markedly better, never more so than in Wednesday’s 124-112 win over Sacramento.

“That ball was popping,” Frank said after the game. “Where we get in a little bit of trouble is when that ball sticks. Rhythm, timing, spacing, understanding, role acceptance … and, a lot of those things, it’s like having a cold – they’re contagious, one way or the other. If the ball sticks, it’s my turn-your turn; when the ball pops, we’re making gains in that area.”

“It’s something the coaches have made us pay a lot more attention to in practice,” Greg Monroe said of the ball movement that helped the Pistons to their season-high 124 points against the Kings. “That’s been the difference for us in this stretch we’ve been having. We’ve got to continue to do that and get better at it.”

As much as anything, it takes mental conditioning to become a team that runs consistently and efficiently. Frank is seen less often these days motioning to the guards to hurry the ball across the mid-court line, but you’ll still see it occasionally. Rare is the NBA player who says he doesn’t prefer to play in a system that favors running and open-court play, but it isn’t all fun and games – it takes a high level of physical conditioning and there is a degree of freedom that must be earned by proving responsibility.

“The more simple, sometimes the more complicated,” Frank said. “I believe in defense first, all the way, and that’s what we’re going to continue to be. But I believe in giving guys – especially off of misses – freedom within a formatted structure, which actually takes more time to understand than if we said, look, we’re running a secondary offense, run to your spot and do it. With freedom, it’s even harder.”

The Pistons might still be gravitating toward the system that suits their abilities and needs best. As Frank would be the first to say, they’re not a finished product. But the trend is clear: As they grow more proficient at mastering the style Frank envisions for them, the wins have followed.