A year of familiarity figures to get Pistons closer to top-10 D standing SVG craves
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If the Cleveland Cavaliers win the NBA title this season, they'll defy history to do it. The Cavs finished the season No. 17 among the 30 teams in defensive efficiency. In fact, the Cavs essentially were the Pistons this season on defense – Cleveland allowed two one-thousandths of a point less per possession than the Pistons, who finished No. 19 in efficiency.
Minus the acquisition of transcendent offensive players like LeBron James and Kyrie Irving and a premier shooter in Kevin Love, Stan Van Gundy is going to bank on defensive improvement as the foundation for a Pistons playoff drive next season. NBA history says a team almost must have a top-10 defense to win a title. Of the top 10 defensive teams this season, only two – Indiana, which lost a tiebreaker with Brooklyn for the last spot in the East, and Charlotte – failed to make the playoffs.
The 19th-place finish in defensive rating wasn't what Van Gundy hoped to achieve in year one.
"I'm disappointed in where we are defensively. I am," he said in the season's final week. "It's got to improve greatly next year. Part of it is on me. I think we've got to examine our Xs and Os and our teaching some of the schemes that we use."
Everything on defense is connected to something else, so it's overly simplistic to single out a particular area as the key to a defensive turnaround. But Van Gundy knows it has to start with better protecting the paint. The Pistons gave up 43.0 points per game in the paint, 20th in the league. For perspective, the range went from Washington (38.3, No. 1) to Minnesota (48.0, No. 30), so the Pistons are essentially 2½ baskets a game in the paint from the top.
"Especially for the size we have, we've given up far too many points in the paint," Van Gundy said. "Part of it is on the perimeter guys getting beaten off the dribble too easily, part of it is our pick-and-roll defense – both the guards and the bigs and the people on the back side – and part of it is on our bigs in terms of not helping early enough or often enough.
"That's certainly a lot of things to correct, but the No. 1 thing statistically that stands out is we've just given up far too many points in the paint."
Van Gundy thinks he has the backbone of a potentially stingy defense with a rangy, athletic backcourt in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Reggie Jackson and an athletic, shot-blocking threat in the middle in Andre Drummond.
"They're talented enough, that's for sure," Van Gundy said. "I'm not sure that any of the three of them are where they need to be in terms of defensive mentality and making that a real important part of what they do. And then there's still a lot of learning to go and that's on all of us, mainly me. We've got to come a long way, but from a talent perspective there's certainly enough for those three guys to be good defenders. Andre's a guy who should be able to anchor your defense. KCP should be able to be a very good perimeter defender, but they've got a long way to go to get there."
Jackson had much to absorb upon arriving from Oklahoma City at the trade deadline and figuring out how to play with two big men, Drummond and Greg Monroe, and fostering chemistry playing with one or the other in pick and rolls dominated his focus. He's aware of the role incumbent on him in pushing the Pistons forward defensively.
"I know it's got to start with me," he said. "I've got to be better. I've got to pressure everybody, each and every night, to help our defense and communicating, doing everything to be a better leader."
"He's got good toughness," Van Gundy said of Jackson. "There's no problem there. He's like a lot of our guys. He's got to work really hard moving his feet and staying in front of the ball and he's got to work a lot harder on being able to get over picks and get back in front of the ball. It's not just him – that's pretty much everybody on our perimeter."
The Pistons don't know the identity of their starting forwards next season, unless they can win back Greg Monroe in free agency. The right combination of toughness, athleticism and defensive mind-set there will go a long way toward filling out the defensive unit Van Gundy hopes to build. But he's got a foundation in place now – a system, a team conditioned to a coach emphasizing defense and an intriguing mix of athleticism and youth in the middle and out front.
Van Gundy will work to add 3-point shooting to the roster this off-season and that along with the 27-game taste Jackson got down the stretch should lead to natural progress on the offensive end. If the Pistons can take the strides Van Gundy will expect of them in year two defensively, a big jump in the win column isn't out of reach.