Monday, March 31, 2014

Listen to Your Chart: Why the Pistons Defense Sucks (+Video Analysis)

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The Pistons entered Monday night's game against Milwaukee with the NBA's 24th ranked defense, surrendering 106.3 point per 100 possessions.  There are many options when deciding who to blame, but it doesn't change the fact that they've failed collectively.  Brandon Jennings has been a sieve at the top of the key, failing to stop penetration, and often gambling in bad spots for steals.  The Pistons enter just about every game over-matched athletically at SG because they're forced to start a SF there.  Despite his athletic qualifications, Josh Smith might be the least fundamentally sound defensive player in the league.  His habit of losing shooters when playing help-side defense has become a frustrating sight, night in and night out.  Greg Monroe's been abused by just about every post player in the league at this point in the season, surrendering large point totals to his counterpart routinely.  Andre Drummond is still too raw of a defender to hold his own against a true post threat, and the poor guard play often forces him to make a choice between playing the ball and his man.  Those situations usually don't end well when you're trying to stop two professional athletes with one man.  Every individual is to blame, and the shot chart shows it.  The following is a zone chart of the Pistons' opponent FG% with their starting five on the floor (Jennings, Singler, Smith, Monroe, Drummond).
The Pistons are so bad on defense that there are multiple zones from behind the arc where teams shoot over 50% against their starting unit.  Poor rotation and lazy on-ball defense are usually the culprits when a shot chart looks like this. And then there's the paint, where the Pistons should thrive with their big lineup, which has been diced up by opposing offenses.  Against the Pistons' starting five, opposing teams are shooting over 60% within five feet of the rim.  Easy penetration by opposing guards forces Monroe and Drummond to play up into the paint, allowing for easy looks to their unguarded men. 

This clip, from Detroit's March 28 loss to the Heat (110 points allowed) should provide a snapshot of what's ailing the Pistons this year. 
The first symptom shows at the :14 mark, when Miami runs a simple pick-and-roll with LeBron James (ballhandler) and Udonis Haslem (screener).  The Pistons "attempt" (attempt to attempt?) to defend the play with Josh Smith on James and Andre Drummond on Haslem.  Smith's duty is to fight through the screen while Drummond hedges James to both slow penetration and eliminate James' look at a jump shot.  Smith decides to play under the screen and Drummond sags off to guard Haslem on the roll.  What ensues is what you can imagine would happen when a four-time MVP has a wide open 20 footer.  This is Exhibit A of the Pistons being lazy (Smith) on defense, and not understanding their responsibilities (Drummond).  If you want Exhibit B, click to the :28 mark to watch Andre Drummond guard absolutely nobody on the fast break, leading to a wide open Udonis Haslem jump shot.  Exhibit C comes at the 1:00 mark when Jerebko plays under a screen, opening the lane for Rashard Lewis.

A clear example of the Pistons' inability to play defense off the ball is provided at the :45 second mark.  The video picks the play up late, but it appears that Greg Monroe has been switched on to LeBron James after a Rashard Lewis screen (Stuckey is guarding Lewis in the right corner).  Josh Smith leaves James Jones (career 40.1 3P%) to avoid Monroe getting taken off the dribble by James.  However, he either fails to communicate the switch, or Monroe is unprepared to get to Jones, and then the Heat do what has won them back-to-back titles: move the ball on the perimeter.  While Monroe and Smith have been switching up top, you'll notice how low to the baseline that Brandon Jennings is.  With the ball on the right wing, and his man in the left corner, Jennings should be up the lane a notch or two higher, staying in between his man (Norris Cole) and the ball.  Instead, Jennings is an extra two steps away from James Jones when he catches it, and by the time he reacts, Norris Cole has done what any smart guard would do, and has moved into the corner for a wide open three.  There's nobody within 8 feet of Cole when he knocks down a three. 

At the 1:49 mark, the Pistons give up an easy lay-up thanks to a brilliant display of poor defense.  To open things up (1:49), Josh Smith and Will Bynum fail to seal the ball-handler to the sideline on a high pick-and-roll being executed by Norris Cole (ballhandler) and Chris Bosh (screener).  Bynum plays the screen properly by fighting over the top, and Smith hedges Cole.  However, Smith doesn't cut Cole off and he blows right by, leaving three Pistons to defend four Heat players.  Cole gets to the mid-range baseline (1:51) and Monroe slides off of Chris Andersen to cut Cole off.  Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, left to guard Monroe's man (Andersen) and his man (Shane Battier), has already been sealed off by Andersen and Battier reads it appropriately.  Battier cuts to the hoop unimpeded, with no fear of anybody coming over to block his shot.  The play ends with rare paint points for Battier.  It started with something as simple as Smith not getting his foot to the sideline and letting Cole slip by.  As cliché as it is, defense often comes down to doing the little things right, something the Pistons have been bad at for quite some time now.

Josh Smith plays under a ball-screen (:14)
Andre Drummond doesn't hustle back on break to guard somebody (:27)
Smith-Monroe miscommunication, Jennings' out of place, poor rotation (:45)
Jerebko plays under a ball-screen, nobody hedges, no cut-off from help-side defense (1:00)
Andre Drummond fails to hedge PNR, gets caught in no-mans land (1:21)
Smith doesn't cut off sideline on PNR, KCP gets sealed from playing help-side (1:49)
Drummond playing too far off of James Jones leads to open three (2:08)
Drummond not far enough up for hedge on PNR (2:20)
Drummond loses his man in PNR leading to open layup (2:30)
Will Bynum, too lazy to move his feet, unsuccessfully reaches for steal (2:50)

That's a list of ten plays that came from a three minute long game highlight video.  The first thing that jumps out from the list is, Andre Drummond needs a lot of work in the offseason with the fundamentals of playing defense.  He's the team's second-most capable defender due to his athleticism, quickness and size, but he just isn't getting it done because he doesn't get himself in the right position.  Second, Josh Smith is a really lazy defender.  Unless it's a foot or two behind the three point line, you just can't play under a ball-screen on NBA players.  He (as well as Jerebko) can be seen doing this on multiple occasions and it's just a matter of doing things right.  The only way that's not the case is if Loyer has the team playing under ball screens, in which case, the organization is clearly tanking.  Lastly, I want to point out that defense could be a huge area of improvement for next season.  The Pistons' poor defense isn't necessarily a factor of poor physical skills.  It's been a matter of understanding positioning and responsibilities.  It's much easier to fix the mental part than it is to fix the physical part, especially with a young player like Andre Drummond.  The necessary improvement isn't coming under John Loyer.  The Pistons need a great defensive mind (I see you, Lionel Hollins) to lead the way.

It all comes down to every man holding up his part of the bargain so the team isn't left scrambling.  The video showed too many times where a help-side defender was put in a bad position because somebody else made a mistake.  Good teams don't do the things that the Pistons have done on defense this season.  This offseason will allow them the chance to fix things, and 2014-15's playoff hopes will depend on how much Detroit can improve fundamentally on defense.

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