Detroit Pistons

Why defense has been key to the Pistons start

The Detroit Pistons are off to their best start since the 2008-09 season. A combination of ball movement, bench scoring and yes, defense, has resulted in a 7-3 record. Pay close attention to that last component. If the Pistons hope to maintain their recent success, it begins (and ends) with the defense.

Raise your hand if you predicted a 7-3 start for the Detroit Pistons?

Come on now, don’t lie.

Just put your hand down and join the club.

Nobody could’ve predicted the Detroit Pistons would own one of the NBA’s best records less than a month into the season. There’s no doubt that’s impressive, but let’s be realistic. Three weeks of basketball is way too early to differentiate the contenders from the pretenders.

However, that shouldn’t discredit the Pistons’ best start in nearly a decade. Wins against Minnesota, Los Angeles (Clippers), and Golden State have put the league on notice. Detroit isn’t a pushover anymore – at least for now.

A lot has gone right for the Pistons early on in the 2017-18 season. Tobias Harris is playing like an All-Star. Reggie Jackson is looking to pass again. Andre Drummond is consistently knocking down free throws.

Each of those individual achievements have played a role in Detroit’s new-found success. But if last season’s debacle told us anything, its that offense alone isn’t enough to carry the Detroit Pistons. They’re not the Houston Rockets. Detroit’s playoffs hopes hinge on their commitment to team defense.

So far, they’re on the right track.

Pickpocketing to perfection

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Pistons’ defense has been their ability force turnovers.  Detroit leads the NBA in steals per game with an average of 9.7. They ranked 25th in that category last season.

Four Pistons are averaging at least one steal per game. Drummond is second to only Kyrie Irving in terms of total steals this year. The big man is already at 21. We’ll get to him shortly.

Even the offensive-minded Jackson has gotten in on the action, despite averaging just 0.7 steals per game in his career. He’s at 1.2 through the first ten games.

Will it last? Probably not. But he’s at least making an effort now. Check out this steal he had against the Clippers on the weak side.

Whether it’s by interrupting passing lanes, defending without fouling, or simply stripping the ball loose, the Pistons have made opponents work for every shot. Detroit has the eighth best defensive rating in the league, allowing 107.1 points per 100 possessions.

A sudden change in defensive effort? Certainly that has to be a mere coincidence? Well, not quite.

This is what Stan Van Gundy was hoping for, that Avery Bradley‘s defensive prowess would rub off on his teammates. Just ten games in, that appears to be the case.

Drummond on D

Drummond’s defense has taken a considerable step forward in a short amount of time.

Specifically, he’s excelled at anticipating entry passes in the post. The 6’11” center averages a team-high 2.1 steals per game. His hands are much more active, and he’s reading pick and rolls correctly.

Take a look at the clip below from Saturday’s win against the Sacramento Kings. Drummond is guarding Willie Cauley-Stein, who has the ball at the right elbow. Cauley-Stein initiates a dribble hand-off for De’Aaron Fox. The play is designed to create a mismatch: Fox against Drummond, and Bradley against Cauley-Stein.

 

As Bradley goes under the screen, Cauley-Stein rolls to the basket. Drummond appears to be caught out of position. But he quickly sags off of Fox, puts his hands up, and deflects an entry pass intended for Cauley-Stein.

Drummond corrals the ball, flips it to Bradley, who dumps it off to Reggie Jackson at center court. Jackson then finds Harris spotting up on the right wing. Harris nails an uncontested triple with ease. All of that stemmed from Drummond’s ability to read and react to an opponent’s set play.

Can this be maintained?

That’s the ultimate question.

Van Gundy has always been a coach that’s preached defense. But the Pistons never truly grasped that concept in his first three seasons here.

Now, in his fourth year with the club, that appears to be changing.

Bradley’s impact defensively was a sure thing. The concern was how the other eleven guys would respond to the challenge.

Ten games have passed, and the Pistons have exceeded expectations.

Detroit is off to their best start in nine years. But as that Pistons team proved back then, it’s not how you start.

It’s how you finish.

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