Pistons’ problems defending the pick-and-roll

At minimum, Pistons fans thought they could expect an improved defense this season.

Josh Smith is a defensive juggernaut. Brandon Jennings is not worse than Brandon Knight. Andre Drummond is a year older. And so on.

Most experts thought the line-up of three big men without range would cause a poor offense for which the defense would have to compensate. Turns out, the Pistons rank 10th in offensive rating at 103.2 and dead last in defensive rating at 106.4. (via www.nba.com)

What’s the biggest source of Detroit’s defensive woes?

According to MySynergySports, the Pistons allow 1.24 points per play pick-and-rolls when the roll man finishes the play – a rather high number for a common play. After reviewing every play so far this season of that type, I found that exemplifies the problems rather well. The play took place against the Indiana Pacers in the middle of the first quarter.

The play commences with a hand-off from Roy Hibbert to C. J. Watson on the left wing. The Pacers had already run a play before, which is why Jennings is a bit out of position. Josh Smith is occupied with guarding Paul George. Greg Monroe is attached to David West, and Chauncey Billups has an eye on Lance Stephenson in the corner.

After the hand-off, West sets a sort of drag screen for Watson. West quickly moves away and pops out to the left elbow. Meanwhile, Drummond is sagging down into the lane to cut off the passing lane to Hibbert. This is unnecessary, and due to his young age, Drummond is not aware that at Greg Monroe  is in better position. In this moment, even Smith is in position to intervene a pass.

The consequences of Drummond’s bad positioning become apparent. Jennings is still out of position, but Watson is not the primary threat in this play, anyway. He is an excellent back-up point guard who knows where to find his more efficient teammates – in this case, West. Detroit’s communication on switches does not  work  in a lot of situations. As you can see, Drummond is still sagging, Monroe points with his finger at West, because now Drummond is neither in position to cover Hibbert down low, nor is he anywhere near West. The ideal spot for him to stand would be three feet closer to the free throw line so he could prevent a pass to West. Had he realized Monroe’s better positioning before, he would not be in this dilemma.

Due to his lack of defensive awareness Drummond starts moving only once West has caught the ball. For all his physical gifts, this is where Drummond still has lots of room to improve.  In this play, Drummond concedes a wide open jumper to West, which missed. Most of the time, however, capable big men like West will knock this one down, and the statistics appear to prove this.

To contrast this, let’s look at an elite defense  the Pistons are often advised to model themselves after, the Memphis Grizzlies. This is a similar situation last season, when Memphis gave up only 0.95 points per play on such pick-and-rolls finished by the ball handler, .29 points per play better than the Pistons so far this year.

As you can see, the Grizzlies find themselves in a similar situation. What you cannot see, Randolph already has his eyes on West, and is therefore prepared to run over in order to contest the shot. He has sagged because Gasol is a bit out of the picture in this one, but Randolph knows his job, while Drummond appeared completely lost.

As soon as George Hill passes the ball to West, Randolph dashes towards the Pacers forward. Randolph is not nearly as gifted athletically as Drummond, but he is a smart defender, and he gets to West in time for him to opt for a pump fake. West puts it on the floor, and eventually takes a rather contested jumper, which is a miss.

Drummond obviously has the agility and athleticism to be a good pick-and-roll defender. But he often gets lost like he did on the previously examined play. Or he shows to hard on screens, and then he needs a tenth of a second too long to locate his man who then is wide open. It’s not for a lack of trying, this is all pretty tough to learn, therefore very few big men master it like Gasol, or Randolph, two of the smartest big men in the league. Once Drummond learns to make quicker rotations, combined with his physical skills, the Pistons might have an All-Defensive team center.