Pistons’ starters – thanks to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope – actually defending well

Rob Mahoney of Point Forward wrote an awesome article on the Pistons that is definitely worth a read, but this part especially caught my eye:

Detroit’s starting five was eaten alive on the perimeter in the first few weeks of the season. Over the last 10 games, though, the Pistons seem to have caught a rhythm. The clear point of demarcation was an injury-induced change to the starting five. With Chauncey Billups sidelined by tendinitis in his left knee, wiry rookie Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has assumed a spot in the starting backcourt.

That shift, among others, has made a fairly dramatic defensive difference. Despite not logging a single minute with the other starters during the first seven games of the season, Caldwell-Pope stepped in to provide more pressure and athleticism on the perimeter. Billups, 37, still has a reputation as a strong defender, but he shows his age when chasing opponents around screens and was a burden on Detroit’s pick-and-roll coverage. It wasn’t all his fault; Monroe and Drummond are frustratingly terrible at guarding the pick-and-roll without impeding the movement of the ball handler, which made Billups’ job that much more difficult. The Pistons attempted to compromise by having Billups (and many of their other guards) go under screens, though that only afforded opposing guards a safe pocket from which to pull up and shoot.

The entire arrangement was a mess, on top of Detroit’s more generally sloppy coverage through a tough patch of schedule. Billups’ tendinitis, though, forced Cheeks to insert a quicker, longer player into the starting lineup to contend with opposing guards.

The Pistons’ defensive rotations really aren’t that much cleaner than they were at the beginning of the season, but Detroit has managed to ramp up its effectiveness by chasing shooters off the three-point line, jumping passing lanes and pressuring ball handlers. It’s amazing how much length and size alone can do under those circumstances. By attacking the ball handler and forcing him to make a decision under duress, Detroit’s bigs are in a position to deflect or intercept passes.

In the 10 games since the Pistons switched lineups and began dialing up the pressure on the perimeter, Drummond, Smith and Monroe have averaged a combined 5.5 steals per game. Detroit has cuffed its opponents by creating turnovers: Of the 25 lineups that have played 100 minutes or more this season, Detroit’s new starting unit ranks third in points allowed per possession. With that group turning opponents over on 31.2 percent of their possessions, avoiding fouls at a remarkable rate and locking down the defensive glass to avoid giving away extra scoring opportunities, the Pistons have seemingly found a way to survive their own over-helping and inconsistent rotations. They’ve leaned into the gambling tendencies of players like Smith and Jennings, in a sense, and had enough success in doing so to both undercut opponents and fuel their own fast breaks.

Obviously, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is better defensively than a past-his-prime Chauncey Billups, but the results of the switch have been incredible.

After bottoming out as the NBA’s worst defensive team, the Pistons have climbed to 20th in defensive rating. At this point in the season, the early failures still weigh heavily on that stat. So the recent improve has been extreme to compensate, and Caldwell-Pope has been at the heart of it.

Brandon Jennings, Josh Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond are basically locks to get major minutes. The fifth player to join them has mostly been Billups, Caldwell-Pope or Rodney Stuckey. And as Mahoney said, that lineup with Caldwell-Pope has been among the league’s best defensive units.

Here’s how the Pistons have defended with each Caldwell-Pope, Stuckey and Billups joining the big four. Column widths are scaled to minutes the lineup has spent together, because at this point in the season, we’re still dealing with sample-size issues.

Just to reiterate, the gap between Billups (and to a lesser degree Stuckey) and Caldwell-Pope is amazing. Not only do the Pistons’ big four defend better with Caldwell-Pope rather than Billups or Stuckey as their fifth wheel, they’re better by every major measure. They force more misses and turnovers, yield fewer free-throw attempts and grab a higher percentage of available rebounds.

But why do the Pistons defend so much better with Caldwell-Pope joining that lineup rather than Stuckey, who’s defended fairly well this year?

There are few things at play:

1. Stuckey played more early in the season, when the Pistons were still working out team-wide kinks in their defense and playing a tougher schedule. This unfairly weighs down his defensive numbers in ways that don’t apply to the rookie, who was buried on the bench early. Since Caldwell-Pope entered the rotation, the Pistons defensive rating with the big four and Stuckey is a more respectable 104.9.

2. Caldwell-Pope is probably just a better defender than even an engaged Stuckey, which he is this season in a contract year. The MySynergySports numbers – Caldwell-Pope ranks 85th in points allowed per play to Stuckey’s 123rd – bear this out, and anecdotally, Caldwell-Pope just appears to stick tighter with his man.

3. This one is most important: Caldwell-Pope is a much better off-ball defender than Stuckey. Stuckey is solid on the ball, but he can definitely lose track of his man off it. With Smith, Monroe and Drummond in the frontcourt, the Pistons are short on speed to cover the entire halfcourt area. So, a single defensive liability in the lineup makes a massive difference. Most teams can rotate to cover for a weak spot, but the Pistons are too slow to do that. So, Caldwell-Pope’s ability to stick to his man off the ball has been particularly key.

Maurice Cheeks was handed the tough task of making a lineup featuring Jennings, Smith, Monroe and Drummond work. Before the season, it appeared offense would be the biggest issue, but it quickly became clear the unit was more flawed defensively.

Billups’ injury certainly served as a catalyst for the fix, but inserting Caldwell-Pope into the starting lineup was merely one option of several. Credit Cheeks for choosing the right one and getting the Pistons’ most-used lineup trending in the right direction defensively.