Pistons’ Van Gundy yearns for better team defense

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

New York — The first part of the season has had Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy running around like a firefighter.

When one problem crops up, he works on addressing it — but then another one pops up. While he puts out the first fire, the second one smolders again.

Back and forth.

Early in the year, the bench was an issue, and now it’s the production from the starting group.

Before, the offense struggled. Now, the defense can’t get the stops it needs.

Forth and back.

The Pistons were on a two-game losing streak but heading into this week’s games, they have a chance to shore up some of their lagging team defensive numbers.

Tuesday’s matchup featured the New York Knicks, who were 23rd in the league in scoring at 97.7 points. The Minnesota Timberwolves, whom the Pistons face on Thursday, are 19th (100.6 points).

At the beginning of the season, the Pistons were playing solid defense and were among the top 10 in the league, but have fallen to 14th following a lackluster stretch in the past couple weeks.

“We’re starting with a lot of new guys, young guys and it’s going to take time,” Van Gundy said after Tuesday’s shootaround, “but we need to be better than we’ve been in the last 10 games.”

Van Gundy had some defensive success with his Orlando Magic teams that featured Dwight Howard and some other perimeter standouts. But he points to some differences that make those comparisons not so close.

“We’re not as good as we need to be right now defensively and we’re certainly not as good as we were then,” he said. “Those teams were top-three, top-four teams — one year, the top team in the league defensively.

“We’re younger than those teams were too. (Rashard) Lewis and (Hedo) Turkoglu were veterans by that time. Dwight and Jameer (Nelson) were in year four.”

In 2008-09, Van Gundy’s second season in Orlando, they were No. 1 in defensive rating and made their way to the NBA Finals behind that veteran group. He attributes some of that success to the habits they already had established before he arrived, but also because of the chemistry they had built from playing as a group.

These Pistons haven’t had the same time to jell and haven’t figured everything out defensively yet. But then again, the focus on building some offensive continuity possibly has detracted from some of the defensive intensity.

Some good individual defenders have emerged from the young group, with Van Gundy lauding Andre Drummond’s improvement in protecting the basket, at times, but also wanting Drummond to have more energy in defending against drives and on the pick-and-roll.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is an underrated defender, both on and off the ball, but his intensity has to be contagious among some of the other wing players to want to deny the ball and defend.

“He’s good both places (on and off the ball). He’s actually had more success against point guards than he has against off-guards, guys who are just trying to beat him off the dribble with quickness,” Van Gundy said. “He’s got really quick feet and he’s done a really good job against those guys.”

Marcus Morris, added to the mix at forward this season, provides a luxury of having a big man who can guard some of the versatile post players in the league.

“When you’re playing guys like (Carmelo Anthony) — those guys are great players and you’re not stopping them — but it does help to have a little bit of size where you don’t automatically have to double-team every time Carmelo Anthony or LeBron James or Kevin Durant gets the ball,” Van Gundy said. “Marcus is a tough competitor; he’s not going to give up easy stuff. He’s not going to concede and he’ll never back down.”

Reggie Jackson and Ersan Ilyasova have had mixed results defensively, but Van Gundy is looking for improvement with team defense to help propel the Pistons forward during the next stretch of games.