Drummond’s free-throw shooting poses problem

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Auburn Hills — With less than five minutes left in Tuesday’s game against the San Antonio Spurs, the Pistons trailed by six after a 3-pointer by Anthony Tolliver.

The Pistons were making another late-fourth quarter run and needed to execute on offense and get stops on defense to have a chance to pull the upset.

Coach Stan Van Gundy went with Reggie Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Stanley Johnson and Tolliver.

And Aron Baynes.

Andre Drummond — likely an All-Star selection this season — sat on the bench.

Maybe better there than have him end up on the free-throw line.

Drummond has been relegated to being a spectator in the final minutes of the last two close games — at Boston and against the Spurs — because of his egregious free-throw shooting. After going 1-of-6 on free throws, Drummond sat, because Van Gundy feared the Spurs would foul him intentionally and the Pistons would not be able to make a comeback, as Drummond only hits 36 percent on free throws this season.

“We were behind; we can’t play hoping we get one point out of a possession. He was 1-for-6 tonight; over the last five or six games, he’s shooting 17 percent — he doesn’t leave me a choice,” Van Gundy said Tuesday. “We’re down eight points and we have to play for two or three, not hoping we get one every two or three possessions — that’s not going to get it done.”

Tough call

Baynes, signed in the offseason as a free agent after playing with the Spurs, has been a more-than-capable backup, playing solid defense and hitting free throws down the stretch. It’s not an easy decision for Van Gundy to have his best player watching from the bench in crunch time, but it’s becoming harder to leave Drummond out there when he’s not hitting free throws.

“It all depends on game situation, but he’s got to get better or at least get back to where he was (38 percent). He had a steady decline and it’s tough,” Van Gundy said after Wednesday’s practice. “When you go down and don’t play defense and don’t rebound and miss free throws, we’re in big trouble.

“I’ve got to do whatever gives us the best chance to win. I owe it to the organization and the other guys on this team.”

Van Gundy said earlier this season that he wasn’t as concerned about keeping Drummond in during end-of-game situations, but apparently he’s reached the tipping point with his poor free-throw shooting in recent games.

For Van Gundy, it’s a sign that even with Drummond’s other contributions, he can be a liability if he’s not hitting more free throws, especially when the Pistons are trailing. More teams are employing the strategy of fouling intentionally earlier in games; it’s finally starting to impact Van Gundy’s lineup decisions during critical stretches.

Magic defends Isiah Thomas in ESPN rankings

More than that, though, it lets the team know that there is a premium on doing everything the right way.

“It sends a message that we’re trying to win. Unfortunately, you can’t keep arguably our best player on the court at that time,” Jackson said. “(Drummond) is doing everything he can to put himself in a better position to be out there at the end because he really wants to help us win. He comes in and works hard every day.

“Coach went with what would give us the best chance to win. Aron stepped it up. We’re all trying to figure out a way to come up victorious at the end of the night.”

Defensive effort

Drummond finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds, and after battling foul trouble in the first half, sparked the rally in the third quarter to start chipping away at the Spurs’ lead. But watching Drummond struggle through the exercise of shooting free throws, Van Gundy went in a different direction.

It’s an ongoing issue, but Van Gundy sees Drummond’s defensive effort and energy level fluctuating — and it’s easy to see when the center is engaged in the game. It amounts to the difference between being an average center and being one of the best big men in the league.

“I told him today he’s got to step up his defense. throughout the game to give us more margin for error. In those times, particularly in the first half when people are doing (intentionally fouling), don’t let people score at the other end and we’re not losing ground,” Van Gundy said.

“We talked about it again today, so we’ll see. He’s got to be more serious about making it better at the line, too — that’s something I want to see. I think he’ll do that.”

Drummond already works with shooting coach Dave Hopla and has improved his free-throw mechanics and form, but it hasn’t resulted in an improved percentage.

At least for now, it could impact Drummond’s playing time late in games, but for the Pistons to continue to succeed, they’ll need to have their best player on the court.

“Andre certainly needs to be out there for us and needs to get more minutes,” Van Gundy said. “It’s something we’ll continue to try to figure out. It would be a lot easier if the ball went in more often.”