The Monday Drive: Defense lags behind offense

Rod Beard, The Detroit News
Reggie Jackson


Auburn Hills — In the NBA, the offense usually is quicker to come together than the defense. With one-on-one matchups and inventive individual players, often the fundamentals can help a team score.

But defense requires more cohesiveness, communication and discipline. It often takes a team effort and one weak link can spell doom for all five players on the court.

The Pistons had a good year in making the playoffs last season, but ranked just 13th defensively. Adding so many new players, including Marcus Morris and Aron Baynes last summer and Tobias Harris at the trade deadline, defense was one of the last areas where the Pistons put things together.

So far in training camp, the Pistons have installed some new plays in the offense, but also are putting an emphasis on defense. Of note so far, coach Stan Van Gundy said point guard Reggie Jackson and forward Tobias Harris are looking to make significant improvements over last season.

“(Jackson) sets the tone and that’s one area I think he’s really worked hard at. He and Tobias both have a noticeably different mentality at least through the first week in camp in terms of their defense,” Van Gundy said Saturday. “The other guys are playing really hard too but those are the guys I notice are different.”

Harris out front as Pistons forwards focus on defense

Van Gundy indicated that the coaches haven’t done anything new or different with the Pistons’ defensive approach but with an offseason to get more comfortable with the principles and with the starting lineup remaining intact, it could provide a boost.

“So far, we have (simplified) a little bit,” Van Gundy said. “It’s more that those guys have a really good understanding of what we want to do, so it seems simple. I don’t think it was every that complicated.”

The biggest difference, Van Gundy noted, would be if center Andre Drummond took another step forward in his rim protection and footwork, strengthening the back end of the Pistons’ defense.

In Saturday’s practice, Drummond’s effort caught Van Gundy’s eye.

“Today, I noticed a difference in Andre’s mentality defensively: back earlier, making his calls earlier, more active defensively,” Van Gundy said. “We’ve still just got to do a much better job of closing to shooters and contesting shots.

“Point guard sets the tone and nobody can make a bigger difference taking a step defensively than Andre. If he took a step up defensively, that would be the biggest thing that could happen for us.”

Marjanovic already fitting in well with Pistons

With the first week of training camp in the books, The Monday Drive returns after refueling for the summer and preparing for the preseason. Here are 10 observations from the opening of training camp:

1.Drum-mond roll: Andre Drummond is looking better on free throws — in practice at least. He’s been working with virtual-reality goggles to help see himself using proper mechanics and making shots. It’s an odd approach, but his form looks somewhat improved and he’s making most of his free throws in the portion that media is able to see.

2. Depth is a strength: The moves to shore up the bench in the summer will pay off in more options for Van Gundy. The full complement of a 10-player rotation is more solid than last season which should mean the bench production — one of the biggest issues last year — will be better.

3. Nine is enough: Van Gundy seems content with using a nine-man rotation but it could stretch to 10 because of the play of Reggie Bullock and Darrun Hilliard. They’re similar players, but their consistency at the wing positions has made Van Gundy give some extra consideration to expanding to 10 if they both continue to produce.

4. Rookie spectators: Unlike last season with Stanley Johnson and Hilliard, the Pistons might not need to toss Henry Ellenson and Michael Gbinije into the fray for meaningful minutes. Van Gundy said the young players were having some issues with learning the scheme, but they’ll have more time to watch and learn.

5. Watching KCP: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope doesn’t seem to be worried about his contract status. After seeing the startling contract numbers in the offseason, he could command more than $20 million as a restricted free agent next season. Pistons owner Tom Gores doesn’t seem concerned with going near the luxury tax, with the team’s progress.

6. Playing for the 3: The competition between Lorenzo Brown and Ray McCallum for third point guard will be decided mostly in practice, Van Gundy said. They won’t get significant time in the six preseason games but production and performance in practice will have as much impact as the games.

7. Staying healthy: Marcus Morris missed two practices this week after sustaining a dislocated right ring finger. He had some lingering pain Friday but practiced on Saturday without showing signs of distress. Besides that issue, the Pistons have been fairly healthy in the preseason.

8. Stretch four: Tobias Harris shot a career-best 38 percent in 27 games with the Pistons last season. In early work, he’s continued to shoot well, going 4-of-7 from beyond the arc in a scrimmage this week. He’s not known for his outside shooting, but it could prove to be another weapon if he’s even as consistent as last season.

9. Center push: Drummond is an All-Star and the unquestioned starter at center, with Aron Baynes as the backup. But Van Gundy is surprised at what 7-foot-3 Boban Marjanovic is doing as the third option. He’ll likely play more than the 96 minutes Joel Anthony did last year, but his skills continue to develop, giving the Pistons more depth in the middle.

10. The word on Smith: The early word on backup point guard Ish Smith is that he’ll change the makeup of the reserve group. His speed, savvy and ability to get in the paint and pass will be a big difference-maker in getting his teammates set up for easier shots. His quickness and penetration provide a good 1-2 punch with Jackson.