The Detroit Pistons struggled in a variety of areas during the 2012-13 season, but perhaps their biggest issue as a team was defending the paint. They will need to make large improvements in their interior defense in order to finish outside of the lottery next season.
Contending teams in the NBA are nearly always top defensive teams. This season, 12 of the top 13 teams in defensive efficiency (points given up per 100 possessions) made the playoffs, per NBA.com. The Pistons ranked 23rd. They can improve that rating next season, but their improvements will need to start in the painted area.
The importance of interior defense
Some teams are relying more heavily on the three-point shot than ever before this season, but there is still no better shot in basketball than one near the rim.
In their study "The Dwight Effect", Kirk Goldsberry and Eric Weiss found that "over 70 [percent] of shots near the rim either result in points, a shooting foul or an offensive rebound."
Their study predictably found that shot-blocking big men like Roy Hibbert, Larry Sanders and Serge Ibaka had an enormous influence on close-range field goals. When they were within five feet of the basket, each player held opponents under 42 percent shooting from within five feet, with the league average at 49.7 percent.
Their teams held opponents to low shooting percentages from close range. The Indiana Pacers, Milwaukee Bucks and Oklahoma City Thunder all finished the season in the top five in opposing team's field-goal percentage from within five feet, per NBA.com.
The Pistons, on the other hand, finished 27th in that same statistic. They allowed opponents to shoot 61.1 percent from within five feet, 8.7 percent worse than the league-leading Pacers.
Detroit gave up interior baskets in a variety of ways in 2012-13. According to Synergy Sports, they ranked 27th against cuts to the basket, 28th against post-ups and 29th against offensive rebounds, in terms of points per play.
Interior defense is one of the most crucial parts of the NBA game, and is one of the areas in which the Pistons need to make significant strides in order to become a playoff team.
In the study by Goldsberry and Weiss, only one Piston defender, Greg Monroe, had faced the requisite 500 shot attempts to be featured.
He ranked as one of the worst in the league.
Monroe finished 50th among the 52 players studied, allowing opponents to shoot 58.7 percent from close range while he was within five feet of the basket. Only David Lee and Luis Scola were worse.
Monroe played more than anybody on the Pistons this season and averaged eight minutes more than any other big man. The Pistons need to find a way to defend the paint, and a big part of that will be getting Monroe to become at least an average interior defender.
The Pistons ranked 16th in blocks last season, averaging 4.9 per game. Only two players on the roster average over one block per game, Andre Drummond and Jason Maxiell, and the latter will be a free agent this summer.
Detroit can improve their shot-blocking immediately by simply giving Drummond more playing time. The 19-year-old rookie ranked 15th in blocked shots per game this season yet played only 20.7 minutes per game. Per 36 minutes, he averaged 2.8 blocks, one of the best numbers in the league.
Drummond has very obvious deficiencies in his game, especially offensively, but he needs to play significantly more minutes next season. Of the 14 players ahead of him in blocked shots, 11 were on playoff teams this season, and that is not a coincidence. The Pistons have an elite rim protector, and they need to get him on the court.
With Monroe and Drummond as the big men of the future in Detroit, the Pistons will spend most of their resources looking to improve the wings. However, to bolster their interior defense, they will need to find at least one defensive-minded big man for their rotation.
In free agency there are several players the Pistons should target to be low-cost post defenders next season. Their biggest challenge may be convincing veteran players to play in Detroit instead of on a championship contender.
Samuel Dalembert has been a solid rebounder and shot-blocker for the Bucks this season, even if he does very little on the offensive end. The same goes for Ronny Turiaf of the Los Angeles Clippers and Nazr Mohammed of the Chicago Bulls. Each player would add inside toughness coming off the bench, but they also could be valuable mentors to Monroe and Drummond.
If they are looking to add an athletic, younger player, the Pistons should also consider Brandan Wright, who played for the Dallas Mavericks last season.
Wright has been a very efficient reserve big man for the Mavericks the past two seasons, finishing with a PER above 21 in each. Defensively, he is too thin to match up with bruising big men (ESPN lists him at 6'10" and 210 pounds), but he has the athleticism to guard stretch 4s. He isn't a great rebounder, but he averages 2.4 blocks per 36 minutes.
Wright could be a great fit next to to Monroe or Drummond, and he may not be too expensive. Last summer he re-signed with the Mavericks to a one-year contract worth just under $1 million. He should make more this summer, but it won't be excessive.
The Pistons have a great opportunity this summer to change their identity, one that emphasizes defense. They have a vacancy at head coach, a lottery pick and over $20 million in cap space to rebuild their team.
Just as important to changing this identity will be integrating the pieces they already have. Monroe is a gifted offensive player, but he has been lost defensively his first three NBA seasons. Drummond is an elite shot-blocker, but he didn't get the chance to play 30-plus minutes per game his rookie season. Their next coach, whoever that may be, will be responsible for correcting those issues.