When Will Detroit Pistons Wave the White Flag with Big Man Experiment?

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 23, 2013

USA Today

The Detroit Pistons dreamed big this summer. A little too big, it seems.

Detroit's oversized frontcourt hasn't pushed this franchise any closer to snapping its four-year playoff drought. If anything, it's moved in the opposite direction.

Big and slow doesn't win in today's NBA. But a 4-8 start apparently hasn't convinced the Pistons of that.

Detroit blew past all yellow caution flags this summer, but when will they admit it's time to start waving a white one of their own?

Detroit Denial

Somewhere inside general manager Joe Dumars' head, that's the name of a trending highlight reel chocked full of Pistons' rejections.

In reality, though, the phrase best captures the mood of the franchise's refusal to read the writing on the wall. Despite hordes of evidence suggesting a change is needed, first-year Pistons coach Maurice Cheeks refuses to let go of the team's outdated rotation.

"Josh [Smith] is our three, (Greg)) Monroe is our four, (Andre) Drummond is our five and that’s the way we’re going to play,” Cheeks said, via Pistons.com's Keith Langlois.

That loud pop you just heard? Detroit's playoff bubble bursting.

Fans had prepared for some tumultuous offensive showings by this massive collection. Pairing two players who prefer working in the paint (Monroe, Drummond) with a third who's margin of error shrinks with each step away from the basket (Smith) presented some obvious spacing concerns:

Yet, it's the opposite end of the floor with this trio that has suffered the worst damage.

In 231 minutes of shared floor time, via NBA.com, this three-headed monster has been burned to the tune of 111.7 points per 100 possessions. For reference, the 2008-09 Sacramento Kings—statistically the worst defense of the last five seasons—yielded 111.9 points per 100 trips to their opposition.

And this was supposed to be Detroit's strong point.

Cheeks, perhaps attempting to distance himself from the dreaded hot seat, told the Detroit Free Press' Vince Ellis that he can't figure out where the problem lies:

I don’t know if it’s lack of concentration, but we have to get multiple stops. In order to be a defensive team, you have to get multiple stops — two, three in a row — in order to be a good defensive team.

To the coach's credit, pin-pointing one specific problem isn't easy. There are leaks coming from every angle.

Guessing Wrong

The backcourt (cough, Brandon Jennings, cough) has a gambling problem. When those gambles work, the results can be magical.

Only one team (the two-time defending champion Miami Heat) has forced a higher percentage of turnovers (18.4). Those giveaways have netted Detroit 19.5 points per game (tied for seventh-most in the league)

But that figure is a bit deceptive, as ESPN's Bradford Doolittle (Insider subscription required) noted:

It's counterintuitive that a big team would feed off turnovers to this extent, and the shooting percentages Detroit has allowed suggest a defense that has been gambling too much.

When one player gambles wrong, then the rest of the defense is left scrambling to recover. Monroe has enough trouble with perimeter-oriented fours, but exposing the Moose to even smaller, quicker players should qualify as animal cruelty.

SACRAMENTO, CA - NOVEMBER 15: Isaiah Thomas #22 of the Sacramento Kings goes to the basket against Greg Monroe #10 of the Detroit Pistons at Sleep Train Arena on November 15, 2013 in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and ag
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Those shooting percentages that Doolittle referenced? They're not good at all. 

Detroit's opponents are shooting a mind-numbing 48.1 percent from the field. Thirteen different teams are holding their opponents below 45 percent, led by the Indiana Pacers' 40.2 percent mark.

Talent can't trump bad judgement.

Drummond's a 6'10", 270-lb. athletic specimen, but he can lose his man when he starts ball watching. Smith has those same athletic gifts in a more condensed package (6'9", 225-lbs.), but he checks out on some defensive possessions. Monroe's lack of mobility hinders his effectiveness away from the basket.

That combination of reckless aggression, wavering focus and physical limitations has destroyed Detroit's pick-and-roll coverage. According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), the Pistons have been shredded for 1.24 points per possession by pick-and-roll ball-handlers—29th in the league.

The first line of defense is crumbling. Helpers aren't helping. "We just all have to be on a string, be on a string," Smith said, via Ellis. "We got to get some bumps and close that paint up on the roll as far as giving up easy lay-ups."

Closing off the paint would certainly help. But shutting down this antiquated experiment is the only remedy with real lasting power.

What Next?

First thing's first: Cheeks has to do some damage control for now.

The last thing the Pistons need is a sour Smith. After being held out of the starting lineup on Nov. 23 for missing a practice, that's still a risk given his attitude problems from the past.

Even though Cheeks told Langlois that "you move on," that's a situation he'll need to monitor for the time being.

As for that massive fish to fry, though, Cheeks has to break apart this frontcourt. Staggered minutes are a must. Those spacing concerns and defensive breakdowns can't fix themselves.

With just two of the three bigs working together, Detroit can bother teams with this frontcourt. A Smith-Drummond pairing is a lightning bolt of explosiveness. Drummond-Monroe can overwhelm with size. Monroe-Smith could dazzle with their passing gifts.

It's not quite at the point of scouring the trade market—although you wonder what it would take to get free-agent-to-be Monroe out of Detroit—but it's obvious that a change is needed.

There's a certain excitement with experiments; the intrigue of the unknown is what makes them so great.

But the best minds realize when these tests have reached the point of expiration. If the basketball world has already accepted this trio's fate, how long will it be until Cheeks and Dumars follow suit?

Wait too long, and Detroit's playoff drought undoubtedly continues.

*Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.


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