Stan Van Gundy is the new coach and president of basketball operations for the Detroit Pistons. The question is: Can he turn the defense around in the former role without relying on the second to make major personnel moves?
Last year, the Pistons were 25th in defensive rating, giving up 107.3 points per 100 possessions. That’s a lot to turn around. Can it be done without overhauling the roster?
Recent history would suggest yes. More than on the offensive end, a good defensive coach can turn a team’s fortunes around. For example, the Charlotte Bobcats (now the Hornets), improved immensely last season. In 2012-13, they were last in the league with a defensive rating of 108.9. This year, they were sixth at 101.2.
They did that with a roster that had only one major change: the addition of Al Jefferson. He was a major offensive boost but is also a defensive liability.
No, the change in Charlotte was because of a new coach. Tom Thibodeau disciple Steve Clifford took over the reins, and the Charlotte defense turned around because of scheme, not personnel.
This is relevant to the Pistons because Van Gundy has established his credentials as a defensive guru. During the two full years he spent in Miami, from 2002-03 to 2003-04, the Heat were the eighth-most efficient defense in the league.
Over the four-year stretch he was in Orlando, from 2008-09 to 2011-12, the Magic were the second-best defense in the NBA. While you can argue that he was aided by having Dwight Howard, who won Defensive Player of the Year three of those seasons, that’s a two-way street.
Howard’s defense hasn't been the same without Van Gundy’s system. He's failed to win the award since the two parted company.
Furthermore, apart from Howard, the Magic were not decorated with defensive specialists the way most elite defenses are. No other Magic made the All-Defensive team during Van Gundy’s tenure, and none made the squad during his time in Miami, either. Van Gundy does not need great defenders to make a formidable defense.
That said, he may have more raw talent in Detroit than he’s ever had in Andre Drummond, Josh Smith and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. They have been talented players without a system.
He may be sitting on the next great defensive big man in Drummond, the emerging center for the Pistons, who is great clay just begging to be molded.
Matt Moore of CBS Sports says of him:
Drummond is an incredible force on the court, that's plain to see, and he needs to play. He looks like an impact player and one of the best players on the team, which he is. But did you know that the Pistons are 5.4 points per 100 possessions worse defensively with Drummond on court vs. off? That's the most of any heavy-minute rotation player for the Pistons.
How does a defensively dominant center accrue numbers like that? Well in part, it's because of the minutes, matchups, and lineups he plays a part of. Drummond is soaking up the tough parts of the game and that creates noise. Drummond is, instinctively, a good defender, but he's learning key elements of the game on the mental end. He'll continue to get better.
That last portion is worth highlighting. “Drummond is, instinctively, a good defender, but he's learning key elements of the game on the mental end. He'll continue to get better.”
So much of great defense is instinct, but instincts can be learned and therefore taught. For example, how people instinctively react to gunfire changes. Some will take cover. Some will run. Some will try to fight. Some will freeze.
Military and police forces recognize this, so they run simulations, designed to train the way you automatically react. They run you through training drills again and again until the conscious brain is taken out of the picture. You don’t “think;” you “act.” Your reflexive action is the right action.
The best defensive coaches, Thibodeau, Clifford and Van Gundy, employ that mentality in their practices. They run through scenarios over and over until players just “do.”
And that’s the plan for Detroit, according to Van Gundy himself, quoted by Keith Langlois of Pistons.com.
What it is defensively is system – and I don’t just mean a system, because everybody’s rules are fairly similar, but a system that you drill and teach every single day. It takes a lot of work on the defensive end of the floor. You’re not going to be a great defensive team if you’re not a great practice team – and it’s system, it’s obvious commitment from the players. And then, the one thing – a physical attribute – that really helps defense is size. And we have size and we have shot-blocking with Andre Drummond and with Josh Smith.
Van Gundy has embraced the “2.9-second” style of defense that keeps the bigs in the paint as much as possible and challenges threes. He’s happy giving up inefficient shots between those two areas and grabbing rebounds. In Drummond and Smith, he has the building blocks to make that work.
Van Gundy has the system that needs a guy like Drummond. All that training comes with a prerequisite of physically being able to do what is required, but that’s not a problem with Drummond. He does stuff like this:
We'll call that a blassist.
What Drummond has needed is a coherent system to actually learn so that his instincts can be molded. The system has to come first, and the players have to be so committed to it that it becomes ingrained. Now that's possible.
Smith is a huge help. He is a bona fide defensive playmaker. Kevin Garnett is the only active player with more steals and blocks than him. Smith and Drummond make a marvelous tandem, with Smith having the quicks to guard the high post and Drummond the size and strength to protect the rim.
Even with a veteran like Smith, though, the system is essential. Otherwise, a great defensive playmaker can become a liability, blocking shots that are recovered by the offense or blowing gambles in passing lanes that end up in easy layups for the other team.
That’s why the pair fared poorly last season, giving up 108.8 points per 100 possessions. But that is an indication of coaching. Neither Maurice Cheeks nor John Loyer figured out how to use them together.
Van Gundy has a reputation for combining a knowledge of advanced stats with player particulars to make his defense work. He can mesh Drummond and Smith together.
Per Zach Lowe of Grantland:
Van Gundy is malleable, to a degree, and much more analytics-friendly than people think. That misconception is partly Van Gundy’s fault. He has made himself into a friendly sort of cartoon character, mocking the silly fringes of analytics with a mustachioed old-school gruffness. But he’s really just suspicious of blind trust in numbers generated by people who don’t know the nuances of the game — the responsibilities of each player in his scheme, how an opponent’s system works, and how a particular player fits within a particular roster. It’s hard to credit and blame players accurately if you don’t know that stuff.
Caldwell-Pope has potential to be a solid, if not good, defensive wing. Five of the Pistons' top six defensive duos last contained him, including Smith (first) and Drummond (fifth).
He made the kind of mistakes that rookies typically do—missing assignments, getting lost at times and the like—but again, good coaching can solve that.
Structurally, the Pistons have the players they need to turn things around on defense. The issue has been coaching, and Van Gundy brings that to the table.
One name I have not mentioned is Greg Monroe, the starting power forward and restricted free agent. That’s because the discussion is defense, and Monroe doesn't belong in any conversation about defense. Monroe is a terrific offensive player but is a liability on the other end.
His player efficiency rating was 19.6 last year, and his opponents’ was 20.3. Per 82games.com, the only other player with a PER that high who still lost his personal battle on average was Derrick Favors of the Utah Jazz.
That raises the biggest struggle that Coach Van Gundy will face, and he will probably get some ear wrangling from President Van Gundy in some weird, metaphysical way.
The Pistons' three largest contracts are held by three players who don’t fit well on the court together, so someone isn’t going to be getting enough playing time, which will ruffle the feathers of the coach’s alter ego.
That’s the way it has to be.
Monroe and Drummond will run when the Pistons need offense. Smith and Drummond will take over when they need to ramp up the defense. Monroe will start at the 4. Smith will finish there.
Overall, the Pistons will be much better at stopping their opponents than they have been of late, climbing back into the top 10 in defensive efficiency. Van Gundy has the tools to work with, and he’s an accomplished workman.
And, as Charlotte established last season, a dramatic defensive turnaround is enough to land you in the postseason in the Eastern Conference. Van Gundy and the Pistons will prove that true again this year. Look for them to also return to the playoffs.