There was, even in the most optimistic preseason assessments of the Detroit Pistons -- mine very much included -- the understanding that this all might not work. You don't just bring in Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings and assume things will go off without a hitch. You don't just pair Smith with two other non-shooting big men and assume they'll have instant chemistry. And yet the Pistons did just that.
And if that chemistry didn't develop fast enough, of course there was the chance the Pistons' offense would look like it currently does, with Smith hijacking 20-foot jumpers like a defective Dirk Nowitzki, Jennings making his signature Extremely Curious Decisions, nobody else providing spacing and the team's young frontcourt of Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond -- you know, the future of the franchise -- stuck feeding off everyone else's scraps.
But who could have predicted that the 24-39 Pistons -- who are somehow still within striking distance of the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference -- would have been an even bigger tire fire on defense?
I certainly didn't. With Smith, Monroe and Drummond playing together, Detroit was supposed to make up for its lack of shooting by shutting off the paint on the other end with a terrifying combination of size and length. Instead, the Pistons are in the bottom third in the NBA in points allowed per 100 possessions and have been significantly worse when Smith, Drummond and Monroe share the floor.
It would seem likely that the trio would improve with more time to understand each other; instead, the opposite is happening. The Pistons surrender an average of 106 points per 100 possessions for the season, per NBA.com. Since Jan. 1, they're allowing 107.3. Since Feb. 1, they're giving up 107.9. And since the All-Star break, they're allowing teams to pour in 112.3 points per 100 possessions, which is worse than everyone except the tanking 76ers and the injury-riddled Hawks. Every single month has been worse than the previous one.
It doesn't take long to understand why. Watching Detroit play defense is like watching five strangers -- tall, talented, impressively tattooed strangers, but people who have never met before -- playing together in a pickup game. There's no cohesion between the guards and the big men. Help comes only once everyone realizes that help must be sent, not as a preventative measure to stop a cut. By then, someone is usually dunking. Nobody communicates, leading to botched switches and preventable easy shots.
Like most awful defensive teams, the Pistons are especially bad in transition, when communication and sacrifice are most important. Detroit uses its size to relentlessly attack the offensive glass, which makes a degree of sense, but also means that things get scary when none of those three bigs can corral the rebound. The Rockets and Timberwolves got easy layups following these sequences, for example.
Pinpointing the party most responsible for this mess is difficult, since everyone is responsible. Jennings was a sieve in Milwaukee last year and hasn't been much better here. None of the wings have displayed much aggression except rookie Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and like most rookies, he makes his fair share of mistakes out of inexperience. I'm not leaving any good things out, I promise.
The coaching staff deserves the blame when the scheme is this disjointed, but the problem really starts with the three big men, all of whom have been disappointing. Smith is the worst of the trio because 1) he really should know better and 2) has previously shown that he does indeed know better. Remember how good he was in Atlanta last year, even when he had to play on the wing at times? That effort has been missing since he signed that four-year, $56 million deal with Detroit in the offseason. It's embarrassing how often he is caught napping on the opposite side as his man sneaks right behind him for easy layups. These two examples are from the same quarter in the same game!
It's even worse how Smith seemingly makes up his own rules. Instead of sticking with his assignment, he'll double-team for no reason. Instead of fighting through a screen, he'll ask a fellow defender to switch, then won't follow through with his end of the bargain. Instead of stepping up to stop a pick and roll, he'll make like he's going to try, then scurry back on his man just as the ball-handler zips by him. Instead of picking up a runner in transition, he'll saunter to a non-threatening area or immediately chase his own man even if he's trying to run out of the building.
And those are the mistakes we have names for. There is no workable description for this play, in which Terrence Jones cuts right in front of him and he does nothing.
Smith has also perfected the art of Inattentive High School Kid defense. Like a hockey player without a stick, he'll put himself in position to stop a player, but refuses to raise his hands, allowing guys like Jeff Green clean looks at the rim even though he's a capable three-point shooter.
A tiny percentage of his problems are due to adjusting to the perimeter. The remaining 95 percent is due to a lack of effort. In many ways, this is more frustrating than his horrid shot selection.
That's not to absolve the other two frontcourt players, because while Smith's issues may be most vexing, Monroe and Drummond are also poor defenders right now for different reasons. The book on Monroe is clear: he's slow-footed and therefore is a liability in space. In a different scheme, paired with a quick partner who can do all the dirty work and let him hang in the lane, he'd be fine. That is not his situation in Detroit.
Instead, because of Drummond's presence, Monroe has to jump out higher than he should to contain the ball on pick and rolls. This often leads to one of two scenarios: Monroe comes out too high and fails to divert the guard's path, or doesn't come out high enough and allows the guard to slide an easy pocket pass to the rolling big man. This is an example of the former.
This is an example of the latter.
Monroe is still just as unaware of what's happening around him as he was as a rookie. Here, he does not see the pick and roll developing until the absolute last second, by which point Kris Humphries already has a layup. He's not really guarding anyone either, so the right play is to pre-rotate and prevent the pocket pass from happening. That it happened on a critical fourth-quarter possession is even worse.
And he still takes poor angles on plays. Here, instead of sliding in a diagonal line to cut off Jones' cut, Monroe bananas behind him, opening up the lane.
Monroe can be hidden in a better scheme, but that's not the same thing as saying he's effective on defense. Big men must be at least passable defenders in space, and Monroe is not close to being that right now.
Drummond, for his part, has all the upside in the world and is still a kid, but he's developing bad habits. As noted last week, he's starting to let shots go instead of challenging them. Like Monroe and Smith, he sticks to his own man when playing free safety near the basket would be preferable. There's no reason for him to worry much about Humphries here. Just guard the ball handler.
Like many young bigs, Drummond has a bad habit of running harder on fast breaks than he does when getting back. He so often surges for offensive rebounds that he gets caught behind the ball, and then compounds the problem by failing to sprint back. By letting Nikola Pekovic outrun him here, Drummond causes the Pistons to surrender a wide-open three to Kevin Love, one of the most dangerous shooters in the game.
These issues are understandable for a 20-year-old big man, but it's somewhat scary that they haven't really improved since Drummond entered the league. He still has star potential, but the longer Drummond sees what Smith, Monroe, Jennings and the rest of the defense is doing, the harder it will be for him to replace his bad habits with good ones, if only because of the dearth of positive examples.
The result, as you've probably gathered, is a mess. All of these players are salvageable, even on defense. Smith has been a good defender in this league for several years. A smart coach with a good scheme can hide Monroe in something like the same way Steve Clifford has minimized the impact of Al Jefferson's slow feet in Charlotte. Drummond is young and has all the raw skills to be one of this game's best rim protectors.
And yet, when put together, they've brought out the worst in each other, with some help from an ineffective coaching staff. Even those of us who were bullish on the Pistons before the season expected something like this to happen offensively. There was no way of knowing things would, or even could, have gone quite so haywire on the other end. I'm not mad; I'm just disappointed.
UNDER THE MICROSCOPE
We take a look at one player each week that is either struggling or has displayed strong skill development.
So, what's going on with Roy Hibbert?
Indiana's midseason malaise is best exemplified by its 7'2 center's tepid play of late. He emerged as the league's best defensive player and a behemoth in the middle in the first half, earning an All-Star spot. But lately, something has been off about the big man's effort, to the point where it's tough not to wonder whether he's hiding an injury.
You see this in a few areas. Hibbert's rebounding, most notably, has plummeted. He never grabbed a ton of boards -- he's more inclined to eat up space and open clearer paths to the ball for more athletic players -- but he's experienced a drop-off of late. Last year, Hibbert grabbed nearly 16 percent of available rebounds. Prior to Jan. 15, he was grabbing 14.3 percent. In his last 20 games, that percentage is down to 11.4 percent. In the last 10 games, it's at 10.9 percent.
Hibbert is just not fighting back as much against physical players on the boards. He's not really trying to push Andrew Bogut out on this sequence.
The offensive rebounding is worse. Hibbert is only snaring 7.6 percent of available offensive boards this season, nearly half of his percentage last year. This removes one of the Pacers' biggest offensive weapons and helps explain why they have struggled so much of late. Errant perimeter shots that once ended up in Hibbert's big paws are now being snared by the opponent.
This passivity has carried over to Hibbert's post game. This has never been a major strength for him, because his high center of gravity leaves him vulnerable to wide-bodied defenders, but it seems as if Hibbert is even less willing to fight for position than usual. And if he doesn't get deep position right away, he's going to launch wild, low-percentage hook shots because he struggles to push people off their spots once he gets the ball. That, or he'll do this, which is worse.
It's unlike Hibbert to recoil so thoroughly in the face of defensive pressure.
Worse, there have been small signs that Hibbert's funk is making an impact on his absolute best skill: rim protection. You don't see it often because he knows what he does best, but it's happening more and more in small doses as teams figure out how to attack the Pacers' defense. It's jarring to see Hibbert let Monta Ellis waltz down the lane for an easy layup here. Would that have happened two months ago?
Explaining this drop-off is difficult. We know Hibbert works his butt off and will bang with anyone. We know he spent all summer bulking up so he could handle extended minutes. He struggled at the start of last year, but that was due to his offensive touch deserting him, not any issue having to do with effort level. Perhaps Hibbert's proving the axiom that big men need to get touches in the right spots to give maximum effort elsewhere. Perhaps he's worn down from training too hard and playing too many minutes. Perhaps he really is hiding an injury.
Or, perhaps he gets it together for the playoffs and this all seems silly. But Pacers fans are right to be concerned.
Ten other observations from the week that was.
1. The Hawks have fallen apart of late, but Mike Budenholzer keeps drawing up beautiful sets, especially with stretch big man Pero Antic healthy again to provide much-needed spacing. Here's a beautiful adaptation of San Antonio's famed Baseline Hammer play, aided by some bad defense from the Clippers.
2. It's randomly weird that LeBron James hasn't shot a free throw in the Heat's last two games. I don't see it as a significant long-term issue, but it's odd. Why didn't LeBron drive on this play, for example?
He was being given the shot, sure, but the side was cleared and Taj Gibson can't stop him if he attacked at full speed. Perhaps LeBron is already in autopilot mode in hopes of saving his juice for the playoffs?
It shows that the Clippers now have confidence that Griffin can make that midrange shot, and once the rest of the league plays him accordingly, it'll allow Griffin to come off the screen with a tighter curl to get to the basket. As if Griffin needed more tricks in his toolbox.
4. Welcome to Loud City's Kevin Yeung does a great job breaking down the Thunder's defensive woes since the All-Star break. The analysis is especially critical of Kevin Durant, who has too often floated instead of following his assignments. There should be some concern that the Thunder don't contest enough jumpers and allow too many threes to go up.
Although, these stretches sometimes happen to hyper-aggressive defenses like the Thunder. It's hard to sustain that type of pressure for 82 games and the playoffs every season, especially when one breakdown leads to a lot of confusion elsewhere. OKC also is playing without Thabo Sefolosha, who, as we noted in this space a month ago, is an essential part of the operation. I think the Thunder will be fine come playoff time.
6. The woeful Bucks have quietly been effective on offense since the All-Star break, thanks to Ersan Ilyasova's revival and Brandon Knight's continued development. But those worried they'll win their way out of prime lottery position should be comforted by their equally horrendous defense. This closeout by Zaza Pachulia on the immortal Drew Gooden is high on the list of the worst ones I've seen all season.
7. While we correctly ridicule the Knicks' stodgy offense, they do run one of my favorite sets: the three-man scissor play. Here it is being executed to perfection against Cleveland earlier in the week.
That's bad defense by the Cavaliers, but it shouldn't take anything away from the play. Even if Raymond Felton gets trapped and the lob to Tyson Chandler isn't there, having Carmelo Anthony fading into one of his favorite spots on the left wing is a nice fallback option.
8. The 76ers, man.
This is sad defense.
9. An emerging phenomenon in the NBA: a big man grabbing a defender by the arm to prevent him from making a defensive rotation. We saw Kendrick Perkins get away with this on a critical play in last year's playoffs against the Rockets, and as Grantland's Zach Lowe notes, we see this every game with Andrew Bogut.
This isn't the first time Howard has pulled this trick. WIzards fans like myself won't forget this incident from the end of a game just before the All-Star break. But this isn't just a Howard problem; the aforementioned Hibbert pulled the same move on Howard himself during Friday's Pacers-Rockets game.
It's tough for referees to spot off-ball contact, so a lot of this goes unseen. However, I agree with Lowe that making this a point of emphasis is long overdue. It's ruined several late-game situations this season, and I guarantee you a no-call will prove crucial in the outcome of at least one playoff game.
10. Don't look now, but Rajon Rondo looks spry after a rusty start. He's gone right back to doing Rondo things like this.
The quick spin into the screen. The quick-twitch crossover to keep his former teammate, Paul Pierce, off balance. Rondo is doing all that again. That's good news for Celtics fans, and basketball fans.
Statistical support for this piece comes via NBA.com's stats page.