Why the Detroit Pistons are confident their defense can carry them until offense clicks

Detroit Free Press

Omari Sankofa II
| Detroit Free Press

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Four games isn’t a large sample size to draw conclusions from especially when those four games were played against two teams, and were preceded by only five full days of training camp. 

The Detroit Pistons’ advanced numbers from their preseason slate, which wrapped up last Saturday with a loss to the Washington Wizards, don’t tell us everything. But two preseason stats match the eye test — and assessments from Pistons personnel — of where they currently are as a team with the regular season around the corner. 

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Detroit had the No. 1 defensive rating in the league, as teams scored just 89.1 points per 100 possessions against them. The Pistons also had the second-worst offensive rating, scoring just 91 points per 100 possessions. 

The Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Clippers, No. 1 and No. 5, respectively, in defensive rating during the regular season last year, ranked No. 30 and No. 29 in preseason, respectively. Remember, this preseason comes on the heels of a significantly compressed offseason that gave teams little time to integrate new additions to their rosters. 

But the Pistons are better on the defensive end of the floor right now, and it’s something they hope will keep them afloat during the season as their offense continues to come together. 

“Defensively, we feel ready,” head coach Dwane Casey said on Monday. “Defensively I think we’re ahead of the curve. Guys have come in. We’ve signed defensive players, toughness. With that, we’re ahead of the curve.”

One of Troy Weaver’s main goals this offseason was to build a team of big, long-armed athletes. It appears to be paying off early. Having Jerami Grant, who is one of the NBA’s most versatile defenders, in the starting lineup raises the defensive floor for the unit. Killian Hayes has also surpassed expectations, at times, as a rookie. He’s big for a point guard, and Casey has praised his defensive effort and awareness. 

Off of the bench, Josh Jackson and Sekou Doumbouya have stood out as two of the best two-way players on the roster. Casey said Doumbouya, who appears to have gotten stronger over the offseason, has held his own against bigger small forwards and smaller power forwards in the post, as well as being more aware while guarding on the weak side. 

“He has taken another step,” Casey said. “He’s a lot like Killian. He’s a little bit more aware on the weak side, he’s doing a better job in his overall game. Really happy with his progress and his growth. We have a lot of guys we’re growing and he’s one of them. He’s nowhere near a finished product yet.” 

It remains to be seen how the Pistons’ defense holds up against playoff-caliber offenses. Two of their preseason games were against the New York Knicks, who finished with the NBA’s second-best defensive rating while playing the Pistons and Cleveland Cavaliers.

Their other two games against the Wizards missing two of their best players, Russell Westbrook and Davis Bertans, for three of the four halves. 

The Pistons have a brutal schedule after a soft start. Their first two games are against two teams that didn’t make the playoffs last year — the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Cavaliers. Their next 12 games include three contests against the Bucks, two against the Boston Celtics, two against the Miami Heat and one each against the Utah Jazz and Golden State Warriors.

Assuming their defensive rating dips a bit during the regular season, they’ll need to continue making strides on offense to be competitive on most nights. In the preseason, they averaged 21.5 turnovers per game, a number that could improve as players acclimate themselves within Casey’s offensive scheme. 

Blake Griffin said the Pistons just haven’t had enough time to gel on offense.

“Offense takes time,” Griffin said. “Guys are not used to this movement. I’m the only person in the starting lineup who has learned this offense before, so you can see that at times. That’s to be expected. Our second group, especially in practice, looks better. Derrick (Rose) Svi (Mykhailiuk), Sekou, these guys have at least had a year under their belts. That’s just to be expected, in my eyes.” 

In the meantime, the hope is that the Pistons’ defense can carry them until that happens. 

“The offensive stuff, that’s going to come,” Griffin said. “I’m thankful that we have our defense to hang our hat on, and that needs to be the case throughout the season until we get our offense up and running to where we want it to be.” 

Contact Omari Sankofa II at osankofa@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Pistons content. Read more on the Detroit Pistons and sign up for our Pistons newsletter.

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