Defense is the Detroit Pistons “Achilles heel” early in the season

Detroit Free Press

Offensively, the Detroit Pistons did enough to win. Led by Cade Cunningham’s career-high 35 points, the Pistons tallied 112 points on 43% overall shooting. They took care of the ball, committing just 10 turnovers against 18 assists. There were warts, as they shot just 21.9% from 3 and their bench was grossly outscored for the fifth night in a row. But they did enough.

The common theme in all of the Pistons’ five losses thus far has been their poor effort on defense. They allowed the Atlanta Hawks to shoot 56.7% overall en route to a 136-112 blowout defeat at Little Caesars Arena on Friday. Detroit was outscored by 22 points in the second half after entering halftime with a 69-67 deficit. After the game, Dwane Casey said it’s a pride issue. Players agreed.

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“Just taking that defensive pride, going one on one, especially when you come down, and guarding your guard,” Casey said. “At the end of the day you gotta care about challenging shots, taking pride into it whether it was switching, whether it’s zone. That’s the first night that I didn’t see that, that commitment to the defensive end of the floor. They shot 57%. That’s just a sign of lack of commitment. 112 points is enough points offensively. We gotta make up our mind defensively that we’re not going to let teams walk in and do what they wanna do to us.”

Through the first week-and-a-half of the season, the Pistons have the NBA’s worst defensive rating at 121.8. Their giving up 57 points in the paint per game, the third-most in the NBA. Opposing players have had little issue penetrating the lane, regardless of Detroit’s scheme.

Young teams typically have issues on that end of the floor. The Pistons are starting four players 23-years-old or younger. It’s going to create issues. And they’ve been tested early, with consecutive home games against the Hawks and their All-Star backcourt of Trae Young and Dejounte Murray. Both issues posed problems for the Pistons on Friday.

Murray got going early, scoring 10 points on 4-for-4 shooting in the first five minutes of the game. From there, it was the Young show. The superstar guard finished with 36 points and 12 assists on 12-for-20 overall shooting and got to the line five times. Young is known for his theatrics, and a couple of his foul calls might’ve been benefit-of-the-doubt calls from the officials. But it wasn’t all theatrics.

“We want to be aggressive on the ball, that’s something we’ve been lacking,” Cade Cunningham, who scored a career-high 35 points with nine rebounds and eight assists, but also tallied five fouls, said. “We gave him too much space to operate, and when we did pressure up we did it too far away from the goal and allowed him to get those foul calls. This is about being smart with our aggression.

“We have to take pride in guarding, take pride in not letting the guy across from you get into what they want,” he added. “Everybody in the league can score the ball, everybody’s good. You have to take away their strengths and have pride in doing it, having pride in the fact that you’re not going to let the man across from you score on you.”

The Pistons have plenty of room to grow, as they finished last season with a defensive rating of 113.3 — still not great, but significantly better. On paper, this year’s roster has more upside. Isaiah Stewart has proven himself as one of the NBA’s more versatile defensive bigs, and Killian Hayes is capable of lockdown perimeter defense. Cade Cunninghan and Isaiah Livers have shown they can play strong defense in spurts. Bojan Bogdanovic and Nerlens Noel have been good defenders on good teams. It could be an early season abbreviation, or a sign of a season-long issue.

Either way, the Pistons know they need to clean their defensive woes up.

“It’s been like our Achilles heel right now,” Cunningham said. “It’s been hurting us as far as finishing games. That’s what really gets our offense going. On the offensive side of the ball, we’ll figure it out. We’ll be able to make shots, we’ll be able to get the shots that we want. Defensively, you have to stop teams from getting into what they want. We have to be more disruptive. That’s a big point of emphasis for us right now.”

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