Detroit Pistons Let You Shoot 3’s While They Win

The league’s best perimeter defense was being wasted by the Detroit Pistons. Impressive as their three-ball-killing was, it couldn’t compensate for sluggish, inefficient offense.

So, they made a change: scrap the defense.

And it’s working. By shifting the defensive focus from the perimeter to the interior—and the offensive focus from the interior to the perimeter—Detroit has won eight of its last 10 games and pulled itself up from 10th to 7th place in the Eastern Conference standings.

How significant is the change?

Outside-In to Inside-Out

Through January, teams attempted the second-fewest number of threes (27.9), shot them least efficiently (32.9% ) and made the fewest (9.2) versus Detroit.

This month, opponents are attempting more threes versus Detroit (30.8) and shooting them very efficiently (36.8%, 21st in the NBA), resulting in 11.3 made threes per game and knocking the Pistons down to just 10th-best.

Through January, Detroit squashed opponents far below their three-percent average (-2.9%) and allowed them to score far above on two-pointers (+1.8), especially within six feet of the hoop (+3.2).

This month, that’s all adjusted to +1.0 on threes, -0.6 on 2s and +0.2 under six-foot.

The old style was polar opposite of the No. 1 ranked Milwaukee Bucks (whose defense I outlined last week), and the new style is heading in the Bucks’ direction of a soft perimeter, hardened paint.

Over the past 10 games, the Pistons are actually holding opponents to lower scores than the Bucks are, as well as lower scores than they did all season with their lock-down perimeter D.

Feb 25, 2019; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Pistons guard Luke Kennard (5) celebrates with center Zaza Pachulia (27) guard Langston Galloway (9) and guard Ish Smith (14) during the fourth quarter against the Indiana Pacers at Little Caesars Arena. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

This was a personnel thing in both the Motor City and Brew Town.

While delightful to think that some of the league’s cockiest three-ballers would meet their match in Detroit, it could be quite infuriating to watch. Andre Drummond, the NBA’s best rebounder and a great mobile rim protector, might actually run away from the bucket in order to float around the arc. Might calmly watch while a ball-handler passed to a big man under the hoop, or wave by that ball-handler as he took it straight to the iron.

A protect-the-paint approach better leverages the power and skills of Drummond, Blake Griffin, Zaza Pachulia and new pickup Thon Maker, a young rim protector the Pistons traded for at the deadline (from Milwaukee, coincidentally).

While many of the Pistons’ recent “new era” victories were against lightweight teams, their 113-109 nail-biting victory versus the fourth-place Indiana Pacers on Monday counts extra:

  • Detroit scored above its season’s average against one of the league’s top defenses.
  • They defeated a squad that does the lion’s share of its scoring in the paint.
  • They beat a team that trounced them in a 34-point blowout last time.

In December, Indy took full advantage of Detroit’s gooey insides. They scored 68 points in the paint and gave “Shaqtin a Fool” a whole reel of things to mock, from Blake Griffin pulling out a tablet to argue a call, to four Pistons entirely failing to contest or even notice Domantas Sabonis’ easy-breezy coast-to-coast dunk.

Drummond was leaving the bucket open to run out and guard Myles Turner at the perimeter, even though Turner is not much of a threat from the outside. Later, Drummond left Turner wide open on the baseline so he could cut off Bojan Bogdanovic’s drive to the hoop. Reggie Jackson was too late coming to help because he was hesitant to give space to Darren Collison.

Therefore, Bogdanovic simply put Drummond in the air, dropped it off to Turner for the dunk. It was a massacre.

Different story Monday: Detroit kept Indy to 48 points in the paint (about a point below their average before Victor Oladipo’s injury and about a point above their average since).

Bogdanovic, Sabonis and Turner got their share of buckets, but the Pistons nudged them out beyond the block for mid-range pull-ups more often than usual, and Drummond swatted three away.

Tack on the fact that this was a potential playoff match-up preview, and this was one monster of a victory for Detroit.

Offense Starting to Cook

While the Pistons have cooled off their long-range defense, their shooters have been heating up from beyond the arc. That’s also helping change the team’s fortunes.

In general, the Pistons shoot rarely and inefficiently, which isn’t surprising since they don’t share the ball much and choose their spots poorly.

Things have been improving in February, however.

Yes, the Detroit offense is still slow and they’re shooting even less than they were before (from 89.0 FGA down to 85.4 FGA in February), but they’re attempting more long balls (34.1 to 36.6) and their efficiency is vastly improved (up from 43.4% to 47.1% overall, and 33.2% to 38.8% from three-point range). Griffin, Jackson and the confident Luke Kennard are fueling the charge, and the result is about eight points more per game.

How far can Detroit really go, with such strong competition in the East? That’s a tougher question.

What’s clear though, is that they have more to show than we’ve seen so far. And they have something that other teams might not: the knowledge that, if they really want to shut down the three ball, they can. But they can win with a fair number of other defensive looks now as well.

That’s a good skill for a playoff-bound team to have in its back pocket.