Will Pistons' big experiment work in small-ball era?

Friday December 20th, 2013

Andre Drummond, 20, is averaging 13.3 points, 12.7 boards and ranks No. 2 in in field-goal percentage.
Allen Einstein/NBAE/Getty Images

Andre Drummond doesn't quite understand the meaning of his newfound role. "When I was growing up," said Drummond, the 20-year-old center of the Pistons, "it was Shaq's era, and it was Dwight Howard when he first started down in Orlando."

The style of play that Drummond is renewing predates Shaquille O'Neal by a decade or more. Detroit is trying to return to contention around an enormous front line reminiscent of the 1980s -- centered around 6-foot-10 Drummond, with 6-11 power forward Greg Monroe and 6-9 "small" forward Josh Smith. To watch the three of them play together is like seeing the NBA's version of Jurassic Park.

"It was not some grand plan," said Pistons president Joe Dumars.

As Dumars described it, the Pistons were faced with three opportunities they couldn't refuse. Monroe was available at No. 7 in the 2010 draft, Drummond was still on the board at No. 9 in 2012 and Smith was the best free agent they could sign last summer. "You take the best talent you can get," Dumars said, "and then you build your team around the talent, and that is basically what we've done."

It defies every NBA trend of the post-Shaq NBA, but the Pistons are trying to discover whether a big frontline can dominate in the small-ball era. Dumars has seen it work before: The 1980s Lakers and Celtics were big at small forward with James Worthy and Larry Bird each standing 6-9, and Dumars's own champion Pistons started a frontline of 6-11 Bill Laimbeer, 6-10 Rick Mahorn and rugged Mark Aguirre, who was 6-6 but played much bigger.

MAHONEY: Pistons' frontcourt still finding way with Josh Smith

When Dumars assembled his championship team of 2003-04, the Pistons had the equivalent of five 7-footers lined up to deal with Shaq on the Lakers in addition to 6-9 starting center Ben Wallace, who was in the midst of earning four Defensive Player of the Year awards. "Defending and rebounding has always been a staple of winning," said Dumars. "All the success we've had over the past couple decades has come from defending, rebounding and having a physical presence on the floor. We think that's a pretty good formula to have and we're really comfortable with it."

It's too early for final judgment, but the Pistons' results have been mixed. At 13-14 they rank fifth in their conference -- nothing to be proud of in the putrid East -- and their losses have included recent blowouts at home to Minnesota and Chicago. The reason the rest of the league has gone small while the Pistons have gone big is because (1) big men have grown harder to find, and (2) the rule changes of the new millennium have rewarded speed at the expense of size. Bigger lineups used to impose their strengths with hand-checking defense out to the perimeter and physical protection of the rim. But the modern ban on hand-checking and the advent of the flagrant foul have opened up the game and liberated smaller guards to attack in ways that must make Isiah Thomas and Allen Iverson very envious, considering the beatings they absorbed on their way to the basket.

The Pistons' 107-106 win Wednesday at Boston was an up-and-down referendum on size. The smaller Celtics burst out to a 42-23 lead in the first quarter by beating Detroit to the ball and to the basket. Their play was an example of why small ball usually prevails -- when one team downsizes, the opponent usually has to go small too in order to keep up. Before the game, however, Boston coach Brad Stevens wasn't sure whether the normal rules of engagement would apply against the big Pistons. "I've never seen a 3, 4 and 5 like it," he said. "I was saying to a coaching buddy of mine that they can post up at 18 feet with a four-inch advantage -- and they can do that against us at three positions."

Despite the Pistons' big frontcourt, they rank just No. 22 in defensive field goal percentage.
Carlos Osorio/AP

Over the ensuing three quarters the Pistons regained control of the paint while sprite point guard Brandon Jennings (28 points and 14 assists) made plays like Johnny Manziel behind his offensive line. When 6-9 Kris Humphries was under the basket at the end of the first half, he turned to his left and looked up at Monroe, then pivoted right for a jump hook that was blocked by Drummond to start a Pistons fast break. "It's not like years ago where every team had a big guy or two big guys down low," said Pistons coach Maurice Cheeks, who was point guard of the champion 76ers in the big man era. "Now you usually have that one big guy and a stretch 4 that plays out on the perimeter."

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The Pistons are essentially starting two centers and a power forward, and the reason Monroe and Smith have been willing to adapt their games is because of the potential of Drummond. When he entered the draft, Drummond was coming off a freshman campaign at Connecticut where he averaged 10.0 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.7 blocks, but hit stock lapsed due to the reputation UConn big men carry for underperforming in the NBA and because Drummond's focus and maturity were questioned. "Does he like the game? Is he willing to be passionate about playing?" said Dumars, reciting the issues that were raised in 2012.

The difference between that conjecture and the current reality is "night and day," said Dumars. "He has this potential to be one of the great bigs in this game. He has the right disposition. He has the right approach. We absolutely love his personality. He has the most unassuming, non-ego, great spirit. Not a good spirit, not an OK spirit; I'm talking off-the-charts spirit. This is a different kid in a special way, and that's part of the reason why I think he has a chance to be really good, because of that spirit that he has."

Drummond is so athletic and his 270 pounds are so well-proportioned that he doesn't look gigantic on the court. He is averaging 13.3 points and shooting 61.9 percent (second in the NBA) even though the Pistons almost never run a play for him. His 12.7 rebounds rank No. 4 overall, he is the league-leader with 5.2 offensive boards per game, and the fact that he is generating more steals (1.6) than blocks (1.4) demonstrates the quality of his instincts and hands.

Former Pistons coach Lawrence Frank wisely limited Drummond's playing time to 20.7 minutes per night in his 60 games as a rookie, which left him and Pistons fans yearning for more. Drummond invested the summer in developing his jump hook with either hand to give him the singular go-to move he was lacking last year. "It's happened one or two games already where I've been double-teamed," he said. "It's definitely a good feeling that I'm starting to attract that type of attention, that the hard work I'm putting in is starting to come to light."

Monroe, 23, has been willing to shift to power forward because he's such a strong passer from the high post. "It makes me a little more versatile," said Monroe, who shifts to center when Drummond is resting. When Monroe is unable to guard the more agile stretch 4s, Smith's versatility enables him to shift back to power forward, which is his natural position. The Pistons won 101-96 Monday at Indiana with 30 points from Smith while Drummond was limited to 20 minutes. They've also won at Miami, and last weekend they took the West-leading Blazers to overtime.

MAHONEY: Just how good are Eric Bledsoe and the surprising Suns?

But other problems have emerged. The size of Drummond and Monroe has forced Smith out to the perimeter, where is shooting a ghastly 26.3 percent on three-point attempts while taking more than four per game. Lately the Pistons have encouraged Smith to attack off the dribble, while also finding minutes for 6-10 third-year center Josh Harrellson, whose range out to the three-point line creates room in the paint.

Not only do the Pistons have one of the biggest starting fives, but they also possess the NBA's youngest starting unit. Led by their young bigs, Detroit leads the league in paint points (51.6 per game) and rebounding percentage, yet they are a disappointing No. 22 in defensive field goal percentage, suggesting smaller lineups are able to create open shots against their size.

Can their big front line lead to something bigger -- like deep postseason runs in the years to come? It remains to be seen whether the Pistons can turn back the clock. And yet they are onto something: The reason the Pacers are hoping to knock off Miami is because of their front line of 7-2 Roy Hibbert, 6-9 David West and 6-9 Paul George. The Thunder have four centers (Kendrick Perkins, Steven Adams, Nick Collison and Hasheem Thabeet) to go with frontcourt starters 6-10 Serge Ibaka and 6-9 Kevin Durant. The Spurs almost won the NBA Finals by way of their versatile front line built around Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard, while the success of the Rockets will ultimately depend on whether they can leverage the perimeter talent of James Harden to create mismatches in the paint for Dwight Howard.

Will frontcourt size be the antidote to the dominance of LeBron James? The experiment is underway.

The Headlines

Just six games into his return, Lakers star Kobe Bryant has been sidelined once again for six weeks.
Scott Cunningham/NBAE/Getty Images

Kobe Bryant to miss six weeks with a left knee fracture. The natural response was to wonder if he pushed too hard in his recovery from Achilles surgery last spring. To which anyone who knows him would say, what else is new? This latest injury is an occupational hazard of being Kobe Bryant. The "security" of having a two-year contract extension in his pocket is unlikely to influence his rehab either. He is going to push as hard as medical advice allows because that's who he is, even at 35. In the last year he has made free throws on a torn Achilles and a huge fourth-quarter three on a broken knee: All part of the legend.

With their top four ballhandlers now injured and Pau Gasol shooting a career-worst 43.9 percent, a playoff spot in the crowded West is no longer feasible (and that comes from someone who expected them to finish No. 6).

Danny Granger to return to the Pacers on Friday. He deserves time to work up his rhythm; even if Granger costs Indiana a game here or there, the investment is worthwhile because the upside is so high. The 32 points of Dwyane Wade on Wednesday reminded Indiana that it will need all hands on deck to overcome Miami in the Eastern finals.

Omer Asik goes untraded. If you're trying to make a trade in the NBA these days, one of two extremes apply: Either you try to keep it secret, or else you leak the ongoing details in order to encourage other teams to get in on the bidding. Were the Rockets ever going to let the Celtics steal Asik for a first-round pick, Brandon Bass and Courtney Lee two months before the trade deadline? No one can say the Rockets failed to exhaust all of the possibilities.

Bucks seek investors. Milwaukee fans have been frustrated that owner Herb Kohl has refused to invest in a plan to rebuild through the draft, preferring instead to reach for short forgettable runs in the playoffs. But in the bigger picture, the fans of Wisconsin could do no better than the retired U.S. senator, who is adamant about finding a future owner and a new arena in order to keep the franchise from moving to a more profitable market.

• Dennis Rodman reunites in North Korea with Kim Jong Un. They may be the only people in the world who understand each other. Oh, to be a fly on that wall.

Rookie Tim Hardaway Jr. has been one of the few bright spots for the slumping Knicks this season.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images

The 6-6 shooting guard was averaging 8.1 points as a rookie for the Knicks. Hardaway, 21, is the son of former Miami Heat All-Star guard Tim Hardaway.

His father was hard on him. "It was tough, but at the same time it was good because it gave me an opportunity to prove him wrong. He really pushed me, and I had to learn how to take criticism from him. He was being more of a coach than a father figure, so it was tough in the beginning. But as I was getting older and going to college it got a lot better in our relationship, with him moving along to being more of a father figure and moving away from being a coach.

"He was just doubting me. 'You won't be able to play the game of basketball if you do this or you do that.' Or, 'You can't do this. You got to keep working hard, got to keep getting in the gym, you're not in the gym as much so you're not going to be that good.' I used that to my advantage, so as I got older I understood where he was coming from. He wanted me in the gym, he wanted me to be successful, he wanted me to do great things. In the beginning I really didn't understand that, but as I got older I wished I'd listened to him.

"That definitely toughened me up and made me a better player. I love that he did it. I use that as an energy source and I'm happy he did that."

He was not recruited heavily in high school. "I had a chip on my shoulder, I had something to prove. A lot of guys that were those 4-star and 5-star recruits aren't here now. You look at YouTube videos and you see how good they really could have been. The setback could have been having (bad) grades or not working as hard as they should have been, and it's a tough sight to see because you go to these AAU games, you see them and think they're going to be amazing players in the NBA. That brings you back to reality, that only 2 percent of people make it to the league, and you have to keep working."

Last year as a junior he helped lead Michigan to the NCAA championship game. He generated 12 points and a team-leading 4 assists in the 82-76 loss to Louisville. "As the years went on, the team got better, the chemistry got better, the coaching staff got a lot better. It really helped that team out that the coaching staff listened to the players. When you listen to your players, I think it helps you out as a coach.

"What's going to stick with me about the championship game is that my Dad never got there. Oh yeah, he never got to the Sweet 16 or the Elite 8, I think. So I'm always going to have that against him. I mention it once in awhile and he gets upset, but then he says I've got an NBA ring (as a scout for the Heat). That's the way our relationship gets better, and we can joke around now and talk about anything we want."

Hardaway was picked No. 24 last June by the Knicks. "My father told me when I got drafted and was playing for the Knicks, `Don't worry about the rivalry, and don't worry what people say. They picked you for a reason. Be happy because a lot of people don't get this opportunity to play in the NBA period.'

MAHONEY: J.R. Smith shoots 17 three-pointers in game, just because

"It's been really, really fun; at the same time it's been tough because of our record. You definitely take criticism, and sometimes the fans won't be happy - you understand that because they're very passionate about their sports.

"I talk to my father every day. He comes to New York and we try to have dinner or lunch as much as possible. It's just been healthier as the years went on."

Quote of the Week

"I'm actually kind of sad we don't play them for 3 months."
-- LeBron James

Fans of the NBA will be sad, too. The only Eastern Conference games that bear relevance to the championship are the four between the defending champion and conference leader Indiana, which lost Wednesday in Miami 97-94 thanks to a game-ending 12-2 run by the Heat. There will be entertaining performances over the next four months, but -- unless something awful happens to the Pacers or the Heat -- a conference final rematch of Indiana and Miami appears to inevitable. Two regular-season games remain between the two superpowers, and nothing else in the East seems to matter.

The Breakdown

Brad Stevens and the Celtics currently stand at 12-15 with a one-game lead in the Atlantic Division.
Brian Babineau/NBAE/Getty Images

An NBA advance scout on the Celtics and rookie coach Brad Stevens:

"They play hard and they play the way they have to with their people. There are no real post-up players on that team, and not looking to put it in the post and gives them more freedom. So it's a lot of ball movement, attacking with the dribble, pick and roll and dribble-handoffs.

"Jordan Crawford is decent at pushing it in transition. He's not really making plays as a traditional point guard; the plays he's making are in transition when the defense isn't set. There are a lot of drag screens in transition where he can attack on the dribble, and he has the green light to shoot.

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"If you watch it really closely, you can see times in the game where Stevens is asking questions of the referee which are obvious to me -- which tells me he's still learning the NBA game as he's going. He's not making a fool of himself, but you can see him inquiring about different rules. But he's got a great demeanor and guys play hard for him - they don't question him and they're not disrespectful of him.

"I haven't seen him go off on the referees at all. There have been a couple of instances where he's been pretty calm even though it was a bad call against him, and the referees I talk to respect him -- they think he's good for the league.

"The sets they run are more read-and-react type things than the normal execution of go from point A to B and then go on with this. He's got terminology of actions. But he's not going to play the two-man game or three-man game to see what the defense is going to give him. Instead he'll run an action and leave it to his players to read the defense.

"That has made it difficult to get a handle on what he's doing, because he might get three different things on three possessions all on the same play call. What they ran the first time with that terminology isn't going to be the same thing they run the second time he makes that call.

MAHONEY: Knicks' Smith the NBA's Least Valuable Player

"I don't think that style has as much to do with the players he has; I think that's who he is and how he wants to play. He must be explaining himself well because the players aren't questioning. Nobody's pulling their hair out because he didn't do what he was told to do; both the coach and his players are working with it. The players are understanding what he's trying to accomplish, and he's understanding what the players are able to get out of it.

"The main thing he wants is to push the ball up the floor and score in transition, and they do get a lot of that because their defense is good, they play hard, they do some trapping and they're pretty athletic. It's important to their offense that they pass the ball ahead on the break.

"When Rajon Rondo comes back, my question is going to be whether he'll push it up the floor and pass the ball ahead. Because we know he's going to want to get his assists."

My All-Star Team

This is my early ballot, which may change over the next month. What is amazing is the disparity between the two conferences -- the only Eastern guard who could contend for a spot in the West is Dwyane Wade.

Among the top 37 players in NBA.com's efficiency rating, 25 are from the West, and only a dozen in the East. Here are my teams, factoring in the new All-Star format which eliminated centers:


F -- LeBron James, Heat

F -- Paul George, Pacers

F -- Carmelo Anthony, Knicks

G -- Dwyane Wade, Heat

G -- John Wall, Wizards


F -- Roy Hibbert, Pacers

F -- David West, Pacers

F -- Chris Bosh, Heat

F -- Andre Drummond, Pistons

F -- Al Horford, Hawks

F -- Luol Deng, Bulls

G -- Arron Afflalo, Magic


F -- Kevin Durant, Thunder

F -- LaMarcus Aldridge, Blazers

F -- Kevin Love, Timberwolves

G -- Chris Paul, Clippers

G -- Stephen Curry, Warriors


F -- Blake Griffin, Clippers

F -- Dwight Howard, Rockets

F -- Dirk Nowitzki, Mavericks

G -- Tony Parker, Spurs

G -- James Harden, Rockets

G -- Damian Lillard, Blazers

G -- Russell Westbrook, Thunder

GOLLIVER: Winners, losers from early All-Star balloting

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