The 2013-14 Detroit Pistons were best known for their manner of ill fit. Josh Smith, whose return to the small forward position proved fruitless, stood as a symbol for the team's miscalculation -- his four-year, $54 million contract physical proof of a failed attempt. A team president (Joe Dumars) and a head coach (Maurice Cheeks) both operated under the assumption that Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond could be used as a conjunctive front line. Both officials are now gone, replaced by one man. Stan Van Gundy is now the Pistons' czar, and with full authority over the team's personnel and strategy, it is now his sole responsibility to ensure better structural chemistry.
That begins with the obvious. Smith has played the power forward position exclusively in training camp thus far, according to David Mayo of MLive.com, effectively segmenting Detroit's frontcourt. Van Gundy hasn't ruled out experimenting with using all three of his core bigs together in select situations, but the entrails of a failed season offer a different omen for Detroit's general strategy moving forward. Only one of Smith or Monroe will likely start for the Pistons (Smith will get the nod in Detroit's preseason opener), which is in itself a clear demonstration of Van Gundy's authority.
Unlike Cheeks, Van Gundy won't be tasked with making the most of Dumars' peculiar personnel decisions. And unlike Dumars, Van Gundy won't face the pressure of redeeming years of his own missteps. This is as clean a slate as Detroit has had in some time, and with it comes the freedom for Van Gundy to run his team as he sees fit. His work begins with separating Smith, Monroe and Drummond more fully in the Pistons' rotation, but from there he need address the deeper ineptitude of Detroit's defense.
When considering where the Pistons fell apart last season, it's easy to dwell on their wanting offense. Smith's shot selection made for a rare common ground among basketball fans -- a point of ridicule on which all could agree. Otherwise, the spacing of Detroit's system was so thoroughly compromised as to stifle any action. Monroe post-ups and Drummond pick-and-rolls collapsed due to a dearth of reliable shooters, manifested by the second-worst three-point percentage in the NBA. Through all of those complications, however, the Pistons managed to avoid offensive disaster by scoring at a rate just shy of the league average. Detroit came within half a point per 100 possessions of the Grizzlies and Wizards while outscoring the Pacers, Bobcats and Bulls. The defining difference between the Pistons and a playoff team was defense -- an area in which Detroit failed spectacularly.
The only teams to allow more points per possession were the four worst in the league: the Sixers, Bucks, Jazz and Lakers. Of those teams, three actually fared better than the Pistons in terms of effective field goal percentage allowed, the clearest indicator of the quality of shots a team surrenders. Smith's vices and a disjointed offense may have made for an easy laugh, yet on balance Detroit suffered from a simple, fundamental problem: Due to both personnel and the orientation of the roster, last season's team couldn't guard anyone. The Pistons allowed their average opponent to score at the same efficiency as the Thunder, which on its face seems like a rather miserable way to do business.
Van Gundy, whose teams in Orlando and Miami regularly ranked in the top 10 in overall defense, would seem the right man for remedy. Even still, he'll need to address this roster's defensive problems at its core. This isn't a situation where adjustment will do, as so many of Detroit's players require specific address in the ways that they go about executing even the simplest elements of defense. Monroe, for example, has come to be so worried about recovering back to his man in the pick-and-roll that he sometimes offers no resistance at all against opposing ball handlers. Drummond, though as quick as any center in the league, takes some terrible angles when stepping up in help that allow opponents to drive right past him. As for Smith, 10 years in the NBA haven't fully curbed his itch to over-help. The damage done by that overcommitment will be mitigated by a move back to power forward, though Smith still needs to be reined in.
Addressing those basic tendencies (and all that builds from them) is a tall order, made taller by the fact that Van Gundy doesn't have any defensive pillar on which to rely. Perhaps a compliant Smith could fill that void. Smith has never been the most methodical defender, drawing instead on length and timing to challenge shots and protect the rim. Van Gundy, though, will be as exacting a coach as Smith has ever had. The two could very well grate on one another to the point of stifling a productive relationship. Should Smith commit to the mandates of his coach and his system, though, he could be a terrifying piece of a Pistons revival.
The same is certainly true of Drummond, whose flaws mostly root in the fact that he's a 21-year-old center who has gone to this point without the benefit of consistent coaching. Former Pistons head coach Lawrence Frank was reluctant to rely on Drummond while Cheeks ultimately did little to spur along the development of his star prospect. A few years under Van Gundy should bring Drummond's developmental arc closer in line with his potential, though he has miles to go before he'll be ready to steady a team defense. For now he's merely an occasional difference-maker: Big enough to cause problems, mobile enough to keep pace with fast-developing plays and explosive to the point that he can devour shot attempts.
Only so much can be expected so soon. Drummond's education will be gradual, as was the case when Van Gundy brought along a young Dwight Howard through his introduction to the NBA. All the while, Van Gundy will have to work through the kinks of a roster sorely lacking in defensive aptitude. Many of this year's Pistons are established liabilities. Of those that aren't, most are too raw to be all that reliable. Some progress can be made by tweaking the Pistons' base lineups, yet the compounding bad habits and limitations strewn throughout the roster will require some schematic wizardry. Van Gundy, in signing on, has committed himself to that challenge. There is a conceivable end -- featuring Drummond, first and foremost -- in which the Pistons are someday a viable, high-level team. Yet reaching that point would require a rather complete transformation in habit, technique and, eventually, personnel.
The latter changes will have to wait. In the meantime, Van Gundy will need to start by instilling his team with a better sense of when and how to offer help. Last season's Pistons were a breakdown waiting to happen, in part because Smith, Monroe and Drummond shared in a questionable read on when to collapse on an opponent's drive. What resulted were dueling worst-case scenarios: Over-collapsing that sabotaged the Pistons' scramble and allowed for open threes, and inconsistent help that allowed opponents the fifth-most attempts (and a top-10 shooting percentage) in the restricted area. Detroit's perimeter defenders were something of a nightmare as it was. Without even vaguely reliable help on the back line, the Pistons on the whole were never more than a few seconds away from disaster.
Again: There was no one culprit nor single faulty device. Cheeks was in over his head, Smith's turn at small forward tested his discipline, Monroe's foot speed was challenged repeatedly and the bulk of the roster came up short in its responsibilities. We'd be remiss not to make specific mention of Brandon Jennings, whose recklessness in playing passing lanes gave the Pistons another entry point to calamity. Jennings spends a fascinating amount of time guarding no player in particular, all but inviting a series of passes that will eventually lead to a quality shot. When he played together with Smith, Monroe and Drummond (as was the case in roughly a third of Detroit's total minutes), the Pistons allowed an unbelievable 110.7 points per 100 possessions -- better output than even the NBA's most potent offenses muster on average.
Separating Smith from Monroe from Drummond might position the Pistons for better defensive play, but Van Gundy will still have to find ways for his team to survive Jennings and, to a lesser extent, D.J. Augustin and Will Bynum. He'll have to bring along Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and get more out of Jodie Meeks and Cartier Martin on D than their previous coaches did. He'll need to manage the limitations of Caron Butler, Kyle Singler and Jonas Jerebko. There are no easy fixes -- only the hard, earned process of unlearning years of detrimental behavior and building a new team defense from the ground up.