The Detroit Pistons are a young team with plenty of promising talent and a rising star in Cade Cunningham. But they are a few years away from being a few years away.
There were plenty of moments against the Golden State Warriors that served as proof. A team shows its youth on both ends of the floor, but it’s on defense where it rears its head the most. Defending in the NBA is a tough task; not only are you thrown a near-nightly barrage of star after star, with an occasional sprinkling of a bona fide superstar — you’re faced with the current climate of the NBA, that of a game that favors the offensive side of the ball.
As a young player, not only are you forced to remember NBA rules — you’re also expected to remember coverage rules. Who should we play a more aggressive coverage against? Who should we let shoot or play a more relaxed coverage against? Do we top-lock and deny this player off the ball? Do we “ice” the screen? Fight over ball screens, or duck under them?
The mental checklist can be hard to keep track of, but it’s second nature to the best defenders in the league. The Pistons have promising defensive talent in Jalen Duren and rookie Ausar Thompson who have a natural head start in terms of being able to check things off the list, but there’s plenty of room to grow for them.
More than individual defense, the Pistons needs to be connected and synergistic. That hasn’t been the case for them so far — and the Warriors took advantage of it in the first half of their win against them.
The Pistons were without Duren and opted to play a base coverage of drop against ball screens, handoffs, and off-ball wide pindowns. With Marvin Bagley III as their starting center and James Wiseman as his backup, their ability to diversify their coverages became much more limited — and drop was pretty much their only option save for perhaps Steph Curry.
Even so, the Warriors’ first three of the game — naturally, a Curry shot off of “Flex” action — was made possible because of a couple of coverage mistakes and decisions that made it a feasible look:
- Killian Hayes — initially guarding Curry — switches with Cunningham on the “flex” screen by Curry. Cunningham ends up on Curry, while Hayes has Andrew Wiggins.
- Curry then comes off the “zipper” down screen by Kevon Looney. Cunningham loses sight of Curry for a brief moment, which is all what Curry needs to gain separation (and a bit of help from Looney’s screen).
- Bagley is in no position to take away Curry’s space because he’s in deep drop.
This opening offensive possession set the tone for the Warriors and how they were going to attack the Pistons. The coaching staff clearly did their homework in that regard — most actions from then on targeted the Pistons and their conservative coverages.
Even on sideline out-of-bounds sets, Kerr dialed up a healthy diet of actions that placed Curry in a position to come off a screen, force his defender to navigate, and make them pay for choosing to drop their big back.
The set below — called “WTF” (which means exactly what you think it means) — follows almost exactly the same script that the “Flex” above established:
Hayes and Cunningham switch again. Bagley drops back again. The result: Curry gets free around the Looney screen with Cunningham trying to chase, but Curry gets free for a three-point look — again.
Klay Thompson was pretty much given the same coverage treatment to start the game. When Steve Kerr calls for “Angle Pop” — an “angle” ball screen followed by Looney popping out to initiate 5-out “Delay” action — Thompson comes off the Looney dribble handoff and comfortably steps into a mid-range jumper that Bagley practically welcomes:
Small sample size notwithstanding, Thompson has been a reliable mid-range shooter so far. From the area considered the “long” mid-range — 14 feet away from the rim and just below the three-point line — Thompson is 13-of-22 (59.1%).
Thompson scored 17 points on 8-of-16 shooting against the Pistons. Despite shooting 1-of-8 on threes, he made up for it with a diet of twos that are going in for him at this stage of the season.
On the Warriors’ patented “Double Loop” set that typically creates a Thompson three off of empty-corner down-screen action, Ausar does a good job sticking close behind and running Klay off the three-point line. But with James Wiseman in drop, Thompson steps in and calmly drills a runner:
The Warriors know better than most teams about Wiseman’s limited defensive versatility. Drop is the default coverage when he’s the five on the floor; the Warriors have previously tried to employ him as a switch big, to mixed results.
The Pistons haven’t been as adventurous. Wiseman remains in drop for the majority of the time — and that gives Klay easy step-in looks like this one off of a rejected ball screen that Wiseman is forced to switch out on late:
A similar possession happened in the third quarter, only with Bagley as the drop big and Curry as the ball handler.
The common theme: Dario Šarić. The threat of his long-range shooting off of pick-and-pops forces the on-ball defender to have to veer back and switch to take away the pop option. That leaves drop big on an island and having to switch out onto the ball handler (Klay in the first instance, Curry in the second below) — but being in drop to start the possession means there’s little time for them to close out and take away space.
When adding in several layers of complexity within a specific set, that puts even more things to check off of the list that the young Pistons defenders have to constantly monitor.
Early offense sets such “Pistol” action are a good test of whether a defense is on its feet or isn’t paying attention to all the nitty-gritty details. Kerr calls for “Pistol” on the possession below, out of which several variations of the guard-guard side action are possible.
But Curry and Chris Paul have been fond of running a particular “Flare” screen variant that they’ve practiced extensively during preseason. Marcus Sasser — another promising rookie — commits the cardinal sin of ducking under the flare screen, giving Curry another pull-up look:
Coverage confusion must be avoided at all times when it comes to defending Curry. Clear lines of communication have to be established: Is it a switch? Do we stay home?
Both Hayes (who thought “switch”) and Isaiah Stewart (who thought “stay home”) had different ideas on this possession:
Ausar is a future All-Defensive Team member with multiple selections by the time his career ends — but even a defensive stud such as him is prone to making simple mistakes. When he shows early help toward the edge of the paint and cheats off of his assignment, he forgets exactly who he’s cheating off of.
It’s safe to say that he has learned his lesson and won’t be making the same mistake in the future:
But even if the Pistons learn from their earlier mistakes, change up their coverages, and play honest defense that makes it tough for the ball handler, it sometimes ends up not mattering one bit — which is what happens whenever they go up against a superstar of the highest degree.
And one who happens to be a generational offensive singularity.
With Stewart at the five on this possession, the screen for Curry turns into a switch. Stewart tries his best to stay in front and make the shot as difficult as possible for Curry. He contests to the best of his abilities — but Curry gains just enough separation to nail a tough shot:
The Pistons made the Warriors sweat for a bit. They led by as much as seven in the second half, before the Warriors re-inserted Curry (who was a plus-17) and Thompson in the fourth to infuse their offense with life.
But it was the early bits of coverage choices and confusion that provided the cushion for the Warriors to take it late and win their fifth road game of the season in eight total games — something they didn’t accomplish till their 44th game last season.