The Detroit Pistons are in disarray.
Tuesday morning’s capitulation to the Chicago Bulls marked the third straight game where Detroit has been blown out by a middling Eastern conference team. Such an insipid performance was the last straw for head coach Stan Van Gundy, who dropped his contender for best rant of the NBA season on the Detroit media (small man syndrome alert!).
“It was a disgusting performance by all of us, me included,” Van Gundy said following the Pistons’ loss to Chicago. “It was unprofessional, embarrassing, humiliating, whatever you want to say.”
Not much wriggle room in that statement! The Bulls defeat came on the back of a much publicised team meeting, one called by Australian Aron Baynes in an attempt to galvanise his squad. Doesn’t sound like anyone was listening to Aron.
“Team meeting my ass,” Van Gundy said with revolt. “Like I said before, that stuff means nothing. It’s what you do on the court. Talking’s easy.”
With such vitriol floating around the Pistons locker room, we would need a much longer article to cover off on everything which ails this team at the moment. In the interests of time, let’s focus in on the most obvious of issues - defence.
Just one week ago, Detroit had the NBA’s second best defensive rating of 100.4. In the space of seven days and three embarrassing outings, the Pistons have slipped to ninth and seen their rating climb to 102.6. It might not sound like much, but such a drastic swing in the space of a week is embarrassingly impressive.
In their past three defeats against Chicago, Indiana and Washington, the Pistons are conceding 123.7 points per 100 possessions. This figure is only topped by the defensively challenged Portland Trailblazers, who to be fair, played the Golden State Warriors during this stretch.
The Pistons have lost their way on the defensive end and need to mix things up. Some inspiration is needed. Luckily for Van Gundy, the answer to some of his problems could be lurking on the Pistons bench.
Aron Baynes has been one of Detroit’s most integral players this season. Of all players in Van Gundy’s regular rotation, Baynes has the second highest individual net rating, ranking behind only Jon Leuer. At the defensive end of the floor, Baynes’ defensive rating of 97.7 is the best of any Pistons rotation player. In fact, Baynes’ defensive measure is a full nine points lower than that of his depth chart superior, Andre Drummond.
Drummond is the Pistons' franchise player, and clearly the team’s best chance of one day developing into a contender. That day isn’t here yet, and his effectiveness has been limited this season. The truth is, Baynes has been a better statistical player than Drummond in virtually every category.
The Ringer did a great job of profiling Drummond’s impact, noting that every player in the Pistons rotation who has played 100 minutes with both Drummond and Baynes has a significantly lower defensive rating when paired with the Australian.
There is some noise in this analysis, as Baynes’ sample size of minutes is much lower and much of his time is spent against reserves. All the same, there is a mountain of evidence supporting Baynes’ argument for more minutes.
Of Detroit’s top ten four man units (minimum 50 minutes), eight feature Baynes and zero contain Drummond. A similar trend is evident when looking the best two and three man units (minimum 100 minutes) utilised by Van Gundy. Good things happen when the big Australian is on the floor.
In reviewing Baynes’ start to the season, we remarked that he's historically had trouble staying in front of NBA athletes. This often led to Baynes being exploited inside, and his team lacking rim protection while he was on the floor. This season is much different.
Among qualified players (minimum 100 attempts), Baynes is the NBA’s ninth best rim protector. Opponents are only shooting 44.3 percent against Baynes at the rim, a rate that is better than more fancied defenders Hassan Whiteside, DeAndre Jordan, Dwight Howard and Draymond Green. Baynes' psychical makeup hasn’t changed one bit: he remains a plodding, ground bound bear on the court, but the more subtle aspects of his game are improved. The Australian is much more pronounced at sliding his feet and defending opponents as they move through the defence. Take this possession against the Boston Celtics.
Baynes expertly pre-empts Isaiah Thomas curling around a dribble hand off from Kelly Olynyk, but this is only the start of his battle. Thomas has made a career of slithering through opposition big men yet Baynes denies his penetration by sliding his feet and eventually blocks his attempt.
Communication is another factor which has underpinned an improved Pistons defensive scheme, something Baynes willingly admitted last week.
“I just try and communicate as best I can. Being down low and in the back of the defence, you see everything so I try to keep everyone in the right position.
“The more you talk, the easier it is for everyone on the court. When five guys are on the court moving on a string, it’s a lot easier than playing as individuals.”
Defensive unity is what Baynes is alluding to above. For most of the season, it has been prevalent within the Pistons second unit and allowed Baynes to maximise his defensive potential. A great example comes on this block of Enes Kanter.
Despite initially being beaten on the play, Baynes recovers well and rejects Kanter’s effort. This was nice hustle from Baynes, no doubt about that. Yet his punctuating block was only possible because of great defensive rotations from Ish Smith and Jon Leuer. Communication and togetherness are key pillars of defence, and the Pistons are improved in these areas when Baynes is in the game.
Drummond remains a more talented, and frankly better, player than Baynes. The Connecticut product should, and will, remain the Pistons starting center, but Baynes has earned more of an opportunity in Detroit.
With his team on the precipitous of a free fall, Van Gundy has flagged changes and more minutes for Baynes are a worthwhile experiment in an attempt to regain control of a turbulent situation. The quotes coming out of the Pistons’ locker room are simultaneously a sign of dysfunction and an early Christmas present for us all.
“I just think we’ve hit a wall right now,” Marcus Morris said following the Chicago defeat. “Guys, I wouldn’t say have given up, but we in the matrix. That’s what I call it. We’re in the matrix. That’s what it is. I wouldn’t say a lack of heart, but we’re not that Detroit Pistons team that we were last year. Going and fighting and things like that. We’re not that team, but we got to figure out a way to get that back.”
Seriously, Morris went to the deep dark universe which is The Matrix. Can Aron Baynes be the Pistons’ Neo as an army of losses and Mr Smith’s approach? Just maybe the bearded Samurai is ready for a new feature role.
N.B. All stats are from NBA.com/stats and correct as of 20 December 2016.