AUBURN HILLS – There’s a pretty substantial list of encouraging developments for the Pistons over the first five games. Perhaps the one thing Stan Van Gundy finds discouraging right now actually portends better days ahead, strangely enough.
Van Gundy teams traditionally tend to the fundamentals very well. Committing relatively few turnovers. Limiting layups and 3-point attempts. Ranking among the best at not committing fouls.
It’s that last one where this year’s Pistons have broken with the Van Gundy norm. Even last season, when the Pistons struggled mightily on offense and didn’t get to play with a set defense nearly often enough, they still were an enviable eighth in the NBA in free-throw attempts allowed.
This season, despite their 3-2 record and a 10th-place rating in scoring differential at plus-4.4 per game, the Pistons are getting outscored at the foul line by a whopping 9.6 points per game. Opponents are averaging 11.4 more attempts per game. The Pistons have had an attempts deficit in all five games, including minus-17 in a 12-point win over Charlotte and minus-4 in a 21-point win over Minnesota.
The issue of fouling – the Pistons rank 26th in the NBA, committing 24.2 fouls per game – is one that occupied a major chunk of their last practice, Tuesday.
“We’ve had a lot of fouls. We showed a lot of film on it today, a lot of clips,” Van Gundy said that day. “They’re not from being physical. In fact, a lot of ’em are from being not physical – slapping, reaching, instead of moving your feet and get your body in front of somebody, slap down on a guy going to the basket instead of staying vertical and taking contact in the chest – those types of things. It’s not like we’re this real physical team fouling a lot. We’re getting a lot of bad fouls and it’s something we need to correct.”
Van Gundy has asked his players to put more pressure on ballhandlers this season, but doesn’t see that as an underlying cause. Andre Drummond – averaging 4.9 fouls per 36 minutes, up nearly 50 percent over last season’s 3.5 – is being asked to play pick-and-roll sets a little differently and being more conscientious about protecting the rim and says some of his atypical foul accumulation is due to that.
“I think it’s due to being more aggressive on the pick and rolls and when we do blitzes to get up higher into guys,” he said. “And when I do attack the basket, try to take it hard, so getting offensive fouls and on offensive rebounds and when I’m attacking the basket. It’s just being smart and picking my spots.”
Van Gundy, though, still sees far more easily preventable fouls being committed.
“We break down every foul,” he said. “I really have not seen that as a reason. We’ve got some technique things that we’ve got to be better at. We’ve got to be a little bit smarter. I think that’s the main thing.”
History is on his side. The past three seasons, the Pistons have ranked third (17.9 in 2016-17), sixth (19.0 in 2015-16) and seventh (19.0 in 2014-15) in fouls committed per game under Van Gundy.
While cutting down on the fouls they commit is Van Gundy’s focus, the disparity is also driven by the lack of foul shots the Pistons have had. They rank 27th in attempts at 16.6 per game. They aren’t nearly as likely to improve that rating as dramatically simply because of the makeup of the roster – the Pistons don’t feature multiple rim-attacking ballhandlers – but Van Gundy expects Drummond and Reggie Jackson will get their share of free throws and another player to eventually get more attempts.
“We need to get free-throw attempts for Andre. Reggie needs to get to the line because he’s attacking. Tobias (Harris), interestingly, attacks the basket quite a bit and rarely gets to the free-throw line. That’s the one where I’ve had some problems with the refereeing is on Tobias’ drives. I think he’s getting ridden out a lot, but he ends up getting up pretty good shots so they just tend to let it go. I’d like to see him at the line five or six times a game.”
Harris has shot only nine free throws in five games despite averaging a career-best 23.6 points. He’s shot just 1.8 free throws per 36 minutes, down from 3.2 last season. Some of it is Harris taking what’s there as teams more often dare him to shoot from the 3-point line and sit back to cut off his slashing ability.
“A lot of (drives), I feel like there’s some contact going on. I know I’ll get those calls sooner or later,” he said of adopting an outside-inside mentality of taking open 3-point shots when they’re available. “But just being able to play, to keep the defense on their heels, being able to spread out the defense, shoot the ball and when they close out being able to drive by and create some contact will be key. I think teams know that I am a drive-first player, so a lot of the defense is closing in. Might be able to find some opportunities to kick out and get some other guys some open shots.”
The disparity is certain to narrow as the sample size grows, driven mostly by an inevitable decline in the frequency of Pistons fouls. If they also start getting up more free throws of their own, a promising start could turn into a steamroller.