Posted September 26, 2013

Five NBA defenses on the rise in 2013-14

Brooklyn Nets, Detroit Pistons, Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, New Orleans Pelicans
Jason Kidd and Lawrence Frank

Nets coach Jason Kidd (left) and lead assistant Lawrence Frank will have plenty to work with on the defensive end. (Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images)

Training camp is just around the corner, which means players will soon be touting their weight loss and new muscles, as their coaches promise to focus on defense and pick up the pace. Many of those preseason goals and declarations get tossed aside or exposed within a few weeks after opening night, but we shouldn’t be so cynical that we miss out on the possibility of legitimate year-to-year improvement.

On Wednesday, Ben Golliver examined five teams — some contenders, some simply fighting for playoff spots — that should make meaningful strides on offense this season. Here, let’s evaluate five teams that should do the same on defense.

Brooklyn Nets: The Nets’ offseason work amounts to a complete defensive overhaul. Whereas Brooklyn was dependent on the improved but still sub-elite defensive work of center Brook Lopez and power forward Reggie Evans last season, the new-look Nets will lean on a transformational team defender in big man Kevin Garnett, a do-it-all, multipositional asset in forward Andrei Kirilenko and a stout perimeter defender in swingman Paul Pierce. The costs of acquiring those players (in terms of draft picks and luxury-tax payments) might be great, but Brooklyn is prepared to become a far more formidable two-way team and dramatically improve on its No. 18 ranking in defensive efficiency (points allowed per possession).

The particulars of that improvement, though, hinge on a few factors. For one, first-time coach Jason Kidd and lead assistant Lawrence Frank will surely be deploying a new defensive system, which is never a change that should be taken lightly. There will be points of reference for Garnett and Pierce in what’s sure to be a Boston-derived scheme (Frank served as the Celtics’ “defensive coordinator” for the 2010-11 season), but the rest of the roster will still need time to adjust to that shift in coverage — not to mention feel out playing with a host of new teammates. Also, the age of many of the Nets’ crucial contributors will require a delicate balancing act of offensive responsibility, defensive assignment and playing time. The wealth of capable, versatile pieces on the roster should allow Brooklyn room to find that equilibrium, though doing so is no small feat.

Detroit Pistons: While many have fawned over the rim-rocking potential that Detroit’s eccentrically athletic roster presents, this team is only a playoff contender on account of expected defensive gains. The acquisition of forward Josh Smith is an important move toward that end. His decision making with the ball can be implosive at times, but Smith is a high-level defender. It’s hard to know exactly how he’ll be used, given the curious positional situation in Detroit (where he’s part of a frontcourt that includes power forward Greg Monroe and center Andre Drummond), but his versatile coverage should translate well for a team that ranked 23rd in points allowed per possession last season.

That’s true in part because Detroit was so miserable across the board last season. The Pistons ranked in the bottom 10 in each of the defensive Four Factors – a feat of misery that no other team in the league accomplished. Even the Bobcats managed to keep opponents off the free-throw line, while the Magic scrubbed the defensive glass clean and the Cavaliers created turnovers. The 2012-13 Pistons were the rare team for which there was no defensive bright spot, but, to their credit, they did avoid completely bottoming out in any specific measure.

The Pistons’ summer moves bode well, and Smith’s presence alone is likely to register a significant impact in a few of those categories. For one, Smith’s ability to cover ground and alter shots should help Detroit pare opponents’ shooting percentages. Simply having a shot-blocker of Smith’s caliber on the back line stands to fundamentally alter the kind of shots opponents take, and will hopefully cut down on the painful shooting percentage (62 percent, 27th in the league) that the Pistons allowed in the restricted area last season.

In addition, Detroit has the personnel (with Smith, Monroe and Drummond) to be a top defensive-rebounding team and the sort of quick, irritating defenders (Smith and fellow newcomers in guards Brandon Jennings, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope) who should force turnovers more regularly. The pieces may not be in place for Detroit to be especially stifling just yet (top 10 in defensive efficiency seems too lofty a goal), but the Pistons are at the very least capable of more consistent and acceptable coverage.