Small ball and Goliath: Stan Van Gundy unlocking Andre Drummond


By Zach Harper | NBA writer

This is becoming what Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy envisioned. A situation similar to his days in Orlando where he had a budding point guard capable of running a high-octane offense with three other perimeter players surrounding a giant. In the age of small ball taking over, this is the ultimate small ball.

Andre Drummond is the big man Van Gundy envisioned taking control of this project in Detroit.

While the 3-ball is currently reigning as king and unlikely to change as long as math exists in its current form, there will be no denying its importance. That doesn’t mean five perimeter players is necessarily the way to go. Adaptation is key and the biggest way to adapt under Van Gundy’s plan is to have the big man still rule the paint while his teammates rule the perimeter. You marry what worked in the past with what works in the present.

Drummond is still far from becoming Orlando’s Dwight Howard, but it’s important to remember that Dwight wasn’t always Dwight. He took time to learn under Van Gundy and become the presence inside that helped fuel a run to the NBA Finals in 2009. In Van Gundy’s first season as Orlando’s coach, the Magic were 11 points per 100 possessions better offensively with Dwight on the court and nearly three points worse defensively.

Fast-forward to Drummond’s first season under Van Gundy and the profile is similar, although not as extreme over the course of the entire season. The Pistons were predictably better offensively with him on the floor. Their offense was almost three points per 100 better with their big man on the floor, but the defense suffered immensely. A Drummond-led team gave up 3.6 points per 100 more on defense, which is not how it’s supposed to be.

Part of that can be blamed on Greg Monroe — his defensive efforts not exactly rivaling Dennis Rodman’s legacy and the two big man system not exactly meshing with Van Gundy’s idea of successful basketball. However, after the acquisition of Reggie Jacksonand the concerted effort to play 4-out with Drummond in the middle, the defense was still bad. After the All-Star break, they gave up 110.2 points per 100 with Monroe and Drummond sharing the court, and 104.0 with Drummond on and Monroe off.

That’s improvement, but it’s still bad enough to have you sniffing around the bottom 10 in the NBA defensively. Part of the reason they were so bad on that side of the ball is that Drummond, despite being 7 feet tall with a 7-foot-6 wingspan and a 34-inch vertical, doesn’t quite know how to anchor a defense. It’s a learning process that Howard had accelerated by Van Gundy’s tutelage.

Watching some of the post All-Star break footage for the Pistons, you see the problems with Drummond’s defense are quite basic and correctable. It’s knowing you can leave Marc Gasol at 23 feet to keep Anthony Tolliver from being bullied by Zach Randolph inside or how to properly sit down in a defensive position so Gasol doesn’t blow by you in the mid-post or to trust your weak side help so you can camp in the lane to form a [redacted] wall to prevent layups.

You look at these miscues by Drummond and there are plenty of them. But they are also the mistakes of a young big man who is still trying to figure out how to be a leader both on and off the court, a process Van Gundy seems encouraged about. He doesn’t even have to become the Defensive Player of the Year, although that would be preferred for Detroit. What he does have to do is be enough of a deterrent inside to allow the perimeter defenders to be more aggressive.

Below is the shot chart of how opponents scored against the 4-out lineup of Reggie Jackson,Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Caron Butler, Anthony Tolliver and Drummond. It was the Pistons’ most successful lineup on the season, but still gave up a horrendous 112.1 points per 100 possessions. This ideal lineup for Van Gundy did allow fewer shots in the restricted area (by about three percent), so there was a deterrent in having Drummond back there.

However, it wasn’t enough to keep the other team from torching the Pistons. Part of that is the perimeter defenders’ fault for not doing enough. They got annihilated above the break and outside of the paint, but they need to feel like Drummond will have their backs. If that happens, the sky is the limit for the Pistons because offensively this unit was absurd.

That five-man lineup put up 126.5 points per 100 possessions, had a 2.74 assist-to-turnover ratio, shot 54.2 percent from the field and 48.6 percent from downtown and had an effective field-goal percentage of 63.1 percent. Those numbers don’t even make sense; that’s how good they are.

The play of Jackson was a big part of it, and a reason he received the payday he did. He also paired perfectly with Drummond, who dominated in the pick-and-roll. Dominated might not even be the right word. Mutilated? Ruled over the world? Took intergalactic ownership?

This is what he does in the pick-and-roll with Jackson and company after the All-Star break.

By spreading the floor with three other perimeter threats, there is no back line help to deter Drummond, lest you leave open a 3-point shooter. You can say all he did was jump and dunk the ball, but if it’s just that simple then you should be able to stop it pretty easily. Check out the change in efficiency and effectiveness with the All-Star break splits:

Pre All-Star 72 74 0.973 31 56 55.3%
Post All-Star 84 58 1.448 37 48 77.1%

Just to put his 1.448 PPP in perspective, Brandan Wright with Dallas had the best roll man efficiency in the league of players who had at least 50 possessions. He scored 1.423 PPP on 70.5 percent from the field as a roll man. Drummond’s 1.448 with 77.1 percent from the field blows that away. While you can’t expect him to replicate those astronomical numbers, it shows you just how deadly he’s capable of being for stretches of the season.

That kind of scoring will force the defense to hug the paint and hope to recover to shooters, and that’s when Van Gundy’s eyes light up.

The area where Drummond can improve is posting up. He was really bad at it last season, scoring 0.689 points per possession on 38 percent from the field. You can’t even blame his poor free-throw shooting on that lack of efficiency per possession because he only went to the free-throw line 11.3 percent of the time. I’d expect him to post up less than the 27.5 percent of possessions he used last year, but when he does, he needs more balance and deeper position in the post.

Here are some of Drummond’s bad habits:

He doesn’t square his body up enough on his hook shot, which leaves an unfinished follow-through. He’ll often find his shoulders parallel with the sideline or when he drops to the baseline, squared up with the baseline instead of pointing toward the basket. With Howard posting up, the issue has been a lack of touch that is amplified by a lack of deep post position.

With Drummond, it seems to be strictly a balance issue. He could use a little more touch on his hook shots, but as you can see below he’s pretty effective in the post when he does have the proper mechanics and balance.

Using that off arm to shield the defender to get the shot off relatively uncontested helps too.

The other area in which Drummond can really do damage for Van Gundy and the Pistons is by running the floor. Some better conditioning and quicker decisions after stops could make him a real force in the open court. Of the big men in the NBA who got out and had at least 100 transition possessions on the season, Drummond was third in scoring efficiency behind Anthony Davis and Mason Plumlee.

This is where you start getting those lobs going and his athleticism can come into play both in terms of beating the defender down the floor and jumping over the ones who are already there.

As you can see in the video, he’s so intuitive in the way he goes right down the middle of the floor so the passer can anticipate the best angle for such a big target. Even if he doesn’t get the ball out in front of the defense, he can go right in front of the basket and become a prime drop-off target for the attacking teammate. And running quick pick-and-rolls with Drummond trailing down the middle of the floor is also an easy scoring opportunity.

Drummond isn’t a finished product by any means, but the way Van Gundy developed Howard into an MVP candidate is the goal for Drummond’s eventual impact. For the Pistons to start discussing the postseason with confidence, you have to see that impact start to take form this coming season. He’s too talented, too big and too athletic not to impact the defense in Year 2 with Van Gundy. And playing 4-out with him in the middle of the floor is something that helped the Pistons catch fire last season.

Sure, the free-throw shooting is going to be a problem and he can’t be historically poor at it. But Drummond is the ideal fit for Van Gundy’s scheme in Detroit. He’s still the embodiment of small ball with the giant in the middle. Despite the prevalence of small ball in today’s NBA, you still have to keep the monster out of the paint when shooters surround him.

That’s exactly what Stan Van Gundy wants to see on the court.

The Pistons are building around Andre Drummond with small ball. (USATSI)
The Pistons are building around Andre Drummond with small ball. (USATSI)


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