In their inaugural season in Grand Rapids after spending five years in Springfield last season, the Drive finished fourth in the NBA D-League's Central Division. It was a season of ups and downs, but the constant throughout the year was the fact that they played strong defense night-in and night-out.
While their defense was performing well, their offensive outputs did not match up. Finishing 17th in the league in Offensive Rating compared to sixth in Defensive Rating, it was clear that the team needed to look to add more offensively inclined players headed into this year.
They managed to do that, but it wasn't without a cost. Players like Devin Ebanks and Henry Sims have provided an offensive punch that was previously lacking, carrying the team to the sixth spot for Offensive Rating, but defensively they have fallen apart, dropping all the way to 16th out of 19 teams.
The team is playing at a slower pace compared to last year (their two point drop in Pace Factor is the equivalent of the difference between a team like the Charlotte Hornets and the Houston Rockets), but they have still managed to allow one point per game more on average.
After their recent matchup with the Delaware 87ers, in which they allowed 133 points, including 41 in the fourth quarter alone, many of the problems that are plaguing this team defensively were on full display. Some of those 133 points can be attributed to hot shooting (Ty Greene hit seemingly everything in the fourth quarter), but most of the fault lies on the team.
Pick and Roll
While the NBA is shifting to big men who can be a bit more mobile, it is tough to find those types of players. While Henry Sims is fairly athletic, his defensive awareness is not where it needs to be. He often finds himself lost on pick and rolls and fellow big man Dallin Bachynski, a reliable rebounder, does not have the quickness to be able to stay with guards or forwards for any length of time.
Aside from the big men, the Drive were routinely torn apart on pick-and-rolls generated by Russ Smith, among others. Some came down to the previously mentioned lack of athleticism, but there were a few that just showed players out of place. Here, Devin Ebanks (#3) watches as Russ Smith cuts to the hoop, Henry Sims (#32) stops his pursuit half-way into it.
There were other instances where big men incorrectly playing the pick-and-roll led to wide-open shots for the 87ers. In this particular case below, Kammeon Holsey (#18) plays the wrong side of the screen, which leads to Spencer Dinwiddie (#8) having to collapse in and help, leaving Greene open for a three.
Along with their troubles defending the pick-and-roll, the Drive had their defensive troubles exacerbated while in transition, something that is deadly especially in the D-League. Despite the shot being missed on this play, Devin Ebanks loses Sam Thompson on the wing after Dahntay Jones had already picked up his man.
Towards the end of the game with the game out of reach, Earl Clark was able to run directly through the middle of the lane with no resistance from anyone on the Drive.
With quick pace that the NBA and D-League are running at now, having proper rotations is more crucial than ever. This relates back to the pick-and-roll defense that has been displayed, but it also comes up in other areas, such as when their is a break down at some level on the perimeter. Here, Sims faces Thompson and gets blown by, which isn't a problem by itself given that Ebanks is there to help, but error is compounded when he doesn't re-enter the play until it's too late.
Mental Mistakes and a Lack of Awareness
Overall awareness of where to be on the court has been a major issue throughout both the pick-and-roll and in rotations, but it's also happened in situations that didn't involve either of those two scenarios. Here, Sims is caught in no man's land as he doesn't pressure Smith, nor does he drop back and cover Christian Wood as he dives towards the rim, and it ends up causing Gary Talton (#14) to be out of position.
The following play may have caused Otis Smith to lose his mind. With the clock winding down in the third quarter of a then-six point game, Christian Wood took a questionable three-pointer. It had to be seen as a win for the defense, but Ismael Romero bailed him out.
The loss of interior presences like Hasheem Thabeet and Willie Reed has been glaring this season, but the defensive problems for the Drive go far beyond their absence. Luckily, however, these issues are largely correctable with enough effort and intensity on that end.
If Sims is able to get his positioning and rotational skills down pat and a combination of Holsey and Ebanks can provide adequate help, they could be the catalyst that drives this team defensively. They have some solid defensive pieces already in Spencer Dinwiddie and now Lorenzo Brown, but it's going to take a group effort to get the team where they need to be.