Defense, Defense, and Defense

Yes, the league is exhibiting a slight uptick in scoring – but not at the expense of good defense.  We have been misguided by highlights and in-game graphics to believe the NBA has never seen such offensive production.  It’s a lie.

Points have increased only in relation to the previous decade.  But let’s be clear, offensive talent didn’t dip in the mid 2000’s, nor has it ever, but rather defenses were just overwhelming because of the reemergence of the zone.  Although league scoring has revived in the last few seasons, this is still the age of defense, defense, and defense.

In fact, defenses have reached heights over the past three seasons that were previously thought unreachable.  Coaches now accept that to score points, their team needs to shoot strictly layups and threes.  There is no longer time to feed the go-to-guy to get his rhythm in the first quarter.  Waiting for Kobe or Michael to get hot no longer works at the professional level.  Defenses are so suffocating, so long, so ravenous, that teams need pass quickly and shoot early to avoid the eventual steal or batted ball.

How did this happen?

For years, zone defense was virtually banned at the professional level.  It started in 1966 when the NBA decreed that no defensive player shall stand in the lane for more than three seconds without making an attempt to guard an opponent (sound familiar?).  This essentially eliminated the classic 2-3 and 3-2 zones.

However, the real embargo was mandated in the summer of 1981.  Remember that “illegal defense” nonsense?  Here is how it was interpreted:

  • Weak side defenders cannot stand in the 12-foot college lane for more than three seconds (so no real help-side defense).
  • A player without the ball cannot be double teamed from the weak side (so let the isolation stars get to their spots before they get the ball)
  • If a player is above the free throw line, the defender must essentially be within arm’s reach of his man (so no playing off big men at the top of the key, also this makes the pick-and-roll unstoppable)
  • If an offensive player cuts, the defender must either follow the cutter, switch, or double team on the weak side (so no letting cutters who can’t shoot roam freely)

Guess what happened?  Offenses flourished.  The superstars, like Larry Bird, could get to their preferred spots with no threat from the weak side.  Ever wonder why Bird could post up on the extended elbow with no interruption?  It’s because the NBA wanted Bird to score, and prohibiting weak side help assured the best scorers would shoot the most shots.

Let’s use the 1983-1984 season in comparing.  As a whole, the league shot an unbelievable .492% from the floor on 88.4 shots a game that year.  In contrast, the modern NBA has not reached the .460% mark in seven seasons.  The league averaged 84.6 attempts per game last season but shot just .452% from the floor.  I know what you’re going to say: “But look at the top teams in the league – their offense is tremendous.”  Not exactly.  The Warriors led the league with just 114.9 points per game last season.  In that 1983-1984 campaign we were discussing, five teams averaged over 115 points a contest.  Two teams, the Nuggets (English, Lever) and Spurs (Gervin) recorded over 120 points per game.

“But what about the gutter teams?  Their offense is still top-notch despite losing most games.”

No it’s not.  Every single team registered more than 101 points a game in the 1983-1984 season, whereas seven teams averaged under 100 points last season.

This level of offense would be unprecedented in the modern NBA.

This is true of the entire 1980’s.  The 1990’s suffered from poor team play and top heavy competition overall, but the birth of glamor NBA stars helped the league overcome it’s shortcomings as far as quality of play.  Folks love to glorify the 1990’s NBA, but it was almost completely one-on-one, back to the basketball, isolation hero ball.  The stars made the league, which is reminiscent of how the modern game is becoming.

The league’s offensive production took it’s deepest nosedive in the early 2000’s, reaching it’s improbably floor when only two teams averaged over 100 points per game in the 2003-2004 season.  That same year, the Raptors recorded a pitiful 85.4 points per game on .418% shooting from the field.  The return of the zone defense was devastating.  Thankfully, league-wide scoring has made a slight recovery in recent years, but NBA fans will never experience the offensive firepower of years gone by.

So, we proved that team offense has declined overall, but what about individuals?  Here are the number of players that averaged 25 or more points in the NBA by season:

2015-2016 Season: 6 players
2005-2006 Season: 10 players
1995-1996 Season: 5 players
1985-1986 Season: 5 players

In all, it seems individual scoring peaked in the mid 2000’s and has averaged out in the modern era.  This correlates with the team-oriented mindset that has been reborn in recent years; however, instead of mass distribution and powerful offenses, teams have to be more efficient because the defenses are so powerful.  More ball circulation – less overall scoring.

The real question remains: has offense declined or has defense improved?  I believe defense has improved.  Nobody can tell me offensive talent has receded with the likes of Stephen Curry and LeBron James in the league.

The zone defense was resurrected heading into the 2001-2002 season, though few teams learned how to exploit its potential as a suffocating weapon.  The teams that did, the Spurs and Pistons, found themselves in a punishing championship series in 2005.

Look at these box scores from that series:

Screen Shot 2017-04-10 at 9.49.21 PM

Only once did a team breach the 100-point mark in seven games.  This began the modern era of defense.

Slowly, more teams began figuring out how to use the zone, and this brand of defense spread expeditiously across the NBA.  Tom Thibodeau revolutionized how to guard the pick-and-roll with the Celtics of the late 2000’s, Gregg Popovich revitalized the match-up zone to hide Tony Parker’s flaws on defense, and Harry Litwack’s famous triangle-and-two found new life years after his reign at Temple.

Because of the free-flowing, European-style NBA we see today, we have been mislead by the obscure individual outbursts and the rejuvenation of team-first offense, but nobody can deny this is simply in response to the explosion of potent defenses in professional basketball.  Don’t let the Warriors fool you.  Their bread and butter has been defense, defense, and defense.  In the last three seasons, they’ve ranked first (’15), third (’16), and first (’17) in opponents field goal percentage.

If anything, this is a beautiful balance we are witnessing at the professional level.  The NBA eliminated the physicalness of the 80’s and 90’s, but made up for it by bringing back the zone.  15 years later, we have some of the most complicated and ferocious defensive systems basketball has ever seen, forcing offenses to rely on impeccable efficiency and smart ball movement to survive late in games.  We should see this paradox in full display in the playoffs next weekend.

(Photo Credit via Joseph Glorioso Photography)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s