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What Defense Means in This Age of Explosive NBA Offense

A historically great offensive regular season is about to run up against the oldest sports truism in the book: Defense wins championships. But will it win this year’s?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Everything burns more intensely in the playoffs. With the pollutants of the regular season (resting, tanking, the Orlando Magic) filtered out of our systems, all eyes are fixed squarely on how teams will elevate what was considered good basketball for six months of the year to something greater.

It also means that whatever regular-season narratives we came equipped with get thrown into a grinder, and what comes out on the other end are familiar axioms. A series is all about matchups. The game slows down in the playoffs. Defense wins championships. Without fail, without question. Teams and players earn reputations in the playoffs that will stick with them for years based on the kinds of defensive performances they unleash. In the intimacy of a seven-game series, teams finish the defensive blueprints that will serve as rich texts for the entire league in the seasons ahead. The postseason forecasts change and how quickly it comes for us — it also shows how quickly change ossifies into the norm, and how quickly the norm can be abused.

Remember when we revised Newton’s three laws of motion to include Roy Hibbert’s law of verticality? That happened, and it happened only three years ago. For two seasons (2012–13 and 2013–14), the Pacers allowed less than 96 points per 100 possessions when Hibbert was on the court, a defensive rating that, over the course of a season, would’ve felt right at home among the best defenses of the early aughts. Hibbert made the restricted area his domain and turned rim protection into a science. He augmented the inherent advantages of his hulking 7-foot-2 frame by simply jumping with his arms raised up above his shoulders when players challenged him around the basket, thereby appealing to the player’s right to vertical space in the NBA’s official rulebook. But soon enough, teams realized Hibbert hunkered down in the paint for a reason, and began to exploit his lack of mobility in space, which eventually metastasized into a kind of perimeter agoraphobia. Hibbert was completely neutralized when teams forced him away from the basket and into pick-and-roll situations on the perimeter. When the NBA became a live-action Mario Kart, his rigid Thwomp tactics became outmoded. What we have now is a league in transition (and its transition D has been awful).

Defense is inherently reactive. Players can influence where an offense takes its shot, but ultimately, a defense can guard only what is in front of it. If a high screen is set 30 feet away from the basket, that creates a ripple effect for the rest of the personnel on the floor. Comfort zones are challenged, and standard procedure changes. Entering this NBA season, switch everything was a popular refrain, and the strategy of swapping defensive assignments in the pick-and-roll remains sound for teams built to take advantage of their edge in size and length. When Karl-Anthony Towns, Steven Adams, and Kevin Love all had their moments expertly guarding Steph Curry on the perimeter last year, it felt like we were witnessing the Northern Lights guiding us forward. But defenses will always be chasing the style of yesterday; teams have already found ways to stay a step ahead of the switch. And the trends that defensive players are capable of bringing to the league fizzle out quickly.

Basketball is divided by two halves of a court and two sides of play, which naturally suggests a 50–50 split in the value of offense and defense. But value fluctuates by era, by season, even by game. Playing defense asks each individual in a five-man lineup on the floor to view not only its opponent, but itself, from the third-person. A good defense, on any given play, collates different perspectives on the action — how the opponent typically runs the play, how the defense would run the play if they were in that same position on offense, and how extenuating circumstances on the floor might affect execution — into a coherent game plan that lasts no longer than 24 seconds at a time.

It requires so much discipline, pattern recognition, and preparation that something as foolish as the youthful Suns offense forgetting how to run a set and just winging it can throw an elite defense for a loop. “Sometimes it’s tougher [to defend] against bad teams because you can’t really get a read on them,” Defensive Player of the Year candidate Draymond Green told The Mercury News’ Tim Kawakami. “It’s a crazy thing, but it’s a thing. They just don’t have a structure to them, or like they don’t make the right play, so it’s hard to ever get a read on it.”

While an offense like the Warriors can occasionally survive in a free-flowing, unorganized environment over the course of a game, defenses cannot. It makes sense that most teams are extremely inefficient defensively because playing defense is an incredibly inefficient act.

This season, it’s been hard to tell what efficient defense is even supposed to look like anymore. The Utah Jazz are a top-three defense in the league, allowing 102.7 points per 100 possessions; that same figure last year would have placed them outside of the top 10. The arbitrary top-[insert number] hierarchies we’ve established aren’t useful in separating good from bad when the difference in efficiency between the best defense and the fifth-best is essentially the difference between the fifth and 20th.

But it’s not like defense as a concept is dead, it’s that teams are reacting to different stimuli in today’s game. That shifts the barometer of what qualifies as acceptable D. In 2014, a defense allowing teams an effective field goal percentage of 47.2 percent in the half court would have been considered the worst in the league; in 2017, a 47.2 eFG% is the league-leading mark from the Warriors, the NBA’s best half-court defense, according to Synergy Sports. Effective field goal percentage weighs the fact that 3-pointers are 1.5 times more valuable than 2-pointers, so the absurd spike in percentages shouldn’t be much of a surprise: 25.9 percent of field goal attempts in 2014 came from behind the arc; in 2017, that percentage has risen to 31.6. The more 3s go up, the more 3s go in, and the higher a team’s eFG% rises.

That all makes sense, but at the rate in which offenses are improving, and with the unending procession of omnipositional players entering the league ready to take it all a step further, it’s enough to wonder — when exactly will NBA defenses have time to catch a breath, let alone catch up?

Talking about defense in a season seemingly devoid of it is best done through its best defenders. From a certain vantage, this season’s Defensive Player of the Year race mirrors its MVP race: Its presumed front-runners all occupy a clear vision of what the award represents.

The two-time DPOY winner Kawhi Leonard fills the role of both LeBron James and himself here: He is the best individual defensive player on the best defensive team in basketball — that’s the entire argument. Watching Leonard D up his opponent, it’s almost compelling enough. No other defensive player exudes the air of inevitability that Kawhi does — the shot clock becomes a countdown to how quickly he can force the ball out of his counterpart’s hands, one way or another.

Great defenses rarely allow for the kind of one-on-one showcase that offense affords viewers, but Leonard’s ability to make an offensive player completely disappear (and his cross-platform Peanut Punch) makes him one of the most visually compelling defenders ever.

There are a number of ways to explain away Leonard’s apparent negative impact on the Spurs’ defense when he’s on the floor — his playing time is often in lockstep with the best perimeter player on the opposing team; entropy has made it such that opponents shoot a disproportionately high percentage from 3 when he’s on the court. But whatever the case, he’s had to confront the superstar’s dilemma this entire season: There is no going 100 percent on both offense and defense night in and night out. Luckily, he hasn’t had to, with the emergence of rangy, athletic defenders like Jonathon Simmons and Dewayne Dedmon to go along with the consistent excellence of Danny Green. And briefly, as for his MVP campaign: Kawhi is completely qualified, and deserves the honor, but awarding a player largely on the virtue of playing on both ends — especially in a season when offensive efficiency has lapped defensive latitude — seems to me like earmarking the wrong page in a history book.

Draymond Green slots in as the Russell Westbrook in this race: With Andrew Bogut gone, the impetus was on Green to become the chief communications officer of the Warriors backline while also covering for his teammates all over the court; his comprehensiveness on defense is rivaled by only Russ’s on offense. Green has hit the DPOY campaign trail recently, giving Q&As to whoever will take one. And while his self-confidence is brimming, Draymond really does give off a sense that he’s internalized not only the Warriors’ unique defensive principles, but the entire league’s. “Part of that is just knowing what they want to do and try to beat them to the punch,” Green told the Mercury News. “I’d always rather be a step ahead and have to cover up for being a step ahead than covering up for being a step slow.” He’s the rare player who can brag about preempting an offense’s entire game plan and get away with it.

That leaves Rudy Gobert as the DPOY race’s James Harden: Like the Beard, who has assumed Steve Nash’s role in Mike D’Antoni’s system and taken it several notches higher, Gobert has taken Hibbert’s methodology and brought it into the future, anchoring a modern defense with classic principles. Gobert’s wingspan, which stretches close to 7-foot-9, and surprising lateral mobility allow him to patrol the paint in ways that his monolithic predecessors couldn’t. “With our personnel, we’re able to shut down pick-and-roll two-on-two,” Gordon Hayward said in March, “and guys are able to stay home.”

What he means is a pick-and-roll’s primary utility is to create a two-on-one advantage by forcing the interior defender to make a decision as to who to pick up. But Gobert, by simply unfurling his arms, can track both the handler and roller, giving his teammates time to recover without leaving their individual assignments. The Jazz allow the fewest corner 3s in the NBA, because the corners are usually left open when players are forced to leave their man to help on the other side of the court, and that rarely ever happens with Utah. This is the heart of the Jazz’s defensive game plan, and where my imperfect Gobert:Green :: Harden:Westbrook analog reverses field. Gobert is the Jazz’s defensive system — his presence simplifies the tasks of the teammates around them, whereas Green serves as the genius who takes a smart defense into the highest tier. The same questions we have about what “most valuable” means in the MVP race apply here, too.

Gobert is the most fascinating figure in the DPOY race for me, and it’s precisely because of the tonal shift that playoff basketball casts over the regular season. Both Green and Leonard have proven their defensive chops at the highest level, and both have come away with a ring. Gobert’s vitals during the season are undeniable, but what will happen this weekend and beyond?

The Jazz big man stands as the defensive backbone to a team with almost no postseason experience, and he deals with the same weaknesses that forced Hibbert’s all-defensive utility into extinction. Teams will invariably toy with Gobert’s predilection to drop back into the paint. On the occasions when Gobert was on the court to defend an open 3-point shooter this year, you could see his feet shuffling, hesitant to take too many steps beyond the key.

Gobert’s sense of timing around the rim is as immaculate as his timing on the perimeter is awkward. Here he is, indecisive about whether to contest Meyers Leonard from the top of the arc:

Utah’s first-round opponent is well aware of Gobert’s issues guarding from outside, and the Clippers have done their part in exploiting them. Here, Chris Paul takes advantage of not only the Jazz’s communication issues, but Gobert’s utter lack of interest in covering Paul despite the trailing DeAndre Jordan not even being in the picture until the shot is up:

The Jazz didn’t ask Gobert to stray too far from his comfort zone in the regular season, but he’ll have to show the willingness to step out when the Clippers (and possibly the Warriors down the line) deploy five-out lineups that eliminate the need for a full-time rim protector.

All three of Gobert, Green, and Kawhi Leonard are one-of-ones, irreplicable defensive talents who single-handedly warp an entire team’s approach to offense. But Gobert has a significantly higher burden of proof than the other two.

Both the Warriors and Spurs have top-10 offenses and top-two defenses, bolstered by time-tested coaching and chemistry. They’re built to roll with the punches. The Jazz may be the most interesting team in the first round, and they might have enough talent to play spoiler in the latter rounds should things go their way, but it’ll be a long road. Utah plays methodically, at the slowest pace in the league, and in a style that relies on its defense to win games. The Jazz are built to have opponents conform to their standards, but we’ve yet to see what happens when the Jazz are forced out of their shells. The Jazz are not championship contenders this season, but their peculiar position in today’s league — one foot in the past, and one step toward the present — makes them an interesting case study for what could be the central question of these playoffs: Does defense win this year’s championship? Or, more specifically: How little is good enough?