Extra MustardSI On CampusFantasyPhoto GalleriesSwimsuitVideoFanNationSI KidsTNT

All the rage

NBA's defensive landscape produced by evolution of rules, personnel

Posted: Thursday October 28, 2004 1:18PM; Updated: Thursday October 28, 2004 3:53PM
Free E-mail AlertsE-mail ThisPrint ThisSave ThisMost PopularRSS Aggregators
Dissecting the demise
Sluggish offense is as much to blame as tight defense for the scoring decline
By John Hollinger
Fouled up
The NBA's plan to call more fouls promises to hinder, not help scoring
By Marty Burns
Power Play$
Expanding powers
Superstars are trying to call their shots -- on and off the court
By Marty Burns
Spheres of influence
Counting down the 10 most powerful players in history
By John Hollinger
Hard bargains
Teams face difficult choices when a player demands a trade
By Jack McCallum

While the NBA plays more intense defense now than it ever did, that does not necessarily equate to better.

Your grandfather will tell you that nobody guarded the basket like Boston's Bill Russell in the 1950s, and your father will tell you that nobody hounded perimeter players with the tenacity of Jerry Sloan in the '70s. ("When you're playing him it's like going through the tunnel of love," New York Knicks' immortal Walt Frazier once said of Sloan. "All you feel is hands, knees and elbows all over you.")

Who's to argue with Gramps or Pop? Especially when it's true that Russell and Sloan were unbelievable defenders. But defense did not disappear when baggy shorts came into vogue. Over the last decade or so teams have followed the dictate that the recipe for a championship must include a generous portion of defense.

Alas, that formula hasn't always been particularly pleasing to watch. The aesthetic decline has been a gradual one since pro hoops reached its zenith in the '80s, when every team in the league averaged at least 100 points. That isn't to say that Pat Riley's Showtime Lakers played poor defense, but there's no doubt that L.A.'s priorities were (a) getting out on a fast break led by Magic Johnson and (b) playing a smooth halfcourt offense predicated on getting the ball into center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and freeing up operating space for small forward James Worthy. Significantly, the era's biggest stars, Magic and Larry Bird -- the players most recognized for returning the NBA game to prominence -- were known for being average defenders (though both were canny team defenders).

Even as recently as '93-94, after defense had come into vogue, 20 teams averaged triple digits in scoring. Last season? Only the Dallas Mavericks and Sacramento Kings hit for 100 a night, and they were considered underachievers.

So what turned the NBA into more D than O? A few things:

-- Michael Jordan. When Jordan laid 49 and 63 points on the Boston Celtics in consecutive '86 playoff games in Boston Garden, the rest of the league, particularly the Eastern Conference, and especially the Detroit Pistons, took notice.

Under coach Chuck Daly, the Pistons adopted an if-you-can't-beat-him-beat-him-up strategy. The defensive principles employed by the punishing Pistons to marshal their forces to stop Jordan were referred to as the Jordan Rules (also the title of Sam Smith's best-selling book about the Bulls). By the '87-88 season, Jordan was clearly the most lethal offensive weapon in the league, yet the Pistons beat back his Bulls three straight years in the postseason until the Bulls finally broke through in '91 and went on to dominate that decade.

-- The NBA played follow the leader. Detroit's defensive-minded Bad Boys won back-to-back titles in '89 and '90, and since no team had the offensive hardware to match Jordan, many decided to adopt the Pistons' defense-first strategy. Nowhere was this more apparent than in New York where Pat Riley, Ol' Mr. Run-and-Gun himself, took over in '91 and turned the Knicks into a smashmouth team that played physical defense, a philosophy Riley later took with him to Miami. The shift to a more physical game did a lot for the Knicks, who developed into an Eastern Conference power, but not much for the artistry of the game. What the Knicks and their contemporaries seemed to forget in adopting the Pistons' approach was that Detroit had missiles as well as muscles. Thouggh making their mark as a rugged defensive group, the likes of Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Vinnie Johnson, Mark Aguirre, Bill Laimbeer and James Edwards were outstanding offensive players.

James Edwards; Michael Jordan; Isiah Thomas; Bill Laimbeer
The Pistons efforts to manhandle Michael Jordan in the late 1980s set a defensive tone the NBA still maintains.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

-- The Bulls remade themselves. Not content with just being the best offensive player in the league, Jordan, with considerable help from such all-court scramblers as Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant and Dennis Rodman, turned the Bulls into an excellent defensive team during their second three-peat run in the '90s. Opposing coaches constantly reminded their teams that, although the Bulls were a very good offensive team -- primarily because of Jordan -- they were a great defensive team. That was not what coaches were saying about the Lakers in the '80s.

-- The zone. The rules outlawing zone defense, counter-intuitively, began to have the opposite effect than what was intended: i.e., they resulted in more of a defensive game. Once coaches began isolating their best players to create one-on-one and two-on-two situations, the defensive wizards on the bench began to exploit what you could do on defense -- double-team the player with the ball and rotate everyone else to cover the court. That created a new defensive paradigm.

Last year's champs, the Detroit Pistons, were rightly praised for their unselfishness and spread-the-wealth offensive philosophy, but even more important to their ultimate victory was the team defense they played that shrunk the floor and cut down on the effectiveness of Lakers superstars Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal.

The flip side of becoming adept at doubling down and rotating, however, was that over time many NBA players became lazy in executing the basic defensive skills of sliding their feet and getting around picks. That explains why the U.S. Olympic team had such trouble defending the motion offenses of the European teams in Athens last summer. Intense defense, as the NBA plays with its double-teams and rotations, does not necessarily equate to superior defense.

-- Nervousness on the bench. As coaches became less and less secure (not that the NBA was ever a shining example for job security) they felt the need to exercise more and more influence over the game to protect their jobs. And the best way to exert control is not to play a wide-open, '80s-style of game, but, rather, to control possessions and play hard-boiled defense. We're going to play tough, physical defense became the mantra of every NBA coach. But the subtext they didn't express was just as critical: And help me keep my job.

-- The youngsters took over. As increasingly younger players entered the league, the offensive skill level of the NBA declined. Yes, the kids could run and jump, but they were ignorant of many of the subtle offensive arts, such as moving without the ball, back-cutting and setting effective picks. And while the kids have had serious defensive deficiencies, too, coaches have tried to cover those up with zealous team defense. This, too, has led to the "defensive-ation" of the game.

Will it turn around? Well, a couple of teams on the way up, such as the Denver Nuggets and Milwaukee Bucks, have made up-tempo basketball and 3-point shooting a priority. The league has tried to push things along, too, by re-instituting zone defense in hopes that long-range marksmanship will come back into fashion. But look for this year's champion, be it the Pistons, the San Antonio Spurs or the Minnesota Timberwolves, to put defense above all else.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Jack McCallum covers the NBA for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com.