Defense is getting contagious
It's too early for definitive conclusions, but more teams seem to be emphasizing D
The defensive-minded Celtics provided a good example in winning the 2008 title
The Lakers and Celts have been the top two defensive teams so far this season
It's been noted before that the NBA, like second grade and CEOs in search of bailouts, is a copycat league. Something that works for one person or team -- a half-court set, combo guards, a luxury-tax loophole or the champagne-cooler upgrade in the back seat of the Maybach -- hurriedly gets adopted by some other person or team. C'mon, you didn't think the headband renaissance was the result of spontaneous perspiration. The same goes for Hack-a-Shaq and isolation plays.
And, from the early look of things, for defense, too. What worked so well for the Celtics in chasing down the 2008 NBA championship, what served as their calling card, was their ability to choke off the other guys' offense. Fans and media labored all season to capture the essence of the eventual champs in a catchy nickname for their three All-Star performers, but nothing ever stuck. While Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen provided the foundation of that team, its identity came on the defensive end. Boston's signature move last season was five guys rotating and helping as one; at its best, it was as stunning as a Chris Paul crossover, as masterful as a day at the office for Mozart or Monet.
So, natch, other teams are nosing around now for a piece of that action. Again, it's early, a mere four weeks into the 2008-09 regular season. But as they say on Wall Street -- or as they used to say, anyway -- the numbers are trending in the right direction.
First, let's identify the pertinent numbers. At the risk of going all rotisserie-this and sabermetrics-that, we'll focus one level beyond the most conventional measures of team defense, namely average points allowed and opponents' field-goal percentage. While readily available and easily understandable, both stats neglect simple yet glaring factors that can tilt a club's defensive evaluation.
The former, points allowed, neglects the pace at which a team routinely plays its games; a team that pushes the ball and leaves plenty of time on the shot clock creates more possessions in a game not only for itself but also for its foes. That means both more chances to score points and more chances to stop points. The best defensive team, then, would be the one that thwarts an opponent most often, rather than holding down the points total by slowing down the whole game. This is calculated as a team's "defensive rating,'' which reveals the points allowed for every 100 opponents' possessions.
The latter conventional stat, defensive field-goal percentage, is lacking because it lumps together both two- and three-point shooting. To illustrate, if your team holds an opponent to 39 percent shooting, that's a great defensive night -- if all its shots were from inside the arc. If all those shots, however, came from outside the arc -- say, 35 out of 90 -- your team would have given up not 70 points but 105, which is the equivalent of getting blistered by 58.3 percent shooting. To blend the impact of the two different field goals, an "effective field-goal percentage'' is used. Developed by hoops stats gurus such as Dean Oliver and others, and popularized on Web sites such as basketball-reference.com, knickerblogger.net and elsewhere, these are some persuasive, common-sense tools that don't push too deep into geekdom or necessarily cause a user's eyes to glaze over or jaw to go slack.
OK, so ... where does the NBA stand, defensively, at the moment? Through Monday, three teams -- the Lakers, Celtics and Magic -- had defensive ratings below 100 ("below'' is a good thing, remember) and a total of 15 were limiting foes to 105 points or fewer per every 100 possessions. The comparable numbers from last season: one team (Boston) below 100 and just four below 105.
Similarly, four teams are holding opponents to effective field-goal percentage of 46 percent or lower, while 11 teams overall have that number below 48 percent. Last year, one team (Boston again) kept the other guys below 46 percent and five teams drew the defensive line at 48 percent. And, interestingly, all these defensive cutoffs were similar for the four seasons -- 2004-05 through '07-08 -- that preceded this one. Something at least seems to be going on, defensively.
"It's tough to say that right now,'' Allen said the other night, when asked if he had noticed a growing points stinginess leaguewide. "We haven't seen everybody. And the case study is going to be somewhat biased when it comes to us, because everybody's going to give us a better effort. Watching two teams that have subpar records, it would be interesting to see what the defense looks like in those games.''
Admitted, the sample size is small; with 204 games in the books, that's about 16.5 percent of the entire 82-game regular season. But there is evidence at the other end of the scale as well: There aren't as many bad defensive teams so far this season. A year ago, seven teams allowed opponents to shoot an effective field-goal percentage of 51 percent or higher and 22 teams yield at least 49 percent. This season, only four and 14 teams, respectively, are violating those cutoffs. Five teams had defensive ratings of 110 or worse and 18 were at 107 or higher. This season? Just three and 10.
Even more telling than the statistics, perhaps, is the attention being paid to defense up and down the NBA spectrum, from organizations with pedigree to those less proud. The Lakers lost just once in their first 12 games but beat themselves up after two or three of them, cranky over what they considered defensive underachievement.
"I'm not happy with this win,'' Kobe Bryant said after Sunday's 118-108 home victory against Sacramento. The Kings shot 53.4 percent, scored 58 points in the paint and became the third team in five games to score at least 100 points against a Lakers team that dedicated the preseason to stopping people.
"It's a mentality,'' Bryant said. "We want to get better each game. We don't want to give up 100 points.''
The Hawks felt the same way as they raced to a 6-0 start this season. Through five games, they were giving up an average of 85.8 points, then won their sixth on Nov. 11 despite allowing Chicago to score 108, including 34 in the fourth quarter. Since then, with top shot-blocker Josh Smith continued to be sidelined with a sprained ankle, Atlanta has gone 2-5 while yielding 104.3 points. What sounded a few weeks ago like religion now seems like lip service.
"We have lost some of our defensive swagger, intensity or whatever you want to call it,'' coach Mike Woodson said earlier this month after back-to-back losses to New Jersey in which the Hawks gave up 234 points in barely 48 hours.
Said Atlanta's Joe Johnson after that lost weekend: "One-on-one, we haven't been really guarding our man particularly well. And I'll take a lot of heat for that. But at the same time, we haven't been manning up and guarding our guys. Guys are flying by and getting to the hole and then breaking our defense down.''
Some teams have more leaks to plug than others. The gold standard remains Boston, which has held 12 out of 15 opponents under 100 points and eight under 80. The Celtics are 1-1 when teams shoot 45 percent or better against them but 12-1 when that number is 44.9 percent or lower. At Minnesota on Saturday, they turned a three-point deficit into a 22-point lead, all in the third quarter, by choking off the Timberwolves on 2-of-17 shooting and outscoring them 35-10.
"When you're playing defense, everybody has to buy into it,'' Garnett told SI.com. "You can't just have two or three guys saying that they're going to play defense. Everybody has to wholeheartedly, 100 percent believe in it. I can honestly say that everybody on our team, when they step on the floor, knows their assignments. Knows they're either going to have to get on the floor, get dirty or do some things they don't necessarily want to do. But it's all in the character of what we are, and we carry it out from the first man on the roster to the 12th and 13th men.''
The Celtics, who underwent their extreme makeover prior to last season and then immersed themselves in assistant coach Tom Thibodeau's advanced defensive curriculum, fast-tracked their way to prowess on that side of the ball as well as a team can. For many teams, altering the expectations and changing the culture isn't a one-month or even one-season thing.
"It's like harmony when we get it right, and when one or two guys slack off, it shows,'' Garnett said. "We've embraced the defense, but I don't think teams in this league embrace the defense. Everybody wants to score, score, score. They think, I guess, that offense gets you limelight. But it's defense that gets you wins.''
Pssst, don't look now, but the copycats have noticed.
Steve Aschburner covered the Minnesota Timberwolves and the NBA for 13 seasons for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He has served as president or vice president of the Professional Basketball Writers Association since 2005.