Defending perimeter stars requires mix of talent and tenacity
Physical length, good system are keys for perimeter defender to be effective
Gerald Wallace, Ron Artest excel in being able to defend multiple players
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Not many players would find a silver lining in giving up 50 points to any one of the NBA's biggest stars, but then not many players face a nightly assault like Milwaukee's Luc Richard Mbah a Moute.
"If someone gets 50 [points] but they had to take tough shots all night, I'm happy with that, especially if we win," the Bucks' 6-foot-8 forward said. "It doesn't matter how much they score, because that's what they're going to do, so you just have to make it tough on them."
Success isn't an absolute for Mbah a Moute and a handful of players who have to defend each team's top offensive threat on the perimeter. Wing defenders can't camp out in the lane and wait to absorb the elbows, shoulders and hips of an opposing big man. They face a more arduous task, dependent on anticipation, quickness and tenacity to avoid becoming highlight victims by the likes of Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
"I gauge success by how [an opposing player] got [his points]," said Denver's Arron Afflalo, who has chased Bryant around the floor more than a few times this season. "Are they impacting the game? Are they taking a lot of shots? Am I keeping them off the foul line? Am I forcing my teammates to always have to help me?"
An introspective mind isn't the only thing a good defender needs. Here are some other necessary traits, according to a few league scouts and coaches:
Length: "A good perimeter defender is going to be in situations at times when he has to defend a point guard, a shooting guard, a small forward and sometimes a power forward," an Eastern Conference scout said. "Length is important in that respect. If the defender is guarding a point guard, that length helps him make up for the quickness disadvantage. And if he's guarding a power forward or stuck having to front a guy in the post, his length helps take away the easy passing angle."
A dependable system: "Good defenders in a bad program don't look good," said Ron Adams, an assistant for the Thunder and the architect of a defense that ranks sixth in opponents' field-goal shooting (44.6 percent). "It's not just about getting a guy with innate ability and saying, 'Play hard.' A lot of it is the program, that you're in a system where you are taught an on-the-ball philosophy, where challenging shots is emphasized. And [learning] angles and how to play those angles.
"If you're in a system that teaches a philosophy, whatever it is, and the team is consistent in teaching it, then those kind of guys really shine."
Help: Defending the wings is a task fraught with risk, one in which even the best are certain to get beat to the basket. And that's why a "big guy who has your back is important," the East scout said. So, too, is a point guard who can play the ball well. Pressure at the point of attack is critical to disrupting an offense and putting an opposing team's star in an uncomfortable situation before he can pick up a head of steam.
Tenacity: "The physical things are important, but No. 1 is you have to have a will," Adams said. "There are a lot of bogus defenders who get voted on these [All-Defensive] teams, in my estimation. There are a lot of unsung guys who work day in and day out, and most of these guys have determined that [playing defense] is how they exist and that they can get ahead by doing what they do defensively. They've internalized that you can win that way and they see themselves as being important parts of the team."
So maybe a willingness to reflect is crucial to finding the type of mind-set that makes for a good defender. After all, Bruce Bowen didn't start for champion Spurs teams because of his 6.1-point career scoring average. With Bowen having retired, we asked a few scouts and coaches: Who might leave the mark defensively on this year's postseason?
Nicolas Batum, Trail Blazers. Great length, young and surprisingly quick and agile. "He's wiry strong," said a West scout, who added that he could see the 6-8 forward log minutes against 7-footer Dirk Nowitzki and the 6-2 Jason Terry if Portland meets the Mavs in the postseason.
Gerald Wallace, Bobcats. "He just plays his ass off," the West scout said. "He's a lockdown defender who has a great nose for the ball. He doesn't have Ron Artest's strength, but he has better quickness. And he's multidimensional. He's a guy who can guard 2s and some 4s in spots."
Arron Afflalo, Nuggets. A great physical talent who has "decent foot quickness," the West scout said. "He can lock down on the ball when he wants to." When might that be? Anytime he wants to, according the man himself. "I don't think anybody has ever given me problems," Afflalo said. "It usually doesn't take me long to see who I can take advantage of defensively."
Rajon Rondo, Celtics. "He's got great shoulder width, which, physically, makes it hard to get past him," the West scout said. A good on-ball defender, Rondo's long arms also make him effective in defending and disrupting pick-and-rolls.
Thabo Sefolosha, Thunder. "Thabo can guard multiple positions," Adams said. "So we use him in many cases to guard point guards." That's not all the 6-5 swingman can do, as Kobe can attest after turning the ball over nine times in his latest clash with the Thunder. In assigning Sefolosha to cover the big scorers such as Bryant, "it allows [the Thunder] to protect Kevin Durant and put him on someone who is maybe a lesser offensive player," Adams said.
Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Bucks. "It all kind of revolves around his feet," Milwaukee coach Scott Skiles said. "He moves very well laterally, so he can get down and guard smaller people. But he's not afraid to use his body on bigger people."
Ron Artest, Lakers. Though not as swift as some of his contemporaries on this list, "he doesn't gamble with speed," the Wes scout said. "He's got incredible strength and a great court sense. He's a little more effective outside and playing the passing lanes, and when he wants to be he is really tough."
Andrei Kirilenko, Jazz. "His body had changed a little bit, he's filled out," the East scout said. "He's not the thin, rangy guy he once was. Still, he's surprisingly nimble and versatile. ... He's got a great sense for the ball. He knows how to play defense."
No matter how loved any of the above are by scouts and coaches, all are sure to be forced to swallow their measure of pride in the coming weeks. But good defense isn't necessarily reflected in the scoring column.
"Over the course of time, the most important element is how hard you make someone work for his shots, how often you can make him go to his second or third options," the East scout said. "A good defender is the guy who's going to make his man have to make more than one field goal per point. Guys like LeBron and Wade and [Paul] Pierce are good enough that they are going to get their points. You have to make them work."
Rick Adelman. The Rockets' coach on Wednesday won his 900th game. The milestone marks a good time to acknowledge the career accomplishments of a vastly underrated coach: a .610 career winning percentage, two Western Conference titles, 11 50-win seasons and only two seasons under .500 in 18 full years on the bench.