SI Vault
Jack McCallum
October 28, 1985
The notion that no defense is played in the NBA is wrong. The better teams clearly have the best D, and they're constantly improving it
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October 28, 1985

Give The 'd'an A-plus

The notion that no defense is played in the NBA is wrong. The better teams clearly have the best D, and they're constantly improving it

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The perception that little—no, no—defense is played in the NBA is a pervasive one, held in particular by pennant-waving boosters of the college game, those guys who think defense begins and ends with a 2-3 collapsing zone in the home snake pit.

Think again: The Milwaukee Bucks went from also-ran to in-the-running largely because of coach Don Nelson's defensive strategies. Nelson's approach includes a 110-page book of D, plus 10-buck-a-miss quizzes that are hardly trivial, even for the ego-driven millionaires of the NBA. Says Nelson, "It takes the average college player almost a year to get accustomed to what man-to-man concepts are all about."

For years the Denver Nuggets outshot every team on the planet, but only once did they make the NBA's Final Four. Last season, the Nuggets picked up Calvin Natt, Fat Lever and Wayne Cooper, fine defensive players at three different positions, for Kiki Vandeweghe, the league's 16th-leading scorer but a nondefender. Guess who made the Final Four? Cleveland became respectable last year, after "its defense picked up a notch," says the Lakers' Michael Cooper. It was only last season that Utah's Mark Eaton, a no-offense center, grew—well, he was already 7'4"—into as near as you can get to a superstar on the basis of shot-blocking.

The Lakers beat the Sixers for the championship in 1982 with major help from a cute "fake trap" that turned the Sixers to stone at half-court. The next year, the Sixers came back and beat the Lakers with their own gimmick defense, running two men at Magic Johnson while, at their own end, showcasing the defensive talents of Maurice Cheeks, Bobby Jones and an immovable object in the paint named Moses Malone. The Celtics had trouble stopping big guards from scoring that season, so they traded for Dennis Johnson, a tough defender, and won the title in '84. And last season the talent-rich and strategy-wise Lakers utilized that mobile windmill, Cooper, as part of a defense that repeatedly broke games open in explosive bursts en route to the title.

"Anyone who watches our game and says there is no defense, just doesn't understand it," says commissioner David Stern. "That's all there is to it."

Unfortunately for the NBA, that's not all there is to it. There is still a body of dedicated fans that considers the NBA the NDA, the No-D Association. Why?

•Man-to-man defenses: Since its inception in 1946, the NBA has allowed only man-to-man—even four decades ago it did not want defensive teams to sag back on the big men underneath and force offensive teams to take mostly outside shots. It wanted the drive for the basket and the creative offensive move to be a major part of the game. Many observers view this defensive prerequisite as a weakness, never mind the fact that many, maybe most, college teams play zone on a regular basis to hide their weaker defenders. And, indeed, during much of its history, the NBA's man-to-man mandate made for some colossally boring, all-offense basketball. Worst case: Wilt Chamberlain used to go out every night and bury some stiff at center because defenses weren't creative enough to give Wilt's victim any help.

•The media: Basketball fans have been treated like dim bulbs who understand nothing more complex than a point spread. Millions of TV viewers sit rapt as John Madden chalks out a rotating zone in the defensive backfield during an NFL game, but we rarely see on replay, say, Paul Pressey and Sidney Moncrief cooperating to force an opposing guard into a turnover. The NBA itself promotes its "ballet above the basket" at the expense of the defensive battleground below.

•Filling the seats: With certain exceptions, like Patrick Ewing, NBA teams are reluctant to pay for defensive stars. There are no true defensive stats besides blocks, steals ("Even they're misleading," says former Celtic, Buck and Net assistant John Killilea, "because they don't count attempts") and defensive rebounds, and a tough man-to-man defender's worth is hard to quantify come contract time. Every coach wants a guy like Denver's T.R. Dunn (a 6.3 points-per-game career scorer but a defensive demon), but general managers look at low score/low ticket sales stats and snap the purse shut.

•Racism: Some people really buy the cliché that black players, the vast NBA majority, only want to shoot. And as a corollary, they point to the fact that white guys are slow, but great on defense. This despite the fact that Bobby Jones is the only white player consistently singled out as a top defender.

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