By Will Stevenson
“Guys just don’t lose their defensive ability, the new “space and pace” has stolen it from them, not allowing player’s to play to their defensive strengths.”
Before the playoffs began, I wondered what “playoff basketball” would look like under the new area of “space and pace” offense in the NBA. I was drawn to the nostalgia of games in which teams didn’t score above 90, and defenses were insistent on keeping players out of the paint. The rules of the game were to never allow any easy baskets inside, and force players to take jumpshots. As the NBA pace sped up, more traditional big men were forced off the floor, and new and improved shooters were added to the lineup. The Pick & Roll has evolved into more than just PG and big man, the P&R now involves one guy at the top of the key, a roll or fade teammate, and the other three teammates stand around the perimeter, leaving the lane open for penetration. Defenses use to be able to trap, hedge and rotate, but with the offense shooting threes, defenses are forced to switch to keep the man with the ball out of the lane, leaving centers and non perimeter defensive big man on an island against a guard or forward who will take them off the dribble. I wondered how teams would play defense during the playoffs with them being more focused on offense during the regular season. I thought teams would “turn it up” in the playoffs, but I was wrong. The new “space and pace” has allowed offensive players to reign supreme and do what they do best: Get mismatches. The days of Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutumbo and other defensive centers is almost over, with Rudy Gobert holding down the fort. It’s not that centers were cheating by standing in the paint, or somehow maneuver around an illegal defense call, the big man they are guarding is setting a pick 30 feet from the basket and/or is behind the arc ready to shoot a three or make a skip pass to the next shooter. So not only does John Wall a threat to shoot, he also knows there’s no big man in the paint to contest his penetration, and if there is, he’s too far away to close out on a shooter.
The Celtics shoot threes, that’s what they do. The run an offensive set that keeps Isaiah Thomas at the top with four players around the three-point line. They run a P&R with on of those players and force a switch, then they shoot a three, pass, or penetrate. It worked well during the season, but not now: They aren’t hitting anything versus the Cavaliers. On the defensive side, Al Horford, Kelly Olynyk and Amir Johnson are getting toasted in the P&R. They seem to switch every time onto Lebron James, hoping to keep him out of the paint, but they are no match for his shooting, passing and penetration.
I don’t think the NBA is trash, nor should it be ashamed of the overall product. Just as the NFL, the NBA is going through an offensive surge while the defense is trying to catch up on the fly. Defensive principles have to be worked on, practiced, and perfected. Will it happen? Not in the near future. What does Defensive Player of the Year mean these days? Rudy Gobert got paid, Andre Roberson will probably get paid, and they are two defensive minded players that excel in what they do. Take notice that Jon Leuer, Miraz Telenovic, Chandler Parsons, Ryan Anderson, Anthony Tolliver and other three-point shooters all received multi-year 10 million dollar contracts for shooting only (Tolliver is making 8 per year). So to be a defensive standout is rare, and although it will pay, being an average or below average shooter will pay your more, quickly. Kelly Olynyk won’t be paid for his defensive prowess this offseason, nor will GMs override his defense when compared to his shooting and passing. He will get paid, regardless if his switching on the P&R leads to easy baskets.
Look at the Orlando Magic, a team that has been lottery locking since Dwight Howard and the shooters left. If you remember their “Free agent big board” that was leaked a month ago, their priority players were shooters. They are looking for players who will stretch the floor, and are also average or below average on defense. The Magic are not an outlier, they are the norm of the NBA. There’s a 6’10” 14 year old right now shooting jumpers and threes. He looks at Karl Anthony Towns and sees himself. He knows KAT is an offensive force in the paint, the block, the perimeter and penetration. This boy may love to block shots and play in the paint because he is young, but coaches know his fast track to the NBA is predicated on his being a perimeter player. Yes, he could be the next Dream, or Ben Wallace, but only a few teams need those, and you have to be at the top of your game to be that type of player. Look at Bismack Biyombo. After a surge in last year’s playoffs, he signed with the Magic. He’s making 17 million a year and the Magic couldn’t care less. He can’t get the nod over Nikola Vuvecic, and he couldn’t play post defense to save his life. BB can’t shoot free throws, pass, or shoot, and his defense isn’t all-around. His man to man defense, pick and roll defense and shot-block chasing is all suspect, therefore he’s on the bench. But he’s paid.
There won’t be another Detroit Pistons team again. The Jazz and the Grizzlies were the closest thing, but they were run out of the building in the playoffs once again. Also remember the Wizards: They were built as a defensive team, and even signed Ian Mahimi to a 4yr/$64mil deal in the offseason. They were one of the worst defensive teams in the league. Why? How? The pick and roll crushed them every single time. Gortat can play in the post, but that’s it. Ian Mahimi looked like Enes Kanter out there trying to keep Isaiah Thomas in front of him. Guys just don’t lose their defensive ability, the new “space and pace” has stolen it from them, not allowing player’s to play to their defensive strengths.
So while you sit and complain about the super teams, realize the team you cheer for isn’t as good, and no matter how many players you try to add to these sub-teams, unless their principles change, they will continue to lose.
Well, there is Lebron, so I don’t blame you for being mad. I’d be to, if I cared.