With the 2011 NBA Finals about to begin between the Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat basketball experts are already chiming in that the team which plays the best defense will win. Despite the fact that the two teams in the finals are riding the exploits of their top offensive players, forward Dirk Nowitzki for the Mavericks and forward Lebron James for the Heat. Also, despite the fact that the top ranked defense in the NBA, the Chicago Bulls, were defeated in five games by the Heat in the NBA Eastern Conference Finals and in the only game that they won they scored over 100 points.
Since the Detroit Pistons won back to back NBA titles in 1989 and 1990 we have heard from experts that defense is the key to winning in basketball. We have also heard that defense around the league is better than it has ever been as more emphasis has been placed on it and teams have bought into playing it. The rules were even changed between 2000 and 2002 to allow for teams to play zone defenses. Thus, the consensus seems to be that if a team isn’t totally committed to the defensive end of the court than they can not win a championship.
While it is true that defense plays a more prominent role in NBA basketball it is still a game where one team has to outscore the other to win. Because of the 24 second shot clock this will always be the case. Since a team has to give the ball back to their opponent they have to score to win. You can not hold the ball for an entire quarter, take a shot at the buzzer and lead 2-0. Nor do the fans want to see this. If they did than there would be no shot clock.
Even with more emphasis being placed on defense it is not the sole reason why teams have gotten better at stopping their opponent from scoring. In fact, it probably is not a reason at all. One could make a case that since the mid 1990’s the defenses in the NBA, and all of basketball, have not improved so much as that the offensive skill level of teams and players has declined. Let’s look at a few reasons why teams have become easier to defend.
-Teams are easier to defend, because they don’t have as many scoring threats to worry about:
The NBA before the mid 1990’s was about scoring. Basketball at all levels was about scoring. Unless you were a good defensive center or rebounder, if you could not contribute to a team by scoring than you didn’t play.
In the 1980’s every team in the NBA put at least four players on the court who could score. The Pistons themselves boasted a starting lineup of Isaiah Thomas and Joe Dumars at the guards, Mark Aguire and Bill Laimbeer at forward and James Edwards at center. The first players off of the bench, center John Salley, guard Vinnie Johnson and forward Dennis Rodman could score also. They had to in order to beat teams like the Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls.
The Los Angeles Lakers of the 1980’s boasted guards Ervin “Magic” Johnson, Norm Nixon and later Byron Scott. Center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar who was later backed up by Mychal Thompson. And forwards like Jamal Wilkes, James Worthy, Bob Mcadoo and A.C. Green. Even forward Kurt Rambis could get to the hoop, take a pass and score.
The Celtics had guards like Dennis Johnson, Danny Ainge, Chris Ford and Nate Archibald. Forwards Larry Bird, Cedric Maxwell and Kevin McHale. And center Robert Parrish. Not to mention three point marksman Jerry Sichting.
The Philaedlphia 76’ers championship team of 1983 had guards Maurice Cheeks and Andrew Toney. Forwards Julius “Dr. J” Erving and Bobby Jones. And center Moses Malone.
The Chicago Bulls of the early 1990’s boasted guards John Paxson and Michael Jordan, forwards Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant and center Bill Cartwright all of whom could score.
It was impossible to stop these teams from scoring, because they just had too many people to defend. They could space you out, move the ball around, find the open man and get good high percentage shots. The three point line was almost an afterthought until the early 1990’s. Only two or three players even thought about taking them. The emphasis was on ball movement and getting each man in the best positon for him to use his particular skill.
Today, teams are lucky if they can put three solid scorers on the floor. The “Big Three” offensive philosophy is now in vouge as teams like the Boston Celtics with Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett and the Heat with James, guard Dwayne Wade and forward Chirs Bosh feel as though with three great players they can compete for the championship.
Because teams no longer have four to five guys who can score, or even three, defenses can clamp down with zones and double teams on the main scorers and force less skilled players to beat them. Most of the time they can’t. So scoring decreases and defensive numbers improve.
What has led to tthe decline in offensive skills?
-The lack of basic offensive fundamentals through lack of practice and lack of coaching:
This problem plagues basketball at all levels. Players today are more athletic than their predecessors, but they are not as fundamentally sound offensively. The reason for this is that they are not being taught offensive skills at the lower levels. They are not being taught how to shoot, where to shoot and how to execute an offense. Especially those with the most physical talent.
When I was going to Gwynn Park High school in Maryland during the 1980’s, I used to watch our team practice from time to time. Our coach pretty much ran every session the same. Individual time than team. Free throws first. Than players would pair off and work on their best offensive moves. Than the three man fast break drill in which a guard would take the ball down the middle of the court with a player on each side of him and they would go to the hoop for a layup. Not once did they stop at the top of the key. Everything went to the hoop. Than finally five on five offense and defense under the coaches supervision. Using this system our team won eight Maryland state championships in 16 years. Not bad. It didn’t hurt matters that our players stayed from their first year of high school to the last and didn’t tranfer from school to school like today’s kids. So they could learn teamwork through continuity.
When I coached baseball at my high school during the 1990’s, I would watch the basketball team practice. They would do the free throw drill and some of the players would work on individual drills. But many times half of the team would be doing absolutely nothing while two or three players would be casually working on their game. Truthfully, there was more emphasis put on team play in the summer leagues than the school year. Nevertheless, our teams still made it to state championship games they just didn’t win them. Many times, because they were less skilled offensively than the teams from Dunbar and Douglass of Baltimore City. This is still the case today.
If our school was, and is, one of the best in a fertile hoops bed like Maryland and the skills of the players have eroded than how much has this happened across the board? And aren’t these the players who are moving up to the college ranks, playing one or two years than going to the NBA? It’s almost like the school system in which kids are given a passing grade without learning any skills. Than when they get older they don’t have the necessary skills to do a job at the highest level.
When and where this started, I have no idea. But for whatever reason kids just are not learning the basic offensive skills of basketball. Which has led to the disappearance of the next two aspects of offense.
-The two guard system and the fast break:
The two guard system of offensive basketball is a thing of the past. It began to go out of the window when great players like Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant who are not true point guards began to bring the ball up the floor and initiate the offense.
It used to be that every team put two guards on the floor who could pass and shoot. Dumars and Thomas in Detroit, Magic Johnson and first Nixon than Scott in L.A. Ainge and Dennis Johnson in Boston. Cheeks and Toney in Philadelphia. And the first guard off of the bench could also.
Now teams usually have one guard who handles the ball and is usually good at either shooting or passing, but rarely both. They have not been taught to run an offense at the lower levels. They have always been the dominant ball handler. And with the disappearance of the center as the focal point of the offense more emphasis has been put on point guards to score.
This is okay, but with the lack of skills at the other positions once again teams can double the guard, get the ball out of his hands and make someone else beat them. This was harder to do with two quality guards. It’s much easier with one.
As for the fast break it’s just not run as efficiently as it used to be. One, because with one guard to handle the ball instead of two it’s tougher to get a good ball handler out to lead the break. Two, because many of today’s players just don’t know how to space, fill lanes and pass the ball in order to get it to the basket. And, three, because there is so much more emphasis on the three point shot than in the past teams are more willing to have their wingmen set up behind the arc and take a low percentage three pointer than a high percentage two.
One man should never be able to stop a three man fast break. Even if they foul the shooter. But it happens quite often in today’s basketball. Most transition baskets today are scored on leakouts in which a defender sneaks out after the opponent takes a shot and gets a long pass thrown to him after his team gets the rebound.
-Then there is the move toward big men setting up on the perimiter and the earlier mentioned emphasis on the three point shot:
The over six foot eight basketball player has changed. Big men today can shoot much better from the outside, but have more trouble playing in the low post and with their backs to the basket. Thus the high percentage mid range jump shot, hook shot and even the dunk have been replaced by big men trying to drive to the basket from outside of the paint or taking jump shots. Some players, like Nowitzki, James and Kevin Durant can do this. Others can’t. And the offense suffers.
Than there is the three point shot. When it was first introduced in the NBA it was thought of as a last ditch or comeback strategy unless you had a Larry Bird. Than the colleges adopted the three point line and began to use it. Than the high schools. Now, players who a coach wouldn’t even think about letting take an outside shot are taking them. They are willing to trade shooting percentage for more point value. Even on a fast break. Of course, everyone knows that a defense would much rather let it’s opponent take a low percentage three than a high percentage two unless it’s a shot which will decide the game.
This is a monumental shift in offensive philosphy that has helped defensive basketball. As is the last reason for the decline in offensive basketball since the mid 1990’s
-Offesnive basketball has gone from an inside-out game to an outside-in game:
Teams are putting much more emphasis on the outside shot now than in the past. It used to be that offensive basketball was predicated on getting the ball as close to the basket as possible whether it be in transition or the half court game. In transition, the ball was always driven towards the basket. In the half court, the center or a forward almost always touched the ball in the post or the lane was cleared for someone to drive to the basket. If whoever was in the post or drove the lane was double teamed than they would look for the open man. Simple as that.
Now teams run more isolation outside of the paint. Players either take outside shots early in the shot clock or let the shot clock run down before being forced to take a bad shot. This works in the defenses favor. If the offense takes a quick shot than they are less likely to have someone who can rebound. If they let the shot clock run down than the defensive player can hold his ground and clamp down on the ballhandler as time runs out.
This not only leads to fewer good shots, but decrease the chances of a player getting fouled and sent to the free throw line.
These are just a few reasons why offensive basketball has declined and defense seems to have improved. They are there for all to see. Fewer scoring threats, the lack of basic offensive skills, the passing of the two ballhandling and scoring guard offense, the decline of the fast break, big men on the perimiter, the emphasis on the three point shot and the change from inside-out basketball to outside-in. All of these things have made life easier for defenses.
And there doesn’t seem to be a sea change anywhere in sight.