The Defense Lens

A little more than a month ago, I wrote about the best defensive team and the best offensive team you could put together. My essential conclusion is that defense is cheaper than offense, so if you can find wins through defense, it's usually more cost efficient than paying for the same wins on offense.

The problem, though, and I say this based on nothing more than a suspicion, is that I think the difference between the average NBA defenders and the best ones aren't as great as the difference between the average NBA offensive players and the best ones. It might be just because we don't have many good stats to illustrate it, but there's something to be said for the notion that while we can usually tell which offensive players are better than others, just like that, defense is a tricky animal to tame and we can argue all day about who's a "good" defender versus "average" versus "not so good". All that means is that there may not be enough defensive wins to go around.

Take Carmelo Anthony. Assume it's a given that his offense is extraordinary, and his defense is poor. Basketball is 50% offense and 50% defense, but if his defense over the course of a season is among the worst in the game, and his offense is among the best, it's certainly possible he's a well above average player. Well, that's not a particularly satisfying player, to me.

In a recent blog post, Kansas City Star columnist Joe Posnanski (the best sports columnist today, flush in the middle of what I hope is a long prime of his career) posits that football fans watch the game through either a defensive lens or offensive lens. I maintain the same is true of basketball. I like offense just fine. I get off on sweet back cuts and slip screens, tomahawk jams, and passes through lanes I didn't know existed before the ball zipped through. However, I really get my kicks from seeing how offense is thwarted.

It might be because my favorite player growing up in the mid-90s was Dennis Rodman. I was an undersized power forward on my junior high teams that won exactly one game over two seasons. I couldn't shoot and couldn't create off the dribble. But the Worm showed me I could still rebound like mad and play good defense.

Now, when I watch games, high school, college, or pro, invariably I look up and down the respective rosters and imagine a defensive plan. Then, when the game starts, I look for the actual plans the teams are executing.

Right now, I guess I'm right there with other defense junkies in saying I love the Celtics' scheme. From my seat behind the basket, I watched them play a floating zone that allowed a single big man to control the paint, because he had help on either side of the lane from a teammate, and any time an opponent came near, the big man would skip to his side, then slide off, then skip to his side, and so on, in order to avoid a defensive three seconds call. The flexibility of the scheme allows them to utterly crush teams that can't hit threes, since they tend to dare opponents to hoist away, and they'll take away the lane.

The Celtics lead the league in fewest points in the paint allowed, and a big part of this is because they determine before the game that they will cut off that part of the floor. Instead of having the mentality that they're going to stay in front of five moving pieces, or they're going to stick like glue to five moving pieces, they dictate to the opposition that they will not be able to score if they try to use any part of the half court that's roughly 12 feet and in from the basket, and that they'll do their best to stop you from scoring elsewhere, but they simply won't concede that 12 foot arc.

As the Bobcats build for the future, they would do well to recognize that they have a valuable defensive force in Emeka Okafor, and an above average defender in Gerald Wallace, that they can use as cornerstones. Assuming DJ Augustin stays as the point guard for the foreseeable future, Bell will either be moved or let go when his deal expires in 2010, and Diaw will be moved, that's two spots that could stand for a defensive upgrade.

I would love to see the Bobcats get Ron Artest to replace Diaw. And I might have an apoplectic joy attack if they also got a two-ish/three-ish defensive stopper in addition to Artest to replace Bell, maybe someone like Trevor Ariza. Does he count as a defense-first guy? So they could play Augustin, Ariza, Wallace, Artest, and Okafor, putting up a ridiculously difficult defense to crack for any lineup. Keep in mind, too, the likes of Darren Collison will also be available in the draft, and that would be the much cheaper way of shaping the team into a unit with an identity.

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