Essay: An Ode To Defense
Here’s my ode to defense. A collection of scattered, partially contradicting thoughts that come in response to the recently announced NBA All-Defensive team. As these playoffs near an end, with each possession being valued like a rare jewel, watching defense is as equally stirring as offense. Kendrick Perkins banging on the block with Chandler and Haywood, maybe even stepping out to try his luck guarding Dirk and the Mavericks’ previously unsolvable pick and roll; wondering if after chasing Ray Allen for five games in the second round whether Dwyane Wade will have enough energy to not only counter Derrick Rose’s relentless scoring, but directly keep him from doing so; Dallas deciding who they’ll stick on Kevin Durant. All these subplots are fascinating and bring an added layer to the game’s narrative. Because of this and so much more, I decided to give this thankless duty a salute. It’s too important not to.
* Of the 450 or so players who at any given time may find themselves permeating through this fine country’s various NBA friendly cities, only 10 are publicly recognized for outstanding defensive performance. This league is filled with the greatest athletes in the world. Speedy dribblers who can outrun the flash of a camera, Olympic ready leapers, giants with hands strong enough to crack a walnut, hanging at the tip of arms burly enough to rip up its tree. It seems at times like the court is their prison. Surely if it weren’t for the game of basketball, their physical abilities could be put towards a more widely beneficial use—like scooping a disobedient cat from the roof of a small house. With such potential to make the unthinkable happen, why aren’t their more defensive standouts? Or maybe it’s that they exist beneath the national media’s attention. Only so many words can be written about Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant’s submissive, humble takes on life, LeBron James’ two-headed race against both history books and haters, or Dirk Nowitzki proving he can win the big one. Where are the features on Taj Gibson’s silent role as the league’s best defensive bench player. Why aren’t so many words being written on Russell Westbrook’s somewhat lazy approach to guarding opposing point guards when he could, and should, be impossible to beat off the dribble. The league’s filled with guys who, if they wanted, could move their feet just as quick on defense as they do cutting to the basket. (O.J. Mayo’s work on Westbrook in their last series is an example.)
* The NBA All-Defensive First and Second Teams are comprised of 10 (sometimes 11 should a tie occur in the voting process) players who are able to alter a game’s strategy based on what they do when their opponent is on the attack. That’s it. 10 guys. It’s arguably the game’s most vital aspect in determining who wins and who loses, yet still, despite countless team statistics begging to differ, offensive accolades are what push the league forth and into the shining spotlight. Take a look at the 16 best teams ranked by defensive rating this season. Only one didn’t make the playoffs (Milwaukee). The one who isn’t in the top 16 is the New York Knicks (you guessed it). Coincidence they were the only team swept? Defense wins championships is the cliche statement in sports, but in basketball it’s true.
* For every single award, the total package of a player is rarely taken into account. Your 2011 MVP was called out by a colleague for suspect defense (and then, in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, enabled Jeff Teague to a probable starting spot next season); the Most Improved Player was “most improved” simply because his head coach caved in to defensive inefficiencies and, for fear of losing his job, gave him more playing time; the All-Rookie First Team was loaded with scorers, but you could argue a distinct defensive advantage at every position on the Second Team; and the Sixth Man was Lamar Odom, universally recognized for his contributions on the offensive end. The trend isn’t new, and it shouldn’t shock anybody. In terms of sexy, appealing qualities, defense is to the NBA what makeup wipes are to a runway fashion show. They strip down the superficiality—pogo stick dunking, insane ankle breaking crossovers, behind the back and between the leg passes—and make everything feel human. It’s the game’s bare essence; you can’t be fancy on defense and you can’t fake effort without being exposed. Defense is hard, physically exerting, and when facing a player like Dirk Nowitzki or Derrick Rose, is dotted in moments of pointlessness. Why exert 100 percent of your energy on a futile cause when you can save it for the game’s other, more glorious side. People stand and clap when the ball drops through the basket. They don’t when you’re crouched down low with your shoulders below your man’s, sliding back and forth until your quads feel like they’re the special on a tropical fire ant colony’s dinner menu. The fact is most of the game’s grittier defenders are the way they are because they wouldn’t have a spot in the league if they couldn’t shadow a dangerous penetrator or take a few elbows on the chin while guarding a 260 pound power forward. Boston didn’t miss Tony Allen’s fondness for slashing into the lane with no plan of attack, and Memphis didn’t sign him for it either. Allen’s still in this league for a very specific reason; he’s accepted it and thrived. It isn’t glamorous, it isn’t pretty, and it isn’t enjoyable, but if Allen wants to play professional basketball in this country, this is what he must do. The day casual fans focus on defensive rotations as much as they do the options on a pick and roll is the day a guy like Tony Allen makes the All-Star team.
* Could a group of supremely gifted defenders come together and, for 100 possessions in a simulated exhibition, hold an NBA starting five to a lower offensive rating than an already assembled team of men who’ve been effective within their own system. Being that they’re one of the league’s best defensive teams, have been together for over 90 games, and have no players voted onto the All-Defensive first team, let’s use the Chicago Bulls for this argument. Which unit do you think would be more effective in slowing the their opponents down? Rose, Bogans, Deng, Noah, and Boozer, or Rondo, Garnett, Bryant, Howard, and James (the All-Defensive First Team)? Which is more effective, unreal athleticism or team unity? Familiarity with your teammates is VERY important, but what if you had Dwight Howard, LeBron James, and Rajon Rondo’s freakish athleticism caking the layers of a defensive unit, how intimidating would that be?
* Unexpected Defensive Playoff Heroes: Paul George (for his tremendous job of making Derrick Rose’s first round more difficult than anyone thought possible), Jason Kidd (for summoning his inner 25-year-old GP on Kobe Bryant), Taj Gibson (for being great), Serge Ibaka (for blocking two shots for every English word he’s learned), and Tony Allen (for having to defend Manu Ginobili and then Kevin Durant, and not complaining for a second).
* In no particular order, here are my 20 best defensive players in the league. The word best is used to describe a combination of fearlessness, discipline, athleticism, and brains. Not all apply to each player, but most do.
1. Rajon Rondo
2. Kevin Garnett
3. Dwight Howard
4. Serge Ibaka
5. Kendrick Perkins (when healthy)
6. Tony Allen
7. Luc Mbah a Moute
8. LeBron James
9. Andrew Bynum
10. Taj Gibson
11. Joakim Noah
12. Andrew Bogut
13. Luol Deng
14. Josh Smith (when engaged)
15. Tim Duncan
16. Tyson Chandler
17. Dwyane Wade
18. Ron Artest
19. Gerald Wallace
20. Andre Iguodala
How many of those guys were on playoff teams? The answer is all but one: Andrew Bogut. Kobe Bryant is still a smart and tough defender, but he’s hardly been elite for the past three seasons. Kobe rarely defends the opposing team’s best player until an egotistical moment of false self-worth presents itself late in a ball game; most likely a nationally televised one. Forget about defending Chris Paul, Kobe struggled with Trevor Ariza in the first round. In the NBA Finals last season, and two years before that, the Lakers stuck to their game plan of defending Ray Allen with Derek Fisher even though he was setting records from the three-point line. Meanwhile Kobe sagged off Rondo and made himself useful as a wandering nomad. (This strategy worked to some extent, but after watching what the Miami Heat chose to do against Boston in the Eastern Conference Semifinals—with Dwyane Wade chasing Ray Allen like a young Sean Penn did gang members in Colors—how can Kobe, at this stage in his career, be considered one of the game’s best perimeter defenders?) Kobe had more second team votes than both Chris Paul and Andre Iguodala and finished last of all first team members in first team votes.
* There’s eight minutes left in a game of monumental importance—Game 7 of the NBA Finals, the Olympic Gold Medal game, a random regular season contest in which you’ve placed your house’s mortgage on the line—and the team you’re rooting for holds a five point lead. Now, if you could select five gatekeepers to protect the basket for the game’s final stretch run, who would they be? Players who not only take responsibility for their own man—and are personally deflated if ever beaten—but versatile men who can switch on pick and rolls, defend almost every position with competence, and know when and how to help. They easily differentiate gambling situations from playing it safe, and never do they put themselves above the team. Here’s my five: Dwyane Wade, Kevin Garnett, Kendrick Perkins (because Dwight Howard has admitted to taking plays off), LeBron James, and Andre Iguodala. Good night, and good luck.