THESE ARE SAVAGE TIMES for NBA defenses.
The league is in the midst of a glorious offensive revolution, with a legion of shooters with the added gasoline of small ball and nurturing rule changes that prevent old-school defensive tactics. The result: Scoring has gone nuclear.
Consider that between 2014 and 2016, teams crested the 140-point barrier in regulation a total of three times. In the past two NBA seasons, as the frenzy started ramping up, teams reached 140 points eight times each year. In the first month of this season, it has happened six times, and there’s no end in sight.
Frankly, it’s fantastic for the entertainment value of the game. There aren’t a lot of complaints from the fans. The phrase “defense wins championships” has never been so out of style. Last summer, moments after signing a $20 million-per-year contract, Jabari Parker declared “they don’t pay players to play defense” without the slightest hint of shame.
This revolution has left the NBA’s defensive intelligencia to retreat to icy caves, like the rebels in Star Wars, to ponder just what the hell they can do about it. The team that figures out how to defend modern offenses could own the future. But the volume of shooting plus the freedom of movement rules referees have been instructed to enforce this season have created a perfect storm.
It’s a full-blown defensive coaching crisis.
“It’s a lot more difficult to play and pioneer defense right now,” said San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who has been at the forefront of strategy changes for two decades. “Switching seems to be everybody’s answer. But that is really player-dependent.”
Let’s review a brief history of the past 15 years in the offense-defense war.
In the post Michael Jordan era between 2003 and 2005, multiple Finals games saw teams fail to break 70 points as TV ratings plunged. The elders responded by outlawing hand-checking — the Spurs and Detroit Pistons made the lane look like a football line of scrimmage at times — and the game opened up for drivers. In the first year of the rule changes, Allen Iverson led the NBA in free throws made and won the scoring title. The next year, Kobe Bryant went to the foul line 819 times and averaged 35.4 points a game, which still stands as the modern record.
To combat this rule change that made on-ball defense much harder, defenses started employing a tactic called “shrink the floor,” which called for defenders to collapse into the lane to offer help and try to force drivers into the helpers. It turned out the Spurs were the best at that, too.
And here’s where we had the pivot point. First with Mike D’Antoni running his “seven seconds or less” attack, then with coaches such as Erik Spoelstra studying Chip Kelly’s spread offense at the University of Oregon and developing a “pace and space” system, and finally with coaches such as Mike Budenholzer installing high-volume passing offenses that disorganized defensive movement. “Shrink the floor” had been defeated by “stretch the floor,” as first we heard of “stretch 4s” and — cue the ominous music — “stretch 5s.”
It has been all downhill for the defenses since. The antidote, as Popovich said, is for teams to encourage their defenders to switch on screens in an often fruitless attempt to save time under the relentless speed. It has driven many big men right off the floor and even out of the league. Scouts have been hunting for “switchy” big men in college and Europe. Wings are massively in demand.
“Here’s the problem: Most of these guys don’t really know how to play a switching defense,” said one NBA assistant coach who specializes in defense. “They weren’t raised playing this way. It sounds simple, just switch everything, but actually it’s hard, and not that many guys do it well. Not that many units do it well.”
The more coaches you talk to in the league, the more they echo this feeling. It’s not that the concept is new. It’s just new to play it all game every night. It was an end-of-game strategy for decades. And in playoff series, when teams could really game plan for each other, sometimes you’d see it used in special schemes in specific situations.
Use it as a core defensive principle for 48 minutes for 82 games, and, well, teams that aren’t good at it often get embarrassed. These days, that’s a lot of teams.
For the past few years, former Cleveland Cavaliers coach Ty Lue barely had his team switch during the regular season. Then in the playoffs, they switched nonstop. Lue said he was “saving” the strategy, which led some to label it a “secret defense.” Really, he was trying to manage his team’s limitations during the long regular season.
“To be honest, to be really good at defense right now, you have to have players who are smart and who talk all the time to work with each other,” one NBA coach said. “There just aren’t many guys who do it. These guys are like church mice on D. They never talk.”
The Golden State Warriors, naturally, are ahead of the curve here. They switch everything — it was one of the reasons they stopped playing and then said goodbye to big men such as JaVale McGee and Zaza Pachulia and put guys such as Damian Jones in their places — and they’re smart about it.
For example, they know that teams will hunt down Stephen Curry on switches. So they will routinely double-switch to protect Curry. This concept, known in parlance as “switch the switcher,” is extremely difficult to manage in the heat of a game. The Warriors can do it often because they have sharp, loud defenders such as Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala out there as leaders. But those players, obviously, are hard to find and sometimes impossible to develop.
Bottom line: The defenses are a generation behind the offenses. The coach or team that finds the next edge in this endless game could be handsomely rewarded.
IN 2016 AND 2017, the Brooklyn Nets handed out three offer sheets that were matched. In the wild spending summer of ’16, they gave the Miami Heat‘s Tyler Johnson a later-matched four-year, $50 million offer and Allen Crabbe a four-year, $75 million offer that was matched by the Portland Trail Blazers. The next summer, the Nets gave a four-year, $107 million sheet to Otto Porter Jr. that the Washington Wizards matched.
To add some spice to this stroll down memory lane, Johnson later said he threw up several times when the number became public. The Wizards proverbially threw up when they saw Porter’s offer-sheet details, which called for him to be paid 50 percent of his salary by Oct. 1 each year. This year, that bill was $13 million.
In fairness, it’s hard to say what would’ve happened had these players all come to the Nets right away. Perhaps the Nets had plans for them that would’ve changed their roles and their production. But looking back, perhaps Brooklyn got quite lucky that it didn’t have to deal with all that attempted spending.
Johnson has been in and out of the Heat’s starting lineup and hasn’t matched his numbers from his contract year. Early this season, he is averaging just 9.3 points and shooting just 27 percent on 3-pointers. Porter has been part of the disappointment in Washington. He averaged a career-high 14.7 points and shot an impressive 44 percent from 3-point range last season. This season, he’s off to a rugged start like the rest of the Wizards. It isn’t the production of a $100 million player, to be honest.
Crabbe, meanwhile, ended up with the Nets when they traded for him a year later. He had a decent 2017-18 season, averaging a career-best 13.2 points as he became a starter. But his efficiency has dropped since the deal, and so has his place in Brooklyn’s rotation. He’s now a reserve, averaging fewer than seven points and shooting less than 30 percent on 3-pointers this season.
The Nets are projected to have as much as $34 million in cap room next summer, and they have big dreams. They’re fortunate that’s the case.
KYRIE IRVING’S NUMBERS are down so far this season; he’s averaging his fewest points and fewest shots since his rookie season. His shooting numbers are down slightly but not significantly. It seems there’s a simple explanation: He’s not touching the ball. According to Second Spectrum, Irving is averaging 70 touches a game. That’s his lowest average in six years.
Some of this can be attributed to Gordon Hayward coming back and needing touches. Some of it can be attributed to Jayson Tatum playing a bit more isolation basketball. Maybe some of it is due to Irving ramping up in return from injury. Whatever it is, the change isn’t benefiting the Boston offense. The Celtics rank 25th in offensive efficiency through the first 10 games.
Irving hasn’t seemed to make an issue out of it, and this could be part of an expected transition process as the team learns to use all of its options effectively. But it is a trend that bears monitoring, especially if the Celtics continue to struggle on offense.