The Defense Doesn't Rest
Why the NBA hasn't become an offensive league.
This summer, the Chicago Bulls acquired Ben Wallace, a great defender who might be the worst shooter in professional basketball. The move was greeted with skepticism. In part, this reflects Wallace's relatively advanced age (he's 32) and massive salary. It also reveals the pervasive belief that, in this era of high-powered NBA offenses, Chicago needed to get players who can score rather than bolster an already-solid defense. "If they can contend for the 2007 title team with a team built for 2003 rules, God bless 'em,"wrote ESPN.com's Bill Simmons. "I'm just not seeing it."
Following the 2003-2004 season, you see, the NBA banned hand-checking of perimeter players. The league hoped that cracking down on pushing and grabbing would give the game's offensive stars more space to roam, increase scoring, and create a more fan-friendly, aesthetically pleasing game. Scoring has, as intended, increased in the subsequent seasons. This, in turn, has led analysts to conclude that defense matters less than it used to. During last year's NBA Finals, the Philadelphia Inquirer's David Aldridge wrote that due to "rule changes over the last few years designed to liberate offenses … defensive-oriented teams look to be going the way of the stegosaurus." ESPN's Ric Bucher was even more direct in a recent online chat. These days "you can have a mediocre defense and win a title," he explained, "but you have to have a great offense. It used to be the other way around."
I concede that the new rules have made it harder to play defense. I fail to see, though, how that makes defense less important. Two factors determine who wins a basketball game: how many points your team scores and how many points the other team scores. Since you have the ball roughly half the time and the other team has the ball roughly half the time, it stands to reason that offense and defense should have exactly the same importance. You could even argue that, in an era when it's easier to score than to defend, a guy who can stop the other team from scoring is more valuable than someone who can put the ball in the basket.
Not only does anti-defense sentiment make little sense in theory—the statistics don't bear it out either. The new rules have been in place for only two seasons, making an exhaustive survey easy to conduct. Last year's champs, Miami, were a balanced squad with the league's seventh-most-efficient offense and ninth-most-efficient defense. (Efficiency statistics—measurements of how many points a team scores or allows per 100 possessions—come from Basketball-Reference.com.) Miami beat a Dallas Mavericks team featuring the league's top offense and 10th-ranked defense. The 2005 Detroit Pistons took the Eastern Conference championship with the league's third-best defense and 16th-best offense. They were beaten in the finals by the Spurs, who were eighth in offensive efficiency and first in defense. Judging by those numbers, it looks like defensively inclined teams are just as championship-worthy as offensive ones.
There's also little truth to David Aldridge's theory that in the olden days the best defensive team usually won. In fact, this happened exactly twice in 15 years: The '99 Spurs and the '96 Bulls were the only champions who led the NBA in defensive efficiency. That Chicago squad, however, also boasted the league's top offense, as did the Bulls' 1991, 1992, and 1997 championship teams.
The reality, in other words, is exactly what you would expect. Offense and defense both matter, just as they always have. Excelling at either is an excellent thing but no guarantee of success if you can't get the job done adequately at the other side of the floor. The new rules haven't changed the relative important of offense. They have changed the nature of what works offensively. In particular, smaller, quicker perimeter players are more effective than they used to be. As a consequence, low-post offense, while certainly still useful, is no longer as necessary as it once was.
The diminished importance of offense in the frontcourt explains why Ben Wallace is so valuable. Since his team is able to rely on perimeter scoring, his offensive limitations aren't as problematic as they once would have been. Defense, meanwhile, has become more difficult, and there's more to a big man's defensive role than guarding his opposite number in the low post. Good shot blockers like Wallace rotate to provide a second line of defense against the quick perimeter penetrators who've become so prominent in recent years.
As in years past, the teams that succeed in the 2007 playoffs will most likely show ability at both ends of the floor. Perhaps that will bring the defense-doesn't-matter fad to an end. At that point, believers in the brave new world of offensive dominance will need some explanation of why it was short-lived. My guess is they'll gin up some notion about the league's new synthetic balls bringing the world back into balance. The truth, however, is that defense is half the game; it always has been and always will be.