Every season the media gushes over the latest breakout NBA star and their potential to take their team to the next level. Truth or Lies. Fact or Fiction. Journalism or Spin. Take your pick. The NBA is after all one of the world’s best marketing machines. But more often than not, those who fail to live up to top billing do so for one timeless reason; a lack of Defense.
It's rare that a team ever mounts a serious challenge to the summit of the NBA without at least a middling defensive effort on a nightly basis. Before the days of analytics, analysts told us that teams lived and died by the jump shot. Only a few stubborn traditionalists such as Sir Charles, still harp on with the same rhetoric. In depth statistics now offer the everyday fan an insight into the game, not available to their parents. One that explains how the current Champions surge to the top as more than just a jump shooting, small ball fluke. Never fear, it’s still better to be lucky than good. Just ask the injured point guards who watched the Warriors from the opposition bench last spring.
Taking into account the historic focus on the jump shot being the NBA’s life blood as opposed to defense, along with the power of said marketing machine, it’s little wonder young players focus mainly on running downhill to the opponent’s hoop. The mandatory age limit on the NBA has done many things for the quality of the league and the relevance of the NCAA. However, the lasting problem seems to be draftees coming into the Association more than ill-equipped to play at both ends. If one has to defend to contend, then those potential packed players will soon have to adapt or suffer a new fate; failure.
The 1990’s Indiana Pacers and the 2000’s Atlanta Hawks are truly a thing of the past. Both teams did a decent job of making the playoffs every season, without every really troubling the establishment at the top. With no middle class in the NBA today, teams go all out for title chasing success at all costs (cough, Brooklyn). Or they bottom out altogether (yawn, Philadelphia). Which leaves us with an interesting quandary for the marketing machine at the league’s offices on 5th Avenue. Genuine league wide interest.
Beforehand, the Pacers’ fans were happy to watch the Rifleman and Reggie. While the Hawks content with a youthful JET and that one game of Rasheed Wallace. Both smug in the assumption that the playoffs would be their chance to upset a top seed. Ah, but what a devilish mistress Hope is. Now fans are marketed on ‘the Process’ in the City of Brotherly Love. Lucky followers in New York City’s most populous and maybe popular borough were treated to a double dose of marketing this season. The hope of contending followed as swiftly as their point guard’s tumble to the floor, with the promise of better days after the impending trade deadline.
So we know about the haves and have nots. Now onto those could haves and the surely nots, taking the Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Pelicans as two prime examples of teams expected to take the next step. Having tumbled their way to multiple lottery picks over the past ten years, both franchises should be in a position to contend. Simply because they have no other course open to them. You don’t win. So you draft. If you can’t draft then… Relegation to the D-League? Now that is a discussion for another day.
Since 2010, the Kings have selected a Rookie of the Year, D-League Champion and Sixth Man of the Year candidate. But sadly Tyreke Evans, Isaiah Thomas and Hassan Whiteside no longer tread the boards in California’s capital. But fear not, faithful fans. He who hath the most potential still does. Boogie! Yet despite blunders such as Nik Stauskas, Thomas Robinson and Bismack Biyombo, the Kings still tweaked the interest of numerous this summer who tagged them as a team with playoff potential.
Likewise the Pelicans succeeded where many have failed by drafting a Rookie of the Year, D League Champion and Sixth Man of the Year. Yes, sadly Chris Paul, Julian Wright and J.R. Smith are hard to find in the Big Easy. But fear not, faithful fans. The darling of the NBA still resides in NOLA, one Anthony Davis. And again, in the face of foul ups such as Hilton Armstrong (All D-League 2nd Team), Cedric Simmons (Greek League All Star) and Austin Rivers (Doc River’s lad), the Pelicans were a sure thing to crack the West’s elite.
Despite all the bluster, the Pelicans find themselves in the midst of a season-saving home stand to jump start their injury riddled season from the bottom of their division. The Kings have fared slightly better thanks only to an under-performing conference allowing them to flirt with the eighth spot. Conversely, were they in the resurgent east, their record would be good for 13th place. How times have changed.
Diving headlong into the numbers to explain away such lackluster development tells us both the Pelicans and Kings concede the most points per game, putting them in the company of the tanking Suns and Lakers. Both are in the bottom ten in opponent’s field goal percentage, opponent’s adjusted FG% and PPS which factors pace and the number of possessions a team uses per game. Speaking of pace, the Kings do however lead the league there. Which in many cases would be a good thing. But such a defenseless squad offering up more possessions to the opposition along with a marginal Assist to Turnover ratio (17th) is a coach’s catastrophe. But the NBA likes pace. It can market high scores, dunks and fast breaks led by seven-foot phenoms, packaged with stellar talents such as Cousins and it’s an easy sell on digital highlights and league pass snap shots.
Two teams with similar levels of on-paper potential as the Kings and Pelicans are Utah and Orlando. The Jazz are the NBA’s youngest team and don’t boast a single player over 28 while having an average age of 24. Fighting for that magical 8th spot in the West, their hairline lead fluctuates on a daily basis. However, they have taken a vastly different approach to development: Defense. A spluttering offense (29th Assist to Turnover Ratio) and lack of an A-List talent has forced them to slow their roll. Dead last in pace, the Jazzmen are on the cusp of statistical success with a -0.1 point differential. Building their foundation on defensive success has paved the way for Utah to be a feared opponent. The shot blocking of Rudy Gobert anchors one of the NBA’s best defenses. It’s no coincidence that five of the six first round selections by the Jazz are still with the team (including Trey Burke as a draft day trade).
The Magic suffer a similar fate, despite drafting a Euroleague A-Lister this summer, they have yet to capture the eye of a national market with their talent alone. So in a classic Coach Skiles manner, they hunker down and get to playing defense to fight to .500. Currently within two games of the 8th spot in a feisty East. The NBA’s third youngest team with an average age of 25 years old is taking the road less travelled to legitimacy. Like the Jazz, their past five first round picks are still contributing for the team (including Elfrid Payton’s draft day trade from the 76ers for Dario Saric).
Both the Jazz and Magic are in the top ten in opponent’s points per game and more importantly, opponent’s FG% with their disciplined slower pace. A stark contrast to the Kings and Pelicans. What’s odd is Coach Karl was once known for sharing Coach Skiles’ hard driving, defensive style with the Sonics and Bucks. Yet when presented with a mercurial talent in Cousins and to a lesser extent Rondo and Gay, the reins seems to have loosened. One could be led to presume that potential means offensive ability, since in today’s NBA no one has any interest in defending.
Either way, winning basketball it is not. The NBA’s fifth youngest team, the Boston Celtics, are where the Jazz and Magic want to be. Starless in structure and sturdy on defense, they have found a way to become an offensive powerhouse. They are third in pace, yet second in defensive efficiency. Seventh in Assist to Turnover Ratio with a +3.2 point differential, which is good for 7th in the league. Despite their pace, Gang Green boast a top-five field goal defense. All of which stands them in good stead for the stretch run in a tight conference race that sees them a mere game or two up on the Magic. So what’s the big difference? Orlando’s strength of schedule to this point has been the second easiest in the league, coupled with the harmful transatlantic week off for the single Europe Live tour game, which will only compact their upcoming games down the stretch. This makes an already tough group of opponents even tougher.
We’ve learned the secret to potential success is to draft well, nurture what talent you have and not to be afraid to coach them, at both ends. Developing talent at the top level is no different in concept on offense of defense. Both require large elements of team engagement, cohesion and understanding. Whether on offense it’s the spacing of sets, the timing of cuts and the contact angles on screens. Defensively the same notion is mirrored by the need to compact the floor within an inch and a second of legality, the timing of rotations and the correct angles on close outs. Athletically the need for quick feet, long limbs and soft hands are required at both ends. Intellectually, the desire to work diligently, talk purposefully and anticipate correctly are hallmarks on both sides of the center circle. The irony is a true understanding of one, greatly assists in the knowledge of the other.
Communication and a tireless work ethic are required for both. If one is present at the offensive end, it begs the question as to its whereabouts at the other. The NBA wants to market scoring in a naturally offensive game. Understandable. Therefore the talent can be forgiven for focusing on those skills that will inevitably get them noticed, drafted and paid. Anywhere in the world. But the ability it takes to get you to the top needs to be built on in order to keep you at the summit. Players, agents, families, coaches and management all have their share of responsibility on whether they want to realize that potential.
Professional sports is a complex ecosystem. George Karl’s current owner genuinely tabled the idea of playing four on five defense to leave a cherry picker at the other end. His SOS Defense from Seattle never stood a chance further down the coast. Pelicans’ players and fans clamored for an open offense and quicker pace which led to a coaching change and a swing too far in the other direction. The Kings management and fan’s perception of Rondo being an elite defender is just that and his agent can’t be pushing him too hard to prove it in a contract year.
Imagine a world in which Shane Larkin, Brooklyn’s leading long range shooter, boasted about summer workouts that didn’t end until he made 2,500 close outs, instead of made jumpers.
Imagine a world in which Kawhi Leonard wasn’t traded to the San Antonio Spurs and coaxed/coached into playing 94 feet.
Imagine a world in which the common phrase, “Live by the defensive rotation. Die by the defensive rotation,” was common place. (Catchy! And no, I’m not in marketing).
It’s OK. I can’t get to that world either. Without moving to change the Oxford English Dictionary or simply inventing another Americanism, you will always find O in Potential, but sadly never any D.