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Monday, August 17, 2009

The Art and Science of NBA Defense

This article was originally published on February 2, 2005 at Suite101.com.

The Revolution Will be Televised (and analyzed frame by frame)

NBA defense has reached an unprecedented level of sophistication. Former All-Star Hersey Hawkins says, "I can think about my first year in the league and how detailed scouting reports have become about stopping other teams. By the time I retired (in 2001) I was getting books--15-20 pages on the other team, their sets and what my player likes to do." Videotape was just starting to be used as a scouting tool when Hawkins entered the league in 1989, but now coaches scour footage frame by frame, looking for any individual and team tendencies that can provide an edge.

Johnny Bach, Phil Jackson's "defensive coordinator" on the Chicago Bulls' first three championship teams, has seen a lot of changes during his more than 50 years of college and professional coaching: "I think scouting is far better than it ever was...we have it on DVD and we have it edited. I don't think players had as much information as they have now and I think it contributes to playing the scorers better--deciding who are the scorers and really concentrating on how we're going to push them out a little further (away from their favorite areas). You have so much information available--the statistics alone, then you have the pictorial review that I can produce to a team. What we call 'criticals'--out of bounds plays, what they do after a timeout, what they do when the score's tied, what's the last shot of the quarter--all these things are broken down now."

Coaching staffs use the DVD information to adjust their game plans in the same way that chess masters employ prepared sequences of moves to catch their opponents by surprise. Bach adds, "Believe me, every coach is trying to find something that works well for his team--and on the other bench there is a staff saying, 'You're not going to be able to run exactly what you practiced. We're going to take you out of it.'"

Looking back on his three decades in professional basketball, two-time NBA Executive of the Year (1990, 1997) Bob Bass concludes, "There is no question that defense is really so much better now than it was. I mean, you can't even compare it. We didn't have videotape-we had 16 millimeter film. It is really difficult to break down plays with that. We just didn't have the technology that you have today."

Bass mentions another change that happened in the past 15-20 years: "Coaches got a lot more conservative because they're trying to protect their jobs. When they have total control of the game, they can protect their jobs a lot more." He cites a specific example: "I recall one coach--I won't mention his name. He would be down by 10 with two minutes or something to go. He would never allow his team to shoot three pointers because he would rather get beat by six or eight--sometimes when you come down and fire up a bunch of threes when you are down 10 you can end up getting beat by 20 in those last two minutes. I'll never forget that guy. He did that on a consistent basis." This coach was trying to manufacture a statistical justification--such as a good ranking in team point differential or points allowed--to keep his job even if his team had a losing record.

Observations on the 2004 NBA Finals

Joe Caldwell's tough defense against Hall of Fame guards (including Oscar Robertson) and Hall of Fame forwards (including Julius Erving) earned him two All-Star selections in the NBA and two more in the ABA. Caldwell describes the defensive trap that current Detroit Pistons coach Larry Brown implemented when Caldwell played for the ABA's Carolina Cougars: "We let a guy (offensive player) take off by the out of bounds line heading toward his goal, but he's going down the sideline. We had a thing where he'd get to a certain point and then it was up to that guard to make him either turn and come back or go behind his back and when he did that, it was my job--or whoever was in the middle--to shut that position off. They don't do that stuff now. He tried to do it in Detroit. They came close to it, but they're still not fast enough. If L.A. had been playing right they could have beaten them, but they weren't playing right."

Caldwell explains, "L.A. was trying to dribble the ball up. You can't dribble the ball up against that. You have to pass it. They didn't do any of that, right? Fisher wants to dribble it up, right? Kobe wants to dribble it up. I was like, 'What are you doing?'" Caldwell notes that Gary Payton's well documented struggles during the series only compounded the problem for the Lakers: "When he tried to dribble it up, he was dribbling it off his foot or going too fast and he was passing it at the wrong time. That's what the trap does--it makes you do things that you are not supposed to do. So Larry Brown is a master at it. He's been doing it for (over) 25 years."

Caldwell suggests that the Lakers should have countered the trap with quick passes to break down the defense, creating fast break opportunities that would have put a lot of pressure on Piston center Ben Wallace, who served as the last line of defense; Caldwell concludes, "He's not going to block all the shots. He might block (some) in the first half, but in the second half he's going to be too tired."

Speed Kills

Using speed and passing to relentlessly attack the defense is not a new idea. In the 1950s and 1960s the Boston Celtics won championships with a wide open style that encouraged players to adjust to situations on the fly. Hall of Fame point guard Bob Cousy, the maestro conductor of the Celtic fast break, declares, "Basketball is more of a free-flowing game of instinct and reaction to an action...Normally people associate basketball players with height, but in my judgment speed and quickness are what separate the men from the boys...Every time down the floor is a different situation. Your action is a reaction to what the defender is doing. We (the Celtics) relied primarily on transition rather than set plays. There was always constant movement. We were always trying to impose the maximum pressure on the opponent whether it was on defense or offense."

This year the Phoenix Suns, with Steve Nash orchestrating a relentless fast break attack, embody the "free flowing" game that Cousy loves. The 2005 playoffs should be very interesting--will teams trap Nash and force him to give up the ball early, preferring to concede open jump shots instead of fast break dunks? Will teams disable the Suns' fast break by pounding the small Phoenix team on the offensive glass? Will DVD analysis of the Suns reveal some other weakness that can be exploited?

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:29 PM

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