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A Basic Defensive Primer: Part 1

I’m slowly catching up on e-mail topics.  The ever-so-cleverly named “DarthBlazer” wrote last week and asked if we could explain a little about defense, especially what decent defense looked like versus poor defense.  It sounded like a great topic, so here’s a layman’s defensive primer of sorts.  This first post will only cover the basics, pretty much from square one.  I’ll do a second post at some point about more advanced concepts.


Please note that I make no claim to brilliance or arcane knowledge on the subject.  Nothing you read is going to be wholly original.  I am indebted to a few coaches and scouts, both in person and in print, all of the Blazer radio and TV commentators over the years, plus a couple decades of watching games.  I am merely synthesizing information.  If there’s a mistake in here, blame me.  If there’s something good, credit the people who take time to teach the game.




The best way to conceptualize defense is the act of controlling space.  People notice the blocked shots, steals, and forced distress but those are all end-products of a common thesis:  whoever controls the space has the advantage.  You can think of a basketball court like a chess board.  (Many coaches delineate defensive areas which, while not exactly 64 chess squares, hearken to that game.)  In chess your opponent probably won’t be able to move into a particular square with a good result if you have it covered.  That is the goal of defense as well. 


If you play any kind of person-on-person sport for very long you’re going to discover a basic truth about defending:  all other things being equal the defense will always be at a disadvantage to the offense.  This is because the offense, possessing the ball, dictates the action.  Defenders have to react while the offensive players can simply act.  In practical terms this means that, on average, a defender is not going to be able to take away 100% of the offensive player’s possibilities.  It’s nearly impossible for a defensive player to control a space entirely.  This is especially true in the NBA where players tend to be competent at minimum offensively, with most ranging into truly gifted territory.  NBA players are also lightning quick, leaving less time for reaction.  There are too many options to shut them all down.  Therefore you will find NBA players, teams, and coaches picking and choosing which spaces to attempt to control at which time.  Those decisions are made based on the gifts of the defender and offensive player alike, plus the general team philosophy.  This makes analyzing and judging defense an intricate task…in some ways as intricate as designing it.


The middle squares of a chess board tend to be the most powerful as they allow the most latitude for movement, which is why good chess players try to dominate them.  In basketball the middle area of the court is the most crucial as it allows not only varied movement compared to the sides and top, but better scoring opportunities.  The most basic goal of defense is to control that area where your opponent has the best chance of success, which is usually defined by the key.  Own the paint, win the battle.  The easiest way to spot whether a team is playing good defense is to ask yourself how many times you see the opponent moving freely towards the basket and how often they get up close shots.  Letting a player get into the middle unmolested is a sure sign your defense just went into Epic Fail territory. 


After you’re sure you are set in the key you make defensive choices based on the gifts of your opponent.  If a guy is a great outside shooter but doesn’t drive well (think Steve Kerr) you want to control the space right in front of him.  If your opponent is a slasher with a suspect outside shot (take your pick of NBA guards) your goal is to control his path to the basket.  This is what makes players like Kobe Bryant, who can break you down either way, so valuable.  A premier offensive player will look at which space you’re trying to control and promptly get his shot in another.  An important point:  good defense includes not just controlling the space around offensive players, but between them.  Playing the passing lanes well can throttle even the best offensive teams as it prevents the ball from moving freely around the court and thus limits the possible space the offense can use for attack.  A defender not only has to be aware of his opponent’s gift, but where his opponent is in relationship to the ball and basket and how that correlates with the possible employment of those gifts.


Here you begin to see the difficulty in correctly judging defensive effort.  You can’t just look at what the defender did, you have to understand what he was supposed to do.  Sometimes a defender will look sharp and aggressive when pursuing a player, hounding him and pressing.  Often that’s a good thing.  Sometimes it’s not.  If the offensive player has the ball at the far sideline and he’s not a shooter, you don’t necessarily want to be playing in his jock.  You may be opening up an avenue for another player to cut down the middle behind your defense, leading to a higher percentage shot than the guy on the sideline ever would have gotten.  Sometimes you’ll see a defensive player following his man rather slowly as the guy cuts across the court.  The offensive player will sprint to the corner of the court while the defender will appear to lollygag in the middle.  Coaches often tell players not to close on an offensive player hard, to stay in the middle and defend.  In that case the slower movement is exactly the right thing to do.


Ruben Patterson was a classic example of a guy who looked like an all-world defender but drove coaches crazy because of his lack of defensive discipline.  He would go out hard on every player in every situation, trying to poke away steals or force pressure.  It looked great to the fans.  Sometimes it worked great.  Too often, though, he’d completely break the team’s defensive scheme.  His man may not have gotten the shot, but him being out of position led to confusion among his teammates and the opponent getting a better look than they would have if he had just played within himself and within the scheme. 


This brings up one of the core lessons of defensive analysis:  be careful when assigning blame.  Sometimes the guy who looks the best is the same guy making the mistake.  Often a player who never seemed to affect the play should have and thus should shoulder blame along with the guy who made the obvious error.  Very, very few coaches design systems that depend on one player and one course of action.  Much like airplane engineering, there’s redundancy built into the system.  If one part fails (and it’s assumed this is going to happen) another part is supposed to compensate.  Defensive breakdowns usually require two or more participants from the defensive team.  In other words, you can be as skilled as you wish individually, but it’s the team defensive effort that really counts in the end.


The Gold Standard of Team Defense


This brings us to the one, solid-gold standard even a casual fan can use to judge their team’s defensive efforts:  contested shots.  A shot which is contested is taken in space that somebody else controls.  This can be vertically (the defensive player jumped up with the shooter and got a hand in his face or in front of the ball) or horizontally (the defensive player forced the shooter to move in an uncomfortable direction before attempting the shot).  The ultimate goal of team defense in the NBA is to not let the opponent get any shots which are uncontested.  There’s always at least one man in the vicinity to break up the rhythm.  A secondary goal would be having any shots which do end up uncontested come from a place on the floor where the offensive player is not comfortable. With Tivo and a notepad you can track contested shots yourself easily.  You’ll also begin to notice how amazing most NBA players are offensively.  Many of these guys can get a decent shot up with almost no daylight.  Watch how hard it is to contest Ray Allen’s shot.  Watch how little clearance over outstretched fingertips these guys need to get the ball away clean.  You’ll begin to appreciate how hard you have to work in the NBA to be an effective defender or defensive team.


Note that a contested shot is often a better measure of defense on a given possession than whether the shot actually went in.  Defense is a game of averages.  Don’t think that every made shot comes as a result of poor defense.  Sometimes a defender can do everything right and the shot still drops.  Sometimes a defender blows it and his opponent still misses.  In the famous gold medal Olympics game you might remember in the first half (I don’t have the game recorded anymore so forgive the fuzzy specifics) Rudy Fernandez was being guarded on the perimeter by one of the U.S. guards…I think maybe Dwyane Wade.  Rudy was beyond the three point arc and juked a little but the defender stayed in front of him.  After the shake and bake didn’t get him free Rudy simply rose up and drained a spectacular three.  It was a great shot.  It was also good defense.  Even though that shot went in I guarantee you the opponent would be happy as pie to see him attempt a steady diet of those because on average, over time, he will miss most of them.  Even though Spain scored the U.S. walked away from that possession happy with the defense.  (The majestic dunk that Rudy threw down after Kobe guessed the wrong way and Dwight Howard came too late, not so much.)


You’ll often hear commentators talk about a team getting a “stop”, meaning they prevented the other team from scoring somehow.  To my mind the word “stop” only applies in a specific, critical situation where a single basket can win or lose the game.  If you move beyond that single, key possession and look at defense as a whole, a team won’t really “stop” another consistently over the course of a game.  Rather they aim to make it as hard as possible for the opponent to score…to make them earn their points.  Perhaps a more accurate (though cumbersome) way of describing overall defense is to say the team is looking for a “difficult” rather than a stop.


The Basic Principles of Individual Defense:  Guard the Basket and Ball-You-Man


If the general object of defense is to control space then it follows that whatever scheme you use must put defenders in spaces that are crucial for offensive success.  This is what being “in position” means.  The specific location of “in position” will differ from game to game and play to play, depending on where your opponent is best at prosecuting their offense.  Being ten feet from the basket on the left side may be exactly the right place on one play and exactly the wrong place on another.  No matter where a defender is called to go, however, two basic principles apply a vast majority of the time.


Principle 1:  You want to stay between your man and the basket.


This is especially important, of course, if your man has the ball.  Letting a guy get a clear path to the hoop with the ball is one of the most obvious no-no’s in the game.  Even if you have a defender backing you up it’s likely he’ll be at the dribbler’s mercy once the guy picks up a full head of steam.  There are certain exceptions where you try to control the direction of a player’s progress to the basket but in general the rule is to stay between the ball and the rim.  This is also generally true when you’re guarding a player who doesn’t have the ball.  If you position yourself outside of the direct line between the player and the basket you leave open the possibility of the guy receiving a pass and having nobody to stop him.  When you get out of position like this offensive players will usually cut straight towards the basket, making the pass easy and obvious and putting your coach’s naughty vocabulary on full display.


Principle 1a:  Stay in between your man and the ball.


This supplements the first principle.  In addition to impeding the path to the hoop, you want to make it as difficult as possible for your man to receive the ball.  This is often described as “Ball-You-Man”, delineating where you are supposed to be relative to the ball and the offensive player you’re guarding.  Nothing will make a defense crumble quicker than free-flowing passes because each pass makes the critical space on the floor change, thus straining the defense as it attempts to keep up.  The defender wants to get a hand near every pass.  This forces the offensive player to retreat from the defense (and thus from the basket) to even receive a pass…conceding ground before he even gets to make his move, robbing momentum and giving the defender and his team a better chance to adjust.


When you combine these two principles you begin to understand that there are specific places a defender has to position himself relative to his man on each play.  When defending a guy without the ball on the perimeter you want to position your body between him and the basket and be close enough that one of your hands is sticking out into the passing lane between him and the ball.  When defending a guy down in the post with his back to the basket you want to be snuggled up tight against his back, keeping your body between him and the rim, poking one arm through or around him to deny the pass.  There are variations and exceptions but generally you begin to see that a matter of inches and proper versus improper technique can mean the difference between success and failure defensively.


Proper technique and positioning allow you to maximize the amount of critical space you can control.  The cardinal sin of defense is controlling space that’s unimportant.  The most obvious way this happens is getting behind a play.  When people talk about a team not getting back in transition defense what they mean is the team isn’t controlling enough space between the ball and the rim.  They don’t have enough defenders back to control the space necessary to prevent the offensive players from making a successful attack.  This also happens in a halfcourt offense when a perimeter player gets blown by.  At the point the offensive player goes past him he is now controlling space behind the player when all of the critical space is in front.  One of the first rules of solid post defense is not to gamble for steals.  You might actually make the steal one play in ten.  The other nine times you’ve moved around the offensive player and thus left the space between him and the basket.  If you miss the steal and the pass gets through there’s nobody in that critical space between him and the rim and you’re left defending empty air.


The Basics of Individual Defense


A good defensive player is one with the aptitude for controlling space.  This can be broken down into physical abilities, mental attributes, and technique.


Several physical attributes assist a player in controlling space.  The age-old one in basketball is height.  The taller you are the more vertical space you control.  In the modern day we’ve added “length” to this, meaning generally arm span.  Getting your hands up and out helps control vertical and horizontal space.  Bulk and strength can be useful.  Part of controlling space is not getting moved out of it.  Players who can take a bump without getting blown out of a play are an asset, as are players who can bump others and make them move.  Quickness is a vital component of defense.  Note that pure footspeed is generally less important than agility and lateral quickness.  Unless you’re flat-out streaking back in transition to shut down a layup you seldom get to run very far in a single direction in basketball, especially on defense.  You can be quick as a bullet train going straight ahead but if you can’t change directions quickly the opponent is going to get you going one way, reverse his direction, and use your own speed against you as you sail right by the play.  You’ll often see players who look very quick on the drive on offense who are also generally poor defenders.  Leaping ability can be factored in but it tends to be overrated by fans.  You can make spectacular plays trailing on the break if you can jump high.  You can also get some blocks coming to help.  Seldom do you see an extraordinary leap affect a shot in other situations.  The offensive player, with the advantage of acting, usually has their shot away before the defender can reach the apex of their jump.  Plus because shots arc, the distance between defender and shooter requires the defender to jump correspondingly higher than the shooter to affect the shot. This is rare even for the springiest jumpers.  Then there’s always the old pump fake to hoist the high leaper on his own petard.  Of more value is the guy who can jump decently but quickly, returning to the floor with alacrity, ready to make another defensive move. 


Any or all of these physical assets can be useful, though few players possess them all.  Defense is a matter of using what you’ve got.


That brings us to the mental side.  Good defenders usually have a steely attitude, much like a homeowner defending his property or an older brother guarding his baby sister’s honor.  Nobody is going to break me down.  Nobody is going to get in my house.  You pull out that ball anywhere near my sister and I’m gonna kill you.  Whether you’re a boisterous menace or a silent, competent assassin the right attitude goes a long way towards making up for any lack of physical attributes.  Defenders need to be tenacious.  They need to want to defend and take pride in it.  Understanding the game really helps too.  Good defense is about anticipation:  anticipating what your opponent tends to do, anticipating what he needs to do in this situation, then taking it away from him.  Because they understand what’s going on veteran players tend to defend better than younger players even though the younger ones have physical advantages.  Defense also takes a measure of unselfishness.  It’s not a stat-intensive endeavor.  It doesn’t bring the same big bucks as scoring 20 a night.  You’ll spend a fair amount of time helping out your teammates…committing yourself to not making mistakes of your own and simultaneously vowing to help clean up theirs even if it costs you energy or gets you into foul trouble.  A ton of NBA players have the physical tools to be great defenders.  Few end up reaching that plateau because of the mental discipline, heart, and sacrifice it requires.


Technique refines the physical and mental gifts and allows the player to make the best use of them.  Specific techniques differ by position and situation but some generalities cross the board.  Balance is a key to defense.  You never want to get caught leaning one way or the other lest your opponent cut the opposite direction.  To this end it’s important to slide defensively rather than picking up your feet to step all the time.  Sliding keeps both feet in the vicinity of the floor at all times, allowing you to move either direction.  Stepping requires keeping one foot off the floor, limiting your mobility.  A defender wants to keep a low center of gravity.  On the perimeter this makes it easier to move in any direction, including vertically.  When you’re low you have to move instead of leaning.  On the inside being lower gives leverage.  No defender is more vulnerable than the one standing straight up with his feet close together.


In the NBA more than any other league in the world it is critical to move your feet on defense.  If you try to play defense with your hands more than your feet you will constantly be leaning and reaching.  Opponents are too quick, too smart, and too strong in the hands for your reaching to have any effect.  You’re going to get driven by, pick up a foul, or both.  If they are anywhere in the vicinity of the ball defenders should not stand still or let their feet come to a complete stop.  (I’d say they shouldn’t any time but that’s too much to hope for I suppose.)  Not relying solely on your hands doesn’t mean they’re useless, however.  Arms should generally be away from the body, extended into the passing lane.  If you’re guarding a stationary offensive player without the ball that usually means having them outward, with your passing lane hand in the classic Supremes “stop” position.  When cutting or when defending a player with the ball having the hands up and out is usually the rule.  Many NBA players keep their hands at their sides on defense, which is not considered great technique.


A fair amount of defense is also played with the hips, knees, and elbows.  This part is often underrated by fans because it happens quickly, subtly, and usually away from the cameras.  Sit underneath the bucket and watch some of the action in the key and you’ll get an eyeful.  One of the first rules of NBA defense is not to let a cutter go by without bumping him.  It’s akin to letting an NFL wide receiver get off the line untouched.  You want to slow cutters down, alter their course, and generally make it unpleasant for them to run through your defense.  When defending down in the post you want to bump, gouge, and use your forearm and lower body for leverage to root your man out of position.  This is part of the reason an NBA team cannot afford to be too nice if it wants to be good defensively.  Punishment is an integral part of the defensive game.  It’s not overt, it’s not to injure.  You just want to make your opponent as uncomfortable as possible.  You want him thinking about something else besides finishing the play.  You want him to remember you’re there and that you don’t like what he’s trying to do.


Wrap-Up on the Basics


The original question was how you could tell your team was playing decent defense.  The summary so far:


--Watch who appears to be controlling the space on the floor, especially the critical middle space.


--Know the opposing players and watch to see if they’re getting shots in their comfort zone.


--Keep track of how many shots are contested.


--Watch to see how easily passes are being made.


--Watch to see if your guys are staying in between the ball and the basket in all situations.


--When watching individuals, see if they are remaining on balance, moving their feet, keeping their arms up, and anticipating where the play is going.


--Watch to see how freely opponents are able to move without the ball, especially on cuts through the lane.


Next Time


Next time we’ll cover some of the more advanced concepts like passing angles, man-to-man versus zone, defending pick and rolls, help and rotation, closing out, and the differences specific players can make.


--Dave (