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NBA Offenses and Defenses: A Battle Between Time and Space

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There’s a reason Damian Lillard is so wide open for that shot, and it’s not just because he’s an MVP-level player. We explain what’s behind the basic offense and defense you see every night.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Los Angeles Lakers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

NBA basketball is breathtaking, fascinating, and when played by greats like Damian Lillard, Kevin Durant, or LeBron James, truly an unforgettable sight. That said, your average NBA game can be hard to follow for the less-initiated trying to penetrate its mysteries. Most folks know a pick and roll on sight and have a vague idea that it’s supposed to create an open shot, but the basic principles behind even simple plays seem like magic. No fear! As a reader demonstrates today, when you’re puzzled, you can always come to the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag for help.

Dave,

I love watching the game and I’ve learned a lot, but I feel like I’ve hit a plateau and I wonder if you can help me out. I understand some basic plays now and I can usually follow when somebody breaks down an individual play on video if they don’t get too technical. It’s the same with prose if they don’t go too fast or get heavy into jargon. I’m having trouble putting it all together though. Other than the obvious made a basket or didn’t, can you give me some simple tips about watching the game and seeing how the offense and defense are working together in the big picture? I get the play, but why run it then and why stop it that way?

Lyle

I get what you’re asking. At the outset we have to admit that:

  1. Entire books have been written on this subject. And...
  2. No two people see things quite the same way.

Between those hurdles and the game being complex once you delve down into it, we’re not going to find a silver bullet answer that makes everything clear. I can give you a framework to help understand what’s at stake on offense and defense and how they take two different approaches to the same basic issue. As you continue to learn plays, this should help put them in context.

Defense

Defense is best understood as controlling space. Defenders don’t get to act independently. They must react to what the offense does. Since that’s not entirely predictable, defenses rely on controlling areas of the court that offenses are most likely to value.

“Control” can be defined as “exerting enough influence to cause the offense to divert from their optimal course”. It can be anything from blocking a layup to forcing the ball-handler to make a bail-out pass off a screen, to making a jump-shooter hesitate a half second. The goal of defense is to keep the offense from doing what it wants to do, forcing it to purse a less effective strategy. The defensive mantra runs, “Because I was there, you selected a different option.”

Depending on strategy and individual ability, control can be exerted through a player’s size, strength, length, speed, leaping ability, courage (try standing in against a charging Dwight Howard), solid technique, and sometimes just positioning. Some players have more of these gifts than others, or use them better. Theo Ratliff was long, tall, quick, and had a nose for shot blocking. If the NBA were a video game, he would have had a zone of control radiating out farther than the length of his body, making him a powerful and versatile defensive weapon. Rod Strickland didn’t have a nose for defense. Though he was lightning quick, his zone of control barely existed. Even when he ended up in the right place, it didn’t matter.

Defenses seek to paint the floor with zones of control, planting them right where the offense most wants to go. In rough order of priority, that’s usually:

  • In front of the ball-handler. (If you don’t do this, you’ve already lost.)
  • Between the other offensive players and either the ball or the basket. (Denying them the opportunity to catch or to score easily if they do catch.)
  • In the paint (because close shots are easy) and at the three-point arc (because those shots count half again as much).

Generally the center of the floor is more valuable than the sides because more offensive options can be generated from a central location. An offensive player can pass or dribble in any direction from the middle of the floor. On the edges, sidelines and baselines disallow movement in certain directions. The more predictable you can make the offense’s next move, the easier it is to anticipate where you’ll need to be to counter it.

In addition, defenses will usually know if the offense runs pet plays on other areas of the court and will try to intercede at those spots when they see the play run.

Great defenses get to the correct area of the floor before the offense can make use of it, the better to intimidate or otherwise divert the offense player after he arrives. Poor defenses either don’t get there or can’t do anything once they do.

If you want to understand why defenders are moving in certain ways, don’t just look at their opponents, but the area of the floor they’re moving to or through. Don’t just watch what’s happening, watch what the defense is trying to keep from happening next. Anticipation and strong, decisive response are the keys to good defense.

Offense

Where defense relies on space, offense makes use of time. Offense has the privilege of acting rather than reacting. The defense has to guess what the offense is going to do. Offenses succeed when they make defenders guess wrong, leaving them guarding areas of the floor that don’t matter anymore.

Usually this is accomplished by movement or misdirection. Five players standing still make it easy to guess which areas are important. Keep a defender in front of each player and the offense is bottled up. Ball movement and player movement force the defense to transition to and through different areas, anticipating different probabilities. Every transition is an opportunity for a mistake: hesitation, miscommunication, or a wrong guess. Mistakes leave the defense behind the offense, guarding areas the offense has already been in instead of areas where the offense is trying to go. At that point the offense has an advantage and an easy score is in the offing.

In short, offenses don’t try to get defenses to abandon their area coverage, they try to get defenses covering areas too soon, too late, or with the wrong people.

The classic pump fake is a great example of this principle. The shooter gets the defender to cover an incredibly important area—the vertical space in the planned arc of the shot—but the defender reaches the point before the shooter and the ball get there. The laws of physics dictate that once he starts falling, he’s not going to get back to that spot before the shooter makes free use of it. Right space; wrong time.

Backdoor cuts provide another marvelous example. The defender sets up solidly near the sideline between the ball handler and the wing player, denying the wing any chance of receiving a pass. When the wing quickly cuts to the hoop, he leaves the defender guarding perfectly good space where he used to be, oblivious to the fact that he’s not using it anymore.

Screens, jab steps, head fakes, weaves, alley-oops...pretty much every offensive move is designed to force the defense to choose a place and time to set up, only to make the point moot.

Putting it Together

These concepts come together clearly in the person of current Trail Blazers forward Al-Farouq Aminu, once maligned for his poor shooting but now a three-point stalwart in Portland’s offense, with positive results.

Aminu had a good three-point playoff series versus the Golden State Warriors last season and a couple isolated great games before that, but he spent the majority of the last two years bricking from the outside. He was so shaky, and Portland’s other attackers so potentially devastating, that opposing defenses would often cede the entire side of the floor to Aminu when he touched the ball outside of the arc. In effect they were saying, “The space immediately in front of you is valueless from a defensive standpoint because of your shooting, and your dribble drive is so slow and awkward that we can compensate for it by rotating before you get near the basket, so we’re going to over-value all the spaces that aren’t yours.” If Aminu failed to connect with the long ball (and sometimes even when he succeeded) his now-roving defender gummed up the works for all Aminu’s teammates. Portland’s guards knew they couldn’t pass to Aminu’s side of the floor because he wasn’t reliable, taking away one option. Perimeter defenders knew they’d have back-up if Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum got past them with a drive, allowing them to overplay in the dribbler’s space, contesting jumpers. The rest of the defense only had to anticipate guard penetration and rotate into the lane when it happened. They had every important area controlled and Portland’s offense clocked.

This year Aminu is shooting an amazing 39.2% from the arc. He’s now a legitimate target for drive-and-dish passes and defenders are forced to account for the space in front of him. This opens up more choices for Portland’s guards. They come off of screens clearer. They still drive through traffic, but it’s later-arriving instead of already set. Lillard’s percentage of shots from three-point range and at the rim (“good” shots) has gone up; his percentage of shots taken in between (“bad” shots) has gone down. McCollum is a more diversified scorer, but the percentage of his shots attempted in the highly-inefficient 16-22 foot range has dropped precipitously. That’s not an accident. Portland’s backcourt stars aren’t more talented than they were last year, but their talent generates better looks because they have more options and can keep the defense guessing about the correct space to control and the correct time to do it.

The Superstar Exemption

One brief coda remains to the time and space discussion. Some players are so dominant that they break the boundaries of time and space for both sides. LeBron James uses offensive timing and coordination, just as Hakeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did before him. Nobody becomes a superstar without grasping and taking advantage of the fundamentals. But all of these players share a single characteristic: they’re nearly impossible to control. Defenders may perfectly ascertain the space in which a superstar will operate and the time in which he’ll be active. That doesn’t mean they can stop him. This, as much as anything else, defines truly transcendent players. When you see an offensive player parked directly in a defender’s zone of control, then act like it isn’t even there, you are watching someone who can bend the entire game with their own, personal gravity well. In a way, it’s like breaking the laws of the universe. It’s also incredible to watch.

Thanks for the question, Lyle! You all can send them along to blazersub@gmail.com or @davedeckard whenever you wish!

—Dave / @davedeckard / @blazersedge / blazersub@gmail.com