The Portland Trail Blazers have long featured a backcourt long on offense, but defensively suspect. This is no secret. Year after year coaches and players promise that defensive improvement stands among their highest priorities. Each season, that ship of promise seems to founder. But why? If they know what the issues are, why can’t the Blazers just get better? That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
I’m wondering why with so many players, lacking defense skills, they don’t spend the summers working on it? Maybe it’s just Portland guards, but it seems our guards seem to have no concern about improving in that area
So let’s give some credit to your question before we show why it’s really difficult to achieve.
Three environmental issues contribute to defense getting shorter shrift among NBA players.
When players sign for tens of millions, it’s usually because they’re scoring 20 per game. The value of offense-only players has declined slightly, but offense is still rewarded more highly than defense in today’s NBA. A good defender with no offensive range better work on his jump shot if he wants a bigger deal. A good offensive player will probably get that deal anyway, whether his defense improves or not. He could get more by improving his defense, but that’s going to be marginal gain, not phenomenal.
This is further complicated by the difficulty in defining “good defense”. We know it when we see it, right? But it’s devilishly hard to quantify.
When players sit down to negotiate new contracts, their agents and the team GM are starting from “comps”, or comparisons between their statistical performance and that of other players around the league. Your comp level doesn’t guarantee or limit your actual compensation, but it does give the ballpark.
Defensive comps are far harder to come by, and trust, than offensive or rebounding or a host of other metrics. Even the experts don’t know how to translate defensive ability into numbers precisely, meaning all that work on developing the skillset may end of in a gray area of perception more than a bona fide paycheck.
This isn’t entirely unjust. Basketball is an offensive game. The NBA is an offensive league. Teams routinely score 110 points in a game. Great defense might shave off 20; abysmal defense might allow the opponent 20 more. Over time that’s going to cost you, of course. That’s how games are won and lost. But the fact remains, 20 points is about 10% of 110. Your defensive ability gives a plus or minus 10% difference. Your offensive ability is the foundation against which that 10% is measured.
A team of fantastic defenders with little offensive ability is going to lose every game. If they can only score 80, they’ll never defend well enough to bring even bad opponents down that low. Offense is the game’s language, defense its accent.
Finally, and just as importantly, offense is instilled into a player’s system from the earliest moments encountering the game, whereas defense is learned much later, if at all.
Watch a bunch of five year olds at a hoop. They’re not practicing side-to-side shuffles. They’re shooting the ball. That’s going to continue throughout all the playground, AAU, and YMCA incarnations of the game. If they get onto an organized team in high school, players are going to begin to learn defensive principles. That’s still never going to catch up to the deeply-embedded offense every player has engrained.
That makes it harder to develop effective defense once you’ve hit the NBA level. Let’s say a player really wanted to improve. Let’s also give them credit and say, as professional, they’re not even starting at Year 1 of their defensive journey. They’ve got the basics. Now they’re interested in stepping up to intermediate and advanced.
They can do that, the same way a recreational chess player can bear down and work on their game. Even if they make that leap, though, what happens if you throw our newly-improved intermediate player into a tournament against world-class opponents? He may have gotten 20%, or even 50%, better individually, but he’s still going to get housed against the real pros.
An NBA player trying to develop defense faces the same challenge. Though he improves, he’s still facing the most elite scorers in the universe, whose offense has been part of their DNA since their earliest days. The individual’s improved defense will probably show up in subtle ways, but there’s no chance it overcomes the lead the opponent’s offense holds. Even when it works, it’s not going to be that obvious.
Having said all that, one question trumps all: how do you even practice defense in the summer?
Players absolutely practice agility drills. They work on technique and concepts. Those are the tools of defense, but they’re not defense itself. Acquiring a hammer and screwdriver, even if they’re top of the line, does not make you an expert house builder.
Offense is active. I can shoot, dribble, or pass. I get to choose which one, semi-independently, depending on my read on the court. I can practice those things in isolation and get a rough approximation of scenarios I’d see in a game. I shoot a jump shot over a 10-foot ladder. Now I know what I’ll need to do to score over NBA centers. Practice a thousand times a day and I can probably translate that to the court.
Defense is reactive. It responds to what the offensive player does. Reading, anticipating, moving, changing on a dime...all of these things are intrinsic to defensive prowess. All of them depend on interactions with a real opponent.
Not only that, but if they’re going to be meaningful (and translate), that opponent has to be elite quick, with multiple options at their fingertips. Anfernee Simons can defend me all day long. That doesn’t say anything about how he’ll defend actual NBA players, nor would the exercise improve his defense one bit.
That’s the gap in the “just go improve over the summer” request. Even when players put in drill work, it’s like our chess player solving puzzles out of a book. Is that helpful? Yes. Is that drill work, in itself, going to make you a world-class player? No. It’s going to take years and years of rising to, and actually playing at, the highest levels before those drills make you a champion.
The average NBA player gets four seasons. Stars might get 12 or 13 in their primes. Even if a player perfects the drills, practical improvement isn’t going to come fast enough to outpace deterioration by a significant margin. That’s why you see NBA players get better on defense, but you seldom see players who weren’t already physically gifted, well-trained, and defensively oriented develop into All-League defenders.
The best answer to the question might be CJ McCollum’s, “We’re trying, Jennifer.” Players do work on their defensive game. Even Portland’s (much maligned) guards have improved over time. But it’s not going to happen in a single summer and, ultimately, environmental and individual challenges conspire to make dramatic defensive improvement difficult to achieve at all. Credit to all the player who manage it, but don’t hold your breath for players that can’t.
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