Nov. 18, 2011; Portland, OR, USA; Chicago Bulls shooting guard Kirk Hinrich (12) dribbles the ball past Portland Trail Blazers power forward LaMarcus Aldridge (12) and Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard (0) during the first quarter of the game at the Rose Garden. Mandatory Credit: Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

Finding Footing in the NBA’s Shifting Landscape

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As David and I have both mentioned recently, the playoffs are the perfect time to watch and study examples of teams that are experiencing success. From this observation, certain tendencies and traits of successful teams can be uncovered, and ideally, implemented for your own team.

As I was grinding some numbers the other day, I finally got confirmation of what I had been pretty sure was the case for a long time: in terms of playoff success, defense is king. And I mean every letter of that sentence – without an elite defense, you are getting NOWHERE, absolutely nowhere, in the playoffs.

I often grow weary of talking heads and sports personalities declaring that a team “should do this” or “must do that” in black and white terms. Generally, teams know a lot more about their own personnel than they are given credit for, or at least more than TV Face #1, and decisions are a lot more nuanced tan they are made out to be. As a result, I try to shy away from clear-cut demands. Sometimes, though, it is necessary. So, hear me now:

If the Blazers want to have any chance of experiencing a deep playoff run, they HAVE TO make defense a priority. This doesn’t mean something that is phased in over a couple years, or spending a few more minutes on rotations in practice or merely paying lip service to the idea. No, an entire attitude needs to be cultivated from the ground up that places an emphasis on defense.

Before I go further, a short, but necessary history lesson is in order. In 2007, a dour-faced, promising assistant coach arrived in Boston to help coach the Celtics. The man was, of course, Tom Thibodeau. He was handed the defensive keys to a team that featured one of the all-time defensive greats (Kevin Garnett), an up and coming point guard (Rajon Rondo) and a plethora of other hungry vets (Kendrick Perkins, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce rounded out the starting lineup).

The defense he orchestrated took the league by storm. Boston had a defensive rating of 98.9 (estimated points allowed per 100 possessions), which was nearly three points better than Houston, the second ranked team. Their opponents shot a ludicrously low 41.9% from the field. You know the rest. They went on to win the championship in convincing fashion against the Lakers.

This defense, which was made possible by the 2001 rule change that allowed “zone” defenses has significantly altered the NBA landscape. It’s tough to find a specific name for it – I’ve heard it called a matchup zone, a hybrid zone, or perhaps most accurately, Zach Lowe called it an “ultra-aggressive help defense” in his excellent breakdown of the phenomenon.

Even though Thibodeau left Boston, the legacy of his defense remains there, and is as stingy as ever. His new team, the Chicago Bulls, is unsurprisingly now a defensive juggernaut. The Heat this year have pushed the “aggression levels” aspect of the defense to new heights. This very postseason, the Memphis Grizzlies and Indiana Pacers almost staged some monumental upsets, and certainly announced themselves to the world with their own strains of this swarming, stifling, help-from-all-angles strategy.

Enough history. Onto the present. I want the Blazers to get one of these beautiful, shiny, fantastic defenses. Really though, if they want to have a future in this new NBA, they need one. Why do I say this? Let me briefly present the evidence:

Since that all-important 2007-2008 season (which I personally consider to be the turning point for the modern NBA defense), 24 season-specific teams have advanced to the Conference Finals (i.e. the 2007-2008 Celtics are a different team from the 2011-2012 Celtics). Of these 24 teams, exactly three of them were not a top-10 defensive unit (ranked by defensive rating). FIFTEEN of them were top-5 units. The top ranked defense made the Conference Finals in every year but one (the lone exception being the 2009-2010 Charlotte Bobcats who still made their only franchise playoffs appearance and set a franchise record for wins).

I would be remiss not to mention the one exception to this rule, however: the 2009-2010 Phoenix Suns. They found success with only the 23rd ranked defense, but, you guessed it, had the top ranked offense. They were the only team of this bunch with a defense not in the top half of the league. For comparison with the previous sentiment, 13 of the 24 teams, so over half, did not have a top-5 offensive unit.

You don’t have to be a numbers person to find these numbers incredible. They are that telling. The answer to postseason success is staring us right in the face: defense, defense, defense. If I am running a team, constructing an elite defense is priorities one, two, and maybe three. As seen above, it is apparent that you can more than get by with a merely “good” offense, but the odds of a deep postseason run significantly diminish without an “elite” defense. This may become even truer in the very near future – of the four teams that made the Conference Finals this year, three of them were the top three defenses in the league (the Spurs, the Pacers and the Grizzlies), a trend that may continue.

Lastly, an elite defense is based on a system, not a single player or two. You don’t need superstars, high priced free agents, or any of that pizazz. Thibodeau was able to take Carlos Boozer and Derrick Rose, two notoriously subpar defenders, and mold their starting lineup into a top two defense both years in which they played together. It’s a system effort, not an individual player effort.

You need players who buy into a system, but perhaps more importantly, a coach who can 1) orchestrate this system and 2) get the players to buy into it. Luckily, this is far more doable than wooing the latest cream of the crop free agent or lucking into the top lottery pick to select the next guaranteed superstar. The coach who does this doesn’t even have to be a big name head coach – remember that Thibodeau was just an assistant to Doc Rivers while with Boston. Acquiring the pieces for a top-notch defense is easier than doing the same for an equivalent offense.

Portland needs to take note. There are no excuses; no ifs, ands or buts. The evidence is there, and readily mounting. The road to the promised land runs through defense, and Portland’s pathetic 26th defensive ranking last year is not going to cut it in this day and age.


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