NBA Report Don’t be o≠ended, but defense seems to be disappearing
Defense can be a fleeting thing. Once an NBA team has it, the team holds on tight to keep it. But so few do anymore. Not only game to game, but season to season.
Two of the more eyebrow-raising starts this season involve teams that had success last season — the Atlanta Hawks and Portland Trail Blazers. They were playoff teams. They advanced to the second round of the playoffs. Now? Both were expected to be among the better teams in their respective conferences but are struggling to maintain .500 records.
It doesn’t take a lot of digging to understand why: Defense. Last season, the Hawks led the NBA in field-goal percentage allowed. They were only 22nd in that category coming into this weekend. Portland’s drop wasn’t as stark, but it was down, going from 16th last season to 23rd so far this season.
The Hawks and Trail Blazers are the hamsters in this column’s case study, but they are by no means twisting out there alone in rough defensive waters. Defending in the NBA is more difficult than it’s ever been.
“The scoring numbers per team and for individuals,” said defensive-minded Nuggets coach Michael Malone, “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Changes in rules to benefit the offensive player and small-ball lineups are part of the issue. But in general, offenses are just more powerful than ever. Coming into the weekend, 24 of the 30 NBA teams were averaging at least 100 points per game. Five teams were averaging 110 or more points. Just two did that last season. On the flip side, six teams last season allowed fewer than 100 points per game. That list has shrunk to four this season.
Defense is stretched to its thinnest margin ever as more spacing, faster pace and more 3-point shooting — even in transition — make keeping control of any player or any team on a given night a Herculean task. Eight teams are allowing an average of 10 or more 3-pointers per game this season. Only one did so last season.
Individuals are soaring as well. In games through Dec. 15, there already were 28 triple-doubles. And there were four 50-point games — including Klay Thompson’s 60-point outburst, in only 29 minutes.
Is it impossible to guard anyone anymore?
“Judging by the years that (Russell) Westbrook, (James) Harden and (Anthony) Davis are having; those three come to mind, I would say it’s looking like it is impossible,” Malone said. “Game one for us, Anthony Davis scores 50 against us. … I don’t know how you guard Russell Westbrook. I really don’t. With the rules and the respect that he gets from the referees, it’s almost impossible to guard guys.”
It’s been so tough at times, Malone has had to devote some thought to using a zone defense. If there is anything anyone who knows Malone understands, it’s that he pretty much never wants to use a zone defense.
“It is a discussion that we’ve had, about the potential of using it at some point,” Malone said.
There are teams defending well. Milwaukee, Utah, Memphis, Golden State and Detroit entered the weekend as the top five teams in field-goal percentage allowed, ranging from .429 allowed to .439 allowed. And, no surprise here: All have winning records. But defending well in this league is a struggle. If your team has it, cherish it. It may not last long. Christopher Dempsey: email@example.com or @chrisadempsey