NBA Re­port Don’t be o≠ended, but de­fense seems to be dis­ap­pear­ing

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - By Christo­pher Dempsey, The Den­ver Post

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: cdempsey@den­ver­post.com or @chrisadempsey

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