NBA's era of balance reaches peak
It's taken 10 years but the NBA's new era has achieved its peak. Before 2001, teams were obsessed with crowding the paint defensively and isolating the best offensive players, which resulted in little movement of the ball. The rules changed in 2001 to open up the game offensively, and a decade later the transformation is complete: Offensive skills have been blended into the game so thoroughly that there is no longer a single championship contender that can be branded as an all-out defensive team.
Think about it: When was the last time you couldn't find at least one stifling defensive team in contention for the title?
Look around the league and name a title contender that possesses the mindset as well as the stoppers that strangle opponents defensively. For the first time since the emergence of the championship "Bad Boy" Pistons in the late 1980s, I can't name one.
The Spurs and Celtics were the last of the old guard, but in the last four months both have chosen to merge with the league's offensive trend. San Antonio is defending less vigorously than in any of its four championship years, yet the 50-11 Spurs have dominated the standings by running whenever possible and attacking from the perimeter. Coach Gregg Popovich doesn't always like what he sees, but he is embracing the evolution of his team because it is working. His Spurs are winning.
Much like San Antonio, Boston's four-year run of contention had been built on intimidating defense. But when the Celtics realized they may not be able to re-sign Kendrick Perkins as an unrestricted free agent this summer, they did something that no championship contender would have done 10 or 15 years ago: They traded their lone defensive specialist -- their starting center and leading shot-blocker for this era -- in an exchange that makes them better offensively.
Let's not generalize too much, because 6-foot-9 combo forward Jeff Green -- who arrived with 7-foot center Nenad Krstic from Oklahoma City in exchange for Perkins and backup point guard Nate Robinson -- is going to help guard LeBron James in the playoffs. In the bigger scheme, however, the Celtics were willing to risk undermining their defense in order to improve at the other end of the floor, and there can be no doubt they're better offensively after adding versatile Green (who was averaging 15.2 points for the Thunder), the highly skilled Krstic (who can outrun opposing centers and step out to make jump shots) as well as bought-out big man Troy Murphy (a dangerous three-point shooter and rebounder). Each of the three newcomers is superior offensively, and inferior defensively, to Perkins.
"That Perkins deal is going to be interesting to watch," said an opposing coach. "He anchored the defense for them, and I don't know who is going to be able to do that for them now that he isn't there."
Before 2001, any team that hoped to win the championship had to invest heavily in defense. If a coach had to choose between adding a defender or a scorer, the benefit of doubt was going to favor the defender. Coaches of that era could hide poor scorers in the half-court offense -- simply have your three worst scorers stand on the left side of the floor (because the man-to-man defensive rules of that era forced each of their defenders to stick with them), and then play a two-on-two game on the right side of the court with your two leading scorers. It was winning basketball, and it was awful to watch.
Now that sensibility has been turned right-side up. Since 2001, when the NBA transformed the rule book by allowing teams to play zone defenses, it has become more difficult for coaches to rationalize big minutes for non-scorers. This is why we're seeing so many point guards score in big numbers. If a point guard isn't a threat to score, then his defender will run away and double-team elsewhere. The same generality applies to defensive-minded centers: Hasheem Thabeet's shot-blocking might have earned him steady minutes 10 or 15 years ago, but in the modern NBA he cannot be kept on the floor because he doesn't need to be defended.
The all-or-nothing view of defense -- that you're either a defensive team or you're not -- has come and gone. Instead of selling its soul for the sake of defense, every contender is now seeking to perfect the blend between defense and offense. The best coaches insist on balanced half-court offense that will enable the defense to set up at the other end, and they demand defense that will create easy scores in transition.
The Thunder were desperate to acquire Perkins' defensive leadership, because they were lopsided offensively. The Celtics, driven in part by contractual concerns, were able to rationalize the trade after seeing Shaquille O'Neal elevate their offense during Perkins' convalescence from knee surgery over the first half of the season.
Instead of investing heavily in defense, every contender is now seeking a balance between both sides of the ball. Miami is depending on LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to lead defensively to make up for weaknesses in other areas -- the Heat lack shot-blocking at the rim, and the arrival of Mike Bibby has undermined its defense at point guard. Earlier this season we saw the Magic trade defenders (Marcin Gortat and Mickael Pietrus) for scorers and playmakers (Jason Richardson, Gilbert Arenas and Hedo Turkoglu). Jerry West has focused attention on the defensive issues of the two-time champion Lakers, who are having difficulties stopping scorers on the wing and at the point.
The contenders with the biggest upside defensively are the surging Mavericks, who have rewritten their DNA since putting center Tyson Chandler in charge of their defense; and the surprising Bulls, who refused to surrender center Joakim Noah in a potential trade for scorer Carmelo Anthony. But even Tom Thibodeau's defensive-minded Bulls were interested in acquiring shooting guard O.J. Mayo at the deadline in order to upgrade their scoring.
There is nothing to mourn here. Defense will still be crucial in the postseason, but it may not be the overwhelming force it's been in previous years. This blend of offense and defense recalls the NBA of the 1980s, when the dominant Lakers and Celtics scored in big numbers yet weren't known as being derelict defensively. For those of you who believe the high-scoring style of Mike D'Antoni can never win a championship: The game is trending his way, and he may be closer than you once thought.
Kendrick Perkins, you were both the victim and beneficiary of market forces. The Celtics were worried about keeping you as a free agent in a league that pays starting centers $10 million annually. The Thunder happened to spring open extra cap space last month by trading Morris Peterson and D.J. White to Charlotte for Nazr Mohammed, which enabled them to offer you $2 million above your current salary and provide you with a larger extension than you could have received from Boston.
There is another argument to be made about whether the Celtics should have traded you at all; it will be easier to deal with that issue after June. You went to a younger team that had held onto its money in hope of finding a young defensive center like you. You're going to look back on this trade and realize you made a transition from teaming with Kevin Garnett at the end of his career to joining up with Kevin Durant at the launch of his run of playoff contention. You've walked a short bridge from an old contender that was almost out of time in order to join a young contender that could win championships someday, and along the way you received long-term security on the eve of a new bargaining agreement. Pretty good deal.
Dwight Howard, the next collective bargaining agreement may make the decision for you: For all we know, you may not have a better option than to re-sign with Orlando.
In the meantime, your pro-Orlando responses -- insisting that you're interested solely in helping the Magic win a championship, and that this franchise has a lot to offer you for the long-term -- only serves to increase your value. You are showing leadership in the development of your offensive game, your physical play at both ends of the floor and your guidance following the December trade that overhauled your roster. Was your team's comeback Thursday from a 24-point deficit in Miami (thanks to a 40-9 second-half run) a sign that your team is finding its way? Your inclusion would make the title race more crowded than I can remember.
George Karl, you and your young players were liberated by the departure of Carmelo Anthony. You must be experiencing a honeymoon euphoria now that seven months of trade speculation have ended. As successful and attractive as your team has been in the last couple of weeks, however, you are going to need to develop one or two (or three) stars eventually. You can get hot in the regular season as you are, and you might even make the playoffs. But you can't win in the postseason without stars.
"Think about it -- these guys are too young to have seen him play," said Amaechi by phone this week. "I'm not particularly romantic about sports, and he was meeting people who are a little bit jaded or sophisticated about everything. But these guys were like 5-year-olds around him. Darryl spent 30 to 35 minutes with them, and they were asking questions, he was telling them stories, it was amazing -- exactly what you would hope to get from a star of the game. They were able to see the tangible connection between the work he put in and the rewards on the other side.
"People are keen, they are desperate, to get tangible glimpses into the lives of NBA players and into the way they play. If you are going to work so hard to be extremely good at something, sometimes you need to see the prize. You need to see it up close and smell it and not be separated by the glass."
Commissioner David Stern's long-term plan to plant an NBA division in Europe remains on hold as he deals with the larger domestic issues that threaten a lockout next season. "We're going to see a desire for franchises in Europe, and in about 10 years you'll send me a postcard," insisted Stern in an October interview with the AP. "I think we'll have a [European] division, and I think the Heat will play in Boston one night and then they'll go to Paris and spend a couple days on the Champs-Elysees shopping and relaxing. And then they'll go and play five [European] teams. And when they finish that, they'll play them again. Then they'll come home, having had a nice trip to Europe and they'll be finished with their European obligations."
In the meantime, the arrival of two regular-season games in London's sold-out, NBA-ready arena are ramping up the league's presence overseas. Next year, Luol Deng will lead Great Britain into the basketball tournament at the Olympic Games in London, which will further the sport even though the Brits aren't likely to medal. "It's going to be very important that they play hard and compete," said Amaechi. "Whether they win is less important. The thing they hate more than anything else [in Britain] is for players to play like they don't care. But this team will play hard. For all of the failings of the organization around Great Britain basketball, which are many, the actual team itself is going to work until they drop. This is the very best [British team] we've seen -- ever."
Neal Meyer, a former NBA assistant coach who next month will oversee the league's operations in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, said the league has sponsored a variety of camps and coaching clinics in several British cities this week. But Amaechi would like to see a larger infrastructure investment in order to build on the visits by the NBA and the Olympics. His Amaechi Basketball Centre in Manchester is a working model for how the sport could grow.
"We have 2,000 kids a week going through our doors in Manchester," said Amaechi. "If you don't live in Manchester, or in one or two parts of London, or in one part of Birmingham, there is no place to play that is of very high quality."
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