Training camp is just around the corner, which means players will soon be touting their weight loss and new muscles, as their coaches promise to focus on defense and pick up the pace. Many of those preseason goals and declarations get tossed aside or exposed within a few weeks after opening night, but we shouldn't be so cynical that we miss out on the possibility of legitimate year-to-year improvement.
On Wednesday, Ben Golliver examined five teams -- some contenders, some simply fighting for playoff spots -- that should make meaningful strides on offense this season. Here, let's evaluate five teams that should do the same on defense.
Brooklyn Nets: The Nets' offseason work amounts to a complete defensive overhaul. Whereas Brooklyn was dependent on the improved but still sub-elite defensive work of center Brook Lopez and power forward Reggie Evans last season, the new-look Nets will lean on a transformational team defender in big man Kevin Garnett, a do-it-all, multipositional asset in forward Andrei Kirilenko and a stout perimeter defender in swingman Paul Pierce. The costs of acquiring those players (in terms of draft picks and luxury-tax payments) might be great, but Brooklyn is prepared to become a far more formidable two-way team and dramatically improve on its No. 18 ranking in defensive efficiency (points allowed per possession).
The particulars of that improvement, though, hinge on a few factors. For one, first-time coach Jason Kidd and lead assistant Lawrence Frank will surely be deploying a new defensive system, which is never a change that should be taken lightly. There will be points of reference for Garnett and Pierce in what's sure to be a Boston-derived scheme (Frank served as the Celtics' "defensive coordinator" for the 2010-11 season), but the rest of the roster will still need time to adjust to that shift in coverage -- not to mention feel out playing with a host of new teammates. Also, the age of many of the Nets' crucial contributors will require a delicate balancing act of offensive responsibility, defensive assignment and playing time. The wealth of capable, versatile pieces on the roster should allow Brooklyn room to find that equilibrium, though doing so is no small feat.
Detroit Pistons: While many have fawned over the rim-rocking potential that Detroit's eccentrically athletic roster presents, this team is only a playoff contender on account of expected defensive gains. The acquisition of forward Josh Smith is an important move toward that end. His decision making with the ball can be implosive at times, but Smith is a high-level defender. It's hard to know exactly how he'll be used, given the curious positional situation in Detroit (where he's part of a frontcourt that includes power forward Greg Monroe and center Andre Drummond), but his versatile coverage should translate well for a team that ranked 23rd in points allowed per possession last season.
That's true in part because Detroit was so miserable across the board last season. The Pistons ranked in the bottom 10 in each of the defensive Four Factors -- a feat of misery that no other team in the league accomplished. Even the Bobcats managed to keep opponents off the free-throw line, while the Magic scrubbed the defensive glass clean and the Cavaliers created turnovers. The 2012-13 Pistons were the rare team for which there was no defensive bright spot, but, to their credit, they did avoid completely bottoming out in any specific measure.
The Pistons' summer moves bode well, and Smith's presence alone is likely to register a significant impact in a few of those categories. For one, Smith's ability to cover ground and alter shots should help Detroit pare opponents' shooting percentages. Simply having a shot-blocker of Smith's caliber on the back line stands to fundamentally alter the kind of shots opponents take, and will hopefully cut down on the painful shooting percentage (62 percent, 27th in the league) that the Pistons allowed in the restricted area last season.
In addition, Detroit has the personnel (with Smith, Monroe and Drummond) to be a top defensive-rebounding team and the sort of quick, irritating defenders (Smith and fellow newcomers in guards Brandon Jennings, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope) who should force turnovers more regularly. The pieces may not be in place for Detroit to be especially stifling just yet (top 10 in defensive efficiency seems too lofty a goal), but the Pistons are at the very least capable of more consistent and acceptable coverage.
Golden State Warriors: Golden State's defensive execution came and went last season, but stands to level out with the acquisition of swingman Andre Iguodala and a (hopefully) healthier season from center Andrew Bogut. Both are tremendous team defenders, and in tandem they could provide the foundation of a flexible, high-functioning system. But they'll have to make up for a few liabilities (guard Stephen Curry and forwards David Lee and Marreese Speights), all while Bogut carries with him a constant risk of injury.
Still, it would be surprising if Golden State didn't finish in the top 10 in defensive efficiency this season after ranking 13th last season, if only because Iguodala means that much to the Warriors. His arrival gives coach Mark Jackson the ability to rearrange his defenders as necessary, with any of Iguodala, guards Klay Thompson and Toney Douglas and forward Harrison Barnes well-suited to guard a variety of opponents. That's of particular use in finding an appropriate place to hide Curry in coverage, as Golden State can cross-match its perimeter talent at virtually no cost. Iguodala is also long and athletic enough to provide strong help defense from the wing, which is especially beneficial when the Warriors go small. Lineups featuring Iguodala, Barnes and Bogut in the frontcourt could wind up being surprisingly solid on the defensive end because both forwards balance the coverage with their length and ability to cover ground quickly.
All of which gives Bogut plenty of support and eases his responsibilities as a catch-all help defender. If he's truly as healthy as advertised, this could be a big year for the Warriors, who are poised to climb the NBA rankings on both sides of the ball.
Houston Rockets: On the surface, adding a presumably healthy Dwight Howard is a monumental defensive get. But Houston's inclusion on this list has less to do with Howard's influence on the team's first-line defense and more with the way his addition reshapes the rest of the rotation.
Center Omer Asik is one of the league's finest interior defenders, and last season he wiped out as many mistakes and did as much good as could possibly be expected. When he was on the floor, the Rockets defended at a top-10 level, fueling their fast-break attack with frequent stops and quick outlet passes. When Asik sat, Houston was a bottom-five defense that depended on the likes of power forwards Greg Smith and Patrick Patterson (who was traded midseason) to somehow hold things together. Unsurprisingly, they couldn't; Houston surrendered a greater effective field-goal percentage, more offensive rebounds and more shooting fouls while forcing opponents into fewer turnovers whenever Asik subbed out, creating a stilted defense that wound up ranking 16th in efficiency.
Howard can only do so much to improve on the excellent rotational coverage that Asik already supplied, but with his addition the Rockets have doubled their high-quality center options. Gone are those 18 minutes a night where the interior D is woefully underserved. Houston will be one of a select few teams with the ability to stagger top-flight defensive big men as needed throughout the game, to say nothing of those stretches where both share the floor to completely jam opponents' play actions. The best defenses in the league often get by with one player of Howard's or Asik's capabilities, along with the support of a sturdy complementary big man. The pairing of two premier, active defenders is a phenomenal point of leverage for the Rockets.
All of this gives Howard the benefit of the doubt as far as his health and defensive commitment, but I feel safe in betting on him to have a bounce-back year. Even in lesser form last season with the Lakers, Howard was capable of game-changing defense in the paint, but simply not to the same level we've come to expect. He should be positioned to better approximate that previous performance with a full offseason to rest his back and a consistent chance to develop on-court chemistry with his teammates.
New Orleans Pelicans: This pick is of the "can't get much worse" variety after New Orleans ranked 28th in points allowed per possession last season. None of the Pelicans' offseason moves are in any way transformative, but there's enough in the works to suggest some modest improvement.
Jrue Holiday will provide a significant defensive upgrade at the point of attack, replacing Greivis Vasquez's slow-footed shuffling with length and athleticism. A healthier Eric Gordon could go a long way in shoring up New Orleans' backcourt defense, too. At his best, he does well to keep up with opponents and challenge their work off the dribble. On top of that, another season of regular minutes and reps will bring second-year big man Anthony Davis closer to fulfilling his immense defensive potential. All of which is to say that New Orleans should be a better defensive team, though not necessarily a good one. There are still far too many quirks in play for that, between Gordon's struggles in contesting shots, forward Ryan Anderson's fundamental flaws, Davis' being a work in progress and newly acquired swingman Tyreke Evans' shaky defensive track record. But this season could be a good first step toward defensive solvency for a team still so early in its development.