Heading into this season, I couldn’t ignore this nagging thought: Defense in the NBA wasn’t really what it used to be.
I didn’t mean that negatively — the game is still great. It’s just that defenses hadn’t quite caught up to the speed and stretchiness of the league’s offenses.
That is, until now. For the first time since 2015, the NBA’s defensive leader has a sub-100 defensive rating (which measures points given up per 100 possessions), according to NBA.com’s stats tool. The Lakers are leading the league right now at 97.9 with the Thunder (98.3), Jazz (98.3) and Heat (99.9) riding their coattails.
Last season, the Bucks led the association at 104.9. So far this season, that number would only be good for 14th. Defense is markedly better around the league right now.
It’s refreshing, but strange, to see defense emerging again in the midst of an offensive boom around the league. We have some theories on why it’s happening.
Teams are better at defending the three
What do the Heat, Thunder and Jazz all have in common? They all rank in the top five at defending 3-pointers.
The Heat and the Thunder are the best two 3-point defending teams in the league right now and are holding opponents under 28 percent from deep. The Jazz are close behind them in 5th at 31.1 percent. The Lakers aren’t far behind in 7th at 32.1 percent.
The 3-pointer is the most valuable shot in the game in terms of point total. Teams prioritize being able to create easy looks at the rim or from behind the arch.
Remember how every team back in the day wanted to have a big 7-footer to throw out there and be physical? Those players have become long, rangy wings now and they focus on defending the three.
Teams are playing big again so rim protectors are back
With the Warriors era of small ball being over with, teams are switching back to more traditional roster builds with multiple big men.
Shooting around the league has gotten so good and the only fix in the last few years for it has been switching defense. Rim protecting big men have mostly been played off the court until now and it’s making a big difference.
Just look at the Lakers, for example. They’re playing a more traditional style of defense with two big men on the floor. Anthony Davis and Dwight Howard are getting heavy minutes. On shots six feet away from the rim or less, Davis is holding opponents to 24.1 percent from the field. Howard is holding them to 50 percent.
Both are stellar marks. It’s no wonder the Lakers have the league’s best defense.
Maybe teams just care a little bit more
The Warriors’ five-year run changed everything about basketball. They were unguardable and unstoppable — so much so that some teams just kind of punted on multiple seasons until Golden State started to fade away.
Guess what? They’re gone — at least for now. And, just like that, everybody and their mother is trying to win a championship …read more