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Player Development and the Condemnation of Defense

US Presswire

US Presswire

This piece is a collaboration between Cole Patty and myself (David Vertsberger), working together to tackle the topic of player development.

CP: So this is a twitter conversation turned into a basketball writing piece, but basically we are covering all the different angles of player development. The start of our disagreement is Wilson Chandler. He’s a nice player, but I’m not sure he will ever be a considered a great player already being in his 6th year in the league.

DV: Right, so I believe he, along with any player, can further develop and grow as much as they’re willing to work for, at any point in their careers really. This applies to players who rely highly on their athleticism as well. See: Vince Carter. And in Chandler’s case, he’s only 25 years old, his athleticism won’t be regressing anytime soon. An athlete’s peak is in his late-20s, Chandler is just approaching that point with still a good amount of his game a bit raw. I’m not saying he’ll ever be an All-Star, but he very well can be if he works hard enough towards that goal.

CP: What it seems, is a player has to be able to adjust their style of play more than anything for development after 25. It has been estimated that someone reaches their physical peak at age 25, so obviously Chandler isn’t going to jump higher coming next season, but the way he approaches the game could alter him improving. As we see with LeBron, a more efficient approach to the game could happen. Kobe Bryant, Kyle Korver, and Vince Carter have all seen an ability slow down Father Time’s regression with a similar change in play style. Chandler of course could take his teammate Igoudala’s approach by turning into a straight jacket on defense. Becoming a lock down defender takes more continual effort and a higher mental approach to that side of the floor, and Chandler has the athletic tools to make the most of that.

DV: I’d agree with that, and it’s not just because their athleticism is declining, but sometimes they discover how much more valuable they are to their teams when they play differently. LeBron James is still one of the most athletically gifted players in basketball, maybe even in sports. yet he developed his post game last season and has since won a title and is on track to win a billion more. Same can be said for Wilson Chandler, barring any injuries his athleticism won’t decline for a good amount of time, so it would be huge if he could follow in Iguodala’s footsteps while he has the physical prowess to be one of the league’s best defenders. Isn’t this what separates the good players from the great? Not needing any incentive to improve on their games/styles of play, but to simply do it just to further expand their basketball horizons? I mean, look at James, who won two MVPs and then worked on a post game. Kevin Durant, who has four scoring titles, yet has evolved into a much better distributor of the basketball and has limited his three-point attempts in exchange for more trips to the free throw line. And Carmelo Anthony, turning into one of the most lethal spot-up shooters in the league and demonstrating a brand new intense focus on defending the basketball. Meanwhile, Josh Smith has yet to embrace the fact that he’d be an All-Star if he chose to secure his offense in the paint and work on his free throw shooting. Same with Rudy Gay, who is still a liability on defense and an incapable long-distance shooter as a wing, yet persists to take Kobe and Jordan-esque shot attempts. What happens when he loses his athleticism? Then will he decide to work on his inconsistent jumper? Is this a work ethic problem, are these players lazy? Or do they take too much pride and don’t want to admit they may be poor at a certain aspect of the game?

CP: I would say it is more a factor of the other players working hard. I think Carmelo got into the trap of thinking “I’m good enough now” that someone might think Josh Smith is in now. Kobe could even be described in that trap prior to him winning the titles all over again with Pau. The league has too many players and too many hard workers to just coast. There is definitely a fresh energy with Melo this year, which is great to see because I find the league more entertaining with good Carmelo in it. You are allowed to be happy with where you are at as a player, but I think guys get trapped into being satisfied with their role. Not that that is the worst thing in the world if the player is happy, but you can see the frustrations once a certain player doesn’t take the next step. The interesting thing is guys normally seem to hit their defensive peak later in their career than their offensive one, why is that?

DV: I think the answer can be found in the scene I witnessed while in school about a week ago. I was waiting in the basketball gym for a friend who still had a class to finish before we could head home. I believe the ninth-grade kids were in there playing basketball, and after I got some shots up I relaxed on the bleachers. Then for the remainder of the period I just sat there and observed. All these kids were doing was jacking up threes, taking wild contested layups, and trying to imitate Kyrie Irving‘s wicked dribble moves. Nobody was out there busting their ass on defense or boxing out. Sure it was just some gym class, but the fact of the matter is, nine out of ten talented young basketball players want to be Kobe Bryant, and not Kyle Korver or Tony Allen. They want to hit the game-winning shot, not focus on locking down their man all game. This continues through high school and college basketball, where professional scouts are looking for the gifted scorers more than the terrific role player. Then when these wannabe-Jordans realize they can’t drop 20 at ease against NBA players, they shift their focus onto defense and other aspects. I’d be overreacting if I said this is ruining the game, and I may have greatly overexaggerated the percentage of players that develop like this, but this isn’t something that should be applauded and there’s certainly no easy way to fix it. The ironic part is that it’s been proven that in regards to winning games, defense is more important than offense. Now, one idea to correct this issue could be implementing more non-offensive statistics, to motivate players that want to fill the stat sheet in hopes of impressing hungry scouts to do more on the court than just get buckets. I read an article on HoopSpeak not too long ago on adding a stat to the box score for screens set. I say we build on this concept, adding “altered” or “contested” shots perhaps? Do you agree with my theory? If so, what needs to be done?

CP: There are definitely still the Larry Sanders and Avery Bradley‘s that kick the mold, but basketball is like every sport in which the offense gets more recognition. However, the great players do start hitting a point where they realize they would rather have championships than scoring titles. My frustration comes in the offensive bias even in the front office. Nick Young is making $5.6 million this year, and no matter how much I love him he is just a gunner who has been very unsuccessful this year on the struggling Sixers. However, Corey Brewer is making $3.2 million on a Nuggets team playing a huge bench role and helping the Nuggets try to get the 3 seed in the West. I’m not saying every GM is going this direction, but do we seriously have that big of an offensive bias at that level? I guess we might see when Brewer and Young are paid this year, but even still Andrea Bargnani is making $9.25 million and I would rather have a bench big that can defend the paint with some competency. I understand our youth’s immaturity but I don’t see how defensive players don’t get more money from executives. As for the screen setting theory, I love it because sometimes a screen can be no different for a passing assist.

DV: It doesn’t just end with GMs either. Even the best of basketball minds succumb to this bias. Let’s look at NBA Rank, a project that consists of over 100 NBA experts ranking players from 1-10 on “current quality.” Just recently, James Harden was ranked the eighth best player in basketball, with a score of 8.78 out of 10. Harden is one of the best scorers in the league, but his defense is literally some of the worst you’ll see out of an All-Star caliber player. He ball watches constantly and is laughably slow at helping out on defense. So his game is technically half there, maybe even less considering the greater impact of defense, yet he’s considered a top-ten player? He’s not the only case, but he probably has the largest disparity between offensive and defensive skill. Maybe this entire generation needs to completely change the way we think about players? There are some who grew up analyzing basketball in the 60s and 70s that are genuinely disgusted with “our” basketball, I’m sure of that. At the end, there hasn’t been a team to win an NBA championship based solely on great offense, so are we over-blowing this whole thing? It’s not like these GMs paying Nick Young and Andrea Bargnani are winning a chip anytime soon, or ever.

CP: See, I somehow give Harden the pass due to the fact I think there is a part of the system. However, the rules are now easier for perimeter players to do things than they were in the 70′s. I do think some guys who are good at both ends should be considered better. I have Marc Gasol in my top 5 for MVP and I might be the only one. I just think that being the best defensive player and being regarded as a well above-average offensive player should be enough to get there. I think that we don’t give defense enough credit, however good offense always beats defense of the equal level in basketball. So, maybe we are not over-blowing it with the questioning when it comes to inefficient offense players. However, the people who act like there is absolutely zero defense played in the NBA is over-blowing it.

DV: I’m so with you on Marc Gasol. Yeah, there is so much going into defending NBA players these days. Its even harder now with crackdowns on hand-checking, referees being more whistle heavy for smaller guards attacking the rim, the defensive three seconds rule. It’s like today’s game is structured to make playing great defense much harder than playing great offense. Things like these, and many aforementioned topics, they’re things that developing players don’t pay attention to or look for. I have the feeling that high school and college players are mostly casual NBA fans. There’s no concrete proof here, but most would guess that these young, popular, future-studs would be out partying instead of watching the late night Pistons-Kings game. If more of these players really took the time to watch and learn the game, their basketball IQs would be much higher coming into the league, thus they would be more complete players, right?

CP: Exactly, I think defense takes a higher level of constant mental involvement. So of course I think that part of the game comes slower to most unless it turns into a Larry Sanders or Avery Bradley situation where they are starving for minutes. So, I would think that some of the younger talents slips into lazy or non committed defense. I would say that they would be more complete if they were more involved with watching the game more growing up, I would say however that it isn’t their job at that age to be that involved with basketball. It would be valiant to see a high school kid avoid parties to learn about the game, but I can assume that some kids wouldn’t because they aren’t ready to sacrifice that part of your social life. So exactly why players are slower to learn defensive concepts because it takes more mental involvement. It would be awesome to see a more early commitment to the game, but I don’t think we can expect it at that point in a young man’s life.

  • Ian Levy

    One of the things that I think makes defensive development lag is that it is a collaborative science. Young players can work on pieces of their offensive game by themselves, but it’s difficult to practice anything related to defense alone in an empty gym. You can play pick-up basketball and be getting terrific reps on all sorts of offensive skills, but the defense is so disorganized that the only defensive skill to work on is the sustained effort required for good man-to-man defense.

    I also think the difference in complexity between NBA defense and defense at other levels is much greater than the difference in offense. The basic elements of running a good screen and roll are the same at the NBA level as they are at the high school level. However, defending that screen and roll at the NBA level is a much more complicated task because of the intricacy of defensive systems and the capabilities of the players. I think it takes players a lot of time to adjust to those things.

  • Nick

    I agree with a lot of points in this article (and in Ian Levy’s comment), especially with the change in young player attitudes and how statsheets and highlights skew player consciousness towards offense and flash rather than defense and grind. Part of the issue is that blocks and steals are more often than not equated to “good defense”, while (as you point out) lockdown man-to-man d doesn’t make the highlight real (unless it’s getting shredded by Kyrie Irving et al.). The block or steal appears as the abrupt/sudden imposition of defensive will on the offense’s plans- the defensive equivalent of a dunk. Without closer observation, it would seem that as long as you can come through with the key steal/block when your man has the ball, you can sag, leave your arms down, etc. The concept that it could be more valuable to smother your check before he receives the ball, preventing the pass, is entirely foreign to 90% of young players (at least at my local university and rec gyms). Help rotation? Not happening. But then no top ten highlight reel will ever show Igoudala (or whoever) hounding an opposing wing, discouraging the initial pass, and effectively forcing the offense to run the other way. It will only show the steal and resulting breakout dunk.

    The other side of this is that off-the-ball screens and cuts are also becoming a lost skill. If you don’t have to work to get open, you don’t learn to work to get open. With more one-and-done players, I think we’ll just see more players coming in with limited defensive and off-ball skillsets.

    • Ian Levy

      Thanks for commenting Nick.

      It’s a shameless plug for an old Hickory-High post but I think these clips of Avery Bradley picking up opposing point guards full court is about as close as you’re going to find to a defensive-effort highlight reel.

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