Smart Team Defense: The Bird’s Eye View

True or false: Carlos Boozer doesn’t play defense.

Read on for the RIGHT answer. And don’t cheat. If you skip past this primer on team defense, you probably won’t get WHY the right answer is the right answer.

When you think about it, defense is half of the game of basketball … so naturally all serious basketball players devote as much time to honing their defensive prowess as they do their offensive skills, right? Uh, why are you laughing?

Well, if you think defense is under-appreciated by players, just think how under-appreciated it is by most basketball fans.

And box score statistics are certainly no help. In fact, box scores contribute to the problem, causing people to smugly believe they have a handle on a team’s or a player’s defensive efforts, when in reality, what is going on defensively is as far over their heads as the scoreboard.

Smart team defense has two goals:

To work together as a team to …

(1) Limit your opponent’s shot attempts, and to
(2) Force the opposing team to take lower percentage shots.

You limit your opponent’s shot attempts by:

(a) Rebounding (giving opponents less possessions)
(b) Forcing your opponent into turnovers (giving opponents less shot attempts)
(c) Taking care of the ball on offense (giving opponents less possessions)
(d) Controlling the pace of the game (not always desirable, but it does give opponents less possessions if you want).

You force opposing teams into lower shooting percentages by:

(a) Contesting shots, especially high percentage shots
(b) Encouraging opponents to shoot from where they are less effective
(c) Denying skilled scorers shot attempts where possible
(d) Encouraging less skilled players to be shooters
(e) Forcing your opponent to rush shots to beat the shot (or game) clock
(f) Making your opponent uncomfortable on their offensive end of the court
(g) Denying your opponent the ball and people movement their offense is calculated to give them

So where are the lower percentage shots?

Obviously, the closer to the rim you shoot, the higher the shooting percentage, but does that axiom hold true when you take into account defenses? Yes, and NBA statistics bear that out:

NBA Average Shooting Percentages (2009-2010 season as of 30 December 2009):

60.4% = At the rim
44.6% = 5 to 9 feet from the rim
40.4% = 10 to 15 feet from the rim
39.5% = 16 to 23 feet from the rim
34.7% = At the 3 point arc
52.0% = eFG percentage from the arc

That last statistic is the “effective field goal percentage” from the arc… in other words, it takes into account the fact that you get 3 points from the arc instead of two.

These percentages show that generally speaking, the two most effective places on the floor to shoot from are near the rim, and the 3 point arc.

While every coach would love it if their teams could seriously contest every shot attempted by any player from anywhere on the floor, in a competitive league that’s not too realistic. In the real world, smart team defense is about priorities.  It’s about knowing which of the opposing players are effective scorers, and how they are most effective, then forcing opponents away from their strengths and into where they are less effective.  It’s about taking care of business in the critical areas, then doing the best you can in the less critical.

For example, at this point in the 2009-2010 season, the top two teams at defending the 3-point arc are the Los Angeles Lakers (30.7% opponent 3-point shooting) and the Boston Celtics (31.3% opponent 3-point shooting). These two teams also happen to be the best teams in the NBA right now.

What about their defense near the rim? In terms of shooting percentage, Boston is 2nd in the NBA in defending near the rim, (Cleveland is 1st), and the Lakers are 4th. However, the Lakers are also 1st in the NBA in defending within 10 feet of the rim… so defensively, they cover well the areas opponents where can hurt them the most.

By contrast, further out on the floor, again in terms of shooting percentage, the Celtics are only 14th in the NBA in defending the floor from 15 to 23 feet, and the Lakers are only 24th (out of 30 teams) in defending the floor from 10 to 15 feet.

In other words, the NBA’s elite teams are serious about defending near the rim and at the arc, and do an adequate job defending midrange and long jumpers. Smart defense is about priorities.

So, is Carlos Boozer a bad defender? Well, when you look at the box score statistics, Carlos is 77th in the NBA in blocked shots and 61st in the NBA in steals… so maybe.

Then again, when you look at limiting opponents shot attempts, Carlos is 7th in the NBA in rebounding, which is kind of amazing when you consider that he is the 2nd shortest player in the top 20.

And when you look at shot attempts near the rim, Utah is 9th in the NBA in keeping opponents from shooting near the rim, and 8th in the NBA in shooting percentage defense from distances under 10 feet from the rim. The Jazz have a perimeter oriented center, so it is reasonable to assume that Carlos Boozer has played a big role in nudging opponents away from the rim and forcing them into lower percentage shots… while still keeping an inside position for rebounding.

So, while Boozer may not be an NBA leader defensively speaking, Boozer definitely appears to be a solid NBA defender, especially for his height — contrary to the complaints of some Jazz fans who should know better. After all, you can’t play for Duke and win NCAA championships without solid defense, can you.

But Boozer was just a teaser to see if I could entice basketball fans to learn a bit more about smart team defense.

If defense was about steals…

… then the Golden State Warriors would be defensive monsters; they lead the NBA in steals.

And if defense was about blocked shots…

… then the Los Angeles Clippers would be defensive monsters; they are 2nd in the NBA in blocked shots.

However, the Clippers (13-17), and Warriors (9-22) are the second and third worst teams in the Western Conference right now, and no one in the NBA allows their opponents to score more than the Warriors.

Obviously defense is not about steals and blocks, it is about aggressively contesting shots near the rim, chasing shooters off the arc, and forcing players to shoot from further out. Look for that on the defensive end of the floor next time you watch a basketball game, and you’ll enjoy the defensive side of the game quite a bit more.

Of course, there is still quite a bit more to smart team defense than what I just outlined here, but this article is too long as it is. Besides, understanding the two fundamental goals of smart team defense, and how they are accomplished will give you a basis for understanding more than I could tell you anyway.

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