So much of offseason evaluation and regular season projections is viewed through a one-way prism that highlights a team’s ball handlers, shooting, spacing, half-court sets and other entities strictly confined to the offensive perspective of the game. Constantly festering as an afterthought is how organizations formulate a defensive strategy. With the 2016-17 season on the brink, there’s reason to hypothesize fluctuations at the top of the defensive totem pole may be in order, considering five of the top six teams in defensive rating last season will be breaking in a new starting center.
Each of these possible new entries into the league’s elite have the essential elements to vault into the top echelon as a top five defense with just a touch of internal development, better injury luck and the impact brought from personnel changes this summer.
The Jazz likely would’ve been a top five defensive unit a year ago had it not been for an onset of a rash injuries, particularly ones to bigs Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors, who missed a combined 41 games. Gobert has become the league’s premier a rim protector, a deterrent with the length and timing to disrupt shots at the rim without fouling, while also possessing the lively footwork necessary to scoot along with perimeter players on switches. Gobert allowed the lowest field goal percentage at the rim of all volume rim protectors last season with a 41 percent clip, according to Nylon Calculus’ rim protection stats, which translated to a 100 defensive rating for the Jazz when he was on the court last season, a number that would’ve been third best in the league, trailing only the Hawks and Spurs.
Gobert is the crux of Utah’s exalted defensive outlook, but surrounding him is are multiple platoons of mid-sized wings and combo bigs, granting head coach Quin Snyder the elixir of versatility and switchability. Utah can deploy a traditional lineup with Favors at the 4 along with George Hill, Rodney Hood and Gordon Hayward or trot out a super fun-sized lineup with Trey Lyles at the 5, along with Hood, Hayward, Alec Burks, Joe Johnson, Hill or Dante Exum that flies around the floor, trapping ball handlers, swiping for steals, jumping passing lines and running spot up shooters off the 3-point arc. Even without a tenable super-small lineup, Utah allowed the fifth fewest 3-point attempts per game in the league last season at 22.1. The Jazz run nearly three-deep at every position, suggesting they could even withstand an injury at any position and still maintain a high-level defense.
The largest encumber for the Jazz is piecing together a defensive lineup that also maximizes its offense, particularly in crunch-time where Utah’s vessel sunk last season on both sides of the ball. In clutch situations (games within five points with under five minutes remaining), the Jazz’s offense rating was slightly below average in such scenarios at 103.5, but their defensive rating ballooned to 121.3, ranking 28th in the league, trailing only the Suns and Sixers. The Jazz conceded transition opportunities and were consistently bludgeoned on the glass, an indication of the hogwash lineups Snyder was forced to use when Gobert and Favors were injured. But the Jazz may have also flirted too much with small ball lineups that boosted the offense, but sacrificed the overall talent level on the floor. Consider the Gobert-Favors pairing shared the court for just 17 percent of Utah’s fourth quarter minutes last season, which was less than 10 other duos on the team. The Jazz’s overall defensive rating will glisten pending even reasonable health, but if the team’s standing in the Western Conference is to follow suit, Utah must rectify its crunch-time gaffes.
Since Steve Clifford took over as the Hornets head coach, no team, outside of perhaps the Spurs (because everything pure in basketball always has the label except for the Spurs), has shooed away easy scoring chances for opponents. Charlotte has punted the offensive glass during Clifford’s tenure in favor of getting back on defense, formed a perimeter around the hoop to prevent opponents from snagging their own misses and jammed the paint with extra defenders to clutter things up and seal off driving lanes. Although the Hornets’ transition defense was a bit more sloven last year than usual with the team finishing 12th in fast break points allowed per game, Charlotte still led the league in defensive rebound percentage and finished top five in second points allowed, paint points allowed and free throw rate.
In Clifford’s defensive think tank, Charlotte utilizes a traditional drop-the-big and fight-through-the-screen paradigm against the league’s increasing use of the spread pick-and-roll. However, more outside the norm, the Hornets’ wings crash down to flood the paint with bodies, coagulating the lane for rolling bigs and driving ball handlers.
All that extra devoted attention comes at a cost, however, with this specific expense coming in the mold of giving up the eighth most 3-point attempts per game and third-most spot-up opportunities in the league.
Without the departed Al Jefferson playing hefty minutes at center and requesting help tagging his roll man, perhaps Clifford advises potential helpers to shade a step in the direction of shooters to limit opponents’ looks from 3. Clifford has implemented wrinkles previously by increasing the rate at which he ditches traditional pick-and-roll mechanics and instructs bigs to fly out at ball handlers through hard hedges or straight blitzes. Cody Zeller, a peppy Marvin Williams and even Frank Kaminsky to some degree are capable executing the more aggressive style considering their foot speed (Roy Hibbert not so much), and with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist back from injury, Clifford could possibly even dabble with MKG guarding frequent screeners and blitz the hell out of ball handlers, knowing Kidd Gilchrist is more likely to force a turnover and also has the mobility to recover to the big man quickly.
After finishing fifth in defensive rating in 2014-15, the Wizards drooped to 14th last season in a campaign marred by repeated shake ups as if the team resided in a snow globe. With a beat up starting backcourt, a constantly-evolving frontcourt rotation and a lame duck coach in Randy Wittman, the effort and organization of the team’s defensive unit crumbled. While the Wizards generally conceded the same volume of shots by distance last season as in 2014-15 (i.e. in the restricted area, midrange, 3-pointers) opponents canned those attempts at a 46.2 percent clip compared to just 43.3 percent two seasons ago. The team’s rim protection suffered, where, as a team, Washington finished 25th in conversion rate at the rim, and the team’s pick-and-roll defense waned with John Wall notably experiencing a decline on that end, cascading from fourth among point guards in DRPM in 2014-15 to 15th last season as he bashed into picks and performed half-ass desperation pokes at the ball as his man turned the corner.
The hiring of Scott Brooks as head coach should, if nothing else, reinfuse the effort component of the Wizards’ defense with Brooks’ track record in Oklahoma City serving as a supportive crutch to lean on in that assertion. Also the signing of Ian Mahinmi provides a more natural rim-protecting option in comparison to Marcin Gortat, and considering Gortat’s age and Mahinmi’s chronic fouling issues, both players may be better suited playing 20-25 minutes a night. Gortat will likely retain the starting role pairing with Markieff Morris at the 4, and if the Wizards give significant minutes to Jason Smith (God no!) and Andrew Nicholson as backup 4s, Mahinmi’s rim deterrence will be a necessity on the second unit.
On the wing, Otto Porter has length, but is deprived of other qualities required to appropriately combat premier wing threats as his strength, balance and lateral agility are all deficiencies. Porter can’t wrangle with dudes like Carmelo and LeBron in post-up situations, and he struggles to sleuth around screens in pick-and-rolls. Morris may actually be called upon to handle bulkier wings at times and backup point guard Tomas Satoransky could shift down to defend elite scorers as well with his 6-foot-7 frame that oozes athleticism.
Already littered with malleable wing types, the onus is on Andre Drummond to morph into the rangy rim protector he teases viewers with in snippets if the Pistons are going to situate themselves as a top five NBA defense. Drummond exudes tantalizing athleticism and verticality, giving credibility to his projection as a rim deterring force, but he has yet to grasp the intricacies of the role, allowing the second highest field goal percentage at the rim of any player with seven or more contests per game. Drummond has difficulty deciphering through the trash to find the item of attention as he can be distracted by phony action on-ball or off-ball that takes him just a step or two out of position when the actual siege on the rim occurs. He can also be a bit jumpy, selling out for a premature block and neutralizing his impact after a pump fake or dump off pass. Finally, Drummond’s pick-and-roll probing, where he’s forced to carefully measure the space between the ball handler and roll man needs some work. Sometimes Drummond becomes too infatuated with the rim roller and doesn’t allocate the needed time for the ball handler’s defender to fully recover.
It’s vital Drummond wring out his deficiencies as a pick-and-roll defender and rim protector because Stan Van Gundy isn’t going to commit extra help defenders from the wing to dilute the situation. Detroit was reluctant to leave spot up shooters for juicy 3-point looks last season in pick-and-rolls and on drives, finishing second in the league in 3-point attempts allowed and first in the even shorter chucks from the corner. Meanwhile, Drummond bolstered the Pistons’ effectiveness on the boards, where as a team they finished with the second best defensive rebound rate in the league, minimizing second chance scoring opportunities. Flipping the court, Detroit gobbled up its fair share of putbacks, finishing second in offensive rebounding rate, but unlike most teams, Detroit, with the luxury of the hulking Drummond, didn’t have to sacrifice its transition defense to pound the glass as the Pistons were the stingiest fast break defense in the entire NBA last season.
In the half-court, Detroit has a valuable collection of wing-sized defenders, which is a vogue and scarce resource across the league. Detroit has the luxury of a switchy trio in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Stanley Johnson and Marcus Morris. Caldwell-Pope combines his length with an innate ability to slither around picks, making him ideal to slot onto score-first, high usage point guards, while Morris and Johnson possess more girth to stay balanced against stronger wing playmakers and disarm small-ball 4s who try to take advantage of post ups. Reggie Jackson can manage against opposing 2s when KCP pushes him a down a peg if need be. When engaged and on a string, Detroit’s defense can sift through its responsibilities seamlessly, draining the shot clock and forcing opposing offenses into the midrange abyss.
Ish Smith subletting Jackon’s place with the starters for the first month of the season will demand an adjustment with Smith lacking in size. It also throws a wrench into the second unit now forced to trust in Ray McCaullm. Aaron Baynes is a fouling machine, but his defense should be propped up simply by not having to atone for the sloth-like movements of Steve Blake as the backup point guard, and the now handsomely-paid Jon Leuer can shuffle his feet well to compensate for the nil rim protection he brings as a backup big.
After piddling around just below league average in defensive rating last season at 104.6, the Magic gorged themselves at the offseason auction, swapping Victor Oladipo and pieces for Serge Ibaka and bidding high for Bismack Biyombo. Ibaka’s defensive pedigree is well known as he can slide with opposing ball handlers on temporary switches and swat away shots at the rim. Ibaka’s reputation has been emboldened by his threat more as weakside shot blocker than traditional rim defender, a necessary skill playing alongside Nikola Vucevic, who will be targeted and taken advantage of in pick-and-rolls. Ibaka has the range and timing to cover for Vucevic in the starting lineup, and when paired with Biyombo, forms a bouncy big man combo who can move well enough on the perimeter and snatch souls at the rim.
Critics have denounced Aaron Gordon as a 3, and with good reason from an offensive perspective. But defensively, he sponges up opponents’ spacing with length and athleticism on closeouts and zoning up on the weakside of an offensive action, an asset considering Orlando allowed the second most spot up shots in the league last season. A Gordon-Ibaka-Biyombo trio could trigger even Gordon’s launch as a reckless pass lane gambler for stints, knowing even if his swipes come up empty Ibaka and Biyombo are there to shield the rim.
On the perimeter, Orlando could sink without Oladipo, especially if Elfrid Payton’s rickety shooting gives more court time to C.J. Watson or D.J. Augustin to pair with Evan Fournier. Mario Hezonja has the tools to be a good defender, and could unlock switchy small-ball lineups if…wait a minute, Frank Vogel was hired as head coach this offseason, the Magic aren’t going small! Vogel’s commitment to double-big lineups may sap offensive production, but it will clog up the paint defensively, mucking up off-ball darts to the basket where the Magic were crucified last season, as only Milwaukee and Houston allowed more scoring cuts. Equally, Vogel simply won’t stand for hazy, languid defense from his guards as they stand idle while being backcut to death.