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Defense, We Hardly Knew Ye

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Let's talk about NBA defense, what to look for, and how it relates to the Minnesota Timberwolves. I'm going to need your help.

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Anyone who has read more than two things I've written probably knows that I'm generally more comfortable on the fandom side of NBA writing and tend to leave the hard core Xs and Os to the smarter and more ambitious writers in the blogging community. Here, I am going to attempt to stray from that model some (some) and to make matters even worse I want to look specifically at something that I personally find difficult to pin down: defense.

Now I know you are probably thinking "my goodness Jer,  you are even stupider than I thought if you don't know what defense is." OK, fair enough. I should be clear that I do know what defense is, it's that part of the game in which your team doesn't have the ball and is attempting to obtain the ball without yielding any points to the opponent. Defense is 50% of the game so yeah, of course I know what defense is. Where I some times struggle (and I suspect I'm not alone) is with how to recognize the overall quality of defense when I see it. Our Timberwolves have a losing record, we know this. What this means of course is they have scored less points than their opponent in most of their games so far. Now, according to Basketball Reference the Wolves are middle of the pack in points scored and allowed (17th specifically in both), they are 20th in pace (which matters here somehow I promise), but 11th in offensive rating while being a dismal 25th in defensive rating. If we plug all of these basic team numbers into a NBA calculator we can determine  with reasonable confidence that defense is a problem. Perhaps it's not the only problem, but clearly it is a significant piece of the problem puzzle. What I want to know is why? Why is defense such a problem?

Let's glance quickly at the defensive ratings numbers of some key players keeping in mind that an individual's defensive rating (DRtg) is some kind of freaky mathematical estimation of points allowed by that player per 100 possessions. Please know that top defensive players will come in just under 100 with DRtg.

  • Ricky Rubio 110
  • Gorgui Dieng 107
  • Andrew Wiggings 114
  • Karl Anthony Towns 108
  • Zach LaVine 113
  • Thus Jones 109
  • Shabazz Muhammad 114
  • Kirs Dunn 106
  • Nemanja Bjelica 107
Now, I don't want to be alarmist but this seems not good. None of our most important players are anywhere near 100, much less below it. Here, however, is where I start to get into trouble. Why exactly is this? What, as a fan, should I be looking for to help me understand why this version of the Minnesota Timberwolves is struggling so mightily on the defensive side of the ball? As near as I can tell, for the chronically under coached fan understanding defense comes in along a continuum so I will spend the rest of this article looking at various points along this line in order to help myself and like educated basketball fans get a better sense of what to look at whenever the Wolves don't have the ball.

First, a soothing song to help reduce the tension:


I feel better already...

So, defense. The first stop on the defensive success continuum as it relates to fan recognizability is blocks and steals. It is very simple to recognize the impact when a player prevents another player's shot from making it all the way to the basket via block or when a player simply takes the basketball away via steal. It is worth mentioning, however, that blocks do not always end an opponents offensive possession while steals, by definition, always do. Because of this, and because blocks are visually pleasing, it is easy for fans to over value blocks. That is not to say blocks are not good, clearly they are, I bring this up only as a precaution against assuming that players who record a lot of blocks are necessarily top defensive players. They might be but they also may not be. In the interest of fairness here, I should also mention that steals can sometimes be gotten by players who "cheat" off their primary defensive responsibility to get into passing lanes and/or obtain a steal by crowding the ball handler- a risky endeavor that can sometimes lead to easy baskets for the opposition.

Now before we look at some video examples of blocks and steals let me define a few different kinds of each. As I already alluded to, steals can be gotten by ball hawking in the passing lanes or swiping at the ball as a help defender. Other varieties of steals include intercepting a pass intended for the player you are covering or simply poking the ball free as your man attempts to dribble it (a very satisfying feeling, let me tell you). Blocks can come in the form of facing up your opponent and jumping up to block it as he shoots, coming into the play as a "hidden" help defender, or my personal favorite the "chase down block." Now we all know what blocks and steals look like but let's peak at a few examples anyway.




Wow, two great plays that are at once exciting and recognizably impactful. It is easy for fans of all levels to see the great defense on display here which is why this is the starting point of my made up continuum. Next I will attempt to look at a defensive concept that is a little less obvious than blocks and steals but still reasonably recognizable to most fans. The next point along the path here is "staying in front of your man." Most NBA defense is what is referred to as "man to man" defense which basically means that each player has a specific player on the other team that he is assigned to guard during half court defensive possessions. Teams sometimes employ something called a "match up zone" but I'll admit that I'm not 100% sure what that means which places it further along our line.

Other levels of basketball sometimes utilize various zone defensive schemes but these are not allowed in the NBA. Anyone who has every played basketball, even on the playground, has some basic understanding about the importance of staying in front of your man. The concept here is simple: by remaining between the player you are responsible for and the basket, you are making it more difficult for them to score easy baskets. Less obvious, even within this simple concept, is determining the exact positioning that is best in a given situation. If a player is known as a shooter the defender needs to crowd (get close to) him so that he can't comfortably do so.

Conversely, if you crowd a offensive player who is adept at driving to the basket he may use this to his advantage and drive past you and everyone will laugh at you as he scores. It's an important decision to make as a defender. Also, some players are good at both shooting and driving which essentially means the defender is screwed and may need assistance from a teammate. Unfortunately for the defense, offensive teams are aware that defenders are truing to stay in front of them so they employ all kinds of tricks such as cuts and screens in order to free their players. Sadly, and because I'm not a video archivist, I had more luck finding examples of defenders not successfully staying in front of their man. Still, I think you will recognize the problem here and be able to apply the lesson as you watch the next game.

Watch Kawhi Leonard slip his man and cut to the hoop for an easy basket.

Here KD uses a little misdirection move to get past his defender. Gotta move those feet...


Next up is the importance of transition defense. No fan likes to see the opponent get out and run against his or her favorite team but remembering to pay attention to the role the preferred team plays in allowing this can get a little trickier. Acts of omission are always more difficult to spot than acts of commission and poor transition defense might be the perfect example of this. Getting back on defense after a missed shot, or even a made basket, is important because even if the other team doesn't score an easy basket right away defenders who are scrambling to match up may contribute to easy baskets early in the shot clock. I think this defensive lapse can be especially difficult to spot when watching because transition plays are so exciting that it is easy to shift our attention to the scoring play, even when it is for the other team, rather than staying focused on what the defender is, or more likely isn't doing. Let's look at some...um... lowlights.

Here is a clip of top fast break plays. Some of these are simply great individual players making plays (I'm looking at you Westbrook) but others are examples of the offense beating the defense back in transition. Try to look at these through the lens of paying attention to the defense specifically. I'll understand if you have to watch them twice.


Moving right along we will now get into  pick and roll defense and how to deal with screens in general. The pick and roll has become a staple of most NBA offenses, so teams need to know going in how they are going to defend them and we fans will want to know what we are looking for in terms of assessing our favorite teams defense. Essentially defenders have two primary approaches they can take with screens (including the almighty pick and roll) they can either fight through it or they can switch. Both of these have their perils. If a player attempt to fight through a screen he may get hung up allowing the opponent the split second needed to get off a clean shot. Also worth mentioning here is the decision about going over or under the screen if you do decide to fight it. If you go under a a better shooter may have more room to shoot but if you go over a good ball handling player may have the jump on you so it can be a serious problem either way.

The danger with switching, of course, is that it could lead to a mismatch that the offense can then exploit. I should be clear that I am starting to get in over my own understanding of some of this so please feel free to use to comments to let me know what I'm missing or perhaps even getting wrong- the goal here is for us all to be the best consumers of NBA defense possible. Timberwolves fans trying to become more astute observers of pick and roll defense may want to pay particular attention to the ICE concept made famous by coach Thibs while he was still in Chicago. Let's take a look at some highlights, again paying attention specifically to what the defenders are trying to accomplish.


OK, I'm not sure how helpful that was. One can only search YouTube NBA highlight videos for so long before starting to feel a little dead inside.

I'm going to end with a brief discussion of some of the defensive concepts that are a little further along the recognizability continuum. Part of the reason I even wrote this is my belief that, despite the amount of time we spend talking about defense, it can be difficult for many fans (OK, maybe just me) to really pin down what's going on relative to what's supposed to be going on defensively. Positionality is important, we get that, but outside of very specific situations, I have to admit that I'm not always sure what I should be looking for. Shading a player so if he does drive with the ball he is funneled into a help defender is important but where exactly should the help be? Karl-Anthony Towns looks the part of an NBA defender but by all accounts is too often out of position. Our long lost Nikola Pekovic was certainly not a shot blocker but he sure knew how to clog the lane. These are things that I grasp at times and then lose sight of and I certainly wouldn't want to be responsible for explaining them to a new basketball fan.

Hopefully some of you will help out in the comments. What exactly is illegal defense or a match up zone? I suspect some of you know and I think even I once knew the answers to these pressing questions but the intricacies of NBA defense often gets lost in the shuffle so it's easy to lose sight of the details. Help! Seriously, I want your help. Let's work together and become better students of the side of the ball that seems most responsible for holding back our favorite team. Together we can beat this thing. I look forward to reading what you know about NBA defense in the comment section.

As is my custom, I will end with a song: