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Tuesday Musings: Evaluating Defense

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Minnesota Timberwolves Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

One of the odd things about the NBA is the discrepancy between how players’ defensive skills are evaluated. While it is certainly quite common that there are differences of opinions on the perceived values of players, somehow that is taken to the extreme on the defensive end of the court.

This disconnect was further seen for me this weekend in a casual conversation with another NBA fan. He was a Celtics fan and we were talking about the great off-season the Celtics had, the importance of Jae Crowder, the ambiguity of Jaylen Brown, and we berated the drunk Knicks fan for believing the core of Derrick Rose, Carmelo, and Joakim Noah could do well in, as well as make, the playoffs next year. My new NBA friend was also as excited as I was about the potential of the Timberwolves. But then, and I am sure many of you have had this experience, Ricky Rubio came up. Now there are certainly many arguments to be had against the value of Rubio, most often tied to his lack of shooting ability, but our first divergence of opinions came on Rubio’s defensive prowess.

This is not the first time I have experienced this divide between what are often considered extremely well informed NBA fans, as well as even analysts. My first jarring moment was back in 2013 in Grantland’s Bill and Jalen’s NBA previews (video no longer available). Jalen Rose was adamant about Rubio’s lack of ability on defense, comparing him to something like a matador letting the bull fly by as he steps aside.

This is, of course, far from the truth.

Rubio is one of the best defensive point guards in the league and there is a mountain of evidence to support that claim. However, this ill-informed opinion on Rubio is not an isolated incident. Players are seemingly often judged incorrectly for their greatness or lack of ability on defense. Andrew Wiggins was touted as a defensive stopper when he came into the league, yet he has continuously failed to live up to that promise and instead has established himself as a preeminent scorer. However, he often gets a pass on his defense from more casual viewers because he is built how we expect defensive stoppers to look and makes plays like this,

This idea is also epitomized by Kobe Bryant. Bryant is known for his defensive skills and was selected 12 times for NBA All-Defensive teams, with nine First Team selections. However, Bryant grades out as an average defensive player when advanced statistics are used, and it seems that he has coasted through his career to his nominations more on reputation rather than fact, similar to Derek Jeter’s infamous string of Golden Gloves.

This disconnect seems rather odd, which is further exasperated by the “black box” nature of some of the more popular defense advanced statistics, such as ESPN’s RPM, which often is used to tout Rubio’s defensive skills. But how are informed NBA fans, such as the NBA friend I made over the weekend, analysts like Jalen Rose, or even NBA coaches, who previously voted for All NBA-Defense honors, so woefully wrong in numerous significant instances?

Perhaps we are not taught how to correctly watch defense, as part of a byproduct of the excitement of watching our favorite players on offense. Individual offense is easy to watch, that is what made players like Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson, and Kobe Bryant so captivating. It has been a rather slow shift to the new appreciation that the “modern” NBA fan has for ball movement and spacing, such as the San Antonio Spurs, with the interest in watching team-oriented offense. It’s almost as if when we watch Basketball, we have sports in mind like Soccer, more interested in the ebbs and movement of the players all with a specific goal (sports pun!) rather than an individual struggle to achieve greatness. But maybe we don’t even want to watch that, as that brings to mind the epic finals battle that was essentially built up as LeBron vs the Warriors.

On the defensive end of the court, it is all too easy to get caught napping off-ball as viewers, watching only the player who is actually guarding the person holding the basketball. This is, in my opinion, how the incorrect assessment of defensive value happens, as we can see how individual defense directly is impacting the action, whether that means Andrew Wiggins locking down his man in isolation defense, which he is much better at than reacting off-ball, or a big man flying across the lane to block a shot out of bounds. What is much more difficult to see is how a player like Rubio influences the game in smaller ways, directing his man to one side of the court or the other, perfectly timing the millisecond in which to leave his man to double the ball, or jumping a passing lane.

It really should come as no surprise then that we have yet to begin to fully understand how team defense works in the NBA, since we really have not been taught how to completely understand it. If we are only beginning to know how to “watch” offense that is predicated on spacing and passing rather than “hero ball,” then it may take a few years for that same appreciation to carry over to the defensive end of the court.

Until then, we shall just have to steel ourselves against future “Rubio is bad at defense” arguments with comforting thoughts that one day the masses will hopefully share the love.