Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Defense Is Talent, Too

Jeff Schultz:
When a decidedly more talented team suddenly loses consecutive games to an opponent that has less size, less skill and it was assumed less hope for postseason survival, there really are only two possibilities:

– The better team is not playing as hard as it should.

– The better team is not playing as smart as it should.
I contend there's a third possibility as well: the Hawks have but two good (two very good) defensive players, the Bucks have figured out how to neutralize the impact of those two players (at least as long as the Bucks make almost 60% of their shots), the Hawks may be over-compensating for their (admittedly numerous) poor defenders, and, underpinning all of these specific reasons: It is hard to play good team defense without good defensive players.

Mike Bibby is a poor defender. Jamal Crawford is a terrible defender. Joe Johnson has amply demonstrated he cannot keep Brandon Jennings in front of him. Nor can Johnson fight through a Kurt Thomas screen. It's no surprise that Mike Woodson has tried to address* these limitations. His singular method of address, to switch every screen, has pushed Josh Smith too often to the perimeter, exposing his primary defensive weakness (lateral movement) while simultaneously negating** his overwhelming strength (help defense).

*We'll ignore, for the purposes of this discussion, how self-inflicted some of these limitations are.

**This is essentially what Orlando's stretch 4 does to Smith when the Hawks play, and, typically, lose to the Magic.

Al Horford does an impressive job of moving his feet against smaller, faster players but he's hardly a defensive stopper when isolated against guards 20 feet from the basket. Furthermore, by switching Smith or Horford onto the ball-handler, the Hawks are left with their smaller, slower, lesser defenders attempting (or not) to provide help defense.

The defensive rotations are further slowed by the decision to switch off-the-ball screens so that, in addition to being slower and smaller, the Atlanta guards, when defending off-the-ball are not responsible just for recognizing the location of the ball and their man but for the ball, their man, and their next man. As the Utah Jazz have frequently demonstrated against this Hawks defense, the more off-the-ball screens you set, the less Atlanta's defenders move. It's a vicious cycle: the more the offensive players move and interact, the less the defensive players move. It's hard to help from a stationary start.

Or, as Marvin Williams puts it:
"I just catch myself standing there. Other guys have been doing the same thing, too."


The Casey said...

Man, I just got done writing some of the same things in the comments a couple of posts ago. It makes all the 'lack of energy' comments either hypocritical or amazing stupid. Or both, I guess.

CoCo said...

Switching on every possession is a bad idea. Switching on every possession when you have no idea what to do next is even worse.

The Casey said...

Switching's fine, but it's not in and of itself a defense.

I bet it works fine in practice though, since the Hawks don't really use a lot of screens themselves.

CoCo said...

You may be onto something @The Casey. Maybe Woody's defensive philosophy is such because he gets to see it executed against his offense. Give that man or woman a prize Bret!

Bronnt said...

Exactly what I was trying to say yesterday. When Horford and Josh are forced out on the perimeter, we may not have lost very much in perimeter defense (since they're at least as good as Bibby and Crawford) but there's a huge drop-off in the help defense.

Bret LaGree said...

I've got five extra copies of Stumbling on Wins here somewhere but I'm not sure they (individually or collectively) qualify as a prize.

CoCo said...

Seriously, we've been over-thinking this whole thing. The Casey really put it into perspective for me. I'm not even kidding.