The Evolution of Defense in the NBA

We see older players point out the “weak” defense of today and point back to the good ole days when players did more of this stuff all the time.

Players back then had to play with real talent and use fundamentals right? These kids today just chunk up nonsense and call it basketball. Well, most people who have played in the modern-day defense and the older style defense would actually disagree with what we like to call the “get off my lawn” demographic. The numbers back it up as well and there is plenty of video evidence to support that the defense played today is superior to what was played back then.

Of course many of the old guys would have you believe different. Elie Seckbach interviewed Walt Frazier on who he thought the greatest player was and Frazier responded with this.

“Wilt averaged 50 points a game he’d probably average 75 points a game if he were playing today. You know why I say that? because you can’t put your hands on guys. When I played you could handcheck them. Now you can’t handcheck them. So it’s much more difficult to stop players that way.”

Oscar Robertson, one of the more recent guys trying to degrade today’s brand of basketball had this to say as well.

“If I’ve got a guy who’s great shooting the ball outside, don’t you want to extend your defense out a little bit? I just don’t think coaches today in basketball understand the game of basketball. They don’t know anything about defenses. They don’t know what people are doing on the court.  They talk about analytical basketball and stuff like this.”

Oscar Robertson also went on about manning Steph up full court, double teaming, and other things of that nature. I would implore anyone who does believe Oscar that coaches today do not know their jobs and get paid to sit on their asses all day, and have not already tried these tactics to check out an article that proves every single one of his assertions wrong right here.

I could go on and on showing quotes of old players saying how defenses are awful today, hell you could probably have a book worth from Charles Barkley alone, but let’s look at some quotes of some players who actually played on both sides of hand checking. Slam magazine interviewed Tim Duncan, Tracy McGrady, and Kevin Garnett, and one of their questions towards the players were what rule would they change if they could. All three said the zone defense which was allowed by the removal of the illegal defense violation in the 01-02 season. When Slam followed up on that response this was the answer they got.

KG: I think it puts players that are really good at a disadvantage, so to speak. Everybody here gets double-teams, if not triple-teams, so we can all speak on this. But it sorta—I remember Phoenix sat somebody literally right there [in the lane].
TM: It makes it hard for a guy like me—
KG: —who penetrates.
TD: It makes it hard for all of us.
KG: All of us. Dog, Phoenix sat a person right here! Don’t you go nowhere, Bo Outlaw, you stay right here.
TM:It’s tough on all of us, it really is. When you’re tryin’ to make a move, and you got another guy sittin’ right there on the same side just waitin’…
KG: Waitin’ on you!
TM: Just waitin’.
KG: He ain’t even playin’ his man!

But those are just three guys right? What do they know? They did not play the majority of their careers in the 90s so let’s see what the king of the 90s, Michael Jordan said. An article written by Sam Smith of the Chicago Tribune on April 1st, 2001, stated that Michael Jordan was passionate against the implementation of zone defense to the NBA’s competition committee stating that if zone defense was implemented during his career than his career would have never been the same. Michael Jordan believed that zones allowed teams to “gang up on stars.” Not only that, but after the Charlotte Hornets ran a zone defense on MJ during his time as a Wizard, he was quoted saying this after a tough loss. “I never liked zones,” Jordan said, “I felt like that’s a lazy way to play defense and with them, you can eliminate a lot of the stars making things happen.”

So as you can see, the man who was seen as the best player of all time by many, and is undoubtedly the best player of the 90s saw the changes of man on man defense to zone as a hinderance to himself, and believes it would have changed his career drastically.

What do the numbers say though, because those are the cold hard facts right? Well the numbers do not bode well for believers of 90s defense. So let’s look at the Bad Boy Pistons who many believe to be one of the greatest defenses of all time. In the 1988-89 season, when the Bad Boy Pistons were finally going to get over the hump with their incredible defense they had a defense rating of 105.05. By the way, for those wondering what defensive rating is; it shows how many points a team scored on you while regulating pace, so in 100 possessions teams scored an average of 105.5 points on the Bad Boy Pistons. Are you curious where that stacks up today? #1 it has to be right? Wrong. #2? Nope. Top 5? Haha funny, try 9th right behind the Charlotte Hornets and above the Cleveland Cavaliers. So the mythical, historically, great defense that was locking down all other teams, and nobody who player today could stand a chance against them, would rank 9th today. If that alone isn’t a testament to how much better defense is today well then let’s look at this little interesting fact. In the 1992-93 season the league average for offensive rating (same concept as defensive rating just on the flip side), was 108.0. Let’s do a little trivia, how many years since the 92-93 season have reached a league average offensive rating of 108?… Don’t worry I have the answer it is 0. From the 81-82 season to the 92-93 season the offensive rating every single year was higher than the average it was this year.

“Well everyone scores off of free throws today. Players like James Harden are destroying the league. The hack-a- shaq strategy hurts business and is simply not basketball.” Okay first to the 3rd point, being able to hit free throws is not part of basketball? It is actually one of the more simple areas in this intricate game we love. Coaches strategize. It is their job. Pushing your defense to emphasize a flaw in one of the opposing team’s players is just smart strategy, I do not see how that is a debate. 2nd of all to attack the 2nd point. Many people get angry that players whine for calls. Like this is some new phenomenon. I guess every old person growing up with their siblings didn’t complain that their brother/sister was cheating anytime they lost right? Michael Jordan, that guy was the epitome of tough. He never whined about calls or complained to refs right?

Well that video could mess up a lot of people’s perceptions, but hey it is a part of the game. Claiming this era is weak because of players like LeBron whining about fouls is just ridiculous. Every era has superstars who had players who did it. That does not diminish the value of any era. Many will use James Harden as an example that fouls are called significantly more than they were before. James Harden in his MVP campaign averaged 11.3 free throws a game, and this last year averaged 11.7 free throws a game. Michael Jordan in 86-87 averaged 11.9 free throw attempts a game. Karl Malone averaged over 10 free throw attempts over a 5 year span. Then the central point of view that calls are made much more frequently and in turn more free throws occur. Of course without looking at numbers it would be understandable to believe this with many touch fouls being called and the whole hack-a-whoever strategy being at its peak right now. Despite that, free throws are being attempted at their lowest rate since 1975. If you look at free throw attempts over field goal attempts, you can see just that. The free throws per field goal attempt number currently sits at .209 and has not gone over .215 in the last 5 years. From the 80-81 to the 98-99 season the free throw per field goal attempt only went under .240 five times. So the idea that free throws are shot more frequently today just isn’t true.

Now for the final piece of this puzzle to give everyone a visual of how the defenses are better today than they were before. Okay, so we can see in this first photo Marreese Speights and Harrison Barnes are doubling a player off ball. That was illegal back in the 80s-90s. Shaun Livingston seems to be guarding nobody, another violation back then. Does this help? Well LeBron if he goes left where Klay wants him to go, Speights will crash down for help and LeBron will have to face Speights, Klay, and the baseline. He goes right, well… that becomes a 4 or 5 on 1 venture that I do not think he wants to attempt.

This picture with my own amazing diagrams you see Chauncey Billups (#1 for Detroit) is abandoning his man who is #12 for the Magic to cut off the right side for McGrady. Ben Wallace also leaves his man on the other block for Rip Hamilton to rotate down on, so that he can cut off the rim and left side for Tracey. McGrady is given little area to work in this ISO and ends up bricking a fadeaway jumper

This wall formed on LeBron here effectively cuts off the rim and will force a long jumper. Tiago Splitter is in the middle literally guarding nobody. This was illegal back in the day as well.    Another one of my amazing diagrams here shows Russell Westbrook and Steven Adams doubling Boban Marjanovic. I describe in big bold white letters what about that was illegal, but the benefit of it being available to use is that if Kawhi tries to drive on either side either Westbrook or Adams will be ready to contest it.

Here you can see Bird is left out on an island to try to guard MJ with no help and has no chance. Most good teams today would have McHale or Parish rotate over for help, but unless they fully commit to a double team it is a violation and illegal.

Here is another play with MJ having McHale out on an island. In modern-day NBA Bird is coming out to help when he’s only a couple of steps away, but if he came out to shade MJ’s right side that would be a violation.

The video below shows John Starks attempting to shade Jordan’s right side. Scottie points it out to the ref and it is called an illegal defense violation. Essentially Starks must allow all that space to MJ by the free throw line or be penalized and allow MJ two free throws and the ball back. (It is only 35 seconds long, I’m not attempting to make anyone watch a 14 minute video.)

I want to make this very clear that I am not here to slander Michael Jordan. Anyone who knows me or follows me on Twitter knows where I believe Jordan’s place is in history. He’s just the best example of that time period. This debate of whether defense was better back then or during today’s age of ball is done for me. The quotes of players who have actually played on both sides of the rules are there, the numbers prove it to be true, and there is even visual evidence to back it. It is the simple truth that defenses are in fact better today. Even with the greater use of the 3 point ball, teams today have not reached the crazy amount of points achieved in the 80s and early 90s. The Bad Boy Pistons held teams to a little over 105 points a game per 100 possession, and that is a not elite in today’s league. There are some who will argue that the competition was somehow vastly better than it is today, but the growth of the league is 10x what it was at the time. Plus, B.J. Armstrong made an all-star team, so we should relax on that notion. People are right that the amount of contact allowed back in day is nowhere seen in today’s league, but everything shows that the hard-hitting defense did not truly make things harder on other teams to score. We are living in the golden age of defense, and it is forcing teams to play some beautiful basketball, so we should all enjoy it.

All stats are courtesy of Gifs were made from both vintage dawkins and riggedNBA’s youtube channels and I do not claim rights to them. (Do not believe NBA is rigged either)

Below you can find the links to the quotes I was referring to.

Oscar Robertson quote
Slam interview with KG, Duncan, and Tracey McGrady
Jordan speaking to competition committee about zone defense and how it would have changed his career
Jordan’s quote after facing Charlotte as a Wizard

Below is the video of Walt claiming Wilt would average 75 today. You can skip ahead to the 1:19 mark for the exact quote.



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