There has been confirmation that both the New Jersey Nets and the Chicago Bulls have hired new coaches. The Bulls have hired Celtic’s assistant coach Tom Thibodeau, widely acclaimed for his defensive schemes. Many have argued that his addition was equally as key to turning the Celts into defensive juggernauts in 2008 as getting Kevin Garnett. The Bulls were great stoppers just a few years ago under former coach Scott Skiles (who this year turned the Milwaukee Bucks from matador defenders into, um, what’s the opposite, brick wall defenders?). While the Bulls’ whirl-a-gig center, Joakim Noah, has kept the team from slacking too much, the arrival of Thibodeu should catapult the team back to a spot as one of the top defensive squads.
Meanwhile, the Nets, after a 12-win season where the only thing they stopped was your team from playing a quality opponent, is already being brought back to life by their new 6’5″ Russian katrillionaire, Mikhail “Don’t Call Him Mikey P” Prokhorov. It’s a nice coup for him to snag Avery Johnson, the coach with the highest winning percentage in NBA history. He turned the Mavericks from the offense-only laughingstock 200s posse which included the Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns, into a solid defensive ball club. And that was with a star player, Dirk Nowitizki, who due to his complete lack of D, almost legally changed his name to “Irk.”
Avery, aka the L’il General, is a great taskmaster, who should give this young squad focus and turn them into a solid core. Word is that their point guard, Devin Harris, who learned the ins and outs of the position as a Dallas rookie under Johnson, pushed especially hard for the hire. If Prokhorov can snag a top free agent or two, be it a King or a Boozer, this team could go from bottom dweller to the number five or six seed in the playoffs.
On a larger scale, it creates an interesting dynamic of the East, formerly known as the Leastern Conference, becoming the land of defensive gargantuans. In addition to the top notch D-meisters of the past few seasons (Boston, Cleveland and Orlando), we’ve recently added the Bucks as mentioned, plus the original defensive guru, Larry Brown’s Charlotte Bobcats. Even the Atlanta Hawks when dialed in (which alas didn’t happen in the playoffs this year) could wreck havoc on that end. If the Miami Heat add another horse, coach Eric Spoelstra (versed in the Pat Riley school of white-knuckle defense) will ensure they join in on the conversation too. Throw in the Bulls and Nets now, and suddenly Western teams’ points-per-game are gonna drop dramatically when they go on East Coast road trips.
Meanwhile, Western Conference powerhouses, like the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz, couldn’t stop anyone in the playoffs, making them seem as offensive-centric as Coach Mike D’Antoni’s old “7 Seconds Or Less” Phoenix Suns. In fact, this year’s Suns looked so good on offense during the playoffs, that it’s unclear if the normally solid D squads of the San Antonio Spurs and Portland Trailblazers have taken a step back themselves too. One could argue that the only Western Contender who played truly great defense was the Oklahoma City Thunder. And even they had drifted away from a defense-first mentality during the last two months of the regular season, instead allowing Kevin Durant’s phenomenal offensive abilities to lead them to victories.
Of course free agency will play a huge factor in which squads take the next step, be it forward or back. If the Heat, Bulls or Nets add players like A’mare Stoudemire, who aren’t known to be great defenders, their win total may improve, but not necessarily their rep as stoppers. Likewise, should Cleveland lose their King it will be hard for them to maintain their defensive intensity, particularly after axing their Greg Popovitch-trained defensive wunderkind Mike Brown (who yes, was as equally inept with offense as he was great on defense. Some coaches are great with their Xs and Os, but he clearly only knew his Xs). That said, it’s more likely than not that seven of the top ten defensive teams next year could reside in the East. In the end, it could leave many West Coast teams clicking their heels like Dorothy, wishing they could go back home. Or at least damn hungry to play an offense-only posse like the Knicks.
Tags: Atlanta Hawks Avery Johnson Boston Celtics Charlotte Bobcats Chicago Bulls Cleveland Cavaliers Denver Nuggets Devin Harris Dirk Nowitzki Eric Spoelstra Greg Popovitch Joakim Noah Kevin Durant Larry Brown Miami Heat Mike Brown Mike D'Antoni Mikhail Prokhorov Milwaukee Bucks New Jersey Nets Oklahoma City Thunder Orlando Magic Phoenix Suns Portland Trail Blazers Sacramento Kings San Antonio Spurs Scott Skiles Tom Thibodeau Utah Jazz