The old adage is that defense wins championships, and until the last 48 hours I believed that pretty strongly. For those who have been following my comments on various posts, I keep harping that the thing we most need is a shot-blocking defensive center because I was no moron: I know offense can only take you so far. Eventually shots won’t fall, and that’s why you need to be able to rely on defense. However, after watching the Knicks/Celts game and then last night the San Antonio Spurs against the Denver Nuggets, I saw reasons to believe offense could lead to a ring and question my very own beliefs that D is dee way to win.
No, no, I’m not saying I’m delusional and that after one close game against the Celtics that now I think that this New York team has a shot at winning a championship this year. And up until just last night, I was the same acolyte as you, praying at the Holy Altar Of Defensive Stops. My hope was that coach Mike D’Antoni could get us up to that elite level of those high-octane offensive teams of the past decade (like his own Phoenix Suns, but also the Sacramento Kings and Dallas Mavericks). At that point, we’d then follow the Mavericks blueprint to the next step, firing the old offense-only coach (in their case, Don Nelson) and bringing in a defensive-minded coach as the closer (new coach Avery Johnson did bring them to near the brink of acquiring some shiny new rings until Dwayne Wade went nuts). And while I still believe that’s probably the best way to go, I now can’t help but feel there is another way. What made me change so radically that I’d be willing to forgo my dearest, closest beliefs?
Well, first, lemme come clean: even before this recent episode, there was a part in the back of mind that thought maybe, just maybe, an amazing offensive team could win. Going back to those self-same Suns, many use them as proof positive why it doesn’t work, but for me they provide a big question mark, leaving only inconclusive data and a lingering what if.
Remember, after all, in Steve Nash’s first season (’04-’05) he not only won the MVP award, but led the team to the best record in the league. They were a force that made it to the Western Conference Finals even though they lost their fourth best player to injury. You may say so what, who cares if you miss your fourth best player? The Suns still had their top three of Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire and Shawn Marion. However, their fourth best player happened to be this guy who fans and media slept on, but who would prove he was a star in his own right: Joe Johnson. This was particularly devastating to a Mike D’Antoni team since he plays such a short rotation and Johnson lead the team in minutes. JJ came back in the middle of the finals, but since the Suns had home court advantage, he’d missed the two key close hard-fought games they played there. He was able to get a split in San Antonio, which is what every team hopes for in the playoffs, but they’d dug themselves too big a hole. Amar’e, in pre-surgery atheletic phenom form, was unstoppable.
Two years later in ’06-’07 the Suns again went up against the Spurs in the playoffs. With the Suns leading in Game Four and the series about to be tied at 2-2, Robert Horry had his infamous hip check of Nash into the scorers’ table. Amar’e and Boris Diaw both left the bench, and although they didn’t confront Horry or anyone, the rules stated they had to be suspended. The stats are something like whoever wins Game 5 after a series is tied at 2-2, wins the series like 85% of the time. The Suns had fought all year long to ensure they had home court advantage for that key game, yet they were missing arguably their best player in Stoudemire (plus a top 5 player on the team in Diaw). The team lost by only three points, a difference that surely Stat and Diaw could’ve helped them overcome. If San Antonio had lost say Tony Parker and Bruce Bowen for Game 5, would they have been able to win?
The Spurs then went on to easily defeat Utah in the Western Conference Finals before humiliating LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in a blowout sweep. Clearly whoever had won that Suns/Spurs series would’ve won it all. To me (as well as to all the poor denizens of Phoenix), the Suns were robbed of two chances to see if they could’ve won it all. I’m not saying they were robbed of the championships, nor am I blaming anyone, because it’s not like Joe Johnson’s injury was anyone’s malicious fault. Maybe they wouldn’t have won. But we never got definitive proof that a team constructed like that couldn’t win it all, all we know is that they didn’t.
However, all that’s prologue (albeit a very dang long one) as to what made me rekindle my beliefs that as important as D is, maybe it ain’t a coincidence that O is shaped like a ring. The first thing was during the Knicks/Celts game, the announcers kept saying how the Celtics were playing awful defense on the pick-and-roll. Now the Celts are a phenomenal defensive squad, so to say that they’re doing a poor job on covering the most basic play in the NBA is surprising (well, maybe not if Shaq was playing, but that’s beside the point). On one hand the announcers were saying how the help defenders covering the perimeter players should’ve pinched in to clog the lane on the roll, but on the other hand they acknowledged that the Celtic players were also concerned that if they did that then they’d leave the Knicks’ three-point shooters wide-open.
Saying that perhaps the best defensive team in the NBA was playing poor D, made me think back to the playoffs. During the Cs run, people kept saying how Dwayne Wade, then LeBron James were playing poor offense, not giving Boston its due. Only once the men in green made it to the Eastern Conference Finals did pundits start saying, hmm, maybe it’s because Boston is that good on defense. Well, couldn’t it be the other way around too in this current situation? Couldn’t it be that an offense could be so good that it would make a great defensive team look like they don’t know how to protect their own hoop? If an offensive team is hitting on all cylinders from outside, it leaves the help defenders hesitant to leave their men, or if they do, they realize they might then need to scramble to recover, so they don’t show all the way? I’m not saying the Knicks’ offense is so amazing that they make great D teams look bad, just that maybe a team could do just that.
I mean, you watch the Lakers triangle offense against a mediocre defensive squad in the regular season, and it’s beautiful and looks unstoppable. But against the Celtics? Wow, that Game 7 was ugggggly. And the reason people were hesitant to give the Celts such props for their defense is because it’s not like they’re showy on D, getting blocks or completely shutting down players. What they do is scramble and contest so that they get into your head. A wide open shot that you’d normally take without pause, you worry that they might close you out, so you either rush the shot or pass up a good look. It could, emphasis on could, be the same if you encounter an unstoppable offensive squad. If you don’t leap to contest shots, your opponent will hit them easily, but if you do try to contest, they’re great at getting you to commit a foul. Soon you’re not sure whether you should even jump to contest a shot (Side note: perhaps one of the reasons that players like Shane Battier, Bruce Bowen, Raja Bell and Ron Artest are such good defenders is precisely because they aren’t great jumpers. They know that they’re not gonna block your shot, so they don’t need to make a decision as to whether to attempt it or not, allowing them to single-mindedly stick to a sole defensive principle).
Watching the Spurs game, or rather the post-game on TNT, further piqued my interest as to whether O can win the day. Kenny Smith made a ridiculous comment about how the Spurs insult teams because with their new high-powered offense they’re basically saying that they know they can win because they’ll take smart shots and they know that the other team will attempt dumb ones. Now it’s beyond me why someone who gets ridiculed as much as he does by Charles Barkley doesn’t know what an actual insult is, but that’s not the point. The key is that we talk about what makes a championship defensive squad is the ability to do it for 48 minutes, so couldn’t you say the same for the offensive end? That to be a championship-caliber offensive squad, you need to keep your O focused for the full 48 minutes? The Knicks are regularly getting 10 point leads against everyone, but they also regularly go through dry spots and allow those teams to catch up. In fact, part of the reason that D’Antoni’s shortened his rotation so much is to avoid those dry spells. Toney Douglas may be a better defender than Raymond Felton, but the offense slows to a halt. The combo of Ronny Turiaf and Amar’e Stoudemire are far better at protecting the rim than if you swap Turiaf for Wilson Chandler, but Ronny often passes up wide open shots, making it tougher for everyone on O.
You might think it’s ridiculous to talk about focus on offense because you think O isn’t about focus, but you’d be wrong. We know when the game is on the line Kobe Bryant has phenomenal focus, so we get scared when he has the ball. When Danilo Gallinari misses three-pointers, sometimes they’re airballs or just so off-target that it’s obvious it’s not because his shot was a bit off, but because his focus just wasn’t there. When a player catches the ball outside the arc and has a 6’8″ defenders charging at them, it’s all about maintaining that focus while you shoot.
There’s one last key thing that makes me contemplate whether perhaps offense can lead to the Larry O’Brien trophy. What do we remember when games are won in the last seconds? The amazing smart defense, or the insane shot that still somehow went in? It’s not like Kobe makes all those shots with no one around him. I’ll never forget how at one point during the playoffs last year when the Lakers were playing the Suns, Kobe was going through one of his crazy hit-everything modes. On one possession, Grant Hill was all over Kobe, but Bryant still hit the shot. Phoenix coach Alvin Gentry just shrugged and hollered encouragingly to Hill, “good defense!” Kobe turned, playfully tapped Gentry, and said, “better offense.” Besides the Bill Russell Celtic dynasty years, most championships were won due to unstoppable offensive talents. Larry Bird was a solid defender, but he was incredible on O. Shaq was an immovable force in the post, but defensively he only seemed dialed in during his first championship year with the Lakers. Derek Fisher couldn’t stop a speedy five-year-old even when he was younger, but he’s been key to the Lakers because of his ability to hit clutch shots.
Also, even if you do have the best defensive player in the league (like say Ben Wallace during his prime), it’s not like you can ensure he’ll be a factor on that last defensive play. If it goes to a different player than the guy he’s guarding (like he wouldn’t be on Kobe), then you’ve just lost the ability for him to effect the outcome of the game when it’s all on the line. He can’t do the one thing he’s best at, in the moment he’s most needed to do it. On the other hand, everyone in the building knows Kobe’s gonna get it, and the other team does their best to deny him, but he still gets it and has a chance to do his thing. Succeed or fail, Kobe always is a factor on that last play.
So I don’t know what to think anymore. Maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea to go for players like Carmelo Anthony and OJ Mayo to turn into a consistent unstoppable offense that can score from any angle, rather than expecting to be able to turn non-defenders like Amar’e (and potentially Melo) into a bunch of stoppers. Not only could we win rings, we could give conventional wisdom the finger.
Then again, if we can offer Marc Gasol a deal that the Grizz won’t match, a big bruising center does sound awful nice…