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Slam Dunk: Defence, defence, defence... combatting the Golden Age of NBA offence

What defensive schemes are used to contain the most gifted, versatile and skilled basketball players in the world? The evolution of professional basketball in the NBA has influenced all aspects of the modern game – so far, the changes seen in player size and offensive schemes have shown how much variation exists between eras
By Adi Vase
PUBLISHED ON FEB 19, 2021 02:14 PM IST

What defensive schemes are used to contain the most gifted, versatile and skilled basketball players in the world?

The evolution of professional basketball in the NBA has influenced all aspects of the modern game – so far, the changes seen in player size and offensive schemes have shown how much variation exists between eras.

With the explosion in NBA offence triggering a record point totals and a faster game, it brings to mind the words of the famed ex-Boston Celtics head coach Red Auerbach: “Basketball is like war in that offensive weapons are developed first, and it always takes a while for the defence to catch up.”

While multiple rule changes have tilted the game decidedly in favour of very skilled offensive players, this has forced defensive schemes to adjust and evolve with time to be able to account for the increased skill- level and rule changes favouring offensive players.

Due to the lack of emphasis on three-point shot attempts after the introduction of the three-point line to the NBA, early NBA defence was heavily focused on man-to-man defensive schemes. There were often instances where doing a great job and only focusing on the man you were singularly guarding resulted in your team still forcing a missed shot from the opposition.

NBA rules at this time also discouraged and had penalties for defenders who “zoned” an area of the court without directly guarding a single man.

What this meant was that great scoring players during this time could only be neutralised by the defence double teaming them and completely disregarding another player on their team, leaving him wide open.

This defensive strategy proved to be most effective to neutralise the offensive schemes of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, which we predicated on elite players who would singularly attempt to score against multiple defenders. With the improved skill, size and athletic ability of players, the NBA changed a few rules in the mid-2000s to benefit offensive players. No longer were defences allowed to “hand check” or “body bump” offensive players, while the NBA also introduced zone defence as an allowable tactic.

The increase in pace that teams played with as well as the reliance of teams on analytics and data in decision making mean that offences in the modern NBA focus largely on efficiency, with the most efficient shots usually being close to the rim or 3-point shots.

As the “pace and space” increased on court, NBA teams largely turned to pick and roll plays to generate good offence for their players.

To combat this, current New York Knicks and ex-Boston Celtics coach Tom Thibodeau popularised a defensive concept usually called an “ICE” in the NBA.

This involved an athletic and versatile big man essentially guarding two players at once, something that Kevin Garnett was able to do with great success in leading the Boston Celtics to an NBA championship in 2008, with the help of Thibodeau’s defensive schemes.

As an additional layer, teams attempted to increase the difficulty of shots at the rim by teaching players to contest shots by jumping completely vertically, a defensive technique that was brought to the forefront of action by Rob Hibbert from the Indiana Pacers in the NBA playoffs when facing the LeBron James and Dwayne Wade-led Miami Heat team.

The NBA continues to evolve, with the current generation of players becoming even more skilled at learning the offensive nuances of the game such as step-back and side-step 3 point shot, or drawing contact and tricking the defence into fouling them while shooting. This puts the evolution of NBA defence all the more into the spotlight in order to maintain the yin and yang balance that leads to an exciting competition between the offence and defence in NBA basketball.

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