By Jason Wojciechowski on December 11, 2008 at 7:10 AM
What does defense in the NBA come down to? Keeping the opponent from scoring. That's all that matters, regardless of how you do it: turnovers, forcing tough shots, yelling really loud, whatever. As long as the other team scores less than you do, you win the game. Of course, some teams give up a lot of points because they play fast, so the other team gets more shots, so they score more. And some teams don't give up many points because the play slow, run 20 seconds off out of every 24-second clock, and so forth, so that the other team doesn't get as many shots, so they score less. The question, then, doesn't come down to "how many points does the other team score per game?", because that doesn't take into account how many times you get the ball per game. No, the question is "how many points does the other team score per possession?"
Coming into the game against Phoenix, the theme of the pre-game meetings between the producers, Mark Jackson, and Dave Pasch was clearly "these teams don't play defense." It's the same thing we've been hearing out of Charles Barkley for years and years about Phoenix. Now that the Lakers play at a Phoenix-like pace (third-fastest in the league), the "they don't play defense" cries come crashing down around them. But guess what, Mark Jackson, who bashed the Lakers all damn game, over and over and over, about how horrible their defense is? The Lakers are third in the league in points allowed per possession. (They're also third in the league in points scored per possession. That's why they're 18-3.) The problem for Mark Jackson is that I've seen no proof that he is, in fact, better than that. He's a half-assed Charles Barkley -- just as uninsightful, but a third as funny.
The Suns, of course, used to suffer the same criticism. It wasn't quite as unfounded as it is about the Lakers this year, but it wasn't quite fair, either. Last year, Phoenix's pace was fourth-fastest and they were an average defensive team, ranking 16th in points per possession. The year before, they were 13th. Before that, 16th again. Before that, 17th. In other words, during the Suns' run as one of the NBA's best teams, they weren't a good defensive team, but they didn't have the kind of defense you could excoriate, either.
Pace effects are the park effects of basketball. People thought Vinny Castilla and Dante Bichette were good players because they didn't understand park effects. (Although it's possible that Colorado's extremity helped popularize the idea that a park can have a great effect on hitters and pitchers.) In the same fashion, people underrate defenses like L.A.'s and Phoenix's because of their pace of play. The effects of pace are starting to seep into the mainstream, though. I'm not as much ahead of the curve in basketball as I was in baseball -- a lot of my realizations about the various misunderstandings we have about basketball have come from ESPN's website rather than outsider sources like Baseball Prospectus.
It's not all rosy, though. Fire Joe Morgan didn't close because of a lack of material, they quit because a huge segment of the baseball writing population was making the same arguments over and over and over again, never learning, never thinking things through. It's the kind of thing that's going to take a generation to change despite the efforts of some of the old guard, notably Peter Gammons. I expect nothing different in basketball.