HoopsHype.com Columns


by Ed Odeven / April 4, 2002

Without defense, a team cannot win championships. Without defense, a team cannot survive the trials and tribulations, ups and downs of a grueling 82-game regular-season schedule.

Defense provides the backbone of a complete team. Defense fuels the offense. Defense creates offensive opportunities. Defense frustrates opponents and limits their ability to take over a game. Defense stops
spurts and hurts formidable foes’ chances of putting a game away without a fight. Yeah, that’s right.

Of course, without a high-powered offense it is possible to win games. As the trend around the NBA has been over the past half-dozen years or so, lower-scoring games are the norm, not the rarity. Out are the shoot-outs of the 1980s, a la a typical Golden State Warriors or Denver Nuggets game – a 123-120 score sounds about right doesn’t it?

There are successful exceptions. The best contemporary example is the Dallas Mavericks, who are far from brilliant on the defensive end. But then again, they don’t need to be. They have scorers at every position and plenty of explosive offense coming off the bench.

“Everyone’s capable of playing defense,” ex-New York Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy said after a 104-94 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves last November. “They have to be convinced they can play defense. I have to do a better job convincing them. The moment we have five guys convinced we can play defense, we can win. This is a results-only business. Teams that can play defense can withstand a lot. Right now we don’t have our defense to fall back on.”

The Bill Russell-era Boston Celtics had a dominating defense. The result: a remarkable 11 NBA titles in 13 seasons, a feat that will probably never be replicated.

Since departing Los Angeles, Pat Riley’s teams have been known for their defensive-first approach. There’s a reason for it: New York and Miami have not had a core of scorers like the L.A. Lakers of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy and Byron Scott. (If they did, a run-and-gun offense might’ve been installed from Day One.) But those Lakers also had Michael Cooper – by all accounts one of the greatest defensive stoppers ever.

Riley has proven that defense can make an above-average team a very good team.

The Knickerbocker squads of the 1990s relied on defensive muscle, hustle and heart from players like Charles Oakley, Anthony Mason and John Starks to become one of the NBA’s top teams. Without those aforementioned characteristics, the Knicks never would have reached the NBA Finals in 1994 and ’99.

In the recent past when Alonzo Mourning was at the top of his game, pulling down rebounds, swatting shots left and right and patrolling the lane with reckless abandon, his defensive energy transformed the Heat into a very dangerous team. And in doing so, helped the Heat make up for their offensive limitations.

Indeed scoring is a necessary component of basketball at any level. If you can’t score, you can’t win. But defense certainly does dictate how that scoring will take place. By applying persistent pressure at the defensive end of the floor, teams can slow down their opponents and force them to make bad decisions with the basketball, such as take rushed shots or make risky passes.

Sure, if you can score 120 points, you’ll win your share of games. But if you give up 115 points, you’ll probably lose many more games than fans, the players, the coaching staff and the media care to see. Just ask Golden State.

Ed Odeven is a sportswriter for the Arizona Daily Sun and a contributing columnist to HoopsHype.com