The NBA’s New Mantra: Good Offense Beats Good Defense

One of the biggest lies your coach told you growing up was that defense wins championships.

It was likely instilled from the moment you walked on the court for your first practice. It was relentlessly pounded into your brain during every drill you ever did. And you always believed him or her. Hell, my high school varsity coach implemented a rule stating the best defensive player in the program would start at the highest level, regardless of their offensive skill.

But now’s the time we focus on reality.

Good offense beats good defense. There are no ifs, ands or buts about it. I’m not talking about some run-and-gun, Steve Nash/Mike D’Antoni shoot-in-seven-seconds-or-less-type B.S. I mean legitimate ball-moving, cutting, screening, unselfish play:

This is a staple in the Boston Celtics’ offense under head coach Brad Stevens. Al Horford catches the ball at the high post and then completes a dribble-handoff to Isaiah Thomas. The action naturally flows into a pick-and-roll, ending in a layup. In a matter of mere seconds, the ball switches owners three times with constant action on the strong side of the floor.

Good offense beat good defense.

Offense is especially favored, based on the rules in today’s game. The driving lanes are more open than ever with the emphasis on hands-free defense. A rule change that was made before the 2004-05 season, perimeter players aren’t able to hand-check their man like they could in the ’90s. This makes it easier for ball-handlers to peruse the lane and find efficient driving opportunities.

The fact that a big man can’t plop himself in the paint like someone crashing onto the couch after a long day of work also makes for more opportunities. The shot-blocker has to be attentive of his location and constantly moving in and out of the painted area. If an offensive player is able to swindle his way into the lane, the big man often has to rotate over to help. By doing so, he forces the rest of his teammates to frantically shift to prevent an easy basket. However, they then leave a man on the perimeter wide open. Teams attempted 27 threes per game last season (the most all time) and knocked them down at a 35.8 percent clip (eighth best).

Again using the Celtics as an example, the Phoenix Suns’ defense gets absolutely destroyed on this possession when they allow an entry pass to Horford in the middle of the lane:

Even though they are running zone, the same concept applies. Alex Len, the Suns big man, is forced to clear himself from the lane, leaving Horford wide open:

big man caughtOnce the Celtics center catches the ball, Len is bound to step up and prevent an easy basket at the rim. In doing so, however, he leaves Kelly Olynk, a career 36.8 percent three-point shooter, wide open on the perimeter.

Good offense beat good defense.

It’s taken the league 30-plus years to figure out the true threat of the three-ball. However, it’s finally happening. More teams are going small than ever before and ditching the traditional center position. This focus on athleticism, length and shooting have led to a spike in scoring. Last season, teams averaged 105.6 points per game—the most since the 1990-91. That increase is partly due to the improved understanding of unselfish basketball, but also players’ advanced skills.

Defenses want to force guys into isolation sets, urging them to take highly contested, low-percentage shots. Unfortunately, this strategy can backfire. Great scorers can overcome the odds and knock down those shots.

Kevin Durant, arguably the best player in the NBA last season, had an effective field-goal percentage of 55.4 when a defender was two to four feet from him. He was even better as they got closer, registering a 56.5 effective field-goal percentage when they were within two feet.

Jonathon Simmons is an underrated defender after years of working with San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich. Shooters only made 32.1 percent (sixth best among shooting guards who played 50 or more games last season) of their shots from 15 feet and out while he was guarding them. He also possesed a defensive real plus/minus, per ESPN.com, of 1.12 (eighth best among shooting guards). At 6’6″, he may not be large enough to guard Durant, but not many players his height can stick with the four-time scoring champion on the perimeter:

After playing with his food, KD simply whips the ball to his left side and shoots over a perfectly placed Simmons. There’s nothing else No. 17 could have done there.

Good offense beat good defense.

The unguardable Kyrie Irving is another perfect example. He can hit some of the most difficult and contested shots in the game today:

He gets matched-up one-on-one with Olynk and abuses his soul. The play begins with Irving catching the ball at the top of the key, and the big man is right in his grill:
Kyrie 1Unfortunately for No. 41, that’s the closest he’d get to the Uncle Drew in the next three seconds. A nasty step-back leaves the center searching for the meaning of life as a 25-footer is drained over his outstretched arms.

Good offense beat good defense.

As capable as stoppers like Tony Allen, Patrick Beverley and Andre Roberson have become, there’s a reason they aren’t getting paid nearly the amount as other one-way stars such as Irving and Thomas. A defensive player can only have so much of an impact on any given game. Sure, they can shut down their man for parts of the game. However, when that player is on, he will roast the poor defender no matter how good the defense.

When a great preventer makes a mistake, it typically ends in an easy bucket for the opposing team. Conversely, when a great offensive player makes a mistake, the result is a missed shot—something that often occurs even after a strong sequence of ball-movement. While it’s expected for players to miss, your coach will tell you it’s unforgivable to give up an easy look at the hoop.

However, think back to the biggest lie that coach ever told you: Defense wins championships.

Basketball is an easy game. Whether it’s through a free-flowing, action-packed attack (preferable) or mano-a-mano combat, the offense always wins.

Follow Brian on Twitter @BrianSampsonNBA.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are from NBA Math, Basketball Reference or NBA.com.

One thought on “The NBA’s New Mantra: Good Offense Beats Good Defense”

  1. Tod Tangonan says:

    How did the numbers look against ELITE perimeter defenders like Kawhi Leonard, Draymond Green, LeBron James, Tony Allen, and even Kevin Durant?

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