Countless people have approached me and asked, "Why can't NBA players shoot anymore?" Scoring and shooting percentages are down, and the popular (and simple) theory is that today's players aren't as skilled as the shooters from 20 and 30 years ago.
There's a small element of truth to that due to the influx of young, raw talent into the league. But for the most part, I think fans are off target (so to speak) with their conclusions that shooting is that much worse.
The real reason scoring is down is that defense has never been played harder or more diligently.
The other night in Phoenix I ran into Knicks scout Jim Stack, the former Bulls executive and Pacers assistant coach. He was scouting the Spurs for their upcoming matchup with New York. He told me he's on the road six days a week sometimes, watching upcoming opponents, charting tendencies and plays, and making sure he has all of their calls right.
Stack said that by the time he has seen a team a few times, he knows every one of its plays down to the third and fourth options, and he'll have a list of preferred late game situational schemes as well. By the time the Knicks play San Antonio next week, Stack will have passed on his reports to the Knicks staff, who will have devised a game plan accordingly.
The Knicks players will receive a full report at shootaround the day of the game, complete with player tendencies and play calls. By the time the game is played that night, Stephon Marbury will know exactly what's coming every time Tony Parker calls out a play.
Every team in the league employs advance scouts like Stack, and each club also has video coordinators using satellite and digital equipment to help break down any NBA game. The preparation that goes into defensive game planning is unbelievably comprehensive, and it simply didn't exist at that level 20 years ago. When you combine the attention to detail with the fact that players today are bigger and stronger than ever before, it's no wonder shooting has suffered.
Think of the size and strength of 2-guards in the league these days. Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce, Tracy McGrady and LeBron James are prototype NBA perimeter players, and they're all at least 6-foot 6-inches and more than 200 pounds, with long arms and amazing leaping ability.
That means they have the ability to challenge shooters on the perimeter and still use their strength and athleticism to recover and block shots around the basket.
The perfect example of all of these defensive factors coming together occurred at the end of Friday's San Antonio-Phoenix game. With the Spurs clinging to a two-point lead, the Suns called a timeout with three seconds left to set up a play.
San Antonio assistant coach Mike Budenholzer grabbed a clipboard and diagrammed a play that he had seen Mike D'Antoni run late in a game against Chicago several weeks ago. It's a beautifully designed back-door play that attempts to draw the defense out to the perimeter and then counter with one player making a quick cut to the rim for an open layup.
Budenholzer repeated to Hedo Turkoglu several times during the timeout, "Don't follow Joe Johnson to the three-point line! They're setting you up for a back door!" When the play developed, the 6-foot-8, 230-pound 2-guard Turkoglu started to feel himself drawn to the perimeter but remembered Budenholzer's advice, stayed at home and broke up the play. The Spurs hung on to win.
Twenty years ago, the Spurs might not have been as prepared for that situation. And they may not have had an athletic, 6-8 2-guard to cover the play.
So the next time you think shooting is bad in the NBA, remember the work that goes into defense these days. And remember that those defenders are bigger, stronger and faster than ever before.