‘Defense is a lost art’: has the NBA’s offensive explosion gone too far?

<span>Photograph: Kyle Ross/USA Today Sports</span>
Photograph: Kyle Ross/USA Today Sports

The Golden State Warriors with Steph Curry and Kevin Durant are considered by many to be the greatest NBA team of all time. In 2016-17, they had four All-Stars and an offensive rating of 114.8, by far the best in NBA history.

That same offense would rank 10th in the league this season.

The NBA is witnessing an offensive explosion the likes of which we have never seen before. Teams are playing faster than ever, taking more threes than ever, and scoring more points than ever. Meanwhile, players are seeing their stats inflate to the point where it has become difficult to contextualize them, with seven players averaging at least 30 points a game this season. Donovan Mitchell’s 71-point game in January was met with something approaching a collective shrug.

But rarely do we talk about the other side of the equation: defense.

As offense has risen across the NBA, defense has fallen to the wayside, as it has become nearly impossible to get stops without fouling. In fact, the Cleveland Cavaliers lead the league with a defensive rating of 109.6, which would be the worst defensive rating to lead the league in NBA history if the season ended today. Just a few years ago, in the 2015-16 season, the San Antonio Spurs led the league with a 98.2 defensive rating, meaning teams are scoring about 11 more points per 100 possessions against the league’s best defense than they were seven years ago.

The consensus is that more offense leads to a better product. And scoring is fun. Nobody wants to go back to the 1990s when the final scores were in the 70s and the play was slow, cramped and physical.

But has the offensive explosion gone too far? And is defense becoming a lost art? According to some of the most influential players and coaches in the league, the answer is a resounding yes. And if nothing is done to help defenses, things are likely to continue trending in this direction.

“I think maybe there’s been an overcorrection to what was happening 20 years ago,” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said. “I played in the NBA finals [with the Spurs] in ‘03, so 20 years ago this June, and the final scores were like 72-65, and it was ugly. And I think the league did an amazing job of loosening up the game, creating more freedom.”

Kerr added: “But I think we’ve just gone a little too far. I think that the rules have really been geared towards giving the offensive player the advantage. It’s become much more difficult to play defense in the NBA now.”

Boston Celtics star Jaylen Brown went so far as to say that he thinks “the league has made an emphasis that they want to see more scoring, see more high performances”. Adding that: “It’s better for the branding and marketing of our league.”

The NBA has a long history of creating rule changes to alter the product in one way or another. But the biggest arguably came in 2004, when the league wanted to inject some offensive punch, and eliminated the use of hand-checking, which had allowed defensive players to keep opposing ball-handlers in front of them.

In recent years the NBA has cracked down even further on physical contact, especially on the perimeter, with players consistently being called for touch-fouls, giving offensive players free rein to get to the rim and either shoot a layup or pass it out for a three-pointer – two of the most efficient shots in the game.

The problem, at least according to the players and coaches the Guardian spoke with for this story, is that the rule changes have failed to keep up with the increase in players’ skills. From superstars to the last man on the bench, the league is more talented than ever, and coaches are using that talent in increasingly advantageous ways.

“I think the league has definitely grown in skill each and every year. Each position continues to take leaps forward,” Brown said. “You see point guards getting more and more athletic, bigs shooting the ball, being able to handle the ball, wings being able to do everything. The game is definitely the more skilled man wins.”

“Everyone’s capable of making open threes, open shots,” Brown’s Celtics teammate Grant Williams added. “You look at our team … I don’t know if there’s a single guy on the team you wouldn’t tell to shoot a three.”

Donovan Mitchell
Donovan Mitchell’s 71-point game in January was met with something approaching a collective shrug. Photograph: Jason Miller/Getty Images

As a result, teams are shooting more three-pointers than ever before, averaging 34.2 three-point attempts a game, or 35.5% of all shots, which is up from 24.1 attempts per game and 26% of shots in 2015-16. But the rise of three-point shooting isn’t the only factor helping offenses thrive. Role players are more talented and versatile than ever, able to put the ball on the floor and make quick, smart decisions to keep the defense in motion and create highly efficient shots for their teammates.

“I think a lot of the offensive explosion has to do with a lot more people putting it on the ground and going to the basket, and the difficulty with defending that multitude of things,” Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said.

On top of individual skill developments, there are the stylistic changes. Teams are pushing the ball up the floor like never before, jacking up shots early in the shot clock and creating more possessions and therefore more opportunities to score, with teams averaging 100.1 possessions per game, up from 96.5 in 2015-16.

“I think the biggest thing is teams are putting up shots so quick or so fast to the point where you don’t even get a chance to get back on defense,” 16-year NBA veteran and current Raptor Thad Young said. “Because the ball is being kicked up the court or guys are pushing it up and teeing it off from the logo and stuff like that.” Plus, the elimination of the take foul has helped transition offenses become more efficient than ever.

Related: In the NBA, 20 seconds can last 20 minutes in real time. That needs to change

Skill improvements and stylistic changes sound great, theoretically. But instead of the fast-paced, up-and-down game those changes would seem to promise, a 48-minute NBA game is still taking approximately two and a half hours to get through. That’s due in large part to the increasing number of fouls and stoppages, which is a problem for the league given fans’ shrinking attention spans. As offenses thrive, teams are having a difficult time getting stops. And the result is a whole lot of fouls and free-throws that disrupt the rhythm of the game and can become difficult to watch.

This season, teams are taking 23.7 free-throw attempts per game, the highest rate since 2010-11, and committing 20.3 fouls per game, the most since 2019-20. And not only are fans unhappy, but many of the players and coaches who pride themselves on defense feel like they are not being given a fair chance to succeed.

“[Because of] the rules of the game, you can’t play physically to get stops or it’s a foul now. So we’ve got to kind of give way a lot of times to a lot of situations, or you will be either in foul trouble or guys shooting a free throw,” Portland Trail Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups said. “It’s too tough [to defend] ... the game is made for the offensive player. Today’s game was made for the offense.”

Basketball is not an easy game to officiate in large part because there is physical contact on almost every possession. But what we are witnessing now is a no-win situation: fans and coaches are unhappy with the number of calls being made, while players are unhappy with the inconsistency of referees.

Perhaps a more lenient interpretation of the rules in favor of defenders would allow players to actually play defense without being penalized for it. It could even increase the entertainment value of the product because defense can be fun, too.

“Unfortunately, the defensive end becomes like a lost art,” Brown said. “It makes it hard to defend guys without fouling and really get into guys.”

It’s easy to ask officials to allow for more contact, but it’s much more difficult to actually execute in such a physical, fast-paced environment. The NBA may need to step in and alter the rules in order to give defenses an advantage just as it has in the past with offense.

For example, the NBA could make it a point of emphasis to penalize flopping and unnatural, foul-baiting shooting motions, which it had brief success doing to start the 2020-21 season. Or, if it wants to get even more radical, the league could bring back a version of hand-checking or lengthen the three-in-the-key rule to five seconds, allowing bigs to stay stationed in the paint for longer to deter offensive players – as is the case in international basketball.

The NBA is ultimately an entertainment product. And while the idea of scoring is fun, the reality is that the league is trending too far in one direction, giving defenses no choice but to foul and stop the game ad nauseam.

Competition breeds entertainment, and if the NBA wants to create the best product possible, it would be wise to allow the players to decide their own fates instead of allowing that power to rest on the shoulders of the referees.