Skip to main content
Original Issue


The notion that no defense is played in the NBA is wrong. The better teams clearly have the best D, and they're constantly improving it

The perception that little—no, no—defense is played in the NBA is a pervasive one, held in particular by pennant-waving boosters of the college game, those guys who think defense begins and ends with a 2-3 collapsing zone in the home snake pit.

Think again: The Milwaukee Bucks went from also-ran to in-the-running largely because of coach Don Nelson's defensive strategies. Nelson's approach includes a 110-page book of D, plus 10-buck-a-miss quizzes that are hardly trivial, even for the ego-driven millionaires of the NBA. Says Nelson, "It takes the average college player almost a year to get accustomed to what man-to-man concepts are all about."

For years the Denver Nuggets outshot every team on the planet, but only once did they make the NBA's Final Four. Last season, the Nuggets picked up Calvin Natt, Fat Lever and Wayne Cooper, fine defensive players at three different positions, for Kiki Vandeweghe, the league's 16th-leading scorer but a nondefender. Guess who made the Final Four? Cleveland became respectable last year, after "its defense picked up a notch," says the Lakers' Michael Cooper. It was only last season that Utah's Mark Eaton, a no-offense center, grew—well, he was already 7'4"—into as near as you can get to a superstar on the basis of shot-blocking.

The Lakers beat the Sixers for the championship in 1982 with major help from a cute "fake trap" that turned the Sixers to stone at half-court. The next year, the Sixers came back and beat the Lakers with their own gimmick defense, running two men at Magic Johnson while, at their own end, showcasing the defensive talents of Maurice Cheeks, Bobby Jones and an immovable object in the paint named Moses Malone. The Celtics had trouble stopping big guards from scoring that season, so they traded for Dennis Johnson, a tough defender, and won the title in '84. And last season the talent-rich and strategy-wise Lakers utilized that mobile windmill, Cooper, as part of a defense that repeatedly broke games open in explosive bursts en route to the title.

"Anyone who watches our game and says there is no defense, just doesn't understand it," says commissioner David Stern. "That's all there is to it."

Unfortunately for the NBA, that's not all there is to it. There is still a body of dedicated fans that considers the NBA the NDA, the No-D Association. Why?

•Man-to-man defenses: Since its inception in 1946, the NBA has allowed only man-to-man—even four decades ago it did not want defensive teams to sag back on the big men underneath and force offensive teams to take mostly outside shots. It wanted the drive for the basket and the creative offensive move to be a major part of the game. Many observers view this defensive prerequisite as a weakness, never mind the fact that many, maybe most, college teams play zone on a regular basis to hide their weaker defenders. And, indeed, during much of its history, the NBA's man-to-man mandate made for some colossally boring, all-offense basketball. Worst case: Wilt Chamberlain used to go out every night and bury some stiff at center because defenses weren't creative enough to give Wilt's victim any help.

•The media: Basketball fans have been treated like dim bulbs who understand nothing more complex than a point spread. Millions of TV viewers sit rapt as John Madden chalks out a rotating zone in the defensive backfield during an NFL game, but we rarely see on replay, say, Paul Pressey and Sidney Moncrief cooperating to force an opposing guard into a turnover. The NBA itself promotes its "ballet above the basket" at the expense of the defensive battleground below.

•Filling the seats: With certain exceptions, like Patrick Ewing, NBA teams are reluctant to pay for defensive stars. There are no true defensive stats besides blocks, steals ("Even they're misleading," says former Celtic, Buck and Net assistant John Killilea, "because they don't count attempts") and defensive rebounds, and a tough man-to-man defender's worth is hard to quantify come contract time. Every coach wants a guy like Denver's T.R. Dunn (a 6.3 points-per-game career scorer but a defensive demon), but general managers look at low score/low ticket sales stats and snap the purse shut.

•Racism: Some people really buy the cliché that black players, the vast NBA majority, only want to shoot. And as a corollary, they point to the fact that white guys are slow, but great on defense. This despite the fact that Bobby Jones is the only white player consistently singled out as a top defender.

And the NBA has another defensive problem. Ironically, while many of the uninitiated believe the NBA plays no D, many of the initiated believe it plays too much. Too much team defense, too much switching, too much pressing, too much half-court trapping, too much double-teaming. Too much, in short, of what most people call "zone." Bite your tongue. The NBA rule book does not acknowledge the word zone. In its stead is something called "illegal defense."

The fact is, everyone in the NBA plays zone to one degree or another. (With the possible exception of George Gervin, who plays neither zone nor man-to-man.) "A perfectly relevant question at this point," says Bob Ryan, the veteran basketball observer of The Boston Globe, "is, does anyone in the NBA play man-to-man?"

Ryan is only half kidding. A set of illegal defensive guidelines that (theoretically) eliminates the zone takes up nine pages of the 60-page NBA official's manual but still confuses spectators all the time—and coaches and players most of the time, not to mention the refs. Darell Garretson, the NBA's chief of officials, doubts that either Dallas's Dick Motta or San Antonio's Cotton Fitzsimmons fully understands the guidelines, which would not be so bad except that they (along with Milwaukee's Nelson) created them. Pete Newell, Golden State's director of player personnel and one of the most respected minds in the business, says, "There are a lot of people who don't understand the guidelines, and some of them wear whistles."

The charge that the NBA is soft on defense is nothing new. Philadelphia's Joe Fulks averaged an unheard-of 23.2 points per game in the league's first season, and folks wondered why. Wrote Leonard Koppett in his 1968 book offensively entitled 24 Seconds to Shoot: An Informal History of the National Basketball Association, " 'There must be something funny about that pro game,' said countless reading fans, who hadn't seen for themselves. They didn't know what was 'funny,' but something must be. Perhaps pro defense was being cooperative."

What was happening then is what is happening now: Give an outstanding pro offensive player the ball, and he is going to score a bunch of points.

The NBA's detractors point to the 24-second clock as being antidefense, which is absurd. The rule was adopted in 1954 because many teams were holding the ball despite the absence of zone defense. (Remember the weave and how it could scrape off defenders in a true man-to-man?) And don't think that the college game—after years of stallball, four-corners and yawnball—wouldn't be considering a 24-second limit, were it not for the fact that the pros own the patent.

Not surprisingly, it was Boston's Red Auerbach who changed ideas about defense. His teams pressed full-court, and when the Celtic press was beaten, it really wasn't, as there down under the basket was ol' No. 6, Bill Russell.

But even in Auerbach's scheme, defense was relatively basic—enervating but basic. The widely held assertion that the pressing guards—usually K.C. and Sam Jones—"funneled" people toward Bill Russell is overstated. "If my man got by me and Bill had to pick him up," says K.C., now the Celtic coach, "you can bet I'd be hustling back and picking up Bill's man. Otherwise, I'd have those laser-beam eyes staring through me. About as fancy as we got in those days was to play denial on some of the big scorers, like [Jerry] West and Oscar [Robertson]."

"In those days, you were basically responsible for your own man," says West, a career 27-point-a-game scorer and now general manager of the Lakers. "The matchups they used to talk about—Wilt versus Russell, [Elgin] Baylor versus [Bob] Pettit, Oscar versus myself—were valid. They really were basic man-to-man matchups. That's not true today."

Today, offenses have gone high tech. A number of factors contributed to the change. The merger with the ABA in 1976 brought a flood of offensive talent that had to be dammed up. With the influx of such ex-college coaches as Jack Ramsay (now in Portland), John MacLeod (Phoenix), Fitzsimmons (San Antonio), and Motta (Dallas) came new ideas about defense. An added emphasis on scouting and videotaping led to the formulation of the defensive game plans.

By 1980, almost everyone in the league had begun to s-t-r-e-t-c-h the cold, stark fact of man-to-man exclusivity. Teams began to "double down" on the big front lines underneath. The defender was counseled to overplay the best offensive players, slide off his "man" if he wasn't a point scorer and provide help. Clever centers like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar specialized in the variation defense called the "NBA zone," clogging the middle just enough to discourage entry, yet avoid technicals.

Complaints about zones became frequent, and in 1981 a committee (Nelson, Motta and Fitzsimmons, with input from Garretson and Killilea) was formed to establish guidelines, which it did during an eight-hour session in Chicago.

Fans need not know every nuance of the guidelines (as we have already seen, no one does) but should be aware of their purpose, which is to maintain a pick-and-roll game and to discourage an outside jump-shooting league.

Like Gaul, the court is now divided into three parts (see diagrams). Unless he is double-teaming the man with the ball, a defender must stay within one defensive area of his man. So if an offensive player—whether he has the ball or not—is in the upper defensive area, i.e., above the foul line, his defender cannot be any nearer the basket than the middle defensive area, i.e., the bottom of the foul circle. This prevents big men from hanging back and clogging the lane when their men are stationed up high. Also, a defender is not allowed in the inside foul lane for longer than 2.9 seconds unless his man is "posted up," stationed adjacent to the key—many fans aren't aware that there is a three-second violation on defense. And double-teaming a man on the weak side, i.e., away from the ball, is prohibited.

Simple enough (or maybe it isn't), but all sorts of conundrums can develop for two reasons: First, guidelines do not apply when the ball has not passed mid-court (i.e., when it's in the offensive team's backcourt), and second, there are no restrictions against "trapping" or double-teaming the player with the ball, except that the trap must be "aggressive." But when is a trap not a zone? Obviously, when two or more defenders set off in pursuit of the ball, the remaining ones have to pick up loose men, creating a "rotation" that is difficult to monitor.

The Knicks under Hubie Brown constantly press full-court, often with a 1-3-1 zone. "After a made free throw or field goal," says guard Darrell Walker, "we're coming after you." They start it near the end line just after the opposition has taken the ball out of bounds—perfectly legal—and they attempt to force the ball to one outside alley or the other and double-team it in a corner of the court, which is also perfectly legal. It is a zone, pure and simple, but the kind of zone that the rules allow. It was so slick that last season it brought the Knicks the league lead in illegal defenses with 90. Watch complaints about the legality of Hubie's press soar this year when Ewing starts "rotating."

Milwaukee, arguably the best defensive team in the league last season, seems to draw the most fire about its tactics. In Nelson's system defenders switch every time offensive players cross—or anytime a potential pick is set. At all times the Bucks' strategy is to keep their own big men under the basket. Golden State coach John Bach says the Cavs and Celtics are two other teams expert in using partial zone on a switch.

Systems aside, there are teams that rely upon "team defenders." When someone calls an opponent a team defender, he means: "That s.o.b. plays zone 90 percent of the time." The leading team defender, by acclamation, is Larry Bird, who on a remarkable number of occasions has been seen drawing offensive fouls and just plain getting in the way of players who aren't his to guard. Ironically, the cover of this year's official NBA Guide is a perfect illustration—Michael Jordan, openmouthed, is driving to the basket and there is Bird underneath on defense, even though Bird would almost never have the responsibility for checking a speedster like Jordan.

Bird plays smart, and smart players test the limits of rules. Abdul-Jabbar has done it for years. Bird has everything about the guidelines figured out, including the fact that because the game moves so swiftly and it is impossible for anyone on the floor to watch the entire court, officials are disinclined to call illegal defenses more than once or twice a game—note that the 1,193 illegal defense calls in 1984-85 occurred in 943 games and produced only 157 free throws.

Even then, it's not a bad foul to take: The first violation results only in a resetting of the 24-second clock (unless it occurs in the final 24 seconds of a period), and all others award one technical foul shot to the offensive team. Says Bird, "If you can get two or three steals before they call it, you're ahead of the game."

The final problem, of course, is that illegal defenses, however comprehensible in the rule book, are just plain hard to recognize on the court, even for the zebras. Frequently a violation will be whistled on the possession that immediately follows an assistant coach screaming: "Illegal defense! Illegal defense!" This is hardly science. Garretson, who knows the guidelines inside and out, admitted that when he worked a summer game without them, "It was like a vacation."

It would be worth the NBA's while, it seems, to experiment for a season, or a preseason, with all-out zone. This would make life easier on the refs and take some of the hypocrisy out of their calls. However, most NBA people absolutely cringe at the suggestion of a legal full-fledged zone because they fear the kind of zone that would be played. They see teams stationing their big men within finger-roll distance of the basket, arms spread, pterodactyl-like, all the way across the floor, discouraging any kind of penetration to the basket. "We don't want a jump-shooting league," they say.

Why not?

Why is the NBA hierarchy so sure that fans don't like jump shots, especially long ones? "Jeez, every time somebody lets a three-point shot go," says Pacers vice-president Wayne Embry, "the whole crowd's on its feet." Why not move the boundary in a foot or two and make outside shooting a more important part of the game? Players are far better shooters than they were a couple of decades ago, when 40% from a guard would be acceptable. Now there are guards shooting better than 50%. Go ahead, you clowns on defense, sit back in a zone and just watch us shoot you right out of it.

And wouldn't zone defense encourage transition basketball, the NBA's real calling card? The way to beat a zone, better than bombing it from outside, is to zap it before it sets up. Granted, once a zone is set up, 24 seconds isn't much time. "Big deal," says Newell. "So just start the clock when teams get it past midcourt."

"Teams that don't win now wouldn't be able to win with the zone," contends Portland G.M. Stu Inman. Says Detroit forward Kent Benson, "I just don't think it would change the game that much."

But maybe if the NBA tried zone for a season it would put out the word that defense is a legitimate part of its game. Baseball doesn't take away Dwight Gooden's "yakker" because he can get everybody out with his fastball, so don't take a weapon away from NBA defenses. Let offenses figure out a way to beat zones—they will.

The league should attack defense as a public-relations problem. Make defenders into protagonists, instead of bit players. Look into the possibility of a defensive box score. Show defensive replays on the tube.

Address the race issue head-on. Cite the work of blue-collar black players like Dunn, Pressey, Moncrief and Dennis Johnson. Sight in a few salvos on the college game. Like this from Scotty Stirling, the NBA's vice-president of operations: "If they're talking about where defense isn't played, let's talk about college basketball."



The Bucks ganged up to shut down Dr. J's operating room (left); Toney (right) had Cooper on his case.



[See caption above.]



Eaton, 7'4", was out on top after this high-altitude dogfight with Houston's Olajuwon.



If he didn't know better, Kareem might be thinking he is surrounded by a Celtic zone.






Weak Side

Strong Side



Maurice Cheeks (10) was in Dennis Johnson's face earlier in the '85 playoffs; in the finals (below) it was Johnson on Johnson



Cooper blocked Danny Schayes's shot (above) but found Danny Ainge to be a handful.



[See caption above.]


In the isolation play above, player 1 goes it alone against A. Player C may double-team 1; otherwise he must stay in the weak-side upper zone. If player B visits the strong side of the lane for more than 2.9 seconds, blow the whistle. He's illegal. In the setup below, defenders A and B are free to double-team player 3 as long as the ball stays on their side of the court. Outside the NBA, this is known as a zone. If C sags back to block 5's path to the hoop, whistle him: Weaksiders 4 and 5 can't be doubled. Weakside defenders D and E are only allowed to play their men or attack the ball.