In Defense of Defense
Admire Stephon Marbury's slashes to the basket, behind-the-back bounce passes, and crunch-time scoring all you want, but it's his defensive improvement that is a fundamental reason the Minnesota Timberwolves have taken another leap forward this season. As soon as the opposing point guard receives the in-bounds pass and heads up the floor, Marbury is there, dogging his man's every dribble a good 90 feet away from the basket he's defending. It's a marathon effort to give his team a small but crucial edge, wearing on his legs and almost invariably forcing Marbury to run into a big man setting a screen. But done well, it digs at the psyche of the point guard and costs opposing offenses an extra three or four seconds to run their half-court sets, reducing their chances of a high-percentage shot.
"Defense starts with your point guard taking on their point guard," says Malik Sealy, the wiry shooting guard the Wolves signed away from Detroit during the off-season specifically to hound opposing shooters. "Ours is doing the job." Anyone who saw Marbury's defensive indifference as a rookie just two years ago would have trouble imagining he'd ever merit Sealy's accolade. But it is becoming increasingly apparent that Marbury, like the Wolves' other superstar-in-the-making, Kevin Garnett, is a performer who plays to win. Challenged by coach Flip Saunders's system of having the point guard play full court on defense, Marbury has devoted himself to rigorous conditioning drills during his two off-seasons as a pro, coming back with added sinew throughout his body and an equal degree of toughness in his mind. He doesn't yet rank with Gary Payton and Jason Kidd as one of the league's defensive elite at his position, but he is no longer a liability, either.
The truism that "teams win with defense" has become so hackneyed that only die-hard fans stop to dissect how and why it is so. In pro basketball the level of athleticism is so high that most players can score when guarded one-on-one yet would usually be stifled--to the point of boring the audience--if the league permitted zone defenses; in a zone, NBA players could effectively cover so much ground that you'd have to widen the court to give offenses a chance. To accomplish superior defense in the pro game without getting whistled for playing in an illegal zone alignment, a team must instantaneously rotate its coverage in response to the movement of the ball so that two men are guarding the shooter (if he is particularly dangerous or in position for a high-percentage shot), each of the other three defenders is guarding a man, and the opponent who's left unguarded isn't in a position to be an immediate scoring threat.
That's fairly logical, basic strategy. But executing it is fiendishly difficult. It requires physical endurance, size, and speed, plus experience playing in the league (so you know your opponents' tendencies) and experience playing together (so you develop cohesion and rhythm). It's a selfless and demanding pursuit. In the NBA, "character" and "chemistry" are essentially code words for defensive acumen.
The college game, of course, is different. "You don't learn to play [NBA] defense overnight," says veteran Wolves forward Sam Mitchell. "In college, even man-to-man defenses are more like a zone." This, he explains, is because when man-to-man breaks down, college players are permitted to slip into a zone to regroup. "In the pros, almost anybody can beat you [on offense]," he adds. There are more options and more strengths that have to be negated, which puts a premium on absorbing scouting reports and keeping an ever-evolving mental catalog of what opponents like to do. "Good defense is making somebody beat you with their weaknesses," Mitchell concludes.
The exciting thing about this year's edition of the Wolves is that each player in the starting five is an upgrade over last year's quintet, and Minnesota also has more quality defenders coming off the bench. At point guard, there's Marbury's aforementioned improvement. His backup, Bobby Jackson, is a rugged competitor whose forte is defense, and who plays bigger than his six-two height. At shooting guard, last year's tandem was Chris Carr, who was and remains the club's worst defender, and an over-the-hill Doug West. Compare that to this season's off-duo of Anthony Peeler and Sealy. When the Wolves swapped West for Peeler last February, people expected a better shooter and passer. Instead Peeler is West's equal on D, a solid but not sterling talent in a one-on-one situation who's savvy and dedicated enough to keep the rotations flowing.
Sealy, on the other hand, is a six-seven monster in the defensive backcourt. "I've always enjoyed it and taken pride in it," he says. "Growing up in playground games, I noticed early on that the teams that won had somebody who played defense. You stay in the league long enough and you learn who likes to go right, where somebody likes to shoot from, what their favorite moves are--and you take those away."
Saunders and Wolves VP of personnel Kevin McHale allowed crowd favorite and class act Terry Porter to go to Miami in the off-season and essentially replaced him with Sealy. Smart move. Marbury no longer needs Porter's steadying influence in the locker room or on the court, and Peeler provides the long-range shooting that was Porter's other primary contribution. Meanwhile, the Wolves no longer have to compensate for Porter's slow foot speed in their rotations. Sealy's value to the franchise showed up in neon during Minnesota's first home game, when a tired San Antonio team came in and tried to use long-range shooting specialist Steve Kerr to take the offensive pressure off their weary front court of Tim Duncan, David Robinson, and Sean Elliott. Sealy erased Kerr from the game, permitting him only two (unsuccessful) shots.
If you wonder why the loss of Tom Gugliotta at power forward was so painless, consider that Googs, for all his marvelous ability and noble attempts to stay within a team concept on defense, was instinctively undisciplined, and prone to disrupting rotations, gambling for steals and focusing most of his energy on rebounding and offense. Like Googs, Joe Smith is relatively frail for a power forward, and if Minnesota has a weakness, it's a susceptibility to a muscular and dogged front line (as Golden State proved when they upset the Wolves on the West Coast). But Smith hews to the rotations more reliably than Gugliotta, and he's a better shot blocker. The backups here are Sam Mitchell, a savvy vet who is likewise undersized but knows how to get physical with an opponent without drawing the foul, and Tom Hammonds, whose early offensive woes have prevented Saunders from deploying his bulk more frequently.
Last year's center was Stanley Roberts, who was pretty effective against big, lumbering opponents, but far too slow for nearly everyone else and helpless against players his size who were in shape, such as Shaquille O'Neal. The return of Dean Garrett is a definite upgrade, both because he knows Saunders's system and because, while he's often at a talent disadvantage, he's rarely overmatched in terms of size or speed. Backup Billy Curley is a classic hatchet man in the best sense of the role: Players can score on him, but they'll pay for it with bruises and aggravation.
Last, and most complete, is Kevin Garnett, the "small forward." Marvels Sealy: "He's so quick, and he's over seven feet tall. You can't shoot over him." For the second or third year in a row, KG is showing that he's one of the top five defenders in the game. The difference is that last year he ran around the court like a madman, trying to put his finger in the dike every time the Wolves defense sprung a leak. Now he can pick and choose when to swoop in on someone at the perimeter, when to crash the boards, and when to simply concentrate on shutting down the man he's guarding. The energy saved will come in handy later in this grueling season.
In fact, the Wolves are deep enough this year that not even Garnett or Marbury ranks among the league's top 25 in average minutes per game. Can they stay spry enough to continue winning eight out of every eleven games they play? Obviously not. But their defensive cohesion should evolve enough to keep pace with the growing offensive prowess of their opponents as teams begin to get in peak game shape. Meaning they might be able to continue holding clubs to 90 points per game, which would vault them from last year's bottom third to this year's top half of NBA defenses in terms of points allowed. And that is the foundation for a serious playoff run.
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