The Big Ten Wonk, back in the day:
And yet we talk so little about D. In fact, beyond tired bromides about “solid team defense,” the attention devoted to defense is woefully out of balance with its actual importance.
Why is that? Three reasons, I think:
1. The game itself. Defense in baseball (for the most part) and in football (utterly and completely) falls within the domain of the specialist–but basketball’s the last bastion of the generalist. Baseball gives us celebrated 95 mph pitchers and football gives us celebrated ravenous defensive ends. But basketball gets its D from the same players who contribute the offense–and said players are rarely celebrated for their defense. True, Ben Wallace and his era of Detroit Pistons made defense nominally more hip than it’s been in a long while. But Big Ben is actually the exception that proves the rule–celebrated (rightly) as a defensive specialist. College players are for the most part recruited, conversely, for their ability (or potential) to score. Defense, it is thought, can be browbeaten into them once they get on campus.
2. Confusion about the game itself. It’s more fun to watch up-tempo games than slow ones. No argument here, surely. The problem is that defense still suffers greatly from a hoary old misconception: that good defense means slow games. This is emphatically and demonstrably untrue, as illustrated beautifully by the 2005 national champion North Carolina Tar Heels. That team played outstanding defense (allowing just 0.90 points per possession in ACC play) and rocketed up and down the court like a track team. They were a pleasure to watch and, believe me, if an Illinois fan can say that, it’s true.
. . .
3. Stats, damned stats. Applying numbers to basketball aids and abets this widespread DAD–and I’m certainly not immune. Look at this blog: I post individual stats for every player in the Big Ten in four different offensive categories. But what about D? While we can record how many blocks and steals an individual records, individual defensive excellence largely eludes our efforts to make sense of it through numbers. The box score doesn’t really do justice to defense–you have to see it.
And yet, despite these factors, there are indeed times when we should focus on defense. More specifically, there are teams where defense is where the conversation should start.
In looking back over my work this offseason, I’ve realized I suffer from an acute case of what the Wonk called Defensive Attention Defecit (DAD). Examples:
- My series on MSU’s historical statistical tendencies petered out after I got through the offensive statistics.
- My posts on the outlook for the 2008-09 team have tended to focus on how the team will fit together offensively.
(As a possibly-related matter, my problem as a basketball player was also that I tended not to pay enough attention to defense.)
So I thought I should devote at least one preseason post to the 2008-09 outlook for MSU’s defense–particularly given that tough defense is an Izzo trademark. Let’s start with the stats we do have on defense from last year:
|Individual Defensive Stats: 2007-08|
Taking the three columns of numbers in order:
- No one jumps off the table in terms of stealing the ball, reflecting that MSU ranked just 301st nationally in defensive turnover percentage. Goran Suton actually led the team in steal percentage–not bad for a guy who isn’t generally described by basketball observers as “athletic.”
- Drew Naymick’s block percentage ranked 36th in the nation. As a team, MSU ranked 45th in the nation in block percentage, which helped contribute to MSU’s defensive effective FG percentage of 46.0%, which ranked 26th in the nation. Suton was second on the team in block percentage at 4.0.
- Goran Suton was a rock on the defensive boards–as was Marquise Gray, when the other areas of his game weren’t keeping him on the bench. (Notice how Suton keeps showing up here? Someone should write an ode.) Overall, MSU’s defensive rebounding performance was somewhat underwhelming for an Izzo team. They ranked 108th in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage.
The team stats cited above roughly correspond with what a good Izzo-coached team should look like on defense: don’t take risks going for steals, force a tough shot, and get the rebound. The individual stats, of course, capture only a small portion of what happens on defense. Travis Walton, MSU’s best defender by consensus, looks pretty unremarkable from a statistical standpoint. (His offensive stats, meanwhile, have to return to at least the level they were at during his sophomore season to justify starter-level minutes this year.) Overall, this was a good, but not great, defensive team last season. They ranked 26th in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency, giving up 90.6 points per 100 possessions (on an adjusted basis).
Looking ahead to this season, the graduation of Neitzel will obviously hurt on the offensive end, but shouldn’t be much of a factor on defense. If anything, increased minutes for Allen and Summers should give the team a little more size to deal with opposing scorers at the wing positions.
Naymick’s departure will be more of a factor on defense. Idong Ibok and Tom Herzog won’t play nearly as many minutes as Naymick did, so MSU’s block percentage will almost certainly decline.
MSU will have to compensate in other ways. Given that we expect a smaller, more athletic lineup this year, one possibility is increasing the number of turnovers we force. With three athletic point guards (Lucas/Walton/Lucious) and two athletic players who can play the 4 spot (Morgan/Roe; maybe Green, too), that’s a possibility.
And a deeper and more balanced bench should allow Izzo to push his players harder to play defense the way he wants it played: active man-to-man defense with an emphasis on rotating/switching to provide help when someone gets beat on the perimeter. That should translate to continued success in forcing our opponents to shoot a relatively high percentage of their shots from beyond the 3-point line (37.1% of FG attempts last year), with a lower-than-average success rate on those shots (31.2% last year; 21st best in the nation).
The downside of a smaller lineup is that it may hurt defensive rebounding. Playing with only one true big man on the floor doesn’t hurt as much in terms of offensive rebounding, which is more about quickness and hustle. Defensive rebounding is more about size and positioning. While Raymar Morgan is an adequate defensive rebounder (16.0 DefReb%) as an undersized power forward, other players will need to chip in. Hopefully Durrell Summers can continue to rebound well from the perimeter (15.4%) with increased minutes. As previously asserted here, we need more rebounds from perimeter players to return to the elite level of rebounding displayed during the Final Four years.
There you go: One dose of the DAD vaccine. I’ll have to remember to inject the blog with regular doses throughout the season.