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Oh, Will You Shut Up About Defense Already?

Photo credit: Darron Cummings/AP

So, we’ve been bickering about the NBA’s MVP award the past couple days; it’s March, the sports calendar is dead, people get bored, you start fighting over this sort of thing to pass the time. I blogged about it yesterday; Tom Scocca blogged about it today. Both times, the crux of the argument has been Holy shit, man, Russ is producing at a historic level, can you believe this shit, of course he’s the MVP. Both times, a popular response from fans of San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard (and/or people—there are many of them—who just don’t like Westbrook) has been, “What about defense?!!?”


The idea, here, goes: Yeah, Russ puts up sexy scoring, assisting, and rebounding numbers—so much better than Leonard’s, in fact, that he could post zeroes in all three categories in all 18 of his remaining games and still wind up in the neighborhood of 25-8-8 at season’s end—but that focusing on these numbers unjustly ignores the value of Leonard’s play at the other end of the court, where he won the past two Defensive Player of the Year awards and may well be the odds-on favorite to win another this season.

More broadly, “What about defense?!!?” is a rhetorical cudgel that has been used against prolific offensive players for decades. And, to a certain extent, it’s true that a focus on gaudy counting stats like points, assists, and rebounds (or even on advanced-metric stuff like usage percentage and assist percentage and so forth) does, indeed, have the side effect of privileging offensive production over the generally harder-to-track work of playing great defense. The thing is, that’s as it should be, because offense is more valuable than defense.

That’s right, dammit! Offense is more valuable than defense. A great scorer is worth more than a great defender. And everybody fucking knows it! Shut up about defense already!

What’s that you’re saying? You want us to perform the kabuki theater of arguing this obvious point, even though you already know it’s true? Okay.


Let’s look at James Harden, of the Houston Rockets. You can bicker amongst yourselves about where exactly Harden ranks among all NBA players, but two pretty inarguable facts about him—that are backed by several years of evidence in every statistical indicator available as well as what you can see with your eyes if you follow the NBA—are that he is one of the very best offensive players in all of basketball, and that he is at best a mediocre individual defender who does not scare anybody at that end of the court. This arrangement of ability and effort works out to make him, indisputably, one of the most valuable players in the NBA; the Rockets’ roster and scheme are built around his talents, and they’re one of the league’s best teams.* Yes? Yes.

*“But, mewwwww!” you are mewing—“The San Antonio Spurs have an even better record than the Rockets, and they’re built around the talents of Kawhi Leonard, possibly the NBA’s best defender! Therefore defense is worth more than offense!” Actually, this is a stupid point. Kawhi Leonard is a 26-points-per-game scorer, for one thing, and for another, the Spurs are better defensively when he’s off the court (more on this in a minute) than when he’s on it. But let’s get back to what we were talking about. 


Broadly, this outline—great offense, mediocre defense—describes two-time reigning MVP Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors, too. Downgrade “merely okay defense” to “extremely horrendous defense” and you’ve got a description of Isaiah Thomas, without question the best and most valuable player on the Boston Celtics, who currently are holding the Eastern Conference’s second seed. Hell, for that matter, “great offense, not much defense” describes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain, by any sane reckoning among the handful of best and most successful players** in basketball history.

**Oh, I can hear you mewing again. “But what about Bill Russell?” you are mewing. “He was all-defense, no-offense, and he won 11 championships in 13 years and was the greatest winner in sports history and Bill Simmons says he’s like the second or third best player ever!” Well, for one thing, Russell was not a mediocre offensive player; he just didn’t score as much as his rival, Wilt Chamberlain. He was a fabulous passer and a perfectly respectable scorer for his time; he averaged 15 points and four assists a game over his career. But also, thanks to playing in the time before free agency and the draft lottery, he played his entire professional career on insanely stacked Celtics teams that afforded him the luxury of focusing on shot-blocking and rebounding. Thirdly, the NBA had 10 friggin’ teams back then, virtually all the players were utter trash, and Bob Cousy was considered a wizard of ball-handling because he could turn in a circle while dribbling. Get the fuck out of my face with Bill Russell.   


Now let’s imagine the inverse of James Harden: A player of similar physical dimensions who plays All-NBA defense but is mediocre at best on offense. That player, basically, is Tony Allen. Allen is a three-time All-Defense first-teamer (he also made the second team twice); in his prime he was one of the best and most disruptive individual defenders in years. He also was a role player. He peaked as the fourth-best player on a good team. Building a roster around his talents would have been suicide; no one ever so much as considered trying it.

The reason for that isn’t hard to grasp. Consider the playoffs after the 2014-15 season, the last year Allen made first-team All-Defense and one of the best seasons of his career. In the second round—after Allen’s Grizzlies took a 2-1 series lead thanks in part to Allen’s suffocating defense on Klay Thompson—the Golden State Warriors not only neutralized him, but made him completely unplayable, simply by putting their center, Andrew Bogut, on him, and telling Bogut to ignore him completely whenever the Grizzlies had the ball. They turned the defensive version of James Harden into a catastrophic liability for his own team, by ignoring him.


No equivalent thing can be done to an offensive player of Harden’s caliber who happens to be weak on defense. Attack him all you want on defense, sure—that’s what teams have been doing to Harden (and Curry and Thomas and Carmelo Anthony and, yes, Russell Westbrook) for years—but the best-case scenario merely erodes his effectiveness; it doesn’t turn him into an active detriment to his own team.


That’s because good individual offense has a compounding effect that good individual defense simply doesn’t. In fact, good individual defense isn’t even always good defense! For proof of this counterintuitive idea, look no further than every sports smarmer’s choice for MVP, Kawhi Leonard. As mentioned above, the Spurs are better—lots better!—on defense when Kawhi goes to the bench, even as he guards (and often pretty much erases) opposing teams’ best perimeter scorers on a nightly basis.

Look at his on-court/off-court numbers, from the NBA’s stats site. When Kawhi’s on the court, the Spurs’ defensive rating (the number of points they give up per 100 possessions) is 103.7, the second-worst among members of San Antonio’s regular rotation. When he’s off the court, it shrinks to an astounding 95.6—they literally play their best defense when the two-time reigning DPOY is on the bench.


Is that because Kawhi’s not actually a good defender? Hell no. He’s a great defender. If you had one final possession to protect a one-point lead in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, you’d almost certainly want Kawhi Leonard defending the ball-handler over anybody else in the entire NBA. No, the Spurs are a better defensive team when he’s off the court because, in general, great individual defense doesn’t actually matter all that much!

Matt Moore of CBS Sports investigated this phenomenon back in December (in one of the best basketblogs of this or any season) and found that opponents could not only neutralize Kawhi’s defense, but turn his dedication to shutting down his man into an active liability for the Spurs, simply by exiling his man to the far corner and going four-on-four on the other side of the court. Even when Kawhi’s man is a high-usage offensive player like Jimmy Butler or Andrew Wiggins, the benefits of playing four-on-four on a well spread-out floor strongly outweigh the adversity of effectively losing the services of Leonard’s man altogether.


The NBA’s best individual defender can be neutralized at the defensive end in the same way the Warriors neutralized Tony Allen at the offensive end: by ignoring him. In all, the Spurs might just as well put Leonard on the opposing team’s weakest scorer and let him save his energy for getting buckets; to the extent he’s a legitimate MVP candidate at all, it’s because of the 26 points he puts up per night and the incredible efficiency with which he does it. Individual defense is not worth all that much. Not even Kawhi Leonard’s.


The thing is, everybody already knows this. None of the people now saying Russell Westbrook (or Harden, whose MVP case would be rock-solid if not for Westbrook simply doing a lot more every night) doesn’t play enough defense to be MVP would dispute that Magic Johnson is one of the handful of greatest players in NBA history—but Magic was a famously indifferent defender who only came alive at that end of the floor when he saw an opportunity to dart into a passing lane and spark a fast-break. It didn’t matter, either to lasting perceptions of his value as a player or to his team’s fortunes when it relied upon him. When a basketball player can score and rebound and create a ton of easy baskets for others, he doesn’t need to play much defense.

So why does this bullshit line of argument—“What about defense?”—persist? Perversely, it’s precisely because the very people lowing about the value and importance of defense know it’s not as valuable or important as scoring and assisting and doing dope shit on offense. Those latter things reliably tell us which NBA players are the best and most valuable, and then going “What about defense?!!?” gives a certain stripe of asshole fan a way to devalue what those players have in greater abundance than their peers and he does not: Talent.


This is—let’s be real—a way to claim a kind of superiority over extremely famous sports superstars. After all, if James Harden (or Russell Westbrook) doesn’t play great defense, then insisting that individual defense is hugely important is also insisting that you know something—or value something—that the guy regularly hanging 35 points and 15 assists on NBA teams doesn’t know or value: that you are either more knowledgeable than James Harden about the sport he dominates for an extremely lucrative living, or your sports morality is purer than his. If defense is what matters, then you, What About Defense?!!? Guy, can call James Harden an idiot, or a loser.

It’s also just a way for loyal San Antonio Spurs fans to stan for their very awesome hometown guy. Which is fine! Doesn’t make them right, though. Defense is fine. Offense is better.

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