LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 19: DeAndre Jordan #6 of the Los Angeles Clippers blocks the shot of Darius Morris #1 of the Los Angeles Lakers during a 114-95 Clipper win at Staples Center on December 19, 2011 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
One known truth in the game of basketball is that defense wins games. Historically, every NBA team to raise a banner has played good defense. Even the bad NBA teams are always trying to play better defense, give up less points, and force more turnovers. The only two exceptions that come to mind are Mike D'Antoni's Phoenix Suns and Don Nelson's Golden State Warriors. Despite having players like Nash, Amare, and Baron who were suited for and all-offense no-defense play style, the furthest any of those teams ever got was when a loaded Suns team reached the conference finals twice in a row, falling once to San Antonio and once to Dallas, both good defensive units. Never could Phoenix make the finals while using "7 seconds or less".
The core principal of basketball is to score more points than your opponent. At the beginning of the game, while defense was played, it was more of a formality than anything. Nobody blocked shots. No teams used complex defensive schemes to undermine an opposing offense. And then came Bill Russell. Like a hurricane, Russell swept through the very fabric of the game of basketball and changed how it would be played for the next 50 years and counting. By blocking shots and emphasizing defense, he proved that defensive emphasis was more effective than offensive, as his teams won championship rings until he had too many to fit on both his hands.
The idea of defense, obviously, is to stop your opponent from scoring. But how does a player go about denying points to his enemy? Well, first, you need a good defender. While defense is largely about desire, no dynamic scorer will be stopped by a player who is not a strong defender. A defensive minded player stays under control mentally and physically, plays smart depending on who he is guarding, and moves his feet quickly and effectively to cut off drives to the basket and take charges.
However, not anyone can guard a certain offensive player. No matter how good of a defender Chris Paul is, he has no chance of stopping Dwight Howard on the block. It doesn't matter how strong Shaq was in the post defensively, no coach would have ever put him on Steve Nash. Basketball is a game of matchups. Offenses try to exploit certain matchups while defenses try to cover every offensive player. A coach will match speed with speed, length with length, and size with size to create a defense where there are no clear-cut advantages for an offense.
No matter how good of a defender is on duty, the offensive player always has an advantage. When holding the ball on the wing, Derrick Rose has a plethora of options against Chris Paul. He can jab, fake, pump, drive, shoot, pass... you name it. With a dynamic scorer and distributor like Rose, you can always bet that he knows what he wants to do before he does it. Paul, on the other hand, is almost helpless. He has no options, and is simply forced to react to whatever Rose decides to do. If a basketball game was simply a series of 1 on 1 possessions, the scores would be much higher, as the offensive player would wind up with a good look on most plays. All that Rose has to do is pump fake and he can get past Paul. Enter the idea of help defense, which leads us into defensive rotations.
Rotations are one of the most fundamental elements of team defense. The idea is all based on premature help. As soon as Paul is beat, Jordan helps him, and before Rose gives it to Noah under the basket for a dunk, Griffin helps the helper.
Still don't get it? Let's paint a picture. Using the matchups from last night against the Bulls (Paul on Rose, Williams on Hamilton, Butler on Deng, Griffin on Boozer, Jordan on Noah), let's work through a defensive rotation. Imagine that Rose and Deng are on the wings, Hamilton is at the top of the arc, Boozer is in the short corner (12-15ft) on Deng's side, and Noah is on the block on Deng's side. This creates an isolation of Paul on Rose, a matchup that favors the Bulls offense.
Rose drives past Paul, and Jordan steps up to cut off Rose. In that instant, Griffin leaves Boozer to cover Noah under the basket, stopping an easy dump off for a dunk. Butler moves from the wing down into the short corner to cover Boozer, leaving Deng open. Williams slides over from Hamilton onto Deng, cutting off a skip pass to the opposite side. And Paul, who was just beaten by Rose, switches onto Hamilton up top. If this rotation works, then Rose is left between a rock and a hard place- he can either try to finish on DeAndre from 5 feet, or throw a difficult pass to his now covered teammates.
So, if it's that easy, why have the Clippers not been locking down defensively? Well, things rarely run as smoothly as I described above. There are always off-ball screens, cuts, and flat out mistakes that can ruin a defense. Put that together with a team with three new starters playing a team that won 62 games last year? That's a recipe for defensive disaster, and the Clippers allowed 114 points on 50% shooting.
The most important part of a defense is the anchor. For the Clippers, that's DJ. His job is to always be ready to help, and be effective in cutting off the drives of opposing players. Against the Bulls? DJ had two blocks and five fouls, and managed to stay on the court for only 26 minutes. That's not good enough.
This concept of a defensive anchor, which the Clippers are employing with DJ, is not so alien in the NBA. Last year's champions, the Mavs, used Tyson Chandler as their anchor, and it worked to perfection. Other teams have long shot blockers like Serge Ibaka, Andrew Bynum, Javale McGee, and Dwight Howard manning the middle and anchoring their defenses.
How can our anchor compare with theirs? Well, DJ still has a lot to learn, but so far he seems to be holding his own, and earning his large contract. A stellar game in Oakland that ended with him having eight blocks, and he has had three and two in the last couple of games against the league's elite (the Spurs and the Bulls were the only two teams to win 60 games a year ago, and neither has changed their roster too much).
At Staples, however, an eager home opener crowd was forced to see that brutal reality that is the Clipper's lack of depth down low. When DeAndre was forced to leave the game with foul trouble, the crowd of nearly 20,000 covered their eyes for the 17 minutes in which Brian Cook manned the middle. Cook, while effective when used as a stretch four in certain lineups, is not, in any way, a defensive-minded center. Rookie Trey Thompkins fared little better when he replaced Cook. The only other option to play center behind DJ is the oft-injured Reggie Evans, who missed 52 games last year. Evans is anything but a shot blocker (he has less in the last two years than DJ has in the first three games), and he is anything but long and tall, standing at 6'8" and serving his purpose as a broad banger, not an athletic leaper.
The ideal solution for the Clippers would seem to be trying to draw 7'1" center Joel Przybilla out of retirement, a big veteran body who knows how to block shots and rebound. Otherwise they turn their sights to desperate signings of any seven-footer, like Kyrylo Fesenko. One thing is certain: if Jordan misses time, and Cook is left anchoring the defense alone, it's going to get really ugly, really fast.
Take heart in this: DJ had a +/- of 0 against Chicago. That means that when he managed to stay in the game, we were close with the 62-win Bulls.