This post appears in fantrax.com on May 13, 2013
A few weeks ago, Grantland NBA writer Zach Lowe made a salient point – defense counts for 50% of the game. While that may seem obvious, so many executives, members of the media and fans don’t realize it. Dunks, clutch shots and no-look passes make the highlight reel. If it’s not a blocked shot, defensive contributions don’t.
This year’s playoffs have shined a light on why D matters at least as much as O. To bang home the point, let’s play a little game of “who would you rather?”
Lee: 18 PPG. 11 RPG. 52 FG% 80 FT%. 36.8 minutes per
Noah: 12 PPG. 11 RPG. 48 FG% 75 FT%. 36.8 minutes per
In every offensive category Lee is equal to or better than Noah. Lee can also step out and make the jumper, while Noah’s two-handed push shot makes Bulls fans cringe every time he winds up to let one go.
On the other side of the ball – Noah is the vocal leader and anchor of Coach Tom Thibodeau’s second ranked defense. The man is relentless. He’ll guard any frontcourt player, and if he’s forced to switch on a pick, can force most backcourt players into a tough shot or passing decision. Not only is his on-the-ball defense outstanding, but he covers huge chunks of the court with his help defense.
In stark contrast, Golden State Coach Mark Jackson has to hide and compensate for Lee’s defensive ineptitude. Lee cannot be trusted to cover any top forward or center, so the rest of the team has to keep its eye on Lee’s man while keeping track of their own.
Many would have a difficult time deciding between which player they’d want. But consider the following then realize that the decision is not even close:
- David Lee had never made the playoffs before this year, his ninth season.
- The Warriors have played better since Lee tore his hip flexor. With Lee out, relative unknowns in Harrison Barnes, and Draymond Green have shouldered the defensive burden, and they have combined with former number one pick Andrew Bogut to make up for the lost offense. Sure Stephen Curry making shots from anywhere on the floor helps too, but defensively Golden State has banded together since Lee’s injury to make it deep into the second round.
- the Bulls got destroyed in Game 1 vs Brooklyn with Noah playing 13 painful minutes. Since then Chicago has gotten 33+ minutes a night from Noah, and have managed to make it to the second round with an almost laughable slew of injuries. Luol Deng and Kirk Heinrich missed Game 6 and Game 7 of the first round and Chicago still came out on top. They wouldn’t have had a chance in hell if Lee was in instead of Noah.
I hope the writers who voted Jamal Crawford second in sixth man of the year watched the Clippers fall to the Grizzlies in the first round. It’s easy (and lazy) to value him over someone like Tony Allen:
Crawford: 17 PPG. 44 FG%. 38 3FG%. 87 FT%.
Allen: 9 PPG. 45 FG%. 13 3FG%. 72 FT%.
While Allen has the slightly better shooting percentage, note that Crawford takes his shots from all over the floor, while Allen can’t consistently make a basket outside of 10 feet. So the skill and efficiency advantage still goes to Crawford.
But, just like the Lee/Noah comparison – Crawford has to be hidden on defense, while Allen can guard point guards up to some small forwards. There’s a reason Crawford has always been known as a “spark off the bench” rather than a reliable rotation player – he can’t stop anyone. Another David Lee parallel – Crawford didn’t make the playoffs until his tenth season.
The most powerful illustration of Allen’s value over Crawford’s came after the first two games of the Clippers/Grizzlies opening round series. Crawford had torched Memphis for 28 points off 50% shooting in Game 1 and Game 2 combined, so Coach Lionel Hollins stuck Allen on him for the rest of the series. From Game 3 on, Crawford could do nothing but hoist ill-advised, contested jumpshots. In Games 3 to 6 Crawford shot 30%, 36% 43% and 0% respectively. Allen even outscored Crawford over that stretch, 48-37. Allen neutralized Crawford, and Memphis won every contest en route to the next round.
The offensive flair and finesse of David Lee and Jamal Crawford is sexy. The grit and grind-it-out style of Joakim Noah and Tony Allen is not. But it’s the wins that count, and it’s no coincidence that the latter two are still competing in the second round, while Crawford’s team is not, and Lee’s absence may be the reason the Warriors are.