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How the NBA Undervalues Defensive Players

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How the NBA Undervalues Defensive Players
(Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)

Aside from the repetitiveness of the adage, team executives really should take the hint. The sad fact is that many NBA front offices have decided that defense is not a top priority. This offense-oriented mindset seems to work for many organizations in the regular season, but falls apart at the seams when the playoffs roll around. Think about it: the Dallas Mavericks lose every year in the early rounds of the postseason, the Sacramento Kings have never managed a finals berth and the Phoenix Suns embarrassed themselves against a Spurs team that never played up to its potential.

NBA general managers need to change their priorities. Doug Christie and Kurt Thomas aren't going to cut it; this is not about making a couple of off-season acquisitions. Front offices must undergo a complete transformation in terms of the ideology and practice of building a roster. The alternative is watching the league's Sisyphuses (see Nash, Nowitzki, Bibby) push more rocks up the mountain.

In this day in age, it is popular to model one's team on a past success. It should be noted, however, that there is no standardized formula for winning an NBA championship. One cannot simply recreate Jordan and Pippen, or Shaq and Kobe. Variables like personality, chemistry, coaching and skill level are unique to each roster. So don't bother imitating, but instead observe and learn.

The modern NBA offense aims to highlight the stars of the team. Coaches can achieve success by running plays for only two or three players. The 1996-98 Bulls looked for Jordan, Pippen or Kukoc on every play, while the 2000-02 Lakers ran their offense almost exclusively through Kobe and Shaq. The current champions depend on Parker, Ginobili and Duncan to create all of the shots, while Bowen and Mohammed serve as offensive role players. These role players assist in running the offense efficiently, as to create scoring opportunities for the stars. While it is important for the Bowens of the league to knock down open shots from time to time, in reality they need to do little more than keep defenses honest.

But in contrast to offensive formations, role players do not exist in a defensive alignment in the NBA. Unlike offense, defenders do not get to choose where and who attack them. Defenses have to be ready for everything. And yes, the league does have more flexible team defensive rules than it did at one time. But this is not college basketball; you cannot hide the weak link. Good coaches will find and exploit a sub-par defender time and time again.

This implies that on an NBA roster, a defensive player is a more valuable commodity than an offensive player. Furthermore, players who are weak on the offensive end but play excellent defense are usually valuable, not harmful, to your team. Examples in recent memory include Dennis Rodman, Ben Wallace and Bruce Bowen. Although watching them shoot free throws may be more painful than a Brian Collins telecast, where would the Bulls, Pistons and Spurs be without their uncanny ability to shut down the league's top offensive players?

The same thing cannot be said for players who are threats on offense, but liabilities on defense. While studs like Wallace and Bowen can be compensated for on the offensive end, little can be done to compensate for someone who cannot, or will not, play any defense. Either NBA executives fail to comprehend the value of a defense specialist, or they're more committed to selling jerseys than winning championships. Perhaps that's why they sign guys like Jamal Crawford as opposed to turning the country upside down in pursuit of the next Bruce Bowen. But if you ask people in the Pistons and Spurs organizations, it's championships, not hotshot players, that really turn the profits. If you want to see the Crawford's of the world, watch the And One mix tapes. They're on ESPN almost every night.

The problem with undervaluing defense-oriented players runs far deeper than roster management. How many kids are being horded by NBA scouts to turn themselves into the next Bruce Bowen? Most likely, not too many. Compared to other NBA players, Bowen is not especially gifted or athletic, but he is a centerpiece to the success of the Spurs. Why? Because as a young player, Bowen spent as much time working on his defensive game as his offensive game. Coaches at all levels should force their players to do the same.

Being a great defender is not an inherited attribute, as players must learn and fine-tune their fundamentals. If you watch Bowen for an entire game, you may find that your initial perception of apathy is soon replaced by the realization that his every move is an achievement of efficiency and excellence. He is always in the right position, always has a hand in the shooters face, and sees every angle on the court. What's more, Bowen uses stoppages on the defensive end to instruct teammates as to what they are doing wrong. He is often seen putting his arms straight up, or shuffling his feet.

Any NBA team in search of a championship would be wise to revamp their scouting efforts toward prospects with abnormal defensive ability and desire. Instead of targeting the flashy athlete who can dunk and shoot threes, why not take a chance on the defensive specialist who might help you win a championship? If management would stop thinking about putting people in the seats in the short run, and start piecing together a better long-term product, they may find themselves both better off financially and in serious contention for the league title. San Antonio prioritizes defense when drafting players, and they seem to be faring quite well attendance wise; Greg Popovich recently drafted Ian Mahinmi, a 6'-10" shot blocker from France with practically no offensive abilities.

To prospective players with visions of becoming the next multi-millionaire star of the NBA, pay more attention to Bruce Bowen and Ben Wallace. The NBA league minimum is just under 400K, and Bowen has a 14.25 million dollar contract. If you follow the money, you will see why practicing your defense pays off. The chances of succeeding in the league as an offensive force are astronomical. Almost every kid in America, not to mention Europe and South America, is trying to do the same thing. If you concentrate on the defensive end of the game, you're competing with a far smaller pool of players, and your odds of making it in the NBA become far greater.

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