('88 Record: 31-51)
In football, defense is the name of the game. The past few Super Bowl Champions have all been more noted for a solid defense than for an explosive offense. In baseball, pitching and defense seem to be most important, especially 'in a short series', as they say. But basketball appears to be a bit different. The Lakers and Celtics of this decade have been known for their offensive talents, not for dominant defenses.
There are no Lawrence Taylors or Roger Clemens of basketball, players who can completely control the outcome of a game with defense. The closest basketball has to dominant defensive players are Akeem Olajuwon and Mark Eaton, but their effects are not in the same class as the effects of a Taylor or Clemens. Perhaps when Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain were in the league, there were a few more defensive headliners, but NBA basketball is now a game seemingly controlled by the offense.
If a team is outstanding offensively, what record is it likely to have? In contrast, if a team is outstanding defensively, what record is it likely to have? If a team has a good won/loss record, is it more likely resulting from a strong offense or a strong defense? In a quick check, I looked back on the offensive and defensive ratings since the '81-82 season to try to find some answers to these questions.
Since '81-82, the top five offensive teams each year had a cumulative record of 1877-993, .654. That works out roughly to a 54-28 season. In other words, a team ranking in the top five in offensive efficiency could blindly be expected to win about 54 games in a season.
In contrast, the top five defensive teams each year over the same period had a cumulative record of just 1698-1172, .592, or 49-33 on average for an 82 game season. This indicates that a 'top defensive team' could be expected to win about five fewer games per season than a 'top offensive team'.
Approaching this from the opposite point of view, similar results are found. Since '81-82, the teams with the top five won/loss records were among the top five offenses 24 of 36 times. (The top five won/loss records in '87-88 belonged to six teams as Dallas and Portland tied for fifth with 53-29 records.) Of these same 36 teams, only 13 of them were among the top five defenses of their respective seasons. Overall, these 36 teams averaged 3.3 points per game better than the league average offensively, but only 1.9 points per game better than the league average defensively.
Obviously, the offense seems to be a more important factor than the defense in determining the quality of an NBA team. That's the way it is now at least, though a brief look back to the '73-74 season (when the league average floor % was only .504) indicates that there was a time when defense played the more important part. During that season, the top five offensive teams had a combined record of just 204-206, .498, a losing record. The top five defensive teams went 268-142, .654, a record as good as the top offensive teams of the '80's have had. Similarly, the teams with the top five won/loss records averaged only .44 points per game better than the league average offensively, but 3.64 points per game better than the league average defensively.
There's nothing very mysterious about this offensive dominance in the league now. Players have gotten better offensively by developing more and improved shots. The defensive fundamentals, however, are just about the same now as they were twenty years ago, different primarily just in how often defensive players switch the players being guarded.
Can the defense catch up or will the offense continue to dominate? Will a new coach come up with a revolutionary defense to control the Jordans, Johnsons, and Birds of the league? Will the league fiddle around with the rules, as the NFL so often does, in order to create better balance or is it satisfied with the way things are? Will the playgrounds of America (and the rest of the world?) start producing better defensive players all of a sudden or are the kids of today dreaming only of shooting like Jordan and passing like Magic? Only time will tell the answers to these questions.
The Spurs must think that the NBA is completely dominated by offense because they sure don't play any defense. San Antonio gave up the most points per game last year, 118.5, or over 10 ppg more than the league average. The Spurs also allowed the highest shooting percentage in the league, 50.2%. Their defensive rebounding percentage was easily the lowest in the NBA, .644. Their overall defensive efficiency rating of 110.8 points per 100 possessions was the worst the league has seen since Golden State had a defensive rating of 111.2 in '84-85 and that team was absolutely miserable, blocking 172 fewer shots than Mark Eaton did that year and allowing a 53.6% field goal percentage. San Antonio may have had Alvin Robertson stealing the ball 200+ times from opposing guards, but once it got past him, the Spurs could only pray that their opponents would do something stupid.
The Spurs interior defense was where they got hurt the most. They had no bonafide shot blocker, though Greg Anderson wasn't bad. The frontcourt wasn't particularly short, but it also wasn't very strong and got pushed around a lot under the boards. Frank Brickowski is not a legitimate defensive center because he doesn't have the strength or quickness to block shots or clog the passing lanes. Anderson supposedly got hurt by taller players when he tried to defend them, but he did fine when I saw him. Walter Berry wouldn't play defense because he wasn't a 'fundamental basketball player'. The problem the Spurs had getting defensive rebounds was the whole team's problem, not blocking out and trying to get the fast break before they got the ball.
Things should change in '88-89. The arrival of Larry Brown should mean an overhaul in the defense as Brown has a good sense for problem solving. Unloading Berry to New Jersey is a first step in upgrading the defense though the offense will likely suffer in the future. Brown will probably try to replace Brickowski at a forward spot, possibly with rookie Willie Anderson whose versatility will get him lots of minutes anyway. Anderson's size (6'7") will help his defense when he's playing opposing guards, but he may be hurt when playing opposing forwards. At guard, Robertson is a fine defensive player even though he does sometimes allow easy baskets by going for steals. At the other guard spot, reports say that Johnny Dawkins at 6'2" got posted up and lit up quite a bit last year. Dawkins obviously should not be stuck guarding someone in the post and Brown may force the defense to do more switching to avoid such a situation.
The San Antonio offense finished fourth in the league in points scored, but really wasn't better than average in efficiency. As I mentioned in the point guard ratings, the Spurs had only two regular players who had individual floor %'s better than the team floor %: Dawkins and Mike Mitchell. This is very strange and would indicate to me that the offense is going to decline next year. The team is young enough that its natural improvement may counteract this indicator though. Additionally, coach Brown will also have a positive effect.
The Spurs are still waiting for David Robinson and will likely just be working on improving their skills this season in preparation for Robinson's arrival. If they have a .500 season, they will be in very good shape for the coming seasons and could be a good team in the '90's. The talent is there and a winning coach is in charge. It's hard to bet against them. But if Robertson and the Andersons don't have decent floor %'s this year, the Spurs will disappoint.
Basketball Hoopla, © 1988, L. Dean Oliver