On Defense, Youth, Athleticism, the Future of Sabermetrics and Team Culture
“The idea is not to block every shot. The idea is to make your opponent believe that you might block every shot.” — Bill Russell
Zach Lowe’s Grantland piece about video tracking technology is probably the most important thing about the future of basketball you’ll read this week. But it also contains a point of hoops consilience that ties together continuing thoughts I’ve had about the Rockets for several years.
This point revolves around Jonas Valunciunas:
Valanciunas, like most rookies, misses rotations, overhelps, and commits other sins of positioning on defense. Coaches hate that stuff, and they’ve often nailed Valanciunas to the bench in crunch time in favor of Aaron Gray — a fundamentally sound player who lacks NBA athleticism.
The numbers in large part disagree with that tactic, at least as it relates to Valanciunas’s defense. The Raptors’ defense has been better with Valanciunas on the floor. More importantly, the visualization data shows that Valanciunas is active and athletic enough to make up for all his defensive mistakes, Rucker and his team say.
“With Jonas — yeah, he’s making mistakes,” Boyarsky says. “But who cares?
This reveals a conflict that has haunted the Rockets’ interior defense for years–the fact that players who do what the coach demands are not always the players who have the physical tools to affect the game on the defensive end. Below is an excerpt from an email I sent to Rahat Huq in 2010 when the Rockets’ four main bigs were Yao, Brad Miller, Chuck Hayes and Scola. Jordan Hill was struggling to get on the court:
Consider Yao. Let’s say his standing reach is 9’6 ( really have no idea). You know what his max reach is when he’s jumping? 9’6. Then consider his lateral quickness: zero. If I’m Monta Ellis, and Yao is on the weak side, I’m taking it to the hole. I don’t even have to think about it. Let’s say Yao manages a miracle and rotates in front of me. I know that if I can get my floater up to 11′ feet, he’s not touching it. Two points.Now replace Yao with a freak like Josh Smith. Heck, just replace him with Jordan Hill. Every one of those split second decisions that the guard makes has to be reconsidered. Can I drive, or is he quick enough to rotate? I better put an extra foot on this floater…just to make sure. Clank.
Fast forward to 2013, replace Brad Miller with Carlos Delfino, Jordan Hill with Thomas Robinson, and Rick Adelman with Kevin McHale. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Athletes ride the pine while earthbound veterans play, and the team still has a pitiful defense.
Coaches go with players they trust. They give time to guys who understand and buy in to the system. This is why Motiejunas and Robinson sit while Delfino plays (despite D-Mo’s excellent on court/off court numbers). This is why we lost so many excruciating games with Scola finishing as the center last season. Coaches understand that if they value talent over accountability, the result is the 2013 Sacramento Kings, where talents like DeMarcus Cousins and Tyreke Evans go to drown in a pool of their own entitlement. This also means that NBA coaches are constantly trying to teach the lessons of Hickory High School to grown men making millions.
But the NBA is a place where results are more important than process, and this is where I come back to Bill Russell’s idea of defense: “Make your opponent believe that you might block every shot.” Every correct defensive rotation in the world from guys like Carlos Delfino, Luis Scola, David Lee, Aaron Gray and the notoriously short-armed Morris twins can’t make up for the fact that opponents know they can get a shot off without fear of it being blocked. Athletes like Robinson, Valanciunas and Dwight Howard come close to achieving Russell’s idea by virtue of just stepping on the court.
This all boils down to a dilemma for coaches. If in the years to come, video tracking proves that athleticism has a greater impact than “playing the right way” on defense, will coaches be willing to sacrifice accountability for results?
At what point does valuing athleticism destroy team culture?
Royce White V. The Rockets: Round (I stopped counting rounds a long time ago) – From The Huffington Post via The Point Forward, White thinks the Rockets don’t want him around: