Last night, espn.com’s recap headline for the Lakers/Memphis game read “Kobe led Lakers beat Grizz.” In the game, Kobe led all scorers with 26 points. While I’m not disputing the fact that Mr. Bryant is and has been the unequivocal leader of the men in purple and gold, his scoring is not the only reason why the Lakers won this or any of their games. In that particular contest, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol gathered 15 rebounds apiece and held Pau’s brother to 2 points on 0-9 shooting.
It’s easy for us as fans to focus only on offense because high flying dunks, circus lay-ups, and contested threes are the moments we remember and talk about when the games and seasons are over, and as we get even nerdier with box score dissections, most of what’s easiest to measure are offensive stats because these plays largely are a result of individual successes.
Defense on the other hand is much more difficult to quantify. A center rotating to cut off a driving lane, an expert close-out, a timely double-team, or a flawless switch are mostly subjective distinctions. A defensive player can guard his man perfectly and still watch 35 points fall easily in front of him. The effect of defense is more cumulative and more often the result of how teammates work together (especially now that the zone is no longer illegal) than of how well a single player performs.
I’m not Daryl Morey. I’ve never been inside the Rockets’ team offices or facilities nor have I laid eyes on the specific stats the team collects. But I am a huge nerd for this sport and have tried myself to put numbers to the affect/value of individual players’ contributions on the court, and without question, the sheer volume of available offensive data far exceeds the number and reliability of defensive stats.
Since Morey became the Rockets’ general manager in 2007, the team’s effective acquisitions, players who’ve received at least 10 minutes a game for a season (not including this season), have been as follows: Luis Scola, Aaron Brooks, Carl Landry, Meta World Peace, Trevor Ariza, Von Wafer, Kyle Lowry, David Anderson, Brent Barry, Jordan Hill, Kevin Martin, Brad Miller, Courtney Lee, Patrick Patterson, and Chase Budinger. Among those 15, only four are decidedly good defenders, and 9 of the 15 offer only offensive contributions, actively hurting the team on defense.
This trend is consistent with Houston’s attempted moves as well, from the overnight Chris Bosh courting, to our toothless interest in Carmelo Anthony, to the failed Gasol trade, to the team’s rumored interest in Nene. The Rockets’ front office seems to place significant value on players with high-powered offensive skill sets, regardless of their defensive acumen.
Each consecutive year that Daryl Morey has been the Rockets’ GM, the team’s defense has gotten worse. Houston so far this season has ranked dead last in opponents’ field goal percentage, allowing opposing teams to convert on 49% of their attempts. John Hollinger’s more advanced team defensive efficiency rating places the Rockets second to last, just barely edging out Charlotte.
Decision making in an NBA front office is a complicated process, I’m sure, and many factors must certainly weigh into a team’s philosophy on a small and large scale. When Morey took over the Rockets, Houston had the 3rd stingiest defense in the league and was in desperate need of offensive production from anyone not wearing 1’s on their jerseys. Adelman is an obviously offensively minded coach who must have worked closely with the front office in most, if not all, personnel decisions. The team was built around the expectation that Yao and T-Mac would actually play out their primes, and when they didn’t, their complimentary parts had to become what disparate, broken pieces never can.
I wonder if Morey is like me in that when comparing Carmelo and KG, he might privilege Melo’s spectacular numbers because, like diamonds, they sure do look pretty. But also like diamonds they sure do cost a lot and don’t serve much of a practical purpose.