From the Archives: At WSJ on NBA Defense





How NBA Defenses Got Turned Inside Out

protecting the rim—now defense in the pros is all about guarding the perimeter

Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry, right, blocks J.J. Redick of the Los Angeles Clippers during the playoffs last season.

Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry, right, blocks J.J. Redick of the Los Angeles Clippers during the playoffs last season. Photo: USA Today Sports/Reuters

For generations, the key to playing great team defense in the NBA was simple: having a great center.

From Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Hakeem Olajuwon, fearsome big men were almost always at the heart of the best defenses. This made intuitive sense: The better a team is at protecting its basket, the better its defense should be.

Today’s NBA, though, is turning this basic understanding on its head. Now good defense is no longer mainly about guarding the rim. It’s about guarding 23 feet or so away from it.

Stopping the three-point shot has become the paramount defensive objective in the NBA. Offenses are launching them in unprecedented volume, which is forcing defenses to focus on preventing them, and changing how defenses are built.

This season, entering Sunday, the top defensive teams in the league based on points allowed per possession were the Golden State Warriors, Milwaukee Bucks, Houston Rockets and Atlanta Hawks. Each of these teams either lack a dominant rim protector or they start a center who has missed a significant part of the season because of injuries.

What they do have is the ability to harass three-point shooters. In the NBA, the teams that allow the lowest three-point shooting percentage have become a reflection of the league’s overall defensive ratings. The top four teams in three-point defense entering Sunday were Houston, the Portland Trail Blazers, Golden State and Milwaukee. (Portland ranks sixth overall.)

Meanwhile, the three worst defenses this season—the New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves—were among the worst at three-point defense.

In other words, stop the three, and you have an excellent chance of stopping your opponent. It is the latest reflection of how shots from long range have revolutionized the sport.

“It’s the biggest change in the game in a generation,” said Jeff Van Gundy, a former New York Knicks and Houston Rockets coach who is now an analyst for ESPN and ABC. “It used to be that you wanted to get an open 15-foot jump shot. Now that’s what defenses will concede because everyone wants to shoot threes.”

“It has completely changed the way players are valued on the market,” said John Hollinger, the Memphis Grizzlies’ vice president of basketball operations. “Now we put a premium on length and basketball IQ.”

It’s the biggest change in the game in a generation.

—Former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy on the reliance on the three-point shot

The three-point shot was introduced in the 1979-80 season, but it took a long time to catch on as a weapon. During that first year, Atlanta made 13 three-pointers the whole season. The next season, they made 10.

Usage of the three slowly grew, then jumped in the 1994-95 season, when the three-point line—initially 23 feet 9 inches from the front of the rim, 22 feet in the corners—was moved to 22 feet uniformly. The league returned it to its original length in 1997 and has left it there. But after an initial decline, reliance on the shot has grown, in part because it has been found to be more efficient than the mid-range shot.

Now the average team is taking 26.8% of its shots from three-point range, up from last year’s 26%, which was an all-time high. As Van Gundy said, teams used to have only one or two capable shooters on the court at once; now teams can deploy four or even five.

“It’s made defense in the NBA much more team-oriented,” said Blazers coach Terry Stotts. “You can’t game-plan to isolate against one guy; you have to defend the entire court.”

Stopping the three was one of Stotts’s points of emphasis when he took over the Blazers before the 2012-13 season. It has driven their rise from 21st in defensive rating during his first season to the league’s upper echelon this season. Stotts said the primary strategy was keeping the ball on one side of the floor, rotating back into the paint to stop drives and forcing long-distance two-point shots. “We want to be in position to contest as many threes as possible,” he said.

Milwaukee Bucks swingman Jared Dudley played last season for the Los Angeles Clippers, the team that led the NBA in opponents’ three-point percentage. He contrasted what the Bucks do versus what the Clippers did. “With the Clippers, we were determined to run shooters off the line”—that is, prevent threes from being taken—“but sometimes that allowed them to drive to the hoop,” he said.

He said the Bucks’ approach is more comprehensive. In addition to running shooters off the three point line, the Bucks try to force ballhandlers toward the baseline, where the passing angles are more severe. Or they force shooters to dribble the ball toward a help defender, frequently long-armed forward Giannis Antetokounmpo or center John Henson.

A lot of three-point attempts nowadays occur on fast breaks when defenses are scrambling to locate and guard opposing players, so the Bucks make transition defense—getting three or four players to the defensive end as quickly as possible—a point of emphasis.

“It takes a lot of communication,” Dudley said. “You’ll always hear us talking to each other about what’s going on on the floor.”

All of that said, experts see an eventual leveling off in the league’s infatuation with the three. For one, defenses are catching up: The leaguewide three-point percentage is down to .348 from .360 last season.

Van Gundy sees a more imminent change. “I think you’ll see a difference in the playoffs,” he said. “Teams won’t want to risk an off night where they shoot 7 for 34 from three and cost themselves a home playoff game.”


About jmartin437

I've worked in and around the world of high end cheese for 27 years. I've been everything from a department manager who hired and fired and trained staffs to a weekend warrior who shows up ties on an apron the middle of a rush and talks to customers and cleans up the place. I enjoy it all, and I especially like my current situation conducting informal seminars about cheese at area bars and in class at the 92nd St. Y. The current schedule is always up at In addition I conduct private events that are perfect to lead off birthday parties for foodies and sommeliers and also they make great entertainment for corporate team building events and associates meetings at law firms. In addition, I've been a freelance journalist for 27 years. Currently my profiles of leading musicians and filmmakers appear in the Wall Street Journal and I also wrote about sports for the Root, and for five loooong years, which included the entirety of the Isiah Thomas Knicks era, I wrote about the NBA for the New York Sun. I enjoyed writing about basketball so much that I now do it here at rotations for free.
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