Defense is not as exciting or as easily understood as offense, and, even though everybody knows it’s important, it’s not discussed nearly as often. Given that the last few NBA champions have overcome long dry spells on offense by playing stifling their opponents in the playoffs, it’s time to change that. Here’s a look at the 2021 offseason, minus offense.
1. Did the Lakers mistake activity for achievement?
If we were to judge the offseason based on who did the most stuff, the Los Angeles Lakers would be clear winners. After the blockbuster Russell Westbrook trade, the Lakers signed Kent Bazemore, Trevor Ariza, Carmelo Anthony, Malik Monk, Kendrick Nunn and Wayne Ellington. They re-reunited with Dwight Howard and will reportedly reunite with Rajon Rondo, too.
In doing all that, they parted ways with most of last season’s roster, including several players who were key cogs in their No. 1-ranked defense. Los Angeles let Alex Caruso walk for the sake of its luxury-tax bill and sent Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma to Washington in the Westbrook trade. Wesley Matthews, meanwhile, remains a free agent.
The Westbrook trade was, uh, not about defense, and neither were most of the moves that followed it. Bazemore and Ariza are the best defenders of the free-agent bunch, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll get the most minutes. Have the Lakers sacrificed their identity? Would they have been better off bringing back the same roster that was 21-6 before Anthony Davis got hurt last season? These are fair questions!
2. Will the Bucks regret letting Tucker walk?
Milwaukee’s defense might not feel the loss of P.J. Tucker in the regular season. He didn’t appear to be all that important to the Bucks last season until their second-round series against the Brooklyn Nets. From that point onward, though, he was indispensable. If they meet the Nets again, they’ll have to throw someone else at Kevin Durant. If they want to go small and switch, who’s next to Giannis Antetokounmpo in the frontcourt?
Maybe Milwaukee’s front office thinks Semi Ojeleye, who could not hold down a spot in Boston’s playoff rotation, can do a decent enough Tucker impression. Maybe it thinks that Jordan Nwora or Thanasis Antetokounmpo will be ready for a real role when the playoffs start. Maybe none of this matters with Giannis and Brook Lopez patrolling the paint, Jrue Holiday at the point of attack, Donte DiVincenzo healthy and George Hill back. If there is a Tucker-sized hole on the roster, though, the Bucks can blame no one but themselves. Like the Lakers with Caruso, they chose luxury-tax savings over a defense-first role player who helped them win a title.
3. Do the young guys fit the Warriors’ defensive formula?
The Warriors ranked fifth in defense last season, and they had the best defense in the league from April 10 onward. That is a 20-game sample, and it is not a coincidence that April 10 is the day that James Wiseman suffered a season-ending injury.
It wasn’t just Wiseman’s absence, though. Down the stretch, Golden State leaned heavily on Kevon Looney, Juan Toscano-Anderson and Kent Bazemore. And from the very beginning of the season, Steve Kerr countered criticism about his rotation by saying he was trying to establish a defensive identity. In retrospect, this was successful.
The challenge now is to integrate Wiseman, No. 7 pick Jonathan Kuminga and No. 14 pick Moses Moody into that defensive identity. Bazemore is gone now, as is Kelly Oubre Jr., another athletic wing. The return of Andre Iguodala should help, and if Klay Thompson can work his way to something approximating his 2019 form over the course of the season and Otto Porter Jr. can move like the 28-year-old he is, then the Warriors will have plenty of versatility and veteran savvy. But there is a lot to balance here.
4. Can the Bulls even be decent defensively?
In Lonzo Ball and Caruso, the Chicago Bulls signed two of the best defensive guards on the market. DeMar DeRozan won’t help their defense, though, and the loss of Thaddeus Young will hurt. The Bulls need Zach LaVine to build on the defensive improvement he showed last season (and in the Olympics), and they need Patrick Williams to take a step forward.
There is reasonable skepticism among the NBA intelligentsia about Chicago’s ability to get stops with LaVine, DeRozan and Vucevic playing heavy minutes. Bulls believers will point out that DeRozan and Vucevic have played on good defensive teams before, and that swapping Lauri Markkanen for Derrick Jones Jr. is a massive upgrade on that end. They’ll also argue that, given how easily this team should be able to put points on the board, Chicago only needs to be average defensively to get into the playoffs.
5. Can the Jazz avoid a repeat of what happened against the Clippers?
The Jazz had a charmed regular season, but their playoff run ended in humiliating fashion. They couldn’t contain the Clippers off the bounce, and they surrendered open shot after open shot when their defense was forced to collapse. Los Angeles was missing its best player, and it didn’t even need to run offense to put Utah in a compromising position.
Did that happen because Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley were playing through injuries, or did it happen because the Jazz simply don’t have enough above-average defenders on the perimeter? If it’s the latter, then there is still a problem — Utah is essentially bringing back the same group of perimeter players, with a couple of tweaks to its frontcourt rotation (Georges Niang, Derrick Favors out; Rudy Gay, Eric Paschall, Hassan Whiteside in).
One thing to watch: How do the Jazz play when three-time DPOY Rudy Gobert is off the court? If Quin Snyder elects to use Rudy Gay and/or Eric Paschall as a smallball 5, they can experiment with different defensive schemes. If Whiteside is the full-time backup, they can’t.
6. Should the Nets be considered a *good* defensive team?
Brooklyn ranked 22nd in defense last season, but it was around league-average for the final three months of the season. While it doesn’t have a bunch of stoppers on the roster, it switched well enough to bog down the eventual-champion Bucks’ offense in the second round. Ideally, the Nets will be able to build on that next season.
James Johnson should give them the same kind of defensive versatility they got from Jeff Green, with a bit more oomph. Newcomer Patty Mills is known mostly for what he can do on the offensive end, but he’s difficult to screen on the perimeter. Jevon Carter likes to pester opposing ball-handlers, too, and DeAndre’ Bembry fits well on a team that likes to switch.
If the Nets are going to make a jump, though, the most important thing might be finding more minutes for the up-and-coming Nicolas Claxton, who has already shown that he’s willing and able to defend just about anybody. It’d help if the team could collectively grab some more defensive rebounds, too.
7. Can the Raptors or Celtics return to the elite?
The Celtics beat the Raptors in an absolute slugfest in the bubble, but then the two teams that ranked fourth and second on defense, respectively, slipped to 13th and 15th. Both of them will hope to be significantly less cursed in 2021-22, and there are basketball reasons to be optimistic, too.
Old friend Al Horford is back in Boston, and with him is his former 76ers teammate Josh Richardson. The Celtics should be much more equipped to withstand injuries this coming season, and I’m personally hoping that they keep Kris Dunn around and just see what happens when he and Marcus Smart share the floor (if Dunn is in 2018-19 form, that is).
Toronto won’t be the same without Kyle Lowry taking charges, but it drafted an unusually mature (and long and strong and quick and smart) rookie in Scottie Barnes and it appears to have fully leaned into its identity as an aggressive, athletic, unpredictable defensive team. Everybody is going to guard everybody. Of course the Raptors signed Isaac Bonga!
8. Can Thibodeau work his magic again?
Tom Thibodeau has done this kind of thing before, but I’m still amazed that the New York Knicks finished fourth on defense in his first season. They’re not going to surprise anyone next year, though, and their new starting backcourt of Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier does not inspire fear in opposing playmakers.
For the Knicks to remain a top-tier defensive team, they’ll need to overcome this shift in personnel with pristine execution. They were extremely disciplined last year, and now the returning players know exactly what Thibodeau wants from Day 1. Having shot-blocker Mitchell Robinson healthy is nice, too.
9. Did the Blazers do what they needed to do?
Portland’s existential crisis is entirely a result of terrible defense, and it has to fix that if it has any hope of keeping Damian Lillard around. The Larry Nance Jr. trade will help, undeniably, but how weird will new coach Chauncey Billups get? Nance’s ability to play smallball 5 gives them lineup and scheme versatility that they never had before.
There is some real addition by subtraction here defensively, too: Carmelo Anthony and Enes Kanter are out of the picture. If Jusuf Nurkic is healthy and moving well, the the Blazers could be much, much better.
10. Will this version of the Pelicans be different?
New Orleans fired its coach again, and now it’s up to Willie Green to try to build a good defense around Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram. A lot of this will come down to whether or not the Pelicans‘ two pillars make progress individually.
The good news is that this team quietly got better defensively throughout Stan Van Gundy’s brief tenure — after the All-Star break, they had the seventh-best defense in the league. (Before the break, they ranked 29th.) New Orleans retained Josh Hart, added Garrett Temple and might have found a gem last season in Naji Marshall.