The Stoppers


“Defense wins championships”. The saying is as old as the game itself, and for the most part, it’s been true.

The Celtics were a run and gun team that never won anything until they drafted Bill Russell and dominated defensively. NBA fans drool over the 1970’s Knicks with their passing and ball movement, but they really made their money with big stops on the defensive end and led the league in points allowed multiple times. The Showtime Lakers dominated offensively, but their titles were earned on the backs of Michael Cooper and A.C. Green and their ability to slow down elite scorers. Phil Jackson’s Bulls were famous for the triangle offense, but they didn’t win because of their scoring; they won because they could unleash a defensive troika of MJ, Pippen and Grant for the first run and MJ, Pippen and Rodman the second time. While MJ was the greatest scorer in basketball history, the biggest key was the fact that his teams finished in the top-10 in defensive rating every year from 1990-1998. That’s dominance.

Play defense, get rings.

I devoted 1300 words to a few of the great scorers coming off the bench in this years’ playoffs, but the game is played on both ends, and we have no shortage of shutdown defenders either. (Writers’ Note: you have to be a bench guy and play at least 20 minutes per game to qualify)

Bismack Biyombo- Toronto Raptors: 

After playoff failures the last two seasons, the Toronto Raptors came into 2015 with increased pressure to take the elusive ‘next step’ in their progression as a team. There were rumblings that beloved coach Dwayne Casey was on the hot seat, and GM Masai Ujiri has never been shy about making big moves if he thinks they’re necessary. They signaled their intent to go all in with this current roster spending big on DeMarre Carrol and Cory Joseph, extending Jonas Valanciunas and at the very least negotiating with impending free agent DeMar Derozan. There have been several major factors, primarily the step up in performance by Lowry and DeRozan, but often overlooked has been the contribution of former lottery pick, Bismack Biyombo.

A very raw prospect, Biyombo had only 2 years of basketball experience before being drafted, and that lack of experience has shown with his non-existent offensive game and slow learning curve in adjusting to how to play NBA defense. Biyombo was my favorite player in the 2011 draft, not for his ability or potential, but the fact that his name was Bismack Biyombo, he was 6′ 9″ with a 7′ 7″ wingspan and he spoke 5 languages fluently. Unfortunately, intelligence and wingspan don’t translate to offensive ability and Biyombo has yet to average more than 5 points per game in his career. Luckily, those traits do help on the defensive end, and Biyombo has improved markedly over the last 3 seasons, going from the doghouse in Charlotte, to the top-10 in the league in defensive impact. It’s borderline ironic that Biyombo ended up as a supplemental piece to Jonas Valanciunas, as he was viewed as the opposite of Jonas prior to the draft. Valanciunas was and is the polished offensive player, and Biyombo may have an actual allergy to offensive production. I appreciate players who understand their role, and after a shaky start, Bismack Biyombo knows his role, and shuts you down.

Thabo Sefolosha-Atlanta Hawks:

The Atlanta Hawks were the darlings of the NBA last season. With their crisp ball movement and no-stars offense, they were dubbed “Spurs East” and cruised through the season to the number 1 seed and 60 wins. There was a bit of a fool’s gold feeling to their success, but a lot was still expected from them heading toward the postseason. One of the keys to their success was the glut of shooting and solid perimeter defense, with most of the defense coming from Thabo Sefolosha. Unfortunately, he suffered a broken leg in an incident with New York Police on April 9th and was lost for the entire playoffs. At the time of the injury, he boasted the best defensive rating on the team by a considerable margin, and ranks sixth out of 86 qualified small forwards in defensive real plus-minus. The Hawks still snuck through to the Eastern Conference Finals, but they were a different team and were summarily dismissed by the Cavaliers. Don’t get this twisted, Sefolosha’s presence would not have overcome the Cavs dominance, but he was definitely missed.

This season, the Hawks took a big step back in large part due to the league’s ability to adjust from year to year. The shots that were open last year were contested this season and the Atlanta attack suffered. Despite the drop from 6th to 22nd in offensive efficiency, they’ve been able to stay relevant thanks to a dedication to an attacking defensive scheme, prompting a jump up to 2nd in defensive efficiency behind only the Spurs. This credit doesn’t go entirely to Sefolosha, as Paul Millsap and Al Horford also deserve a ton of credit, but Thabo is again  6th in Defensive Real Plus-Minus for Small Forwards and has helped to cover for any inefficiencies from guys like Kyle Korver and Dennis Schroeder. He’s been slightly below average in his ability to hit the three pointer, but the combination of his on-ball defense and ability to switch in pick and roll situations has been beneficial enough that Coach Budenholzer can look past that deficiency. What makes the Atlanta system beaufiul is the way the pieces all fit together: Millsap can’t function without Horford to protect the rim, and Korver can’t put out the effort on offense without Sefolosha to pick up his slack. They really are an example of how to play team basketball, and while Atlanta isn’t a legitimate title contender, it at least makes the Hawks a pesky opponent again in this years playoffs.

Justise Winslow: Miami Heat:

As someone who loathes the Duke Blue Devils and actively roots against the Miami Heat, this selection pains me more than I could ever put into words, but Justise Winslow has been incredible this season. Coming into the draft, scouts had paired Winslow’s size, length, athleticism and NCAA Tourney performance and tabbed him as a potential elite 3 and defense guy in the NBA. On draft night, Winslow’s value spiked so high that the Celtics reportedly offered up to 4 first round draft picks for the opportunity to draft him. After some inexplicable draft decisions (i.e. Kaminsky to Charlotte), he dropped to the Heat at 10th and we confirmed that Pat Riley is indeed Mephistopheles incarnate. With Luol Deng approaching the end, and Dwayne Wade committing less and less to the defensive end, Winslow provided a perfect injection of youth, athleticism and potential stardom.

One of the downsides to having a monster performance in the NCAA Tourney is the unrealistic expectations it brings upon you, and despite Winslow’s hot shooting for Duke, he was and is far from a finished offensive product. He still struggles to find consistency with the mechanics on his jump shot, and his shortcomings were exposed in the rare situations in which he was left to create off the dribble, so he never contributed as much as Miami hoped offensively this season. For some young players, offensive struggles can lead to defensive laziness; fortunately, his freaky left-handed self was still just as focused on the defensive end, and despite being regularly assigned to the toughest offensive match-up, he performed admirably. (10th in defensive real plus minus for Small Forwards) It still remains to be seen whether he’ll ever truly develop a reliable outside jumper, but even if his growth stalls out on that end of the floor, this season showed that he’ll be a key contributor, and the type of guy that good teams always seem to have, for a long time in the league.

Obviously there are dozens of other players who are vital to their teams’ success in this years’ playoffs, but to discuss them all would take more than I feel like writing or you feel like reading. The biggest thing to remember is that while it’s fun to watch Steph Curry launch 30 footers or Lebron carry his team with mind blowing statistical nights, it’s also important to pay attention to the other guys; the scrappy, ballsy, irrationally confident role players that make basketball so much fun.




One Response to “The Stoppers”

  1. lorihome2 Says:

    One of my favorite things about your writing is you don’t your ‘fandom’ interfere with solid analysis. With this piece in particular, I learned some stuff. Like the fact that Toronto has a basketball team (who knew?!?). I’ll write better comments on the non-basketball stuff.

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