At 6’3 and 190 pounds, Joe Dumars was one of the greatest defensive players of all time. He could and did check every shooting guard and point guard from the mid ‘80s to early ‘90s (and that meant something, since that era was overflowing with dominant 2-guards). Dumars was the only dude who could keep Jordan from pressing the megaton bomb button. MJ might mess around and get 27 on him but he was clowning on other guys for 40. Dumars' game was cerebral, but he had the lateral quickness too, so players were never able to consistently blow past him. He was also deceptively strong and put his body on anyone who tried to take him to the hole.
The takeaway here is that Joey D’s whole style was prestigious. His greatness had to be acknowledged whether you wanted to or not. But if he played in this era, he’d get his spot blown seven days a week and twice on Sundays.
The last backcourt player to win the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award was Gary Payton, back in the PlayStation 2 days of 1996. Since then, we’ve seen a parade of power forwards and centers lock down the award (Ben Wallace has four himself). But that’s about to change real soon, maybe immediately.
The transition has already started. As the game has shifted to the perimeter, frontcourt players’ defensive responsibilities have changed as well. Guys have to defend out on the lonely wings, isolated in do-or-die moments with cats like Russell Westbrook that can jump outta third story windows, if they choose to. If you’ve somehow pulled the short straw in your athletic life, hiding it has become increasingly problematic. Players and fans are well aware of this fact.
Please bear witness, all bootleg NBA general managers and such: If you’re not employing one of these hyper-athletic perimeter defenders, then your job status is officially on hourglass status. You might not yet know it, but you are a Chief Keef in an increasingly Kendrick Lamar world.
Natural selection has manifested itself in a very specific way in regards to the wing defender. Much in the way that offensive minded 2-guards and small forwards have skipped a few rungs up the athleticism ladder in this generation, defensive players have as well. There used to be a time in the league where the “defensive stopper” was the one guy who had the most limited offensive game.
Dudes like Doug Christie and Bruce Bowen (his identification isn’t meant to come off as disparaging btw, Bowen had a great career and got every single drop out of his talent.) would be assigned to cover the other team’s freak show offensive talent. These guys were perfect for their roles. Defensive stoppers have the quickness, sure, but it didn’t matter if they tired themselves out since they don’t score, anyway. What they were required to do only asked of them a few degrees of above average ability. This talent was deemed something one could learn in order to stay in the league. You didn’t have to be multi-talented per se.
These guys – like Michael Cooper, Dan Majerle, John Stockton, late-90s Ron Harper – weren’t super athletic, but were world class defenders. Others could stay in the league just playing hardnosed defense. It was a mind over matter thing. Now, it doesn’t exist.
One of the reasons why the ‘90s Bulls were so good had a lot to do with their perimeter defense. In fact, other than Jordan’s outlandish ability, if you needed a bucket – like really needed a crunch time score – you weren’t getting it. MJ and Scottie Pippen formed the greatest defensive perimeter tandem the game has ever known (and I’m not even including Dennis Rodman or Ron Harper in this). Well now, basically, having a Pippen-type is a prerequisite for legitimacy. Look at the contenders’ rosters, these days, and you see Avery Bradley and Tony Allen and Thabo Sefolosha and LeBron James, etc.
The main reason why defensive specialists have become so important is the fact that NBA rules now make it impossible to guard anyone. When hand-checking was banned in '94, that took away the ability for a just average athlete to stay with a guy. Anyone who plays ball can tell you, being able to keep your hands on an opponent and impede his progress is necessary, if you’re gonna stay with a dude that’s quicker than you.
Because offensive players have become so stylized – so uber-everything – teams just can’t get buy with having only “solid” wing defenders. You have to have a specialist and that person needs to be within range athletically of whatever offensive player he’s expected to guard.
Somebody has to check Kevin Durant and Lebron James. For the next X amount of years, you’re not getting past the Heat or OKC without a legitimate guy that can matchup with them. You just can’t hide that weakness anymore. Here's Memphis Grizzlies guard Tony Allen on the 2012 requirements of a wing defender.
From Sports Illustrated:
Name all the guards I have to defend throughout the league and name all the centers, and tell me whose job is the toughest. A guard has to defend a prolific scorer every night. They come off pin-down screens, double screens, they go on pick-and-rolls — there are so many different things a guard has to defend every night.
For clarity’s sake, here are things that are no longer as important as having a great perimeter defender.
· You don’t have a big man on the block? Whatever, you can get by. There aren’t that many back to the basket players anymore, anyway.
· Your team lacks a three-point specialist? Not ideal, but you can get by. Look at the Sixers last year.
· Your shooting guard averages less than 20 points per game? Yeah, and? Name five that do?
But if you’re not rocking with one of these futuristic defenders, you’re getting bounced early every year. Why do you think the Nuggets went so hard after Andre Iguodala? They can score, and have been able to score as a team for several seasons now. But every year with them it’s the same song. We drop 100, our opponents drop 107. Good night and good luck. As the season progresses, getting Iguodala will start to pay dividends and his presence should normalize the team and bring them up to standard.
For my money, the best defensive wing player in the game today (not counting James) remains Allen. He detonates on dudes and disrupts game plans with equal part talent and glee. Dude seems genuinely happy knowing that he can take over games at will. Whether Memphis has enough to go deep in the playoffs remains to be seen, but if they do, he’ll certainly be a part of that. He’s as vital to them as any dude they have on the roster. The league is littered with guys like this — when Iman Shumpert returns, dismissing the Knicks will cease as option and Paul George is basically Tracy McGrady in defensive reverse.
We’ve been bombarded with talk about offensive systems for the last few weeks now (ahem Lakers), but none of it is gonna matter at the end of the day. Suspect perimeter defenders are a dying breed. If your squad doesn’t employ a stopper, well, then you might wanna send your team prez or GM an email. Matter of fact, send him a snail mail. Then he’ll understand.