January 13, 2014 • DefenseFrom the BenchOffenseWinning Hoops

Offense or defense: What gives teams the best chance to win?

“Offense sells tickets, defense wins championships.”

How many times have you seen that line on the back of a summer camp T-shirt? NBA world champion and TNT analyst Kenny Smith is the first person I heard say, “Good offense will always beat good defense.”

Which statement is more accurate?

Photo: Keith Allison

Depending on which side of the fence you fall on determines a major component of your coaching philosophy. As a coach, it is impossible to emphasize every aspect of the game. High school coaches must battle information overload and physical limitations, and college coaches have time constraints on the number of hours they can practice. NBA coaches have their own set of obstacles to deal with; the length of the season and the amount of travel being two of the most formidable issues.

As a result, coaches at all levels must prioritize the concepts they wish to emphasize. What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the name Phil Jackson? How about Rick Pitino? Tom Thibodeau? If you said the Triangle Offense for Jackson and a pressing/trapping style of defense for Pitino, very few savvy basketball fans would argue with you.

Thibodeau is considered to be the ultimate defensive minded coach, and his Chicago Bulls teams were always near the top of the rankings in every meaningful defensive category. These areas of the game are the foundation of these particular coaches’ philosophies.

These are the areas of the game that they will focus on during practices, and these are the areas that they wish to excel at in games. Are you an offensive- or defensive-minded coach? Does emphasizing one or the other increase your chances of winning a championship? The purpose of this article is to help you formulate your own coaching philosophy by analyzing the uniqueness of this team sport and take a closer look at both sides of the floor to determine which end is the most important.

I believe basketball is the most challenging team sport to play. I won’t argue that hitting a baseball isn’t difficult, and I am not denying the physical nature of football and hockey. But what makes basketball such a difficult game to play is that all athletes must play both ends of the floor.

Transitioning from offense to defense, or vice versa, takes place in a matter of seconds. This transition is challenging because the skill set and mentality that each end of the floor requires is dramatically different.

Defensive focus

Consider some of the best defenders in the NBA. Many are long, strong, mobile, agile and have a take-no-prisoners attitude. They have a great motor and exert a tremendous amount of energy. They never take a possession off and take on all challengers, regardless of what their opponent’s offensive abilities or reputation may be.

A great defender may have an elite skill, like shot blocking, or may be able to guard multiple positions. But more than anything, great defenders have a certain mentality. They refuse to get screened, challenge every shot, go after every rebound and take it as personal insult when the person they’re guarding scores.

The intensity and effort that is required to be a great defender cannot be overlooked. Most great defenders play with a chip on their shoulder. The winner of the annual NBA Defensive Player of the Year award illustrates the aforementioned characteristics. Joakim Noah, Marc Gasol, Tyson Chandler, Dwight Howard, Kevin Garnett, Marcus Camby, Ben Wallace and Ron Artest represent the last 15 winners of this award. Dikembe Mutombo won this award four times, and Artest was a two-time recipient.

None of these guys are considered great offensive players. Tony Allen and Rajon Rondo have been mainstays on the NBA All­-Defensive teams and are examples of being great defenders and average offensive players.

Offensive focus

In order to be a great offensive player, one must have patience, touch and the ability to play at different speeds. Offense is about timing and rhythm. Defense is about intensity and effort, and this is the irony of basketball. Once you cross that half­court line, your attitude must change and your skillset must adapt accordingly. Using a teammates screen to free yourself for a shot is very different than fighting through a screen on the defensive side of the floor to prevent an entry pass to the man you’re guarding.

Shooting 20-foot jump shots requires a different skill-set than blocking out your opponent as they chase down a rebound. It is because of this contradiction that very few players excel on both ends of the floor.

Of course, there are exceptions to every theory. Lebron James, Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan consistently make the NBA All­-Defensive team. The common denominator with these players is that they are all superstars and Hall of Fame caliber players. That is what makes them great; they dominate on both ends of the court.

Considering what’s best

Let’s assume you are not lucky enough to have a superstar on your team and you are coaching at a level where winning is important. If you look at NFL head coaches, the majority of them were either offensive or defensive coordinators at some point in their careers. When they become the head coach, they typically emphasize the side of the ball from their coordinator days.

As a basketball coach, consider which side of the ball you want to emphasize. Does the best offensive team in the NBA win championships, or does the best defensive team regularly achieve that success?

In this day and age of analytics and sabermetrics, I have chosen to look at only four team statistics, two on each side of the ball: offensive field goal percentage, points scored per game, defensive field goal percentage and points allowed per game. If we look at the last 10 NBA champions, it is worth noting that six times the championship team was statistically better on the defensive side of the court, while four times the champion was superior on the offensive side of the ball.

I am only going back 10 years because the 2004-­05 season was the first with the hand­-check rule. The implementation, or the new interpretation, of this rule most certainly gave the offensive player an advantage that players prior to that season did not have. Essentially, I wanted to compare apples to apples.

It is also worth noting that, statistically speaking, the best defensive team in the NBA over the past 10 years has only won the championship three times: The 2005 and 2007 San Antonio Spurs and the 2008 Boston Celtics.

If you look at the 2008 Celtics roster, you see that Garnett, Rondo and Allen were all part of that team, Thibodeaux was the assistant coach. Does it really come as a surprise that they led the league in several defensive categories?

Conversely, the best offensive team in the league has captured two titles during this time: The 2006 and 2013 Miami Heat.

Most would agree that what the Spurs have accomplished over the last 16 years is remarkable. They have 15 consecutive seasons of 50 or more wins and five championships.

Here is how they have ranked among NBA teams over the past 10 seasons in our four statistical categories:

  • Points per game rank: 13.3
  • Offensive field goal percentage rank: 5.9
  • Point per game allowed rank: 5.5
  • Defensive field goal percentage rank: 5.2

The Spurs have been unbelievably consistent on both ends of the floor. They have essentially been in the top five in three major statistical categories.

I believe this point emphasizes how difficult basketball can be. You cannot win championships by merely dominating one side of the ball like you can in football. There have been several Super Bowl champions that had dominating defenses and unimpressive offenses. The 1985 Chicago Bears and the 2001 Baltimore Ravens are two examples of this.

In basketball, if you cannot score on a regular basis it does you no good to stop the opponent on consecutive possessions. The opposite is also true.

I thought my research would reveal that honing in on one side of the ball was going to dramatically improve your chances of winning, but that wasn’t the case. Balance is key.

Spend equal amounts of time developing your team’s offensive skills while at the same time instilling the necessary physicality and toughness that is required on the defensive side of the ball.

Your roster must also contain balance. For every defensive stopper, make sure you have somebody who can make shots. This balance of offense and defense should give you the best chance of capturing a championship.