By: Zachariah Blott
A decade ago, teams across the league were looking high and low for someone to defend Shaquille O’Neal in order to give themselves a chance at a title. Big centers made careers out of getting signed in order to guard O’Neal, creating the trend where teams would do anything to have multiple big stiffs around to hack him.
Now most coaches are concerned about high-scoring perimeter players who can take it to the rack and bomb it from outside (LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant, Joe Johnson, Brandon Roy, etc.), so a new trend has emerged. Teams will gladly bench a secondary scoring option if it means being able to start someone with the defensive chops to slow these stars down. In fact, a plethora of playoff contenders are currently employing this strategy.
Here are six clubs, three in each conference, who are starting a defensive-minded wing over a better scoring option. Note that three of them are international players and another (Anthony Parker) honed his game overseas for six seasons.
– Arron Afflalo over J.R. Smith
Smith is third on the Nuggets in scoring at 15 points per. Although his shooting percentages are low this year, he’s still an absolutely fearless bomber who’s had more than his share of late-game heroics during his 6-year career. Coming off the bench each night this season, Smith has 9 games of over 20 points, including a 41-point you-can’t-stop-nothing game on Atlanta right before Christmas.
All of this, but Denver still turns to a third-year guy with only two 20-point outings in his career to start. That’s because the 6-5, 215-pound Afflalo is a heady defender (see also: Ben Howland was his college coach for 3 years) with the upper-body strength to handle the obstacle course of multiple screens and push-offs one must endure when guarding a star scorer. He subscribes to the Shane Battier school of thought that it’s better to stay at home and make your man shoot with a hand in his face than to gamble for steals (which often results in uncontested jumpers for the opposition).
Oklahoma City Thunder
– Thabo Sefolosha over James Harden
Harden was drafted third overall last summer because of one thing: his crafty ability to score a lot of points. He’s averaging 10 points per off the bench and has a trio of 20-point contests. For all of the young SG’s scoring talents, though, the Thunder don’t even blink when starting Sefolosha.
The 6-6 Switzerland product has started every OKC game next to Durant, Westbrook, and Green, averaging a lowly 6 points per. His perimeter D on twos and threes is the reason why he’s in the starting lineup. Sefolosha is athletic and intuitive, always in the right position and at the proper angle to make someone think twice about driving or pulling up for a jumper. His wingspan is immense, so he gets his hands all over the ball, registering 1.3 steals (top-25 in the NBA) and 0.7 blocks from the off-guard position. Not surprisingly, the Thunder’s Defensive Rating rocketed from 20th in the league a year ago to 6th currently.
Four more contenders turning to defense-oriented starters after the break…
Los Angeles Lakers
– Ron Artest over Lamar Odom (and Shannon Brown)
Artest is the head case of head cases with bad shot selection, yet the Lakers were tripping all over themselves to sign him after winning the title last year. That’s because even with Odom’s much more dominant rebounding and feel for when a shot should actually leave his hands, and Brown’s recent success as an explosive scorer, Artest can still stop damn near anyone from having a pleasurable night with the ball.
The 6-7, 260-pound GF is cripplingly strong with the intense defensive focus to psychologically destroy anyone who plans on taking him to the hole, getting the ball easily, or moving anywhere without running into a brick wall. He won the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2004 and has been on a few All-Defensive teams, but he still rarely gets his proper due.
– Anthony Parker over Delonte West
It’s tough to not make a gunslinger analogy with West, but the guy has been knocking down 39% of his triples since joining the Cavs. On top of that, he’s got legit PG skills and can use his quickness to get in the lane and to the free-throw line.
Parker, though, was brought in to drape his 6-6, 215-pound frame all over opponents’ top-scoring perimeter players. He only contributes 7 points per as the starting SG, but what he provides in intelligent defense is not lost on most fans (here’s a thread expounding on his value 2 years before LeBron increased his name recognition). The 34-year-old doesn’t have the explosive foot speed to trace Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant everywhere, but he has the will and basketball IQ to make their jobs tough.
– Luc Mbah a Moute over Hakim Warrick
Warrick has been on the verge of a big breakout scoring season for a few years, and he’s expectedly hitting 11 points per off the bench on turnaround jumpers, fastbreak dunks, whatever. He doesn’t have a chance of starting over the 2008 second-round draft pick from Cameroon, however.
The 6-8, 230-pound small forward has made quite an impression in his very short time in the league. Kevin Durant puts Mbah a Moute’s defense right there with Artest’s, which is a huge compliment considering the latter has won a Defensive Player of the Year award and just inked a huge deal with the defending world champions. He’s strong, athletic, singularly dedicated to stopping his man, and one of the key reasons the Bucks’ defense is suddenly so good (7th in the NBA, 30th two seasons ago).
– Mickael Pietrus over J.J. Redick
Redick is scoring 10 per and dropping 41% of threes. He’s finally living up to that promise he had in college, occasionally deciding to wreck another quality team’s chances of winning. And although Redick’s defense is coming along, he’s no Pietrus.
Sure, Pietrus cans a triple or two each game, but this Guadeloupe native’s hallmark is punishing defense. At 6-6, 215 pounds, Pietrus is strong enough to body up many small forwards, and he has the great speed necessary to hang with any shooting guard. He had to stick Andre Iguodala, Paul Pierce, LeBron James, and Kobe Bryant through the 2009 playoffs, which resulted in the Magic nearly pulling off the improbable.
Zachariah Blott cannot recommend Rick Telander’s “Heaven Is A Playground” enough.
Thabo Sefolosha Photo Credit: Icon SMI