DENVER — Contrary to all those high-scoring games, players still are playing defense in the NBA.
Seriously, they are.
It's just the task of stopping two-time reigning MVP Nikola Jokic or Luka Doncic or Joel Embiid or anyone else in the league has become more challenging than ever.
Indiana Pacers coach Rick Carlisle may have described the assignment of locking down a premier — or even a reserve — player the best: "It’s a wild, hot mess trying to guard in the NBA now," he said.
A combination of rule changes, style-of-play alterations, the ongoing addiction to the 3-point shot and more have added up to the game being significantly tilted toward the offensive player.
Someone will win “Defensive Player of the Year” this spring, even after a season where no one seems to be able to stop anyone with the ball. It’s almost certain that more players will average 20 points per game than ever before. A decade ago, there were a dozen or so players. This season, 50 isn’t out of the question (there were 27 last season and 31 in 2020-21).
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The NBA will analyze all the variables after the season. But since its sense is fans love scoring, and there’s nothing out there contradicting that stance, a massive swing of the rules pendulum toward helping out defenders doesn’t seem likely.
“For me, a fan, the talent level is just off the charts, and that has a lot to do with what we’re seeing,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in Paris last week. “Of course, the enormous increase in 3-point shooting is going to lead to more scoring, too, especially when these guys, even the big men, shoot 3-point shots as well as they do.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily a case that defense is not being focused on as it once was,” Silver added. “I’ve been around the league long enough to remember when the claim was guys played no defense at all, and so there’s a fair amount of defense played.”
From zone defenses to constant rotations, teams are trying a little bit of everything to slow down offensive stars. Still, the stars shine. In January alone, Cleveland's Donovan Mitchell scored 71 points on Jan. 2; Chicago's Zach LaVine knocked down 11 3-pointers on Jan. 6; and Miami's Jimmy Butler went 23 of 23 from the free throw line on Jan. 10.
Playing defense is harder these days, but not impossible.
“It just requires a real connectedness defensively,” Carlisle explained.
Scoring is up again this season, with teams averaging more points (114.1) than the league has seen at any time in the last half-century. Sacramento leads the way with 120 points per game, with six players averaging 12 or more points.
It's hardly a surprise to longtime NBA veteran Ish Smith that 44 players are currently averaging at least 20 point a game.
“I guarantee you, when I come and show my kids the game in 10 or 15 years, we’re going to be talking about how it might be 100 guys now averaging 20,” cracked Smith, the Nuggets guard who broke into the league in 2010. “It’s just a tribute to guys getting better. Everybody can dribble, shoot, pass — and it makes it difficult.”
Bottom line: The standouts are simply doing what they do best — stand out. Doncic and Embiid lead in points per game (33.6), Jokic in triple-doubles (14), Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in two-point field goals (398) and Buddy Hield in 3-pointers (181).
“The league is in such a great place and people are so into checking out highlights and seeing high scores for entertainment,” said David Adelman, an assistant coach for the Nuggets and son of longtime NBA coach Rick Adelman. “I don’t think the NFL is any different. I mean, it’s hard to be a defensive back these days. That's probably the hardest job in sports, maybe.
“So I don’t see (the NBA) changing it. My son is 9 years old and he loves watching the NBA because we’re scoring 130 points. That’s just the way it is.”
Given rule enforcements designed to allow more freedom of moment in both the post and on the perimeter, it's only natural to expect free throws to be on the rise. There have been an average of 23.8 attempts at the line (through Sunday) this season, which is on pace to be the highest since 2010-11 (24.4).
“Generally, when you look at some of these really, really, explosive individual performances where guys have put up huge numbers, I think you can immediately look at the free throw line. There’s always a correlation,” Chicago coach Billy Donovan explained. “The free throw and the fouling has become a real challenge, because the minute you get your hands on people, those elite scorers know how to manipulate and draw fouls.”
The league has tried to minimize that, at least when it comes to shooters looking to draw contact on flailed 3-pointers. But the NBA knows any rule change or shift always gets countered somehow by smart players, who just find another avenue to get to where they want.
“I remember people were saying, ‘It’s all about dunking and guys can’t shoot.’ Now it’s, ‘They shoot too well. It should be more of an inside game,’” Silver said. “We’ll keep looking at it.”