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Are Offense and Defense Created Equal in the NBA?

“In basketball, defense is half the game.”

That’s a statement most NBA fans and media members would agree with if they were pressed on it. There are two ends of the floor that teams spend very similar amounts of time on, and one is defense, so it makes sense.

But do people really believe defense is as important as offense when it comes to evaluating individual players?

Not even close.

We’ll look into the specifics of this imbalance, then why it might exist. Finally, we’ll decide whether players’ offensive and defensive abilities should be treated with equal importance.

The Offense/Defense Imbalance Is Painfully Obvious

I could call Kawhi Leonard the NBA’s best two-way player and not be seen as a total moron by most people. The 24-year-old small forward was the 2014-15 Defensive Player of the Year and is also a burgeoning stud on the offensive end with a great mid-range game and nice finishing ability.

However, if I omit “two-way” from that claim and just call Kawhi the NBA’s best player, I become the village idiot. Who in their right mind would take Leonard over the likes of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, and James Harden?

The question is: what makes those two proclamations so different from each other?

The answer is simple—despite what most of us might say, we value offense more than defense when measuring players’ abilities. Adding “two-way” in there is essentially adding the caveat “if offense and defense were valued equally.”

Don’t believe me?

Why do we have the Defensive Player of the Year and All-Defensive Teams, but no Offensive Player of the Year and All-Offensive Teams? It’s because skill on offense is already factored very heavily into the voting for MVP and the All-NBA Teams, more so than defensive skill.

In general, excellent offensive players are automatically considered stars regardless of their defensive abilities, while excellent defensive players must also be at least good on the offensive end to achieve that reputation.

Enes Kanter might be an exception, but surely you get what I’m trying to say here.

To prove this point, we’ll use ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus statistic, a one-stop shop metric that divides nicely between offense and defense.

Below is some enlightening data based on the top 20 players in both offensive and defensive real plus-minus from the 2014-15 season. The salary data used is from Spotrac.
Screen Shot 2015-08-10 at 8.29.21 PM

The numbers are staggering—the top offensive players received much more recognition for their play around All-Star time and after the season, got considerably more playing time and received more than double the salary of their defensive-minded counterparts.

And finally, let’s go a little bit less scientific to make the imbalance clear.

Pretend for a moment every NBA player’s offensive and defensive abilities are scored on a 1-to-10 scale, with a score around 5 or 6 in each category being league-average.

James Harden and Carmelo Anthony, both perennial All-Stars, are extremely talented offensive players, and would score a 10 on offense. However, neither is anywhere close to being a defensive stopper, so they would probably get around a 3 or 4 on that end, resulting in a total score of 13 or 14.

Tony Allen is a bona fide defensive stalwart, so he deserves a 10 in that category. Offense is an adventure for The Grindfather, however, as the athletic swingman struggles to convert baskets away from the rim. We’ll also give him a 3 or 4 there, creating a total tally of 13 or 14.

If you really consider defense to be half the game, you’d just be able to use these total scores as a good estimation of players’ values. Which means you would have to pause when thinking about whether Anthony or Harden is better than Allen.

Which means we clearly don’t value defense as much as offense.

Should Defense and Offense Be Considered Equal?

We’ve established that defense and offense are on different planes in peoples’ minds. But is it justified?

Yes.

While the quality of a single player’s defensive ability can have a huge impact on a team’s success, the quality of that player’s offense swings the pendulum even more. This is a loaded and potentially controversial claim, but one that can be observed via the eye test.

In Games 2 through 6 of this summer’s NBA Finals, LeBron James was the only legitimately good offensive player on the Cleveland Cavaliers. However, the attention he drew from the Golden State Warriors allowed his teammates to get better looks and almost single-handedly kept the series competitive (admittedly, the Cavs’ defense also played a huge part).

Cleveland could choose to milk its superstar for all he was worth by just dumping the ball to him every possession. It’s super cliche, but LeBron made the teammates around him so, so much better.

A transcendent defender like Tony Allen can smother his man like none other, but the opponent still has four other players to use on the court. Said opponent dictates whether the ball goes, and can just choose to use the players Allen isn’t guarding if they prefer to do so.

So there’s definitely a bunch of value in what Allen does, but it’s a lot harder to make your teammates better on defense when your team doesn’t have control over where the ball goes. A great defensive player can provide help for his teammates and can be a great communicator, but actually causing said teammates to defend better just by fulfilling your own duties is tough to do.

On the flip side, a bad or mediocre offensive player can cramp the spacing of an entire team. Rajon Rondo’s arrival in Dallas last December made the Mavericks look like a title contender on paper, but his outside shooting woes caused the team’s offense to take a nosedive.

A bad defensive player, though, can be covered up more easily. Coaches can just have him guard the opposition’s worst offensive guy and pat themselves on the back for making the best of that situation.

All that to say, it’s no wonder ‘Melo and Harden get more respect than Tony Allen—it’s because their offense has more positive impact on their team than Allen’s defense, and their defensive shortcomings aren’t as detrimental as Allen’s offensive pratfalls.

Jan. 11, 2015 - Memphis, TN, USA - Memphis Grizzlies' Tony Allen defends Phoenix Suns' Isaiah Thomas, forcing a turnover, during double overtime on Sunday, Jan. 11, 2015, at FedExForum in Memphis, Tenn

Sometimes all it takes is extra effort to stand out on defense.

Additionally, good defense is a lot more tied to sheer effort than good offense is.

While athleticism and knowledge of basketball fundamentals also come into play on the less glamorous end of the floor, relentlessness is usually the key attribute of an elite defender.

On offense, great players can’t rely purely on relentlessness. It’s much more than a mindset on the offensive end—it’s about skill. Kyle Korver has worked tirelessly behind the scenes to perfect his picturesque three-point stroke. DeAndre Jordan couldn’t just flip the proverbial switch and suddenly become a great three-point shooter.

But with defense, most below-average stoppers are that way merely because they don’t try. Any individual NBA player could be at least capable on defense if he merely dedicated more energy to that end of the floor during games.

We revere offensive-minded players more than their defensive-minded counterparts because they have more potential to impact a game, and also because they have already acquired skill on the end of the floor that is less tied to effort.

Conclusion

Defense is technically half the game, and when determining the strength of a team, it should be treated as such.

Bleacher Report’s Adam Fromal penned an excellent piece last fall that attempted to answer the question, “Does defense really win championships?” After analyzing a bunch of data, he found that defensive- and offensive-minded squads were almost equally likely to win the NBA title.

But when looking at players, we need to change our mindset. Offensive skills do trump defensive skills.

There’s a reason offensive stars get more love—they’ve spent the time and effort to acquire amazing skills, and they draw tons of attention from their opponents because of those skills. And even if they aren’t usually defensive stalwarts, they can pick up their effort in key games or moments to help their team.

Defensive stars also worked hard to get where they are, but their forte is something most players could also achieve if they really wanted it. On offense, they can’t just suddenly become improve a whole bunch just by trying harder on that end in games.

In conclusion, defense needs to be factored significantly into the equation when valuing players. The ability to make opponents’ shots and drives tougher and also force turnovers is important.

But it shouldn’t be worth as much as offense.

If you do insist defense should be worth as much as offense when judging players, go right ahead. Just be ready for some serious ridicule when your list of top 50 NBA players doesn’t include Harden or ‘Melo.

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