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In Defense of Defense (No Offense to Offense)

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Chicago Bulls Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

One of my favorite signs at basketball games is D-Fence. I love a good pun and it fits in nicely to its associated chant (D-Fence, clap clap clap). Thanks to the quirks of the English language, we throw an F into the first syllable of offense, leaving O-Fence signs to be grammatically offensive. As a result, basketball games feature fans chants for defense, not offense.

However, that might be the only domain in which defense has the upper hand. In almost every other aspect of the sport, offense reigns supreme. I’ll review two recent examples that piqued this piece before wildly speculating on reasons for this (possibly legitimate?) favoritism.

The first example that comes to mind (and the one that birthed this article - thanks Dad) is the MVP race. Giannis, Jokic, and Embiid are unquestionably the top three contenders for the award, even if some of our staff pettily disagree. Jokic is the front-runner because he has had a historic offensive season - on offense. Embiid has been carrying his team offensively through the (perpetually?) choppy waters of Philly. Giannis is Giannis.

But defensively? Jokic has significantly improved defensively and is above-average. Embiid is a very good defender, evidenced by his three appearances on the All-NBA Defensive Second Team (not to mention being the Big 12 DPOY in 2014, for what it’s worth). But Giannis is Giannis! He is a perennial contender for DPOY and a mainstay on the first team.

The MVP vote is many things, but it is not about playing good defense. It is about playing good offense in a way that is not overshadowed by how one plays defense. Through that lens, because Jokic is not a bad defender, he will likely with the award. In an alternate reality that foregrounded defense, Giannis would win because his offense isn’t a drag (!) on his stellar defensive performance.

Another example is the current series against the Bulls. When the Bulls assembled their three-headed monster, they followed the IKEA instructions for offense, not defense. With DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine, and Nikola Vucevic, the Bulls would have no trouble stuffing the stat sheet on the offensive side of the ball. Instead, the trouble would come on the other end of the court. Indeed, it takes a blink of an eye at said stat sheet to see that their defense has left little to be desired.

Let’s assume that DeRozan, LaVine, and Vooch are equivalent to Giannis, Khris, and Jrue offensively. Even under this (incredible) assumption, we are left comparing these Big Threes defensively. For the Bucks, we have a DPOY and three-time first team selection, an admittedly average defender, and two-time first team selection described by moderately reputable sources as the best defender in the NBA. For the Bulls... Um? I don’t even know if average is on the table.

Despite that blindsidingly obvious asymmetry, the Bulls were dubbed by many to be contenders. Part of this was because Chicago is a large media market, but the general fixation on offense was undoubtedly a contributing factor. Unfortunately, it turns out that defense is important. DeRozan can’t hit game winners when they are down by 30.

Now we arrive at the fun, thinky-thinky part: Why? Why do we focus on offense over defense?

My first idea stems from the famous invisible gorilla test for inattentional blindness. You can watch it here if you’re not familiar. In the test, you are instructed to watch the players pass around a basketball (coincidence? I think not!). While the players are passing the ball, a gorilla comes on screen, beats its chest, and then walks off. A surprising number of people do not see the gorilla - at least until the test gained fame and everyone came to expect gorillas to appear willy-nilly in psychological studies.

The parallel is that, when we watch basketball, we focus on the basketball. As a result, we are more likely to pay attention to players on offense: those that hold the ball and may be passed the ball. In turn, we place more value on offense. A gorilla might stroll onto the court and provide excellent weak side coverage, but we wouldn’t even notice.

Next, let’s play a game: off the top of your head, how many offensive statistics can you name? Now, how many defensive statistics can you name? Comparing the two lists likely reveals more answers to the first question. This is reflected in box scores, intrigue about the scoring title but not the steals title, and so on. By virtue of offensive players being more directly associated with putting the ball in the hoop - the main metric of the sport - we simply have more offensive statistics that are readily understood by the hoi polloi (myself included).

Indeed, we often pay attention to - and value - what we can easily quantify. This is true in basketball, but also across domains. One example is education. Why test Timmy Toddler on his ability to construct sentences with commas when I can see if he can correctly identify where the comma should go in an existing sentence? In education, basketball, and elsewhere, we often develop statistics, like test scores or scoring ability, to understand underlying phenomena, like how well a student learns or a team plays. We then evaluate students and teams on those criteria. But over time, these means turn into ends. We value test scores and scoring ability in and of themselves without dwelling on whether they are connected to what were interested in quantifying in the first place, leaving the cart before the horse.

Offense is also sexier! SportsCenter’s Top Ten showcases game-winning shots and ferocious dunks more often than impressive blocks and... what else, exactly? (The Steal notwithstanding?) The NBA is an entertainment business more than a sporting enterprise, and sex sells. Paradoxically, James Harden illustrates this discrepancy perfectly. He ends up in highlights for his audacious step-back threes and for being bad at defense. I’ve probably seen more compilations of Harden being bad at defense than I have seen videos of good defense (mostly Adam’s excellent selections, a recent binge into Jevon Carter’s body of work, and what in my humble opinion is the greatest video of all time).

Finally, I wonder if offense is actually overvalued fairly to the extent that a transcendent offensive player can impact a game more than a transcendent defensive player. I’ll use Giannis as an example. Offensively, it it hard to deter Giannis. If you single or even double team him, he will probably run right through you. If you triple team him, then you’re leaving two unmarked guys in the dunker spot or the perimeter. Defensively, Giannis is good as an on-ball defender and great as a weak side safety, but opposing offenses can try to navigate around his presence. This limits what they are able to do, but still leaves them with options.

Yet, even this point may reflect the biases pointed out above. Seeing Giannis lurking and crouched on defense doesn’t inspire the same sort of fear (to me, at least) as Giannis streaking gazelle-like up the court ball in hand.

There are many reasons that defense gets overlooked in favor of offense. I’ve offered some initial thoughts here, but I would love to hear additional perspectives in the comments. At the very least, I hope to have inspired you to continuing chanting D-Fence; indeed, it might be the only place where defense gets its dues.