If you have been a basketball fan for some time, you know that the current NBA is known for soft defense, not holding a candle to the tough defense of years past. You know that the high scoring games we see today are the result of no defense being played. But is that true? Has the defense of today’s NBA taken a fall?
Scoring numbers in the NBA have increased, and with the role of the defense being to stop scoring, it is natural to blame poor defense on high scoring. Whether or not you think the NBA’s defense is worse, there are more reasons than bad defense to attribute to high point totals.
Since the 2011-2012 season, there has been an increase in scoring every year aside from 2014-2015. Coincidentally, the pace has increased every year since 2011-2012, aside from the 2014-2015 season. The math is simple. A faster game means more shots attempted, and more shots made.
The NBA 3PT shot has skyrocketed, since the 2010-2011 season, the number of attempts per game have grown every year, nearly doubling from 18.0 3PA to 34.1 3PA. Again, the math is simple, the more the shot is worth, the more you will score. Statistically, a three-pointer is harder to score, but as players get better at taking that shot, the volume will continue to increase.
But this is not enough to convince me that today’s defense is not bad
The simplest way to determine if a defense is good or bad, is to determine how many shots it allows to be scored. Because pace increases the amount of shots taken, comparing scoring total averages would be misleading. However, compering field-goal percentage would be a more accurate measure.
1980-1989: 48.5 percent
1990-1999: 46.3 percent
2000-2009: 44.9 percent
2010-2020: 45.5 percent
The modern NBA is no worse at defense than their predecessors, the total field-goal percent of the league has not fluctuated much, the game has just changed, opening up scoring for players.
Earlier eras still have defenses that are more physical and more difficult to score on. Rule changes have been designed to allow players to score more. The hand check being abolished in 2004 was met with an immediate increase in nearly every offensive stat. However, a rule change does not alter a defense’s ability, and does not make a defense softer than an earlier generation. That defense is just playing in the set of rules they were given.
If hand checking returned, we would surely see a decrease in scoring. But despite being a sport, the NBA is a business, and their business is entertainment. Fans do not get a rise out of seeing LeBron James being hand checked and forced into a poor mid-range shot. Consumers of the brand love seeing James drive to the basket and capitalize with an exciting dunk. These rules were designed to allow that.
Although many retired NBA players and fans criticize today’s defense, there are no statistics to prove that their defense was distinctively better. An argument can be made that with the set of rules given, today’s defense is better. This debate will never be settled though, as there is no way to prove either argument right.