Five NBA defenses on the rise in 2013-14
Golden State Warriors: Golden State’s defensive execution came and went last season, but stands to level out with the acquisition of swingman Andre Iguodala and a (hopefully) healthier season from center Andrew Bogut. Both are tremendous team defenders, and in tandem they could provide the foundation of a flexible, high-functioning system. But they’ll have to make up for a few liabilities (guard Stephen Curry and forwards David Lee and Marreese Speights), all while Bogut carries with him a constant risk of injury.
Still, it would be surprising if Golden State didn’t finish in the top 10 in defensive efficiency this season after ranking 13th last season, if only because Iguodala means that much to the Warriors. His arrival gives coach Mark Jackson the ability to rearrange his defenders as necessary, with any of Iguodala, guards Klay Thompson and Toney Douglas and forward Harrison Barnes well-suited to guard a variety of opponents. That’s of particular use in finding an appropriate place to hide Curry in coverage, as Golden State can cross-match its perimeter talent at virtually no cost. Iguodala is also long and athletic enough to provide strong help defense from the wing, which is especially beneficial when the Warriors go small. Lineups featuring Iguodala, Barnes and Bogut in the frontcourt could wind up being surprisingly solid on the defensive end because both forwards balance the coverage with their length and ability to cover ground quickly.
All of which gives Bogut plenty of support and eases his responsibilities as a catch-all help defender. If he’s truly as healthy as advertised, this could be a big year for the Warriors, who are poised to climb the NBA rankings on both sides of the ball.
Houston Rockets: On the surface, adding a presumably healthy Dwight Howard is a monumental defensive get. But Houston’s inclusion on this list has less to do with Howard’s influence on the team’s first-line defense and more with the way his addition reshapes the rest of the rotation.
Center Omer Asik is one of the league’s finest interior defenders, and last season he wiped out as many mistakes and did as much good as could possibly be expected. When he was on the floor, the Rockets defended at a top-10 level, fueling their fast-break attack with frequent stops and quick outlet passes. When Asik sat, Houston was a bottom-five defense that depended on the likes of power forwards Greg Smith and Patrick Patterson (who was traded midseason) to somehow hold things together. Unsurprisingly, they couldn’t; Houston surrendered a greater effective field-goal percentage, more offensive rebounds and more shooting fouls while forcing opponents into fewer turnovers whenever Asik subbed out, creating a stilted defense that wound up ranking 16th in efficiency.
Howard can only do so much to improve on the excellent rotational coverage that Asik already supplied, but with his addition the Rockets have doubled their high-quality center options. Gone are those 18 minutes a night where the interior D is woefully underserved. Houston will be one of a select few teams with the ability to stagger top-flight defensive big men as needed throughout the game, to say nothing of those stretches where both share the floor to completely jam opponents’ play actions. The best defenses in the league often get by with one player of Howard’s or Asik’s capabilities, along with the support of a sturdy complementary big man. The pairing of two premier, active defenders is a phenomenal point of leverage for the Rockets.
All of this gives Howard the benefit of the doubt as far as his health and defensive commitment, but I feel safe in betting on him to have a bounce-back year. Even in lesser form last season with the Lakers, Howard was capable of game-changing defense in the paint, but simply not to the same level we’ve come to expect. He should be positioned to better approximate that previous performance with a full offseason to rest his back and a consistent chance to develop on-court chemistry with his teammates.
New Orleans Pelicans: This pick is of the “can’t get much worse” variety after New Orleans ranked 28th in points allowed per possession last season. None of the Pelicans’ offseason moves are in any way transformative, but there’s enough in the works to suggest some modest improvement.
Jrue Holiday will provide a significant defensive upgrade at the point of attack, replacing Greivis Vasquez’s slow-footed shuffling with length and athleticism. A healthier Eric Gordon could go a long way in shoring up New Orleans’ backcourt defense, too. At his best, he does well to keep up with opponents and challenge their work off the dribble. On top of that, another season of regular minutes and reps will bring second-year big man Anthony Davis closer to fulfilling his immense defensive potential.
All of which is to say that New Orleans should be a better defensive team, though not necessarily a good one. There are still far too many quirks in play for that, between Gordon’s struggles in contesting shots, forward Ryan Anderson’s fundamental flaws, Davis’ being a work in progress and newly acquired swingman Tyreke Evans’ shaky defensive track record. But this season could be a good first step toward defensive solvency for a team still so early in its development.