DENVER (AP) — 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).
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…