The most important strategic development in professional basketball over the past ten years is Tom Thibodeau’s strong side half court pressure defense (working title). No other single innovation has had a greater impact on how the NBA’s elite teams play. Last season the Heat, Celtics, Bulls, Lakers and even Mavericks all deployed some semblance of the principles that transformed the NBA and made mobile power forwards and centers without any real offensive skills more valuable than ever before.
The essential principal is that every ball screen and every drive should be forced to the baseline; this often referred to as “downing” a ballhandler. Ideally, waiting on the baseline is a big man who stands all the way outside of the paint–as opposed to under the basket–to cut off passing and driving angles (the new zone rules, which don’t require that each defensive player be guarding someone, help make this technique possible). Off ball defenders occupy the passing lanes to make ball reversals more difficult.
The idea, one common in most man-to-man defensive systems, is to prevent the ball from switching sides of the court and to smother anything that goes baseline, which is exactly where the entire weight of the defense forces the action.
Of course the Thibodeau philosophy is much more complicated than a few sentences could ever express–after all the man uses measuring tape to make sure that his team is in inch-perfect position at all times. But while only Thibodeau knows all the lines and subtle shades of his system, just about any team with the will can approximate a rough outline.
Take the Houston Rockets, who are dead last in defensive efficiency this season. The Rockets rotten ranking belies roster full of bright players, and in the clip below you can see a distinct lack of the aimless thrashing that characterizes bottom feeders like the Washington Wizards.
Watch the Rockets defend the same San Antonio play on consecutive possessions. The first time down, the Rockets hustle but Tim Duncan eventually gets the ball in his sweet spot.
In the second possession, the Rockets go into full-on Thibodeau mode. The difference isn’t the amount effort, but where it is applied. Kevin Martin jumps the cut of Spurs guard James Anderson to prevent a ball reversal and Sam Dalembert shifts his position from under the basket to the strongside block. The result is that Duncan can’t receive a post entry, and Tony Parker is forced baseline where the Rockets can cut him off and Kyle Lowry strips the ball.
The Rocket’s second stop is by no means a perfect possession. If Lowry doesn’t get his hands on the ball, it’s not clear that Scola would have been there in time to bother Parker’s patented floater. But it is a good possession, in large part because the Rockets made an adjustment to anticipate the Spurs action.
The adjustment: play more like a Tom Thibodeau defense.