The ’98 Finals and 4 Categories of Defense

payton vs jordan

I found myself watching the 1998 Finals last night. Game 6 was on, Bulls versus Jazz, “The Shot,” you know the one. Karl Malone and Dennis Rodman were mixing shoulder bumps with hip checks, Jordan was scoring tons of points, nothing else was on, and since my journey to catch up on 5 seasons of Breaking Bad in as many weeks was complete (just in time for an epic episode), I figured there was nothing better to do.

Holy cow, the game has changed in the past decade and a half.

For what seemed like entire quarters, every set in that game was fixated on the post. It didn’t matter if it was Malone on the Jazz or — when Stockton was matched on him — Ron Harper on the Bulls. Everything, aside from MJ-does-it-all plays was revolving around hammering the ball inside for a wrestling match on the block.

With this retro viewing experience fresh in mind, I think there are four general categories of defensive game style:

First is the All-Star Game, “nobody gets hurt, nobody works too hard” style. An alarming percentage of grey-haired Big Ten college basketball fans believe that this is the current NBA norm. (Eds note: To be fair, these gents may have tuned into the 70s ABA, and swore off pro hoops forever.)

Second is the *real* modern NBA defense. Very little hand-checking on the perimeter, and a premium placed on effort, mobility, and help schemes. Quick feet are usually a must, given the tight restrictions on clutch-and-grab tactics that have made pick-and-roll sets so common and effective against slower defenders.

Third is the way most levels of college basketball are officiated. I’m talking about the Big Ten, and yes, even the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. Most NCAA leagues allow a pretty ridiculous amount of shoving and grabbing on the perimeter — provided the defender makes enough grunts and other funny noises, and is slapping the floor at the appropriate times. Basically, intensity trumps all. It often leads to ugly offense, unless the tempo stays up. (See The ACC for the better part of the last three decades as a notable exception.)

Fourth is common to chippy pickup games, and it’s what I saw on NBATV last night in the ‘98 Finals. It’s the brand of ball where there is not a ton of perimeter pressure on the ball (in pickup it’s because nobody’s in that good of shape; in the 90s NBA it was because professional scorers are too good to pressure so recklessly, outcourt) but there is a wrestling match almost any time the ball comes within 15-feet of the hoop. Karl Malone began most trips to the paint by using a backscreen at the elbow. Jerry Sloan was apparently more concerned with combat contact than he was with floor spacing.

The Mailman would blast the screen-defender en route down to lane, and then throw a hip check or shoulder at his own man for good measure, and to establish prime position on the block. Jordan and Pippen were happy to engage in these battles. Once the ball actually entered the post, it was those violent back downs — no flopping here — usually ending with a contested jump hook or turnaround jumper in or near the paint. As with a great deal of competitive pickup games, it was more about physicality and aggression than finely-tuned skill.

The culmination of the league’s transition from Group 4 to Group 2 was the 2008 Finals when Kobe Bryant’s best MJ impression — relentlessly aggressive scoring pursuits — came up short against the Celtics quasi 1-2-2 zone, orchestrated masterfully by Tom Thibodeau, the league’s defensive mastermind. The elite strength, skill and determination of the best player on the floor was no longer enough. The better team beat the worse team.

Anyway, just two cents — or four, I guess — on defense, style and eras.

When does the real season start?


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