Jared Dubin, The Cauldron (https://the-cauldron.com/let-s-talk-about-it-2613286f416e)
Ask any coach or player in the NBA what the most important aspect of a good defense is, and without fail, they will give you the same answer: communication. Gasol, one of the league’s best defenders himself, understands the paramount importance of talking while defending.
“Communicate early. That’s one key that I think basketball is losing, is how important it is to know, not just to know what action is happening, but to let your teammate know where his help is at,” Gasol said. “I think that we don’t practice that enough as basketball players. Not only as a team, but as players. Knowing where your help is, and knowing what’s happening, really helps.”
Defensive chatter sounds simple enough, but it often eludes NBA teams, especially the younger ones.
Flip Saunders, whose Minnesota Timberwolves finished last in the NBA in defensive efficiency this season, has helmed just about every type of team you could dream up — strong defenses like the 2000s-era Pistons, and bad defenses like the Blatche-JaVale-Swaggy Wizards. He’s coached young teams as well as old ones, and he sees age and maturity playing a major role defensively. “Veteran teams are better defensively because they know where they’re supposed to be and they know what to expect,” Saunders said, and history has largely proven him right.
“Communication, it boils down to, as much as anything, just understanding what you’re doing,” Saunders said. “If you’re talking, you’re not worried about what you have to do. Young players, many times, they’re thinking about what they have to do because it’s new to them.
“It’s probably the biggest thing with young players, is their lack of communication. They don’t come out [of college] as good communicators. That’s something we all try to instill. KG (Kevin Garnett) will try. I believe that when they see him practice, and when they see how much he communicates and they see the impact it has, they’ll try to do it. But it’s one of those things that sometimes it takes a long time. It takes a year. It took KG a long time to get (Kendrick) Perkins to be a communicator, and he wound up maybe talking too much at times.”
Shaun Livingston spent the 2013–14 season playing with Garnett on the Brooklyn Nets. He’s played with nine teams in his 11-year career.
“Garnett was the best,” he said about defensive communicators. “At all times, no matter what arena, no matter what atmosphere: you’re gonna hear him.”
Glen Davis also played with Garnett on the “Big Three” Celtics teams that were consistently among the best in the league at point prevention. Right from the jump, Big Baby said, Garnett hammered home the importance of always talking on defense, always letting your teammates know what’s happening, where you are, and where they should be. “Communication was one of his biggest things [with the Celtics],” Davis said. “We really figured out that had a lot to do with our success. Everybody started buying in.”
Off the court, it’s a different story. “I don’t really talk a lot. I like to be the example,” Garnett said a few years back, explaining why he doesn’t talk much in practice. “Anything after practice that I can help them with, I kind of pull them to the side and show them different things. We watch a lot of film in the locker room and talk. For these young guys, man, I just try to be there for when they need me. I’m not a guy to push myself on anybody, but anything that they want to know, anything that they’re having trouble with, I try to be accessible to them.”
According to new teammate Justin Hamilton, that tendency continues today. “He hasn’t come out and said, ‘You need to be vocal,’ but the way he leads and the way he shows an example, he’s talking, he’s loud, he’s vocal on the court. He just tries to have you copy him and follow his example.”
For a young team, setting that example — and, more importantly, following it — is one of the biggest hurdles in development. But it’s the kind of thing that can turn a good defense into a great one. Take the Philadelphia 76ers. They’re the league’s youngest team, but they still managed to finish tied for 12th in defensive efficiency, which is an impressive building block for a nascent team. According to their coach, they’re just missing one key aspect.
“I think we’re poor at communication,” Brett Brown said. “I think that because we’ve gone into it with just vanilla [concepts], trying to hang our hat on something so simple, and trying to do something simple extremely well, that has served us well. Since the All-Star break, we’ve changed a few things, but by and large, we’ve hung our hat on a very vanilla-type system. The system has prevailed more than the voices within it. Our young guys still struggle to communicate.”
The next step for his team, Brown said, is the ability to make adjustments on the fly, and that skill is unlocked through better communication.
“You’ve got to be able to go into a timeout and change a pick-and-roll coverage decision. You have to be able to change a post assignment. We are not at that stage,” Brown said. “I think the education and the growth of the program will be borne out of, ‘Okay, LeBron has 30, you’ve got to do something about that.’ ‘Are you going to go double Kevin Durant?’ Or ‘Dirk’s pick-and-rolls have to be switched.’ Things throughout the course of the game, where you have to be able to react on the fly. The growth of the program will be more of the sophistication of those in-game adjustments [that you can make when you communicate better].”
“Our guys, every now and then, they talk, but we have to talk more,” Richardson said. “I think [young players] don’t understand that when you communicate more, it just makes your defense that much better. But they saw that when we played against the Clippers. CP (Chris Paul) was just directing the whole thing, just talking at all times. They knew all our plays, they knew what to stop. We came in the locker room after the game, and they understood that if you talk more, it makes your job that much easier on defense.”
Within that group, Paul is the first line, the advance unit. His job is to relentlessly pressure the ball, shaving precious seconds off the shot clock and forcing poor decisions. He helps in the post, swipes at drivers who pass too close to his area, and Richard Shermans his way into passing lanes for steals. Barnes is the stopper, sinking his teeth into the opposition’s best perimeter scorer on any given night. And Jordan is the back line maestro, standing tall and getting his KG on, using that baritone voice and those gargantuan arms to conduct the action from the back line.
“Calling out screens, calling out plays, calling out situations late in the shot clock where we’re gonna switch,” Jordan said. “I’m usually in the back, so I can see everything that’s going on or that’s about to develop. So I try to give us a head start on plays.”
“We all talk, but myself and DeAndre are kind of the anchors of our defense,” Barnes said. “We just try to quarterback everybody, cover for each other’s mistakes and play hard. DeAndre knows every play. I take my hat off to him. He really studies the scouting report, and whenever they call a play, DJ calls it out. We all go with his call and get ready to play defense.”
Jordan didn’t talk a whole lot early in his career, though. Luckily, he had a pretty good mentor of his own to look up to.
“Marcus Camby was a big talker. I got the calling out of other teams’ plays from him,” Jordan said. “My rookie year was his 14th or 15th year, something like that. Seeing him do it, it was definitely the first person, that I was like, ‘How do you know all these plays?’ And he’s like, ‘I study it.’ And that’s something that I really took to heart and wanted to become great in.”
If you ask Jordan, nobody on the Clippers really talked all that much defensively until Doc Rivers was hired as the head coach. And honestly, when you go back and watch that team play defense in those Vinny Del Negro years, it shows. Their pick-and-roll coverages were all over the place. Screens were called out only occasionally, with no consistency whatsoever. DeAndre and Blake Griffin looked lost as they attempted to master the tricky balance of back-line communication, often bumping heads on the same man while another was left unguarded for an easy finish.
Doc came in and fixed that as his first order of business. “We’ve been working since last year in training camp,” Jordan says. “Everybody being able to communicate is important. When it’s quiet out there, you don’t know what things are gonna happen. But if everybody’s talking, then you feel more comfortable and more confident out there.” Now, the Clippers rarely shut up.
There may be no team in the NBA that talks more than the Golden State Warriors. For the Dubs, Andrew Bogut is the man the middle, the anchor, the last line; he’s responsible for both deterrence and disruption should any opposing player dare venture into his paint. But above all of these things, he’s responsible for letting his teammates know what’s happening around them.
“I think it’s an important role for me,” Bogut said. “I need to be loud and verbalize everything that’s going on because otherwise the guards are going to get hit by screens and our defense will break down. That’s one of my main roles defensively, to make sure guys know what’s going on.”
“It’s something I learned from the veterans I had around me as a rookie coming into the league,” Bogut said. “I saw what the good players do and just tried to follow what they do. I had Ervin Johnson [as a teammate], who was a defensive big man back in the day. He was in Milwaukee with me and he helped me a lot. Also, Jamaal Magloire and Desmond Mason.”
“It’s easier [to communicate a switch when you know you’re going to be doing it],” said Shaun Livingston, now a backup guard on the Warriors. “You’ve got to communicate it anyway though, because if you don’t, then that’s how breakdowns happen.”
The Dubs don’t just talk to make things easier on themselves, though. Livingston, like many other players around the league, feels it plays a role in gaining a psychological edge over your opponent.
“You learn, as you get in the league, communication can become contagious and also it can be intimidating for other teams,” he said. “If we’re playing cards and I already know your hand, then it’s like I already know your next move.”
That kind of “corporate knowledge,” as Popovich calls it, is the key to the Spurs’ success on both ends.
“Corporate knowledge is always good if you have a group that’s been together,” Popovich said. “You need to have that to have the trust and the rhythm. Everybody talks about rhythm offensively, but defensively it’s just as important to have that same crew who knows how to react to each other.”
It sounds simple, but for things to become second nature, you first have to lay the foundation. You have to establish your own defensive scheme and know it cold. You have to study film and memorize each opponent’s tendencies. And you have to trust that your teammates have done all that, too. It’s hard work, and it takes a ton of time, but successful defenders know that communicati0n makes things easier. Just don’t tell Tony Allen.