Duke’s Defense in the NBA


March 4, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant (24) shoots a basket against the defense of Miami Heat small forward Shane Battier (31) during the first half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

NBA players are the most capable basketball defenders in the world. Inhuman athleticism, length, and strength can make basketball courts feel like middle airplane seats in couch. I reject the claim that defense isn’t played in the NBA, but will admit that sometimes I wonder what would have happened if Coach K took the Lakers job in 2004.

Could a coach like Krzyzewski enhance NBA defenses with his aggressive system? Hold that thought.

Many fans argue college basketball provides superior defense. When said fans turn the channel from a Bobcats vs. Kings game to a Georgetown vs. Duke game in mid-February, their argument seems validated. In reality, to argue defenses are actually better in college would be asinine. Over the course of the NBA’s eighty-two game season, there are those insanely lazy moments of rec-league ball-watching, trotting back on defense, and no way I am diving for that loose ball, I could hurt myself. 

Moments of diminished defensive intensity are inevitable over eighty-plus games and players are more mindful of preserving their bodies than college kids, with millions of dollars at stake…

However, when the best NBA defenses are kicked into playoff gear, it always has and will be vastly superior.

When NBA players appear to be giving ball handlers too much space, it isn’t necessarily because of a lack of effort. It is counterproductive to expend energy trying to push out on guys who can blow by anyone, enabling the other team to continuously penetrate past first-line defenders. This would have been an adjustment for Coach K in the NBA, and it is one he managed with the USA Olympic team.

The Duke defensive system is a five-man commitment to continuous movement, help, close-outs, ball denial, and ball pressure. It is exhausting to play against but even more exhausting to execute. 

If a team is talented enough to move the ball and penetrate, the defense can be worn down and a deep bench becomes a requirement. In the NBA, the talent difference between the 5-8 best players and the 9-12 best players is massive. You would need a coach to get all of his in-rotation players in Karl Malone-esque shape to run the Duke defense over a full season. This would be another adjustment for Coach K, and one he didn’t have with the stacked Olympic team.

Side Note: Karl Malone missed ten games in his first eighteen seasons combined and half were because of fighting suspensions. He was in good shape.

It would have been fun to watch Coach K implement his vaunted Duke defensive system in the NBA. Coach K’s Blue Devils play defense like a pack of wolves hunting steaks doused in Montreal Steak Seasoning. They play with reckless abandon and tenacious intensity, within a meticulously calculated and choreographed system. And most impressively, they make it look relatively doable.

Side Note: Remember those AAU teams clearly playing in an age-level or two too low. You know, when squeaky-voiced, prepubescents are trying to break the press of players with five-o’clock shadows. Yeah, Duke makes solid mid-level NCAA teams feel like prepubescents.

Duke overwhelms opponents, picking up ball handlers at half court, while denying every man one pass away, backed with balanced help in the paint. Their rotations are immaculate, with attention to detail in all aspects of body position and how to challenge the offensive player. And they are extremely vocal, an aspect to defense that is equally overlooked and crucial to success.

This system is a staple to the incredible run Duke has enjoyed during the Coach K era. If he had left for the NBA, you can assume he would have tried to push that 2004-2005 Lakers team to a high defensive level. Man, oh man. That would have been interesting.

Coach K would have had a starting five of Chucky Atkins, Kobe Bryant, Caron Butler, Lamar Odom, and Chris Mihm, with Jumaine Jones, Brian Cook, Tierre Brown, Brian Grant and Luke Walton coming off of the bench. I think it is fair to say that group wouldn’t be capable of the Duke system, even with the Black Mamba.

It would have been more interesting to watch Coach K take over a team like last year’s Pacers. Imagine George Hill and Lance Stephenson hounding the ball handler with Paul George, Danny Granger, and Tyler Hansbrough denying the wing passes and David West teaming with Roy Hibbert to back them up with balanced help in the paint. That would be some nasty lock-down defense.

Coaches like Greg Popovich, Tom Thibodeau, and Doc Rivers have their own defensive systems which are Duke-esque, but not quite run at the frenetic pace Duke can maintain over the shorter college season. We will always be left to wonder if Krzyzewski could have enhanced the already superior NBA defenders with his system. I think, to a point, he would have.

If you want to read more NBA stuff from Jenks, check out his blog at www.jenksijargon.wordpress.com