#4: A Defense of Defense

...continued from part 2

Before launching into a head to head comparison between each league, let's first take a brief look at what defense brings to athletics:

The Importance of Defense

Selfless: By definition, playing defense is not about you. The focal point always rests on the offense as the nature of defense is stopping your opponent. Offense is action, defense is reaction. Every possession contains a story with the offense as protagonist, defense antagonist. All stories are told from the main character's perspective: defensive feats are chalked up as offensive miscues, defensive mistakes turn into offensive highlight reels.

It would naturally follow the easiest route to fame in sports comes through offense. In both sports nearly all household names are offensive players (or convicted felons, sometimes both). As a society we gravitate towards values offense satisfies: namely showmanship and individual achievement. Defense is about two things: winning and team. Don't get me wrong, I want to watch two teams light up a scoreboard as much as the next guy. At the end of the day offense thrills and entertains, but defense brings substance and character. Sports Life needs both.

Challenge: This may not be true in other sports, but in football and basketball, defense poses a greater challenge than offense primarily due to the element of surprise. An offense knows what they are doing before a play begins, while the defense remains in the dark until after the action begins. The offense always gets the first move and continually plays one step ahead of the opposing defense.

Half of the Game: Simply put, defense determines 50% of the outcome of any game across all competition. Sports require the ability to both score and prevent scoring, a defensive stop and offensive score numerically measure equally valuable because point differential determines the outcome. It doesn't matter how much you score or how little your opponent scores, it matters only who scored more. An overemphasis of either element constitutes a fundamental misunderstanding of the construct of competition.

Defense in the NBA

With that said, any defense of the NBA requires a response to the perception "they don't play defense in the NBA." Far and away the most common knock against the league, this assumption is not unwarranted. We'll use James Harden as our prime example and concession:

(He's #13, the one with the beard repeatedly putting his hand up to signal "my bad")

If you are looking for someone to epitomize the "lack of defense" in the NBA, James Harden is your man. He's a third team All-NBA (2x All-Star) scoring 25 points a game for a top 5 team making $80 million dollars who plays horrendous defense. I read one analyst describe his defense as "unplugged controller bad." However we cannot allow the exception to become the rule, as they say "one bad apple doesn't spoil the bunch."

In reality, most guys in the NBA play adequate defense and the best players nearly always play top level defense. According to MVP voting in my lifetime, the NBA actually values defensive prowess more than the NFL. 

First team defense: voted a top 5 defender in the NBA 
Second team defense: voted a top 10 defender in the NBA
No defensive honors: between the 11th best and and absolute worst defender in the NBA

When 17 out of the last 27 MVP's are also considered a top 5 defensive player that tells you something about how the league values defense. In contrast the NFL has voted a defensive player as MVP twice in it's history, the last time being in 1986.

Another important point: some NBA players ignore half of their sport, but football permits and encourages every player to do so. How much effort would Tom Brady, LeSean McCoy, Randy Moss, DeSean Jackson, or Vernon Davis give towards defense if they played both ways? Does any other sport allow players to ignore 50% of the game, not to mention special teams? Basketball, soccer, baseball, hockey, rugby, lacrosse, volleyball, water polo, ultimate frisbee, quidditch and virtually every other team sport requires the entire team to perfect both aspects of sport. My favorite Jordan stat? Nine time NBA All-defensive first team (and '88 Defensive POY) to go with ten scoring titles. That says "greatness."

Sports encapsulate life. We all must balance seeking success that brings accolades and recognition and pursuing the quiet, seldom seen character traits (humility, self control, love) supporting everything else. Both contain value, truly great people embrace both. For a league to allow players one or the other withholds half of the sport from them and in turn misrepresents a fundamental truth to a worldwide audience.

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