The last few years have seen an added emphasis put on how well individual players defend their position, and that's probably a good thing. But it also poses a problem. That's because, inevitably, if we focus too much on a subject, it tends to get overblown.
I feel we have reached that point in how we judge most NBA defenders. There are only a few dominant lockdown perimeter defenders in the league. Usually the value between a good defender and a mediocre one is not as significant as we tend to imagine, especially with wing players. A lot of us seem to be forgetting this.
For example, Bill Duffy recently claimed that Klay Thompson, his client, was probably the best shooting guard in the NBA, in large part due to his defensive abilities. For those of us who have watched the NBA for a long time, such an assessment is absurd. Thompson is a good offensive and defensive player, but not much more than that. In a league where stars rule, Thompson is unlikely to ever develop into an elite player, let alone the best at his position.
I have no issue with Duffy trying to get Thompson paid, but what surprised me is how many folks seemed to agree with Duffy. Solid "two-way" players, like Thompson or Lance Stevenson, are now sometimes considered to be more valuable than vastly superior offensive players, like James Harden.
And that is ridiculous.
Because in the NBA, when you look at what teams win championships, still the most important thing is having stellar offensive talent, and such talent is rare. Defense is mightily important, but ultimately you need exceptional offensive star power to be a championship-level team. This has always been the case, and why a fantastically talented guard like Harden is so valuable.
Players that are truly exceptional offensively are the rarest commodities in the NBA. They are the guys who can get you buckets, no matter what the circumstances. Great offense, when all is said and done, will usually beat great defense.
San Antonio was a very good defensive team this past season, but few of us focused on that, because their offense was great. The spectacular Spurs renaissance of the last few years is mainly because of a great offense.
The Spurs struggled offensively for a few seasons following their 2007 championship run, and most of us thought they were done as serious contenders for this reason alone, despite still being excellent defensively. It is only their surprising offensive resurgence over the last several years that has made the Spurs an exceptional team again. San Antonio's defense was always excellent, but it did not really matter without a stellar offense.
The Spurs were fortunate enough to have the stars and coaching to make such an unlikely offensive transfiguration possible; most teams don't have that luxury. Average offenses in the NBA, like the Spurs had five years ago, do not win championships.
The Celtics of the Kevin Garnett years are another great recent example of this. Only in 2008, with Paul Pierce still in his scoring prime, was the Boston offense good enough to win it all. The Celtics had battle-tested, superior defensive teams in the postseason for a solid half decade - but fell painfully short of winning championships in 2010 and maybe 2012 because their offensive lackluster was so glaringly apparent.
A championship team needs to have a great offense when it counts the most. The offense does not need to be showy, but it needs to work. A superstars' scoring superiority becomes most apparent in the postseason. It often does not look pretty, but the best offensive players find a way to consistently score even in the hardest situations. Teams without these kind of players eventually fail in the playoffs.
This is the nature of how the NBA works. It's a team game, but it comes down to exceptional individual star offensive performers pulling their team through. It's a battle of attrition, where only the strongest are left at the end, and it's fascinating to watch. The reason Michael Jordan is arguably still more famous than any other American athlete is because he epitomized this wonderful NBA postseason narrative better than anybody ever has.
NBA teams can improve defensively by making adjustments, and highly gifted players like Harden can improve defensively by sheer effort. But teams miraculously improving their offense in the playoffs without star power is damn near impossible. This is why Thompson will probably never approach Harden's value. Harden is a star player; Thompson is not.
Teams don't win NBA championships without being very good defensively, but that misses the larger point. You need to be able to score well in the playoffs to be exceptional, and you need stars to make that happen against an advanced level of competition. Good "two-way" players aren't enough in that setting; you need the very best kind of offensive talent, and that is what every team should covet.