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.
“Communication, it boils down to, as much as anything, just understanding what you’re doing,” Flip 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.”
The Timberwolves’ acquisition of Garnett at the February trading deadline reeked of nostalgia for a floundering franchise, and Minnesota gave up 26-year-old forward Thaddeus Young to get him, but there was a huge reason Saunders wanted Garnett beyond giving the fan base a throwback to the team’s greatest era: He might be the most legendary defensive communicator in the history of the league.
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.”
Ask anyone involved with the Clippers (who isn’t named Glenn) about the team’s defense, and they’ll name three catalysts for the success they have on that end: Chris Paul, Matt Barnes and DeAndre Jordan. Together, they form the backbone of a stingy starting lineup. Paired with Blake Griffin and J.J. Redick, that trio allowed just 100.0 points per 100 possessions this season. That’s the full-season equivalent of the Wizards’ No. 5-ranked defense. When even one of those players sat down, the Clips’ defensive rating jumped to 104.8 — or, the NBA’s 22nd-best defensive unit.
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.”
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.”
Bogut credits the veterans he played alongside early in his career with teaching him the importance of studying sets and tendencies off the court. By being mentally prepared for his opponents, he would see a play starting to develop and know what was coming. Perhaps more importantly, he’d be able to clue his teammates in, too.
“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.”
Sniffing out actions before they develop is the kind of thing that can happen when you spend a long time executing the same system, with the same players. If you see the same plays from opposing teams over and over, and you’ve reacted to it — together, as a unit — hundreds, if not thousands, of times, you can cultivate a sixth sense not only for where the opposition wants to go, but where your teammates will be, and when. Five guys who have been through a lot together and know each other’s tendencies can even develop a system of communication that goes beyond words.
The San Antonio Spurs are the model organization when it comes to stability. They’ve had the same core of key players — Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili — for what seems like forever, Gregg Popovich has been running things since George Bush was the Governor of Texas, and R.C. Buford has been with the organization almost as long. Even the “newer” pieces, like shooting guard Danny Green, have been there for a couple years and have picked up on the Spursian language.
“It’s easy with communication or with the look of an eye, or a facial expression, of what we want to do or where we want to be,” Green said. “It’s easy to communicate without having to talk every play or every possession. We can use gestures or communication with hand signals for us to be in the right places.”
Green knows that if he points a certain way when guarding a pick-and-roll, Tim Duncan will help him ice the ball-handler into the short corner and away from danger. 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.”
Gasol: “I always try to get the call as soon as we can. If one man is really close, especially on the free throws, the coach will tell the opposing team, and Mike is right there to listen and pick it up.”
Conley: “I normally relay the play back to him. I yell it back to him and he’ll start putting people into position.”
Gasol: “And once I hear it, I know what the play is and I try to get my teammates ready for, not just the play call, but the action that they want to score off. After that, it’s reads and reactions.”
Gasol is not blessed with the physical gifts of a Dwight Howard or Nerlens Noel. He’s not what you’d call a springy athlete. He doesn’t jump out of the gym. His high-level defensive play is, first and foremost, a result of intellect and communication. He relies on copious film study, play recognition, and communication from his teammates to put himself in the right position for every play.
“There’s other guys, they have athleticism that I don’t have. They don’t have to foresee the play or try to get ahead. They are so athletic that they can wait, and let the play happen and still get out there and block it. I can’t do that,” Gasol said. “It’s not my game. I have to get there before the other guy gets there or I’m going to get a foul. I have to get there before the play even happens.”
And unlike most big men, Gasol said he’s been drilled on the importance of defensive communication for nearly his whole basketball life. “I was brought up that way. I was always taught basketball that way. How important it is.” Gasol credits his coaches and the development staff in Spain for teaching him the game like that.