The busiest people in the NBA these days seem to be the ones updating the record books, with scoring and three-point shooting marks constantly being broken or threatened. In an early-January game, Golden State and Sacramento combined for the most three-pointers made (41) in league history, a record that lasted less than two weeks, when it was topped by the Warriors and Pelicans (43) on Jan. 16. Around the same time, James Harden was in the midst of a streak in which he tallied 30-plus points in 32 consecutive games. Early in the 2018-19 season, Klay Thompson drained 14 treys against the Bulls, establishing a single-game individual record.
While basketball fans seem to enjoy the non-stop offensive fireworks, as New Orleans guard and ’17-18 First-Team All-Defense selection Jrue Holiday noted recently, there are still NBA players who’d like nothing more than to slow down some of the highlights.
“There have to be guys who are going to try to rebuttal that, right?” Holiday asked rhetorically. “Guys who are going to test that and try to stop people on a daily basis.”
Now in his 10th NBA season, Holiday is one of those players, pushing back against what often seems like an unstoppable tide. It’s never been more difficult to excel defensively at the highest level of the sport, for a variety of reasons. The deep range and accuracy of perimeter shooters is at an all-time high, creating spacing and driving lanes wide enough for a car to navigate. Meanwhile, tightening restrictions on contact are handcuffing defenders, keeping them from using their bodies or hands to impede anyone, whether it’s on the ball, or even far away from it.
All of that adds up to a monumental challenge for defensive-minded NBA players.
“At this point, you really have to pick people up from darn near halfcourt,” Holiday said. “But then in one or two dribbles, they can get by you that easily. I do think it is a lot tougher. I don’t know how it was 20 years ago, but everyone talks about how you could be more physical (as a defender), and kind of ride and bump (offensive players). Now you can’t – but you still have to stay in front of them. You have to slide your feet, cut them off or anticipate where they’re going. To be able to stop somebody – by that I mean slow them down – like a James (Harden) or Steph (Curry) or Paul (George), guys who are doing incredible stuff, to me it’s kind of like a work of art.”
A sometimes-thankless task
Partly because there are far fewer statistics that effectively measure defense in comparison to offense, performing well as a defender can be a thankless task, coming with rare praise. It’s a lot of hard work, with less of an immediate payoff than racking up points or assists. That may explain why there are more players at every level of basketball who’d rather focus on offense. According to several New Orleans teammates, what separates Holiday from many peers is the desire to shut down an opponent.
“He takes it personally,” forward Solomon Hill said of Holiday’s matchups vs. top opposing scorers. “In a league that is forgetting about defense, it’s something he hangs his hat on every night. A lot of what goes on in today’s NBA is the jump shot and offense, but people are forgetting that defense and effort can be played every night. I really like seeing that. He wants to score the ball, but he doesn’t get caught up in that he’s going to have a bad game if he’s not shooting well. He takes pride in that. You would hope the NBA would give more credit to guys like that.”
“A lot of defense is want-to, maybe 90 percent of the battle,” said forward Stanley Johnson, who came to New Orleans in a midseason trade, after three-plus years with Detroit. “Technique is cool, but Jrue really takes pride in not letting people score on him, which is refreshing to see, because I feel like I’m the same way. He really takes on every challenge – it could be Kristaps Porzingis all the way to Russell Westbrook. He’s not shy. He believes in himself, he trains super hard and his body is in shape. It’s really impressive to watch him. Coming from the Eastern Conference, I didn’t really know he was like this. He definitely should be (in the conversation) for Defensive Player of the Year, every year.”
Although recognition was slow to come for Holiday’s defensive work, a breakthrough occurred last spring, when he was chosen to the NBA’s All-Defense First Team. Holiday had never been selected to either of the league’s two annual defensive squads, but he landed on the top five-man group in ‘18. Holiday described the honor as a “shock.”
“It wasn’t anything I thought about,” Holiday said. “For me, (defense) was just about winning, giving my teammates the best chance of winning, taking on the issue of stopping the best player, taking pride in that. It was a surprise. I definitely didn’t think I was going to get that, because I’d never gotten it before. I thought I’d always played pretty good defense, but it was definitely a shock.”
A new teammate this season but frequent opponent while with the Lakers in previous years, New Orleans’ Julius Randle wasn’t surprised, saying that the initial All-Defense honor should’ve come before ’17-18.
“All-Defense should be a given, but he should be considered for Defensive Player of the Year,” Randle said. “What we ask him to do every night is unreal. How does he not get consideration for Defensive Player of the Year?”
Holiday’s been making that case throughout ’18-19, as the NBA’s best shot-blocking guard entering Week 22 (54 rejections in 67 games), while also ranking fourth among backcourt players in total steals (109). Beyond those stats, the 28-year-old’s impact is often most evident in the numbers opposing guards and wings don’t get. Among Holiday’s greatest hits in ’18-19: Holding Phoenix’s Devin Booker to a 4/12, 12-point performance on Nov. 10 – a player who was averaging 26.5 points – then limiting Toronto’s Kyle Lowry two days later to four points and 1/9 shooting; Lowry came in at 17.2 ppg. Holiday also helped contain All-Star guard Kemba Walker (5 of 16 vs. NOLA) and Memphis’ Mike Conley (2 of 12) to a poor outing. In recent weeks, Philadelphia wing Jimmy Butler and Utah second-year star Donovan Mitchell combined to shoot 13 of 40 in a pair of games, while frequently matched up vs. Holiday.
“It’s like that every night,” Pelicans guard Elfrid Payton said. “He brings it. Locking down the other team’s best player night in and night out. Nothing he does surprises me anymore.”
Over the past two seasons, Holiday has also come up with a handful of game-sealing defensive plays, highlighted by a final-minute block of Portland’s Pat Connaughton in Game 2 of a first-round series last spring. He also sealed Pelicans regular-season victories with critical steals of Lou Williams and Gary Harris, along with forcing Mitchell into a difficult mid-range miss March 4, capping one of NOLA’s best road triumphs of ’18-19.
”I know everybody says this about their player, but I would have the evidence to back this up – that no one in the league is asked to do more than him, from a backcourt standpoint at least,” New Orleans fourth-year head coach Alvin Gentry said. “We want him to generate offense, score 20 a game, we’d like for him to have 10 assists, and then we ask him to guard the best player on the floor, sometimes even when (that’s) not a perimeter player.”
The mental game
Aside from the requisite desire to do it, what makes Holiday one of the NBA’s premier defenders? The UCLA product attributes some of his success to a decade of experience in the league, which helps him recognize what opponents are trying to do offensively, as well as the tendencies of players he may have already faced dozens of times. At 6-foot-4, 205 pounds, with quick hands and feet, Holiday also has the size, speed and athleticism to hold his own in an array of one-on-one showdowns, but he stresses the importance of the mental aspect of the game over the physical.
“Being quick with your feet or your hands can definitely help,” he said. “Being quick off the ground helps you block shots. Mentally, you also need to have the savviness to be able to use your hands the correct way and have them in the right places. Plus, the timing of that is very important.
“But some of it is feel over time, being here (in the NBA) for a while now. Some of it is knowing personnel. I don’t watch film defensively necessarily, but I do watch basketball. I watch how players move and their (tendencies) – if they like to drive left or right, whether they prefer to do a stepback going left or right. There are (offensive opponents) who can do everything, but for me it’s about instinct and in that split-second, kind of knowing what that person wants to do. And I’m not always right (in predicting a move) – there are times when I’m wrong, but then they make a move right back into me, and it looks like I (anticipated it). Just knowing the game of basketball, it’s important to be able to see it from a different perspective, not only offensively but also defensively.”
Hill: “Even if you watch him only for a couple minutes, you can see why he’s so good defensively. He’s great on the ball, has great hands, is able to read players as they’re doing things. That’s difficult to do day in and day out, especially with all of the minutes he’s playing. But it’s a testament to how great he wants to be.
“I’ve seen (former New Orleans guard Rajon) Rondo have anticipation because he knows the game. Jrue has great anticipation because of his feel for the game and movement of (opposing) players. That’s something I don’t think you can work on; it’s just God-given talent. He uses it every night to the best of his ability.”
It wasn’t long ago that every NBA roster featured multiple slow-footed 7-footers, whose primary responsibilities were to patrol the paint, protect the rim, grab rebounds and – if needed – commit a few hard fouls. Those kinds of limited, lumbering bigs are rapidly disappearing from the league, partly because the proliferation of three-point shooting and skill at every position has rendered them dinosaurs, unable to adapt to a game where they’re forced to defend in space, out to and beyond 25 feet from the hoop. When people attempt to predict the future of the NBA, it seems reasonable to think all 30 teams will eventually employ 10-plus players who are dangerous three-point threats, able to stretch defenses and make it even more difficult for teams to stop anyone from generating astronomical numbers.
Players like Holiday and Johnson don’t necessarily see it that way, preferring to believe that the pendulum will eventually swing back the other way, as it always has throughout the history of pro basketball. As much as media and fans focus on how great Golden State is offensively, the Warriors have also been an elite defensive squad for much of their recent run of three championships in four years.
“Offenses are getting better. The average player now is better than the average player in the 1980s or the 90s, across the league,” Johnson said. “Guys are shooting the ball 30 or 40 feet out, like it’s nothing. It’s harder to play defense, because of the spacing, plus guys are more athletic and in shape 12 months a year.
“So it’s true that the evolution of offense has taken over, but at the same time, I think it’s kind of capped out on how good an offensive team can be. A few years ago it used to be teams saying, ‘How do we get up to (scoring) 130 points?’ But now it’s more, ‘How do we get (opponents) down to 110?’ Now you see teams like Oklahoma City and Indiana who play stiff defense, and they’re the teams that are very successful toward the end of the season.”
“In my opinion, when I look at teams, I feel like the ones who have a really good chance of winning are the ones who defend,” Holiday said. “People kind of focus on offense way more – and we do have a lot of great offensive players in the league – but over probably the last five years, (teams that have won the most) have been good on defense. These are teams that are long, athletic and communicate. The thing about defense is, there are some individual accolades, but it’s definitely a team thing. There is a lot more to defense than I think people realize.”