The Hornets Defense is Byron’s claim to Coach of the Year
This post started out with an entirely different focus. After I read Bill Livingston's article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and he referred to Peja Stojakovic as a 'traffic cone with legs' I had decided I was going to create a post defending Peja's defense. Announcers just kill Peja regularly about his defense, but often I wonder what game they are watching because Peja is usually doing a solid job.
However, when I began putting together my thoughts on Peja, I realized a better story about the Hornets defense should be told here, using my evaluation of Peja's defense as a starting point. So lets get into it.
Peja is good at two types of defense, perimeter and help, and weak at two others, post and fast break. Far from being a weak link, Peja's skills on the perimeter have him frequently covering the top perimeter threats.(McGrady, LeBron, Bryant) As a perimeter defender, he is a bit unorthodox. Elite defenders usually guard their man by bumping and muscling them(Bowen, Battier), or using incredible speed to stay in front of the guy(Paul, Baron). Peja does neither of these things. When he takes a man, he knows his weaknesses and instead compensates by using his two best defensive assets – anticipation and height. His height allows him to lay off his man just another half step, allowing him to close and still contest the shot, or ancticipate and cut off a player trying to get past him by stepping in front of him as he begins his move. Once he closes, Peja's tall enough to contest almost any shot.
If a player is a determined driver, Peja is also always aware of where his help defense and is good at funneling the player into trouble, or, if they do manage to get past him towards where there is no help, he judiciously fouls them on the perimeter before they take a shot. Usually, these are always good fouls.
An example of his defense comes from that very game against LeBron where he was called a traffic cone. All game long, Peja had been checking LeBron.(6-14 for 21 points) When he caught the ball, Peja would get right in front of him, and not bite on his jab steps and headfakes. After about five seconds of precious time, a double would arrive, and LeBron would have to give the ball up or jack up a shot. At the end of the game, LeBron blew by Peja for only the second time all game. All game. LeBron also made his move so early in the clock(leaving us enough time to win) because he knew the double was coming and he had to go as soon as he caught it. It was an unexpected move, and I don't blame Peja for being caught by it, you can't stop everyone all the time, but he is very solid on the perimeter.
His weakness revolve around one thing: Contact. On fast breaks, you will never see Peja give a hard foul to break up a layup. Ever. Instead he'll try to stay close to the guy and bother him a little in the hope of making him miss a layup, or at most, he'll swipe at the ball, sometimes earning lame fouls. He's just not good at defending the break. In the post, he is clearly uncomfortable at handling determined players trying to post him up. He still anticipates well, keeping between the player and the basket, but he's not good at muscling players away from their perferred spots, so he still gives up good shots in the post.
And here is where my original intent for this post diverged. Peja's weakness in the post is pretty obvious. Why isn't he always put into that situation? The answer: against good teams, he is. Watch any disciplined offense – Detroit, San Antonio, Dallas – and you will see them running screens to get their man on Peja in the post.
But its times like that where the Hornets show the effect of their coaching. Almost every time Peja gets posted, the double comes. It's nearly automatic. As a result, the ball kicks out and the defensive rotations start, players scrambling to their new man without even looking at each other. There is no hesitation, no worry that their man will be left uncovered, they just move to their new assignment and the defense continues. Even if there is a breakdown, the next play, they do it again. They trust each other, and they trust the system.
That trust is why the Hornets have a top defense despite all five of their starting players having defensive weaknesses that can be exploited. Paul and Peja can be posted. Chandler doesn't like to leave the paint or leave his feet to block shots. Morris can be beaten by fleet-footed guards. West will leave the jumper open and can be slow to contest it. These weaknesses, however, instead of being points of contention, are simply recognized by the coaching staff and compensated for. If a player needs help in the post – it will arrive. If someone is lost on a screen, the big steps out to slow them down.
Defenses are all about effort and trust, and are created and fostered by great coaching staffs that are capable of getting their players to buy in to the system. Byron Scott has done this before, when he took the New Jersey Nets to the NBA Finals on the back of a great defense. It looks like he's doing it again, building an efficient defense that functions around the players he has, no matter their flaws.
I'm glad it looks like it will earn him the Coach of the Year award. He deserves it.