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ORLANDO — After the Magic dismantled Washington on Tuesday, J.J. Redick said the Magic were able to take advantage of the Wizards by exploiting the fact that they are probably better offensively than defensively. The idea was to get early stops and squash any hopes of an offensive strike from the Wiz, while remaining confident that they could beat their defense.
That brought up interesting questions. What makes a good defense? What makes a good defensive player? The Magic are predicated on the concept that defense wins basketball games, and effort and intensity will get you there, so what does that look like per individual?
There are two players in particular on the Magic roster that have garnered a ton of respect over the years for their defensive ability — Dwight Howard and J.J. Redick, but Orlando is not necessarily known for their lockdown defense like, say, the Chicago Bulls are.
With the Bulls on their way into town, Stan Van Gundy expressed some concerns with what the Magic will be up against on Friday night. The first words out of his mouth after practice on Thursday were about how “long and quick” their front line is. Long and quick — are these the most-important elements of a good defensive player? I asked him.
“You start with a combination of size and quickness. If you have length and quickness you at least have a shot at being a great defender. But then I think also what’s underrated about a lot of those guys is great intelligence to really understand your own teams system, other teams personnel, and then the discipline to do what you’re supposed to do consistently, time after time after time after time. That’s what makes a great defender.”
So what is Stan most concerned about when Chicago comes to Orlando on Friday?
“First of all I think physically they’ve got guys like Luol Deng who was very underrated last year. To not make the All-Defensive team was absurd.”
So this makes sense. You have to be athletic, you have to have size, you have to be fast, but that’s not it. SVG made it clear that you also need the x-factor. You need to want to do it, and not just once but “time after time after time after time.”
We all call Dwight Howard the best defender in the league. Why? Well, for those of you making this argument in a bar some night, be careful not to fall into the trap where someone says, “of course he’s good at defense. He blocks shots and is huge.” He also makes a commitment and has an incredibly high intelligence level. AND, he does it over and over and over again. He is sold out to it. Here’s what Dwight had to say about the “underrated” nature of his defensive game.
“I take pride in it. It’s very tough. It looks easy but you have to work extremely hard and really know your opponents and the other teams plays. There’s a lot that goes into it that the average eye, the average person the average fan won’t see. You have to be aware of everything on the court. It’s not an easy job.”
So there you have it. Even Superman admits that it’s a challenge unlike any other. It’s not something that comes naturally. He has to work at it every day and commit to doing it time after time after time. Yes, he has the physical ability. Yes, he has the intelligence. But unlike other players in the league, he has the commitment. And here’s the thing, Dwight doesn’t even necessarily need to have this commitment to be a star in the league. He does it to win games, because he understands this is how you win games. That’s Stan Van Gundy basketball.
To further emphasize his passion for defense, Dwight told reporters after the game Tuesday night that he was flat out exhausted, and not from dunking the basketball. This is a guy who leaves it all on the court with no exceptions. It is perhaps that dedication on the defensive end that makes him so special. So few players in the league have his physical ability, but everyone possesses the ability to work as hard as he does, and I would guess only a handful of players are as tired as Dwight after games.
J.J. Redick picked up where Dwight left off.
“The mark of a great defender is someone who can guard his position but also someone that plays great defense. There are just too many great players in this league to only be concerned with guarding your own guy. You have to be a good help defender as well.”
This speaks precicesly to what SVG was talking about in terms of intelligence. Some players have it, and some don’t. We view J.J. as a high IQ guy. This is one of the reasons why. He understands the difficulty of playing good defense, and does not put it into one dimension.
So why is it so hard? Why is it so rare?
Van Gundy’s comments about Glen Davis during practice today point more specifically to the school of thought that he comes from. He mentioned that Glen was frustrated, and that it’s difficult for players to play in a league where numbers and offense is everything (at least according to the media).
He even gave a challenge to the media, saying that he hoped one day reporters would learn to recognize the types of things that guys like Glen do on the court. He likened them to offensive linemen where quarterbacks and receivers get all the praise for a win.
He even went so far as to concede that it’s hard to be a second banana guy like Glen. He tries to tell him to go pick someone hard and he might then get open for a 12 to 15 footer. That’s not a fun way to exist in a league full of stat stuffers is it?
But that is exactly the type of team that Van Gundy wants to build, and precisely why guys like Redick and Dwight are so valuable to the team. They are smart, athletic, aware, and can ultimately set the tone for this team to “work hard or get the hell out of here.”
Defense, it seems, is not foreign to the NBA, but requires an extra dose of attention that some players just aren’t willing to do. Or maybe they are incapable of breaking off that much attention when so much goes into pulling their weight offensively. Either way, it’s a mystery, and one that if solved could change a team’s entire identity. For now, the Magic are on the right track with a coach who understands this, preaches this, and demands this.
It shouldn’t be any wonder why we consider Stan Van Gundy to be a genius, and a gem in the National Basketball Association. What so few understand, he values more than anything else in the game.
Nate Drexler is a contributing writer for Magic Basketball. Follow him on Twitter.