Defending the Offenders: The Modern NBA Defenseman

25 04 2008

The NBA’s recent rule changes are changing the perception of its defensive stalwarts.

Everyone talks about these rule changes. Recently, Reggie Miller commented that this NBA isn’t the same league in which he played. “Now you can get a [technical foul] for anything,” Miller says. He went on to talk about how most people don’t even pretend to be playing defense anymore.

Rule changes on hand-checking and overall perimeter physicality as well as more subjective calls – taunting, trash-talking, repeated physicality – have taken the tooth out of the game.

Should it be a surprise that players with a penchant for legitimate man-to-man defense have become vilified? Ask your buddy who the dirtiest current player in the NBA is. The answer will most likely be Bruce Bowen of the San Antonio Spurs.

Bowen has taken tremendous heat in the last few years for being a dirty player. In fact, even casual basketball fans think the man should be castrated.

Bowen is so aggressive defensively that both players and their loyal fans are yelling from the streets. Isiah Thomas, Vince Carter, Ray Allen, Amare Stoudemire have all had their gripes with the Spurs’ defenseman. They cite Bowen’s elbows or his habit of getting a foot underneath an opposing shooter’s jumpshot as staples of his dirtiness.

I can see that and it’s a valid argument. But I don’t understand why Bowen is being singled out as this undeniably dirty player.

There are certain players that are undeniably dirty. James Posey injures a Chicago Bulls player each time he comes to the United Center. Bill Laimbeer would literally throw his body into someone while they were up in the air and in the act of shooting. I don’t believe Bruce Bowen should belong in that category.

Dirty is a subjective term. There are those that believe “dirty” means intent to injure. I agree with this statement yet Bowen hasn’t exhibited a blatant attempt to injure. Sure, he throws elbows. But if you’ve played a game of basketball in your life, you’ve most likely been on both ends of an elbow.

As early as middle school, coaches would teach me to throw a ‘bow for space after a defensive rebound. Unfortunately, much like oil on your driveway, elbows are ubiquitous in this game.

And you know what? Offensive players throw elbows too! While driving or when in a triple threat position, offensive players have perfect opportunities to throw elbows. However, it’s very nonchalant and difficult to catch because the movement looks so natural.

There is a general perception of Bowen that is quickly permeating basketball ranks. He is seen as a demon that should be sent to basketball purgatory for half of the regular season.

Let me remind you that the men officiating these games have been through hell and back. Most of the playoff referees easily have 15 years of experience each. They remember that John Stockton threw elbows and low blows during his thousands of moving screens. They remember millions of Karl Malone’s elbows. They remember John Starks’ playoff football tackles.

And only one suspension has broken Bowen’s 500 consecutive game streak. He was suspended for kicking Chris Paul about a month ago. Of all the officials calling Spurs games and with all the angst about Bowen’s game, he was only suspended once. The rest of his antics were reprimanded by fouls – personal, flagrant and technical fouls.

Mind you, Kobe Bryant drew a similar suspension for his forced follow-through that resulted in an elbow to Manu Ginobili’s face. So is Kobe dirty too then?

The role of NBA defensive specialist seems to be a very polarizing issue.

For better or worse, athletes’ value and talent are measured by their offensive skill-set. Marketers and league officials have caught onto this trend and subsequently resulted in the recent rule changes.

This is why you hear the phrase “Kobe Bryant is a great player AND he can turn it on defensively when he needs to,” as though deficiencies during half of a game can be overlooked.

This trend can be seen if you examine those who gets the league’s highest individual award. Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, Allen Iverson, Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkeley and Magic Johnson are amongst recent (1985 and on) MVP winners that were nothing but serviceable defensively.

Everyone’s attention is on the star offensive player. And guess who’s guarding that player?

Offensive players are given a “silver spoon,” so to speak, when it comes to going pro. So if a player isn’t as gifted offensively, they create a niche for themselves. They become a role player in order to get on a roster.

Basic basketball fundamental: a defender’s job is to harass the offensive player and create a turnover, disrupt the offense or force a bad shot.

There’s obviously a line between good, hard play and dirty play. And it’s Bowen’s job to get as close to that line as possible. Since specialists, by definition, focus on only one aspect of their game, they’re often pigeon-holed. I will admit that it’s difficult to root for one-dimensional players. This fact also accounts for the public dislike of players like Bowen.

But you can see it steadily changing. Compare Bruce Bowen with Raja Bell and DeShawn Stevenson. Those three players present a very subtle evolution of the defensive specialist role.

Bowen is a defender that has developed into a kick-out option beyond the 3-point line. Raja Bell is a defender with a steady long ball and an ability to score off the bounce, albeit with limited efficiency. Stevenson is a defender with a shot and slashing ability who has been entrusted with setting up the offense on various occasions.

These developments may go a long way in alleviating the hate for defensive specialists.

As for Bowen: he’s doing his job. If he’s defending your favorite player, of course you’re going to hate him. But let’s not pretend like he’s the scorn of Western society.