Bulls executives vice president of basketball operations John Paxson

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Paxson Knows Parker, LaVine Must Play Defense

"They're super athletic," John Paxson says. "They can learn that end."

Dan Bernstein
July 17, 2018 - 2:53 pm
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(670 The Score) A wise old basketball coach from whom I first really learned the professional game used to get frustrated when his scorers couldn't or wouldn't defend. We'd be at practice in Fargo, Grand Rapids or Omaha and some end-of-the-bencher would blow in for a layup that would elicit the signature Mauro Panaggio foot stomp and an exasperated look up at the rafters with arms outstretched and palms upturned, as if to beseech the basketball gods for divine help.

"Why can't you just stay in front of him?" he'd ask whichever former second-round NBA draft pick was the most recent offender. "Anybody who can play offense can play defense!"

That was a core belief of the Continental Basketball Association's all-time winningest coach, that the ability to put the ball in the basket meant a similar skill at preventing it and all that was needed was the desire and effort to do so.

Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson tends to agree to an extent, going into granular detail on 670 The Score on Tuesday morning in regard to the recent lucrative commitments to both Zach LaVine and Jabari Parker -- two players who by any objective measurement or scouting opinion are challenged on the defensive end. He knows they need work.

"Zach and Jabari analytically, defensively, have been below average," Paxson admitted. "They're super talented. They're super athletic. They can learn that end. They can get better at that end."

He also explained how such one-dimensional players can evolve and what habits need to be overcome.  

"The defensive side of the floor is the hardest one to get guys to buy into," he said. "They grow up believing putting the ball in the basket is the only way to get recognized and especially in this business people believe the only way to get paid is to a high-volume scorer. We're still talking about two 23-year-old young players that still have a lot to learn."

And the former coach and broadcast analyst in Paxson started to come out as the discussion got more specific, a nice departure from the usual big-picture view of team business.  

"In the game today, so much switching is going on now because the screen-and-roll has become the predominant part of our game," he said. "Most teams now, to not compromise the defense where you're playing two defenders against the ball-handler, there's a lot of switching out on the perimeter and so the individual defense on the ball is something that is obviously very important."

But there's another component that's critical to getting stops, one concept that takes longer for many to master or at least become competent enough, and that's guarding off the ball. 

"Just because you're not guarding a certain player who has the ball in his hands, it's still staying in a stance and seeing the ball and your man and looking for cutters," Paxson explained. "I do know our staff works on those concepts all the time. My point is this: They can get better.  The metrics and the analytics say that they haven't been good. But it's still a team game conceptually. You need help defenders. I think they can get better." ​

This would seem to be on assistant Jim Boylen, the ostensible defensive expert next to Fred Hoiberg, a head coach who rarely fields a question about defense without answering in a way that somehow gets back to talking about scoring. If what Paxson describes sounds like a serious commitment to video work, drills and repetitions in practice, that's because it is. None of it is as easy as downloading a software patch or updating an app -- it's only a combination of recognition and muscle memory that comes from doing the right things over and over again.

Neither Lavine nor Parker is likely to be a lock-down defender drawing a key assignment at a critical time, but just being able to switch for two dribbles would be a major improvement. That's a reasonable expectation for players with that much established talent, an extent to which Panaggio certainly had it right.

Dan Bernstein is a co-host of 670 The Score’s Bernstein & McKnight Show in middays. You can follow him on Twitter @dan_bernstein.