It's still not clear to me whether Paul Westphal has told his guards to play for the steal or whether it's a strategy they have decided to employ on their own. Yesterday, I joined the broadcast crew in bemoaning the strategy -- Grant Napear and Jerry Reynolds have discussed the risks involved in playing for the steal during each of the three games thus far, usually when Tyreke Evans or Kevin Martin lunge for a backcourt steal and come up empty. By ancedote, which is to say by viewing the game, it's not working -- too often the fruitless lunge leads to a fairly easy score for the opponent.
I talked with a friend Sunday about the apparent strategy, and he made some terrific points which have me rethinking this a bit.
Or a lot. He pointed out Philadelphia's defense, which last season finished 13th in the league ... despite ranking 19th in shooting defense and 25th in defensive rebounding. How'd they do it? By stealing the ball frequently: Philly finished 3rd in opponent turnover rate. So despite being bad at forcing tough shots and being awful at rebounding opponent misses (creating more and easier shots for the opponent), Philadelphia ended up with an above-average defense -- a playoff-caliber defense.
Miami, the league's No. 12 defense last season, did something similar. The Heat finished 16th in shooting defense, 19th in defensive rebounding, 21st in opponent free throw rate and ... 4th in opponent turnover rate. Below average in all but one category, but so good in that category that the team finished with the 12th best defense in the league. Milwaukee was another one: 15th in overall defense, 17th in shooting defense, 11th in defensive rebounding, 30th in opponent free throw rate, 1st in turnover defense.
For the Kings, a measure of whether this is the right strategy will not only be its success rate, but the recovery rate for the other four defenders. If every failed attempt results in a made basket, you'll have to be successful on more than half of your steal attempts, which seems really unlikely (though I don't have the data to back that up). But if the opponent's shooting percentage doesn't spike to ungodly levels when you gamble, then you can actually improve your bottom line by gambling. It's like stealing bases. It's a cost-benefit analysis on every play.
In the physical sense, Evans and Martin might be perfect weapons for this strategy. Both are oversized at their positions, and each can finish well in the open court.