Defensive Pointers

By Josh Eberley #41

Searching for meaningful defensive discussion is a journey. Buried way under a pile of excrement, deep down in the earth, locked behind a labyrinth of senseless highlights and bloopers you might just find a sensible conversation. Maybe.

While as far as we know NBA point guards don’t allow themselves to get torched in order to land the final blow later, we have no idea what their defensive motive is in the moment. It might be by design that a player lets his man blow by him only to get smothered by the help defense.

Defense is a lot of guess work. On offense it’s pretty clear whether the player was looking to shoot, pass, or run some off-ball action. However, on defense things are nowhere near as transparent. There was a great piece a couple weeks back talking about the next frontier and the obsession with an all-in-one defensive stat you should also take a gander at.

Essentially, there is no true hook in which one can rest their hat in the search for who stands out defensively amongst their peers. This is important to register because if you’ve ever tried to talk defense with fans of a different team your forehead is likely still sore from banging it against the wall.

“Harden is actually not a bad defender he’s well above average.”

“No, hell no. Harden is a pylon.”

Both are likely hyperbole and yet how can you blame them? Most fans, most members of the media even, are basing a large portion of their defensive evaluations off of the eye-test. Guesstimating based on the limited amount of gameplay they watch, gambling that a louder voice won’t object to their wild claim that lacks real evidence.

The majority of arguments on the subject conclude with the most established basketball mind’s opinion being taken as fact and yet who is checking their sources?

It’s unlikely that any stat will ever be taken as definitive proof of a player’s overall ranking on either side of the ball. That said, we might be able to do better in the future. Until that time, a combination of the good ol’ eye-test and the numbers we have available will have to do.

Below is a list of point guards ranked by their defensive play. It’s my hope that this may stop the cliché use of, “pylon” or “shutdown” when describing every other guard. Some players are bad and some are great but few are either and fall somewhere in-between.

They are ranked by a combination of the eye-test—a heavily subjective measure to say the least and defensive real plus minus (DRPM)—an estimation of a players on court defensive impact.

To clarify on the eye-test portion, I brought on Jeremy Woo from Sports Illustrated and Michael Gallagher of NBC to help out. Together the three of us ranked players on a scale of 1-10 (half points were allowed) and averaged the results, then we averaged those findings against the players DRPM.

Here’s Woo on some of his defensive scouting methodology:

“When I’m trying to scout a player defensively, I try not to give too much weight to any one game or matchup. I look at stuff like Real Plus Minus to try and corroborate what I’m seeing. It’s way easier to ID a bad defender or a lazy one than it is to decide who’s a great one. I try to be holistic—physical tools, matchup capability, effort and commitment, instincts and positioning—these are all things that play a factor. If a guard can’t stick one on one but can jump a passing lane and generally be in the right spots off the ball, it still counts for something. With the way the NBA is leaning these days (scoring is way up anyway, lots of ballhandlers are scorers), accurately rating a defender is sometimes more about what boxes he can check on an average night than whether or not he just shut down Player X for 30 minutes. If I’m scouting a prospect in college or high school, I try to imagine along those lines, too.”

The Elite

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 16: Michael Carter-Williams #5 of the Milwaukee Bucks defends the ball against Chris Paul #3 of the Los Angeles Clippers during the game on December 16, 2015 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2015 NBAE (Photo by Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images)
Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images

1. Chris Paul, 6.055
At this point in his career and age, many would expect Paul to be running solely on reputation but the metrics still love him. He seldom guards the tough PG counterparts for long stretches but when he has to he rolls up his sleeves on key possessions. Paul always shows good decision-making on the defensive end, rarely leaving his team in a bad spot.

2. Patrick Beverley, 5.115
Beverley has the tenacity all defenders aspire to. He has so much fight in him on any given night that he’s in the heads of the NBA’s best before the game even tips off. He’s as tough as it gets in this game and he isn’t afraid of anything.

3. Marcus Smart, 4.755
Smart may come off the bench but he’s one of the League’s most feared defenders. He blasts through screens and has the strength to fight off opponents from three different positions.

4. Ricky Rubio, 4.56
Strictly as a defender, Rubio has immense value. He sees the floor so well and has a competitive ire not often broadcasted loud enough.

5. George Hill, 4.51
Even in an injury riddled season both the panel and the metrics gave Hill an awful lot of love. Not even accounted in this ranking is the +7.5 differential to the Jazz’s DRTG when Hill is on vs. off the floor.

PORTLAND, OR - DECEMBER 26: Kyle Lowry #7 of the Toronto Raptors plays tight defense against the Portland Trail Blazers during the game on December 26, 2016 at the Moda Center in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images)
Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

6. Kyle Lowry, 4.14
Lowry’s hot shooting is one thing but his defense sets him apart from Eastern Conference peers. Lowry is broad and can body bigger guards while using unheralded quickness to stay in front of smaller ones.

7. Jrue Holiday, 3.775
Holiday was a surprise this high but here he sits. Holiday is rarely mentioned with the NBA’s best but his positive DRPM and his +7.6 DRTG differential speak highly of him.

8. Tyler Johnson, 3.67
Johnson is quickly growing a reputation as a defensive stalwart. He fights for his minutes and his reputation is hard earned especially in the shadow of defensive sensation Justise Winslow.

9. Matthew Dellavedova, 3.38
New uni, same Delly. The Bucks nabbed themselves a championship-tested competitor to play next to superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo. Dellavedova can sometimes be overly aggressive defensively, but his effort level is amongst the elite.

WASHINGTON, DC -  NOVEMBER 21: John Wall #2 of the Washington Wizards blocks the shot of Eric Bledsoe #2 of the Phoenix Suns on November 21, 2016 at Verizon Center in Washington, DC. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)
Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

10. John Wall, 3.37
Wall might be sliding into the last top 10 spot, but he has long been a noted two-way player. He shadows his man incredibly well while on ball and is always on the lookout in passing lanes.

These are your shutdown guys. These are the individuals that got love from both the numbers and the eyes of your local hoopheads.

You could argue point guard defense isn’t as consequential to the team on a whole as that of wings and big men but these 10 have concrete value and demonstrate it on a nightly basis.

Not surprisingly Chris Paul is the alpha, looking at the top 10 does anyone stand out?

Middle of the Pack

11. Ish Smith, 3.33
Smith graded out very well. Which isn’t something you can say for teammate Reggie Jackson. Smith scored well in DRPM, DRTG differential, and his low score from the panel was six.

ORLANDO, FL - FEBRUARY 21: Elfrid Payton #4 of the Orlando Magic plays defense against George Hill #3 of the Indiana Pacers during the game on February 21, 2016 at Amway Center in Orlando, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Gary Bassing/NBAE via Getty Images)
Gary Bassing/NBAE via Getty Images

12. Elfrid Payton, 3.25
Payton was one of the few players who scored significantly better from the panel than he did via the numbers. His average of seven from the panel carried him above several players who had better defensive numbers.

13. Jeff Teague, 3.085
Teague is having a very strong push of late, he may not be the equal of departed George Hill but he’s shined in his own right.

14. Steph Curry, 3.11
Curry graded out slightly above average but the metrics still favor him. He’s an often misunderstood defender who at times lack physicality but makes up for it with sharp play in the passing lanes and active hands on and off ball.

15. Russell Westbrook, 2.8
Westbrook has been heavily criticized this season. The effort is not there and you can understand to some extent why. His play style is taxing and the extra push on offense has sapped him some on defense. Despite the fall off, both the panel and the numbers had him just above average.

16. Mike Conley, 2.685
Conley falling as far as he did might be surprising but both his DRTG differential and DRPM were negative. The panel’s feelings on his reputation saved him from dropping further.

17. Jeremy Lin, 2.65
Lin stands out in Brooklyn for a number of reasons but part of it is his solid defensive play while on the ball. Lin was a positive in terms of both DRTG differential and DRPM.

18. Kemba Walker, 2.505
Walker is an interesting case, he works very hard on defense and seems to be fundamentally solid. However, he lacks the size and strength to truly limit the elite ball distributors currently in the association.

19. Rajon Rondo, 2.505
Rondo admitted when coming to Dallas that he hadn’t focused on defense in some time. Although amidst so many troubles it’s easy to label him a liability the numbers disagree. He’s average to below average at this point in his career.

OAKLAND, CA - DECEMBER 3: Eric Bledsoe #2 of the Phoenix Suns plays defense against Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors during the game on December 3, 2016 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)
Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

20. Eric Bledsoe, 2.38
Bledsoe, once thought as true positive on defense, has slipped some. The Suns on a whole don’t play a good deal of defense and actually have a better DRTG when he sits.

21. Ty Lawson, 2.19
Lawson, while also undersized, grades out better than his teammate Darren Collison. Lawson can get bullied, but he’s also very good at slipping the screen.

22. Deron Williams, 2.165
The former superstar is enjoying a quiet fall from grace, no longer beaten by the media for failing to carry a team he’s treading water in Dallas at both ends. Both metrics had him as a negative, his former reputation might have boosted him a tad too high.

23. Tim Frazier, 1.845
Frazier steered the ship admirably but he’s a subpar NBA defender and his strides as a player offensively have not been met at the other end.

24. D’Angelo Russell, 1.845
The good news is Russell scored better than fellow sophomore Emmanuel Mudiay. The bad news is he still scored poorly. Russell still gets lost and the effort is still a question mark but he’s grown some under new coach Luke Walton.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - DECEMBER 17: James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets defends against the Minnesota Timberwolves on December 17, 2016 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)
David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

25. James Harden, 1.805
Contrary to YouTube and Vine, Harden isn’t dead last. He also is a ways off from Westbrook, but being in this tier is a win for the MVP frontrunner.

26. J.J. Barea, 1.72
Barea was bizarre. He had an insanely inexplicable +9.5 DRTG differential but a -0.56 DRPM. The panel also had him fairly low. This should be interesting to watch when he returns to a contributing role in Dallas.

27. Reggie Jackson, 1.64
Jackson had the worst DRTG differential of all 38 players (-10.9). Things aren’t overly stable right now in Detroit and part of that can be attributed to the shaky and stubborn play of Jackson.

28. Derrick Rose, 1.565
Rose hasn’t been bad this year, he also hasn’t been good. He has contributed some on offense but still finds himself as a subpar defender. Both metrics pegged him near the bottom and only Woo’s 5.5 individual ranking saved him from falling into the next tier.

The wide middle range covers the pretty good defenders all the way to the bad defenders. Westbrook who has garnered a ton of criticism defensively this season still finds himself in the upper half of the list. Alternatively, the League’s other MVP frontrunner (Harden) finds himself in the bottom third, narrowly avoiding the depths of defensive depravity.

Interestingly, the reigning back-to-back MVP still sits comfortably at 14. Ish Smith is way above his front man, and potential buy-out candidate Rondo is dead middle.

Traffic Cones

29. Emmanuel Mudiay, 1.52
Mudiay has a lot of question marks midway through his second season. The shooting was always a point of emphasis but defense was supposed to be something he brought on a nightly basis.

30. Darren Collison, 1.49
Collison has never been a great defender, size is an issue, motor is an issue, and playing in Sacramento with a number of negative defenders doesn’t help.

31. Goran Dragić, 1.44
Dragic had the second worst DRTG differential (-9.7), his highest mark from the panel was a 5.5. Although he’s having an underrated overall season his defensive performance has not been a high point.

32. Sergio Rodriguez, 1.37
Rodriguez finds himself at the bottom of the list around the same time he’s losing his starting job in the NBA. He was the lowest marked player on Gallagher’s individual list at 2.5 out of 10.

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 8: Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers plays defense against the Atlanta Hawks on November 8, 2016 at The Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images)
David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

33. Kyrie Irving, 1.365
Irving is not a strong defender, he will be picked on from time-to-time and in the Finals last year there were stretches where the Warriors knew exactly who to attack. That said, there’ still a fair gap between him and the bottom three on this list.

34. Lou Williams, 1.27
Williams brings a spark off the bench but according to this list, that spark is one-sided. Williams was one of the few near the bottom who had a positive DRTG (+4.3), whether it’s an outlier or a sign of the Lakers poor production from the starters, you decide.

35. Tony Parker, 1.255
Parker has always been the weak spot in the Spurs barricade. Given his age and lack of Duncan to lean on, he may be near his basement. Spurs fans hoping Mills eventually becomes the starter are very likely citing Parker’s defense for provocation.

36. Dennis Schroder, .735
Schroder did not get a positive score from the panel or from the numbers. It’s even more puzzling, given how strong the defensive presences of Paul Millsap and Dwight Howard are.

37. Damian Lillard, .695
Lillard is unexpectedly right near the bottom. His -9.6 DRTG differential is tied (Thomas is the other) for third worst of all those listed.

38. Isaiah Thomas, -0.375
Thomas is in trouble any time his man has the ball. He gives better than he gets, but his size and lack of discipline constantly find him reeling. Thomas, like his comparable Allen Iverson, is fortunate to have positive defenders around him.

The scrap bucket. Hyperbole is just that and in the entertainment business there will always be a smorgasbord of exaggeration. No NBA player in earnest is ever really a pylon or any other sarcastic quip, it’s just the nature of commentary to cater to extremes. That said, the players in this tier are liabilities at the current level they participate in on defense.

The younger guys in this tier still have time, Mudiay, for example, offers the physical tools to grow into a more prominent defensive role.

Size is also a factor, players like Thomas and Collison are always going to be limited trying to body the giants running across the Association.

In conclusion, this list isn’t a be-all or end-all to the conversation. There is no absolution when it comes to defensive critique. This, like many others, being just one look into the kaleidoscope.

All stats as of Jan. 6.