For years the phrase "offense wins games, defense wins championships" has been a mantra for organizations and their coaches and GMs as they try to build toward a title. Teams search for years for that elusive, game-changing defender who can not only check the other team's best offensive player, but take him out of the game completely and shut him down.
Every great team in the history of the league has had at least one such player, and many have been able to overcome offensive issues because they can play absolute lockdown defense. By establishing the tone of the game on the defensive end, one team can assert themselves against the other and knock them completely out of rhythm.
Despite today's NBA being more renowned for its show-stopping offense and highlight-reel plays, there are several young defensive players who are on the cusp of becoming true nightmares to play against. Whether its their on-ball defense, ability to swipe at the ball, or knack for keeping an opponent from getting to their spots, these guys truly make their living on the defensive end of the court.
Here is a look at a few elite stoppers who will be vying for All-Defensive team spots for years to come.
Though he's allowed Kobe Bryant to drop 38 and 36 points, respectively in their last two playoff games, Thabo Sefolosha's reputation as a defensive stopper is well earned. He's seen a decrease in time with Oklahoma City since the emergence of James Harden, but when Scott Brooks needs to contain a perimeter player, he knows that Sefolosha is the man to turn to.
After receiving sporadic playing time with the Chicago Bulls, Sefolosha found his role with the Thunder as the one to guard the other team's best wing. He brings extreme discipline and a willingness to do all the little things necessary for winning basketball games.
Sefolosha's defensive stats are not overly impressive. The 6'7" shooting guard averages roughly one steal per game and half of a block, but his worth does not come from stat-sheet contributions.
Sefolosha has a tremendous knowledge of how to play defense, knowing when to crowd a player and not allow them to shoot or to play back and protect against a drive. He can guard on the basketball as well as deny his man from catching the ball entirely, and rarely has mental lapses or makes careless mistakes.
He stays on his feet for as long as possible, not biting on ball fakes or overplaying and leaving himself vulnerable. Sefolosha is the kind of defender who forces 24-second clock violations because opponents simply cannot get a shot off. Sefolosha's size and athleticism allow him to defend both guard positions as well as the small forward spot.
On a team with a high-powered offense like Oklahoma City, it is imperative that there is a player whose sole job is to play airtight perimeter defense. Sefolosha has that role, and is just as important as anyone not named Durant or Westbrook to OKC winning the championship this summer.
In his rookie season, Avery Bradley was essentially an afterthought for the Boston Celtics as they made yet another title run around the core of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo. Receiving infrequent minutes primarily in blowouts, Bradley had a few bright spots, but it was unclear what his role with the team would be going forward.
That all changed this season, as injuries to Rondo and Allen forced Bradley not only into the starting lineup, but also into playing major minutes as the Celtics make another playoff push. Bradley was a revelation for the team on the defensive end, using his athleticism and sheer determination to wreak havoc against opposing guards.
In the course of one season, Avery Bradley became easily one of the league's elite on-ball defenders. He pressured opposing point guards so well and relentlessly that he completely took teams out of their offensive sets. It's a lot tougher to run the play when the basketball is in the half court with 16 seconds left than 24, and that's the kind of presence Bradley brought to Boston.
Occasionally he would gamble for a steal that proved risky, but for the most part Bradley was tremendously effective at making his assignments uncomfortable and ruining a team's attack from the perimeter.
The Celtics were so enamored with his play on the defensive end that even after Ray Allen returned from injury Boston still lined up Avery Bradley at the starting 2-guard position for the end of the season and start of the playoffs. He played tremendous basketball down the stretch and had one of the best defensive plays of the season with his monster rejection of Dwyane Wade.
The combination of Bradley and Rondo gave the Celtics one of the league's best defensive backcourts, and the organization seems committed to building around this pair in the post-Big Three era. If Bradley can continue to be the game-changing defender he was in 2012, the team is in better shape than many think.
Kawhi Leonard had a stellar rookie season by all accounts, being a key contributor for a San Antonio Spurs team that had the league's best record and is currently blowing through the postseason. The Spurs traded for Leonard, parting with talented point guard George Hill in order to get the San Diego State standout who was renowned for his defense in college. Through one NBA season, he's already drawing some comparisons to Spurs legend Bruce Bowen.
Possessing a 7'3" wingspan, Leonard's length can really bother opponents and impair their ability to see the court or elevate over him. He also had excellent hands. Several times during the regular season he would strip opponents as they went up and ignite a fast break. He averaged 1.3 steals per game for the Spurs and would often be charged with guarding an elite scorer on the wing every night.
At 6'7", Leonard primarily lines up at small forward, but he also spent time at the 2 spot and even some at the 4 when San Antonio went extremely small. His grit and physicality allowed him to guard taller, stronger guys who struggled to simply bully him around in the paint, while his quickness allowed him to check smaller, faster point guards.
Leonard's motor was one of the reasons he was considered a great prospect out of college, and it proved to carry over very well into the NBA. Leonard played with the same aggression and tenacity through the course of an entire game, rarely letting up and eventually simply wearing out his man and forcing them to be more passive on offense.
He could easily guard an opponent from the paint all the way out to the three-point line, always sticking tight to his man and moving through screens to keep the pressure on. Like Arron Afflalo, he excels in isolation situations, but thanks to his willingness to play in Gregg Popovich's system, he became a very solid help defender for San Antonio.
The Spurs organization is renowned for finding players they can plug into different roles seamlessly, and if Leonard keeps improving he could be their go-to defensive stopper for the next decade.
Obviously this is contingent upon Shumpert recovering well from the gruesome ACL tear he suffered in the New York Knicks' first playoff game against the Miami Heat, but if Shumpert comes back the same player he was last year, it's safe to say he will be a defensive force for years to come.
The Knicks drafted Shumpert out of Georgia Tech with the 17th overall pick and received much criticism from disgruntled fans who did not believe he could thrive at the NBA level. Shumpert hit the ground running, and was an unexpected success for a New York team that underwent significant turmoil and a major culture change before becoming one of the league's best defensive teams toward the end of the year.
With Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler anchoring the paint, the Knicks needed someone to step up and be the team's defensive star on the wing, a role Shumpert filled admirably in his first professional season. He was among the league leaders in steals during the regular season at 1.7 per game and was always able to force turnovers and take advantage of an opponent's loose handle.
Shumpert's height at 6'5" makes him ideal at the 2-guard position, but his strength, length and lateral speed allowed him to also defend point guards and small forwards. He was always up to the task of stopping the other team's best perimeter scorer and relished big moments throughout the year. He played well against scorers and facilitators, as well as knowing when to throw a double team or stick tight to his man.
The way the Knicks are currently constructed, they need Shumpert on the court because no one else on the roster could check the Kobe Bryants and Dwyane Wades of the league on a night-in and night-out basis the way Shump could. If this team is going to finally contend for a championship, the defense of Iman Shumpert is a key part of that.
For a rookie to have the kind of impact Iman Shumpert did proves just how valuable he was on the defensive end of the court, and the basketball world should be praying he returns to playing the kind of basketball he was before the injury, because he could definitely become a once-in-a-generation defender.
The Denver Nuggets showed that Arron Afflalo was their shooting guard of the future when they signed him to a mammoth five-year, $43 million contract extension last summer. The Nuggets could have waited and seen if they could bring the price down, but they knew Afflalo was their man and they wanted to lock him up as quickly as possible. One reason he was such a hot commodity was his defensive prowess.
Afflalo has been a hard worker ever since he came into the league, and that mentality has carried over to his work on the defensive end of the court. Afflalo is the kind of player who never takes a possession off, never lets his man beat him down the court for an easy basket, and never lets his play on the offensive end dictate how he plays on the defensive end.
He has great patience on D. An opponent can throw all kinds of moves at him to try and create separation or an open driving lane, but Afflalo keeps his position and his poise more often than not. Afflalo played solid defense on Kobe Bryant for most of the Nuggets' first-round series against the Lakers, not allowing Kobe easy looks at the rim and always being sure to get a hand up to contest a jumper. He's strong enough that he could handle Bryant in the post, something a lot of other guards could not do.
He isn't the fastest player in the league, but just like on offense, Afflalo can use strategic and deceptive bursts of speed to catch his man off guard and either swipe the ball loose or force them into an uncomfortable position. The former first-round pick out of UCLA is a capable team defender and helper, but really excels when placed in an isolation play, when he is charged with the task of shutting down his assignment.
Arron Afflalo is a stopper in the truest sense of the phrase, a player who can keep the player he is guarding from scoring and take them out of the flow of the offense. The main criticism about Afflalo as a player is that he has already reached his ceiling, but if he keeps playing defense at this level, the Nuggets will be in great shape on the perimeter going forward.
Luc Richard Mbah a Moute flew under the radar for most of the season playing for a Milwaukee Bucks team that finished ninth in the Eastern Conference after mounting a strong run for the final playoff spot. As the Bucks' perimeter stopper, Mbah a Moute was charged with guarding the other team's best outside scoring threat and being the defensive heart of a team that lost dominant center Andrew Bogut to injury for another season.
Mbah a Moute is an incredibly smart player and has a great understanding of how to guard different players at different positions. As evidenced by his ESPN article about guarding the league's stars, Mbah a Moute is more than willing to switch up his defensive style for the sake of effectiveness.
At 6'8", he is another defender who can guard the 1 through 3 positions effectively; he can keep slashing guards from getting into the paint, play close on jump shooters to take away their space, and front forwards in order to prevent them from catching the ball.
Mbah a Moute averaged about a steal and half a block per game last year, but his defense was less about creating turnovers than it was about latching onto his man and being a constant source of agitation. Because of his size, he can also guard well when drawn into the high or mid-post, something that players like Carmelo Anthony or Kobe Bryant love to do. Mbah a Moute showed excellent discipline and patience, waiting for plays to develop and reacting rather then making guesses that resulted in easier shots or bail-out fouls.
He is an intelligent, aggressive player and fits perfectly into Scott Skiles' defense-oriented system. Milwaukee showed that he was a part of their long-term plan by locking him in to a four-year, $19 million extension this past offseason. And as the team looks to make it back to the postseason, he'll be an instrumental part of what they do on the defensive end of the court.
Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley has steadily improved every year he's been in the league, but his defense took the biggest leap in the 2011-2012 season. Conley proved to be one of the premier pickpockets in the NBA, helping to establish the defensive, turnover-forcing identity that Memphis has thrived with over the last couple of years. Conley's 2.2 steals per game were among the best in the league.
In addition to creating turnovers and stripping the ball, Conley's overall defense made significant improvements as well. Earlier in his career, opponents could overpower him and drive to the basket, but he did a much better job this year of shutting off driving lanes and keeping his opponent in front of him. Conley has the quickness to contain some of the NBA's more explosive point guards, and proved that he could do so at a high level.
Mike Conley benefits from playing in a defense-oriented system led by head coach Lionel Hollins, but he was able to maximize his effectiveness by knowing when to help and when to stick to his assignment. The combination of Conley and Tony Allen gives Memphis a backcourt pairing that could stop even the most dynamic of offensive guards.
At 6'1" he may not have the size to cover most shooting guards, but thanks to the presence of Allen, he rarely had to, and he has the physicality to cover any point guard in in the NBA. Despite losing in seven games to the Los Angeles Clippers in Round 1, with the defensive pressure Mike Conley can apply on any given night, the Grizzlies' future as a championship contender is still bright.