Defense is underrated.
A lot of emphasis is put on the NBA's most prolific point-totalers and their ability to run up the scoreboard, yet not nearly enough attention is paid to the ones who are adept at preventing such talents from doing just that.
Because for every scorer, there is a defensive-minded athlete capable of shutting them down.
We're not just referring to the players who block shots by the bunches or dominate the measurable facets on that side of the ball either. It's easy to deem a player a capable defender when watching them play zone or receive help defense from a teammate, but the truly talented defenders are the ones who can prevent baskets and force turnovers on their own.
They're the ones who rely on themselves before anyone else.
Iman Shumpert may still be rehabilitating a torn ACL, but after his performance last season, it's clear he belongs here.
From the moment he joined the New York Knicks, he was tasked with shutting down the most elusive of players. His superior instincts coupled with quick and explosive lateral movements make him near impossible to pass.
And while Tyson Chandler was recognized as the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year last season, the Knicks' rise to defensive competency wouldn't have been possible without their rookie hounding the stealthier talents on the wings.
Which is why New York is so anxious to have him return, because Shumpert's defensive intensity, along with his 1.7 steals per contest, ensures the team is hardly ever outgunned on the perimeter.
Shane Battier isn't especially athletic; he doesn't grab a lot of steals or block a ton of shots, and he's far from explosive.
But he gets the job done.
Everything Battier does is calculated. From the space he gives his defender to ensure he doesn't get beat off the dribble to his swarming weak-side sets, he knows how to both keep and get the ball out of his assignment's hands.
No, he doesn't take many risks or jump-start a string of fast-break opportunities, but that's hardly a bad thing.
What Battier does is ensure the Miami Heat have a consistent one-on-one defender who rarely gets exploited and can lock down various position players that appear much more athletic than him.
And even on a team that boasts the likes of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, that's extremely important.
Kobe Bryant may be 34, but he's still one of the best one-on-one defenders the NBA has to offer.
Though the Black Mamba is liable to force plenty of steals—1.5 per game for his career—and an array of turnovers, the depth of his value lies in his anticipation.
Despite reoccurring knee problems and enduring the general rigors of age, Bryant has remained one of the most dependable defenders overall because he's great at reading his opponents.
Whether you go right or left or head straight for the rim, the Los Angeles Lakers star is on his toes, ready to change directions, block your path to the basket and clog any open passing lanes.
Because he's such a prolific scorer, though, his worth on the defensive end, especially when playing man-to-man, often goes overlooked.
But not here.
Shawn Marion does it all on defense—and then some.
It doesn't get acknowledged nearly enough, but Marion is one of the NBA's best all-around defenders.
He stands at 6'7" but is powerful enough to defend low-post sets, yet also quick enough to step out on the perimeter and contain an athletic freak like Russell Westbrook.
Marion also exhibits great awareness on the defensive end. He knows where both the ball and his man are at all times, and he rarely allows himself to be beaten off a quick first step.
At 34, with more than 13 years worth of NBA-related wear-and-tear on his body, we could easily assume that he has lost a step or two, that he's a more porous defender than he once was.
But to assume such a thing would be ignorant, because even now, Marion remains one of the toughest athletes to pass on the defensive end.
Andre Iguodala is underrated in almost every facet of the game, including defense.
Not only is the shooting guard athletic enough to lock down the perimeter, but he's also physical enough to bang down low with opposing bigs.
And it goes beyond his ability to clog the passing lanes, beyond the 1.7 steals per game he has averaged for his career.
Unlike Shane Battier, he doesn't rely on calculated spacing to yield results. Instead, he swarms everyone he defends, which ultimately leaves him susceptible to being beat off the dribble.
Or so you would think.
Iguodala's superior anticipation and quickness allow him to go to nose-to-nose with a point guard without getting burned off the dribble.
In fact, "help defense" isn't a phrase he's familiar with.
Because he hardly ever needs it.
The last point guard to win an NBA Defensive Player of the Year award was Gary Payton in 1996.
If there's a current floor general who can break the trend of forwards and centers earning the honor, though, it's Chris Paul.
Paul isn't exceptionally versatile defensively—he can't defend big men the way Andre Iguodala can—but he's efficient in everything he does on that end of the ball, which he owes to his incredible footwork.
Operating on a surgically repaired knee hasn't slowed him down one bit, as he can still make the sharp lateral movements necessary to defend more elusive guards like Tony Parker or even Dwyane Wade.
His ability to shift his feet at a split-second's notice can also not be stressed enough, as it enables him to force players to their left, where his distinguished hand-eye coordination takes over and forces turnovers.
And that alone has been more than enough to render him one of the best one-on-one defenders in the game.
Luol Deng is as stingy a defender as there is in the NBA.
The small forward and perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate is the perfect balance of calculated and athletic. Everything he does is deliberate, yet he possesses the agility necessary to counteract the unexpected.
What truly makes him impenetrable as a one-on-one defender, though, is his ability to read body language.
Deng doesn't fall for head fakes or jab steps. He knows when a move is a legitimate push and when it is a mere ploy used to draw a defender off his feet or in the wrong direction.
And it is these very instincts, the ones that force the ball out of his opponent's hands, that have made him a great on-ball defender.
Rajon Rondo's defensive prowess isn't as flashy as his offensive tendencies.
At least not often.
Sure, Rondo will swipe two steals per game and perhaps head the other way for a flamboyant score or assist, but overall, he plays gritty defense.
Not only does the point guard have a quick set of hands that force plenty of turnovers, but his coordination is surpassed by no one.
He's great at moving from East to West and bodies up effectively against his opponent when they make their move toward the rim.
Toss in his penchant for creating a false sense of security by leaving an ample amount of space between him and his man only to poke the ball away off the dribble or force him to his left, and you have a lanky floor general who will not be passed or overpowered by anyone.
Just ask Dwyane Wade.
Is there anything LeBron James can't do?
Not that I know of.
Though "The Chosen One" receives most of his well-deserved recognition because of what he can do offensively, he's also a staunch defender.
The small forward is both explosive and versatile enough to defend every position on the floor and excel while doing so.
And while he lights up the defensive stat lines by snagging 1.7 steals and swatting away nearly one block per contest, it's his impervious demeanor that truly makes him a great man-to-man defender.
Despite being one of the most powerful athletes in the game, James sacrifices nothing in swiftness. He can navigate the floor while defending with his back to the basket extremely well, and he has the hands and timing necessary to make an opponent pay if they do manage to pass him.
It simply doesn't get much better than James here.
But then again, it never does.
There's no better one-on-one defender in the NBA than Tony Allen.
Not even LeBron James himself.
Allen isn't especially strong, or even athletic, but he's a terrific executor on the defensive side of the ball.
His lightning-quick feet coupled with his even faster hands make him nearly impossible to pass and render him liable to force a countless number of turnovers.
This is a guy who can defend the most brutal of slashers like Kevin Durant and Dwyane Wade, yet he also has the patience necessary to man star floor generals like Chris Paul and Deron Williams.
What's more, he'll rarely need assistance doing so, because he's that smart, that accustomed to reading body language and that deft at reacting to sudden movements.
And with tendencies, abilities and instincts like those, it's no wonder he's the most effective man-to-man defender in the league.