The NBA's Most Underrated Defensive Stoppers
The NBA’s most talented stars are respected for their ability to eclipse 30 points on any given night. The league’s defensive stoppers, on the other hand, often go largely unnoticed.
Unless NBA players are being rewarded for their defensive acumen, via Defensive Player of the Year awards or by making All-Defense teams, their gritty efforts on the defensive end are not recognized. However, those guys are the unsung heroes who are frequently the difference between a win and a loss.
Here's a look at the players who are underrated defensive stoppers.
Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls
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When you think “underrated defensive stopper,” Joakim Noah probably isn’t the first name that comes to mind. Noah gets considerable recognition for his defensive capabilities, and he may be the favorite to win Defensive Player of the Year.
While Noah likely isn’t considered underrated defensively, he may very well be when you see just how big of a difference he’s making in Chicago.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau (via ESPN Stats & Info), Noah’s 23-point, 21-rebound, 11-block performance against the Philadelphia 76ers will go down in the history books:
Correcting an earlier tweet: ELIAS: Joakim Noah last night was 1st player in NBA history w/ 20+ pts, 20+ reb, 10+ blk and 65+ FG pct in a gm
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 1, 2013
Take that record with a grain of salt, though, because it’s incredibly likely that NBA legends like Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain posted games like that numerous times throughout their careers. There’s no record of it because blocks weren’t recorded in their playing days, to the chagrin of stat geeks everywhere.
Noah is making a massive impact on the defensive end. When he’s on the court for the Bulls, opponents are shooting 45.6 percent from the field and have an offensive rating (points produced per 100 possessions) of 100, according to Basketball Reference. When Noah sits on the bench, the opponents’ field-goal percentage jumps to 49.4 percent, while their offensive rating improves to 106.1.
In other words, opponents are shooting nearly four percent better from the field and scoring 6.1 points per 100 possessions better when Noah isn’t on the court defending.
Additionally, Noah’s defensive total (blocks, steals and charges taken) is third in the NBA at 3.57, according to HoopData. That’s nearly three times the league average of 1.26.
The wily big man is getting recognized for his defensive capabilities, but one could argue that he should be getting more praise when you look at advanced statistics.
Noah averages 7.5 defensive rebounds, 2.2 blocks and 1.3 steals per game. His blocks and steals numbers are career highs.
Eric Bledsoe, Los Angeles Clippers
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Due to his athleticism and scoring ability, Eric Bledsoe’s defensive capabilities are often overshadowed. He’s averaging career highs in points (9.3 per game), field-goal percentage (45 percent) and three-point field-goal percentage (43.1 percent).
Bledsoe has certainly stepped up his offensive game in his third professional season, but he’s also making a big impact on the defensive end.
Bledsoe’s defensive total (blocks, steals and charges taken) of 2.64 puts him near the top of the league despite notching just 21.5 minutes per game, according to HoopData. The only player with a higher rating than Bledsoe who plays fewer minutes per game is Detroit’s Andre Drummond.
When Bledsoe is on the court, opponents shoot 47.2 percent. When he’s on the bench, that percentage climbs to 49.6 percent. Additionally, opponents’ offensive rating is 2.2 points per 100 possessions better when Bledsoe isn’t playing.
What’s also impressive is that Bledsoe averages just 1.6 personal fouls per game. His 1.6 steals and 0.8 blocks per game are both career highs.
Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
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Kawhi Leonard has experienced some injury troubles this season, but the 21-year-old NBA sophomore continues to improve.
The 6’7” swingman first cracked Gregg Popovich’s playing rotation because he played sound defense. The offense that accompanied was seen as a pleasant surprise, but it’s hard to argue that Leonard isn’t a two-way player.
According to an NBA.com mailbag with Popovich, the San Antonio Spurs head coach said of Leonard, “I think he’s going to be a star. And as time goes on, he’ll be the face of the Spurs.”
That’s high praise from a coach who has seen greatness in the form of Tim Duncan, David Robinson and Tony Parker.
When Leonard is on the court for San Antonio, the Spurs' steal percentage and block percentage are a combined 3.1 points higher than when he’s on the bench.
The most impressive advanced statistic attached to Leonard, however, is that the offensive rating of opponents is a full four points lower per 100 possessions when he's on the court (98) than it is when he’s on the bench (102).
While some may argue that Leonard is just a product of Pop’s coaching system, it’s clear that he makes a major difference on the overall team defense when he’s on the court.
DeMarre Carroll, Utah Jazz
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While Gordon Hayward and Alec Burks are underrated defenders in their own right, DeMarre Carroll truly takes the cake for the Utah Jazz.
Carroll is a high-energy guy who averages just 17.5 minutes per contest. Despite that, Carroll has a 17.27 player efficiency rating.
While his own PER is impressive enough, Carroll is holding opponents to a PER of 11.9, according to 82games.com. Not only is that number the best on the Jazz roster, but it’s also infinitely better than teammate Earl Watson, who gives up a PER of 19.2 while sporting an ugly 8.7 PER himself.
Carroll’s uncanny ability to hold opponents to low efficiency ratings is enough to make him an underrated defensive stopper. However, another of Carroll’s statistics is truly eye-popping.
When Carroll is on the bench for the Jazz, the offensive rating of the opponent is 109.5. When Carroll is on the court, that number plummets to 102.3, according to Basketball Reference.
If you’re keeping score at home, that’s more than a seven-point differential.
Not only that, but Utah’s combined steal and block percentage is 3.7 points higher when Carroll is on the floor.
Let’s just say that Carroll has deserved his increase in minutes. If I'm the coach, he deserves more moving forward.
Paul George and Lance Stephenson, Indiana Pacers
The Indiana Pacers are the best defensive team in the NBA in terms of points allowed per game. On that basis, pinpointing underrated defenders on their team may be an odd route to take. However, considering that Roy Hibbert and David West get a lot of credit for creating an interior presence and rebounding the ball, the tandem of Paul George and Lance Stephenson gets overshadowed.
George, the 22-year-old first-time All-Star, has burst onto the NBA scene this season. He’s receiving strong consideration from pundits around the league for the Most Improved Player Award, mainly due to his offense.
Despite the praise, George isn’t having an overwhelmingly good year from an offensive standpoint. He’s shooting just 42.9 percent from the field with increased minutes (a career-low shooting percentage for the youngster), and his three-point shooting percentage is about the same as it was last year.
Defensively, however, George is holding opponents to an 11.1 player efficiency rating, according to 82games.com, while nabbing a career-high 6.7 defensive rebounds per game.
His 17.8 points per game is a nice number, but it’s also a stat that undermines his defensive prowess.
As for Stephenson, Bill Simmons of Grantland.com wrote in a recent column, “Thanks to Danny Granger’s injury, Stephenson somehow evolved into a fearless defender/athlete/wild card for a suddenly dangerous Pacers team.”
Additionally, Simmons pointed out the points per 100 possessions and plus/minus stats for the Pacers' lineup of George, Stephenson, Hibbert, West and George Hill compared to other most-used lineups from NBA contenders. The numbers were as follows:
Hill-George-Stephenson-West-Hibbert: 877 mins, +240, 1.10 scored, 0.96 allowed.
Westbrook-Sefolosha-KD-Ibaka-Perkins: 852.4 mins, +147, 1.10 scored, 1.01 allowed.
Chalmers-Wade-LBJ-Bosh-Haslem: 445 mins, +120, 1.14 scored, 1.01 allowed.
Parker-Green-Leonard-Splitter-Duncan: 222.8 mins, +104, 1.08 scored, 0.85 allowed.
Paul-Green-Butler-Griffin-Jordan: 519.2 mins,+73, 1.13 scored, 1.06 allowed.
As you can see, the Pacers' team of five has a plus/minus nearly 100 points better than the next-best lineup. Indiana is my dark horse pick to win the Larry O’Brien Trophy this year.
Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Milwaukee Bucks
With a guy like Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, statistics don’t tell the whole story.
Although he doesn’t have the same compelling on- and off-court statistics like other guys in the league, and he tends to get overshadowed by the block machine that is Larry Sanders, Mbah a Moute is a very solid (and underrated) NBA defender.
In the video breakdown by Steve von Horn of SB Nation’s Milwaukee Bucks blog, we see Mbah a Moute defending one of the league’s most potent offensive threats, Kevin Durant.
Obviously, covering a guy as lengthy and skilled as KD can often prove an impossible task. However, as multiple plays in the video dictate, Mbah a Moute is able to stay with Durant and force him to take tough shots.
There’s also a YouTube video of Mbah a Moute talking about defense and the challenge of guarding the NBA’s elite talents. You can tell this guy takes pride in his defensive abilities.
Sanders may have a highlight reel of blocked shots, but Mbah a Moute has the basketball IQ needed to compete with the toughest players to guard.
P.J. Tucker, Phoenix Suns
Despite averaging just 5.4 points and 4.1 rebounds per game this season, P.J. Tucker has arguably been the biggest difference-maker for the lowly Phoenix Suns.
A major reason for the niche he’s carved in Phoenix is his hustle and defense. Tucker is asked to guard the opposing team’s best player on a nightly basis, and he always makes opponents work for every point they get.
According to Basketball Reference, Suns opponents are shooting 52 percent when Tucker is on the bench and 48.8 percent when he’s on the court. Additionally, the opponents’ offensive rating is 109.5 with Tucker sidelined, and 104.3 when he’s on the court defending.
The on- and off-court numbers justify the work ethic and hustle Tucker has displayed. His most impressive feat this season, however, was defending against an NBA legend and one of the best scorers the league has ever seen.
In a 91-85 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, Tucker played phenomenal defense on Kobe Bryant, frustrating him into one of the worst shooting nights of his entire career.
Bryant finished with four points on 1-of-8 shooting from the field to go along with eight turnovers. According to an article by Jacob Padilla of brightsideofthesun.com, “Bryant went 0-of-5, was fouled on one shot and committed six turnovers against Tucker’s defense.”
Preventing Bryant from making a single basket is something that simply does not happen, but Tucker proved his worth as a defensive stopper by doing so.
Tucker had success against Bryant, but defensive performances against other stars prove it wasn't a fluke. This clip of Tucker defending LeBron James and this clip of Tucker defending Carmelo Anthony are two great examples.
Prior to getting fired, Suns head coach Alvin Gentry said of Tucker (per Dave Dulberg of ArizonaSports.com):
He’s a gritty basketball player, and he has unbelievable toughness. He believes in his ability to go out on the floor and guard. That’s why we played him on a shooting guard, small forward, power forward, everywhere, because that’s what he brings to the table.
Tucker will likely never raise eyebrows with his box score. That said, he makes a gigantic impact on the defensive end and takes things personally when he gets scored upon.