Ranking the Best Defensive Point Guards in the NBA
Who are the best defensive point guards in the NBA, and how are they determined?
In order to answer that, we introduce Weighted Averaged Metrics (WAM) and WAM with Scouting (WAMS), a pair of advanced defensive metrics which combine other stats and metrics, weight them so that each represents an equal relative value, and then use them all to derive a final score.
These point guard rankings will be the first of five articles. Over the next four weeks, we’ll unveil the rankings for the other four positions.
The next three slides will tell how this particular sausage was made. If you’re not interested in that, feel free to skip ahead.
Broadly speaking, over 7,000 pieces of data on 226 players, in 16 different categories, were compiled into a database. Then, over 10,000 video clips were viewed and players were evaluated based on subjective criteria.
The players are ranked according to their WAMS. The values for the various metrics which comprised the WAM score and scouting scores are also available on each slide. The number in the parentheses indicates where they ranked in that category.
Theoretically Asked Questions
Normally this would be a list of FAQs, but no one has ever asked any questions (since no one has ever seen it). Therefore, it’s a Theoretically Asked Questions, or TAQ. Here are the answers to some questions readers are likely to have.
What do the numbers mean?
The corresponding WAM or WAMS scores indicate how many points a group of like-skilled players on the court would theoretically give up in 100 possessions. Therefore, a lower score is superior.
How did you arrive at these numbers?
There are a number of different types of metrics available from various websites. Each of these has its own value, and those specifics will be discussed more on the next slide. They were combined and adjusted to cover a range roughly between 18 and 22.
The relative value between players was not affected; they were merely weighted so that the metrics could be combined without any one metric dominating the others. The total numbers were then adjusted to arrive at a score ranging between 90 (best) and 110 (worst).
Why did you choose such a weird number scale? Why not a normal scale of one to 10?
That would make sense, but there are two reasons to choose the unconventional scale. First, a range of 18 to 22 makes it easier to arrive at the eventual score of 100—the baseline everything was weighted to.
Second, having a five-point range on a 22-point scale prevents any one statistic from overly dominating the others.
(As an aside, in the slides, you will only see the original metric value, not the weighted number to determine the WAM. This is to avoid confusion if you want to go to the original source.)
What is the advantage of this metric?
It is akin to the blind men and the elephant in the Indian fable adapted to a poem by John Godfrey Saxe. Six blind men all go to “see” an elephant which they've never encountered before. Each touches a different part of the elephant, one an ear, another the torso and so on.
Because they each feel a different thing, an argument arises as to who is right. Each fails to realize that they are all right, and that the real answer is in the combination of what they all experienced.
Similarly, while each of the advanced and/or traditional metrics has value, each also misses something. By combining them, we can get a better picture of the “whole elephant” of a player’s defense.
What is the difference between WAM and WAMS?
WAM is purely objective. It only looks at the data. WAMS includes scouting. For each player, I watched between one and two hours of footage of defense, taking account of specific things and grading them in five different areas.
It’s difficult to have a perfect rating system that’s entirely objective, and even more difficult to have a realistic one that is purely subjective. Stats don’t tell the whole story and our eyes often only confirm what we already know.
There’s a running debate over the relative importance of “stats” versus “watching.” Stats tell you “what” happened, but you can’t know “why” it happened unless you watch. On the other hand, you can’t deny what happened, regardless of how much you watch.
I like to compare it to the relationship between a foundation and a house. The foundation (the facts or stats) needs to be laid first, and then the house (opinions about how, or why, something is) is built on top of it.
You can’t build a house first, and then pour the foundation underneath it. The house would collapse. The same applies to any decent basketball argument (or any other kind, for that matter). The facts need to come first.
On the other hand, no matter how solid the foundation is, you can’t move into it. You need to build something on it. Stats don’t make a good argument, they make a good foundation for a good argument. Eventually, you need to form an opinion about why not just know what.
WAM is the foundation, and WAMS is the house.
Who is included in these rankings?
For many of these metrics, sample size becomes crucial. It is easy to have the numbers skewed by a smaller sample size. Therefore, with a few exceptions, players were only considered if they played at least 1,200 minutes last season (which comes out to around 30 percent of possible minutes).
Exceptions were made for Derrick Rose, Danny Granger, Andrew Bynum and Kevin Love because they have all been All-Star players, and all are still, at least by age, in their prime. None of them qualified based on the 1,200 minutes, so their stats from 2012 were used instead.
If you don’t want to consider them, then don’t. Mentally subtract them from the rankings if you feel they shouldn't be included. They are available for those who want to know where they fit, and it doesn't hurt anyone to include them.
The Metrics Used
For each of the following metrics, click on the subhead to be taken to the source website for more details. Other stats were determined by using my trusty sidekick, MS Excel, loaded up with standard stats available on most websites. On those, there is no link available.
OPER is the Opponents’ Player Efficiency Rating and has been tracked by 82games.com since 2008. It tracks the production of a player’s counterpart while he is on the court. The strength of this is that it shows what the other player does offensively.
The weakness is that it also includes some of what the other player does defensively, (e.g.. blocks, steals, and defensive rebounds). Other individual metrics and team metrics thin out the impact of those factors.
The average score by point guards was 16.1.
Synergy tracks every play of every game of the season and, when possible (as it is not always possible), they assign an initial defender on a play. They average the number of points a player gives up when he is the initial defender, and this is represented by defensive points per play.
The average score was .90.
One conundrum has always been how to account for who is guarding the best player on the other team. While no one “always” guards the best player, some players are much more likely to be guarding the other team’s elite players, which makes them appear weaker defensively. Other defenders’ deficiencies are hidden by being put on weaker offensive players.
That can create an illusion of great defense where there is none. In fact, a player may have great individual numbers precisely because he is actually detrimental to his team.
Meanwhile, another player has his numbers go up because he is capable.
In other words, giving up 15 points to Russell Westbrook is much more impressive than giving up 14 to Derek Fisher, but the raw stats don’t tell you who was guarding whom.
Since elite offensive players tend to have a higher usage rate, players that guard elite offensive players should also have more defensive plays. By taking the total number of plays and the total number of minutes (regular and postseason combined, because Synergy just throws it all together) we can determine how many times per 36 minutes a player was the initial defender on the play. The more often he is the primary defender, the more likely he is to be responsible for guarding the player who is getting the most plays offensively.
The average score was 11.7
Total Defensive Plays per 36 Minutes
Total Defensive Plays per 36 Minutes, or TDP/36 is simply the total number of defensive rebounds, steals and blocks a player accrues every 36 minutes.
While blocks and steals can be misleading when taken to exclusively represent defense, they are an aspect of it, so they shouldn’t be discounted entirely.
Defensive rebounds are generally undervalued, although it’s also true that all defensive rebounds aren’t the same.
The defensive stats aren’t a good way to determine the totality of defense, but they are a factor and shouldn’t be ignored.
These were calculated using the raw stats available on any site carrying basic stats.
The average score was 4.8
Defensive Rating (DRtg) is the average number of points per 100 possessions a player’s team surrenders while he is on the court. The advantage of defensive rating is that it accounts for the “things that don’t show up in box scores.” The disadvantage is that sometimes it’s not the player doing those things, and he’s getting credit for someone else’s great defense.
Several sites track this, each in its slightly unique way, depending on its formula to calculate possessions. For the purpose of this study, 82games was used because the net defensive rating was also easily available and it made for consistency. Both figures can be obtained by going to any player’s team page and then clicking on the appropriate name.
The average score was 106.9
Net Defensive Rating
One way of offsetting the problems of defensive rating is looking at on/off stats, meaning how many points does the defense give up while a player is on the court versus when he is off the court? If the team gives up more points while he’s on the court, that’s bad. If it gives up fewer points, that’s good. Ergo, a negative number is a positive thing, and a positive number is a negative thing.
The problem is that sometimes players are so inept, they skew the stats of other players. Take, for example, Carlos Boozer in 2012. He had the second-best defensive rating in the NBA. Sounds great, right? The only thing is that the Bulls actually gave up 8.6 more points while he was on the court. Taj Gibson, his backup, is a tremendous defensive player, which only amplified the effect of Boozer’s shortcomings.
The ripple effect of that was that every single Bull had a worse defensive rating with Boozer than when playing with Gibson. When Gibson played with the starters, the Bulls gave up 10 fewer points per 100 possessions. The effect was that the Bulls' starters all looked inferior to their backups.
Chris Paul fell into the same kind of trap last season.
Sometimes, all that the on/off stats tell you is the difference between two players that play the same position. They have value when there aren’t such extremes like the difference between Boozer and Gibson. The other metrics help alleviate the extremes because they also indicate what a player’s personal defense does.
The average score was .7.
While most of these stats are adjusted for minutes, the problem surfaces that bench players, playing fewer minutes, can appear to be better than they are. That’s because they can spend all their energy quickly, while starters have to pace themselves. For this reason, a small penalty was exacted for every minute under 30 minutes, and a small bonus was provided over 30 minutes.
The average minutes per game was 29.6.
That concludes the WAP portion of our programming schedule. See the criteria for scouting on the next slide.
As previously discussed, it is true that purely objective analysis does not, and cannot, tell the whole story, especially when it comes to something as dynamic as defense. For that reason, subjective analysis was also included.
Scouting isn’t the same as just watching games. It’s more than that.
If you’re a fan of the TV show Suits, you might agree that Harvey Specter dresses well. But what kind of suit was he wearing on the last episode? What color was his tie? You probably can’t say right away, because you watched the storyline, not how Harvey dressed.
Watching a thing, and watching for a thing, are different.
When we watch basketball, we get general impressions of defense, but the “storyline” is what’s happening with the ball. That’s where we naturally focus our attention, so when it comes to things like help defense, we only notice if we’re looking for it, or if it’s extreme.
So I saddled up my workhorse, Synergy, and watched an hour or two of each of the top 15 WAM scores playing defense. It might not seem like much, but for most players, this covered around 30-40 games' worth of defense.
From that, each player was scored in five different areas on a scale of 18 (best) to 22 (worst). The scouting score was then combined with the WAM score to produce WAMS, with the scouting counting as one-third of the final score.
The following are the five categories and what was considered for each of them:
Speed and Athleticism
How fast players are from end to end is only a part of speed. How they moved laterally, closed out on shooters, and recovered after getting beaten were also taken into account. Jumping ability, body control and agility were all considered as well.
In many cases, I looked at their combine results. All pre-draft measurements were obtained from the database hosted on Draft Express.
Size and Strength
Fairly straightforward, this takes into account height, length and strength. Being big and strong doesn’t mean players automatically got higher scores, though. Did they get pushed around easily? Were shooters able to shoot over them? Do they get their hands up and use their length? Can they play “bigger” than they really are? I considered both their actual measurables and how well they used them.
They say that defense is mostly about effort. That’s largely true. Some players with tremendous athleticism just don’t apply it on both ends of the court. Others with less physical prowess can dominate defensively simply because they pour everything into it. Think: Dennis Rodman.
Do players go under picks when they should go over them? How hard do they fight through them? And do they try and recover when they get beaten? Those are the questions I was looking to answer.
How much a player understands his role in the defense is measured here. Does he rotate on time? Does he know when to help and not to help? Does he pick up his man when switched? Does he know when to go over the pick, and when to go under it? Does he make stupid fouls or smart fouls? Is he an effective flopper? (I know, but it is a part of defense these days.) All the other tools and effort can be rendered useless by a little stupidity.
One of the great conundrums in rating defense is that teammates factor into it. Let’s say a perimeter defender gets beaten and then his center blocks the shot. The perimeter player gets rewarded statistically for what the center did, even though he actually played shoddy defense.
This score is to help alleviate that. If a player tends to be the helper, he gets a better score. If he tends to be the helped, he gets a worse score. If it tends to fall in the middle, he gets a 20.
And that is how this sausage was made.
The Rest of the Field
Since I always get asked "Where's ___________?" Here he is. If he's not on the slide and he played 1,200 minutes, he should be on this list somewhere.
Our booby prize winner is pictured above. Congratulations, Brian Roberts! You're the worst defensive point guard in the NBA!!!
15. Eric Bledsoe, Phoenix Suns, 100.25
Defensive Usage: 12.4
Defensive PPP: .87
Net DRtg: -4.9
WAM: 98.97 (13)
Scouting: 102.8 (15)
Speed and Athleticism: 20.1
Eric Bledsoe has a reputation as being both quick and fast, even for a point guard, but he rarely shows it on defense. He routinely gets blistered in isolation (.93 points per play), fails to close out well on shooters and lags when coming off of screens. Whether this is a result of his reputation being undeserved or him not putting forth the effort isn’t hard to determine.
All you have to do is watch him on offense to know he has all kinds of speed. So the problem isn’t a lack of speed; it’s a lack of applying it. It doesn’t help to be fast if you don’t use it, so Bledsoe’s score here is lower than you might expect.
Size and Strength: 19.8
Bledsoe is a bit of a freak. He might have Silly Putty for a father. It’s like someone took a normal-sized person and stretched out the arms and hands to make him. He’s just over 6’0" without shoes but has a wingspan of 6’7.5.” Only four players in the history of the combine are as short or shorter and have at least that kind of reach.
That deceptive length helps him nab 2.5 steals per 36 minutes and grab a ridiculous number of rebounds for a person his height. It also helps him to have the second-most defensive plays per 36 minutes of any of the point guards on this list.
Bledsoe just doesn’t bring much energy to the defensive side of the court, which is a shame, because if he did, he’d be a ball hawk. He has all the tools to be one: great reflexes and speed, and those long arms with big mitts on the end. But he jogs when he should run, is lackadaisical closing out shooters and goes through the motions when running through his rotations.
Basketball Intelligence: 20.9
Some of this is hard to know whether to ascribe to Bledsoe or to his former coach, Vinny Del Negro, who hones his X's and O's skills by playing tic-tac-toe online. Bledsoe runs through his rotations, but he rounds them off or overruns them. He gambles too much, and that often gets him caught out of the play. He leaves talented shooters alone to go double-team bad shooters.
He could be better than he is, but it’s hard to blame only him. Coaches are responsible for developing young players, and it would have been fun to watch him grow under Doc Rivers. Now he’s in Phoenix, and we’ll see how both he and Jeff Hornacek develop in their new roles.
Bledsoe is not a great help defender, in spite of boasting a -4.9 net defensive rating. That has more to do with the second-string frontcourt, led by Lamar Odom, backing him up than it does his team defense. The Clippers were 10 points better with Lamar Odom on the court than DeAndre Jordan according to NBA.com/STATS.
Bledsoe spent the majority of his time with Odom, while Chris Paul spent the majority of his time with Jordan, which confuses the on/off ratings.
Bledsoe repeatedly got beaten—much more frequently than Paul—yet Odom consistently had his back, blocking or altering shots. Bledsoe’s defensive numbers would be far worse if he weren’t getting helped out by Odom all the time.
14. Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors, 99.80
Defensive Usage: 12.1
Defensive PPP: .81
Net DRtg: -.3
WAM: 98.45 (9)
Scouting: 102.5 (14)
Speed and Athleticism: 19.2
Kyle Lowry has exceptional speed and athleticism. When he applies it, he does so effectively, especially in isolation and the pick-and-roll. Players have a difficult time getting past him. Even when he has to go under the pick, which is most of the time, he’s so fast that he’s able to close the distance before the ball-handler has time to do something with it.
He uses his speed well, as long as he’s engaged in the game. He’s able to stay in front of all but the quickest point guards in the league.
Size and Strength: 21.1
Lowry is neither big nor strong, and he does little with what size he has. He tends to rely on his speed to compensate for his lack of mass. Sometimes that works, such as his quick darts under picks. Sometimes it doesn’t.
He can’t be faulted for not being taller or longer, but he could use the length he has better. Even when in position, he won’t jump to challenge a shot. He won’t even try and fight over a pick if he gets caught in one, but just quits on the play.
When he tries, Lowry can be a solid defensive player, but that whole “when he tries” qualifier is pretty significant. He seems to get frustrated easily. When he does, he gets put off and his effort isn’t there anymore.
When the team is winning or the game is close, he puts in real effort, but if they are down, he shows noticeably less energy. That’s when you see him start to do things like not close out on shooters, merely waving his hand in the air instead.
Perhaps next year the Raptors will see better times, and we’ll see less of that kind of behavior, but it’s a harmful habit to have picked up. Hopefully he can break it.
He does get a bit of a bump here for his rebounding. He was second among point guards in defensive rebounds per 36 minutes.
Basketball Intelligence: 21.3
Lowry just seems to be lost on defense much of the time. Some players get caught out of place, but they know they’re out of place. Lowry looks around like he just woke up from a nap in a foreign city, and he’s trying to figure out where he’s supposed to be. Sometimes he’ll even rush to defend the wrong guy while his man is draining a wide-open three.
When he’s coming off screens, he’s especially horrible, giving up 1.15 points per play. Between his height, lack of real effort on closing out and taking too long to figure out where he’s supposed to be (if he ever figures it out all), he becomes the perfect storm for easy pickins’. Pun intended.
It is really hard to say anything about Lowry’s help defense. On the one hand, he doesn’t seem cogent enough of his surroundings most of the time to really offer any. On the other, he so rarely allows his opponent to get past him that he doesn’t need to rely on it either.
Since it’s neither, he gets an even score.
13. Mario Chalmers, Miami Heat, 99.37
Defensive Usage: 11.9
Defensive PPP: .85
Net DRtg: -4.7
Speed and Athleticism: 21.3
Mario Chalmers lacks the speed and athleticism of most point guards in the league, and as a result, he usually gets the best seat in the arena to see various point guards blowing by on the way to the rim.
When defending the isolation play, he gives up a nauseating .94 points per play, a strong indication of that.
He has two ways of guarding the iso—pray for help or flop. Over 90 percent of the time, the ball-handler gets by him. His score would be much worse if it weren’t for help defense from Chris Bosh, LeBron James and Chris Andersen frequently coming to his aid.
Size and Strength: 20
Chalmers is 6’2” and 190 pounds, which is about average size for a point guard. He doesn’t use his size exceptionally badly or incredibly well, though. While his pick-and-roll stats, according to Synergy, are excellent, at .68 points per play, half the time he seems to get bailed out by his frontcourt.
I counted off over 20 plays, specifically watching to see if Chalmers would stop the ball-handler, and he only did once. (Most defenders let the opponent by more than half the time. The reason teams run so much pick-and-roll is that it works. But one in 20 is egregiously bad.)
Sometimes his teammates bailed him out; sometimes the shot just didn’t go in. Of course, sometimes his opponent scored, too. But only once did he actually truly defend the play.
Chalmers will fail at things, but not because he isn’t trying. He doesn’t have overwhelming effort that blows you away, but he has earnest effort. He doesn’t try to make great plays, but he tries not to make mistakes, which is maybe what he should be concentrating on. He just doesn’t have the physical tools to play at an elite level.
It’s hard to notice his effort, though, because of the consistency with which he gets destroyed.
You think, “He can’t be trying hard enough,” but then you realize he is. He just can’t do anything about it.
Basketball Intelligence: 19.6
You can almost rate Chalmers’ improving basketball intelligence by how many times per game he gets yelled at by his superstar teammates. It seems to be down to less than once a game. He has been improving in that regard, but it’s taken a while, and there are still some maddening things.
He plays way too far off the ball, supposedly so he won’t get beaten, but since he perpetually gets beaten like a drum anyway, why not play closer up so he can at least do a better job of defending the jump shot? It’s like he’s chosen the worst of both worlds.
He also shows poor awareness at times, getting surprised by picks as if the setter had just popped up from out of the floor like a Whac-A-Mole.
Having said that, when he’s playing off the ball, he knows where he’s supposed to be, and he’s usually there. He normally makes the right play, even if he doesn’t always do it well.
For all the hammering I’m doing on Chalmers, it remains true that the Heat are better with him on the court than off of it, but it’s questionable if that’s because he’s on it. Norris Cole’s individual numbers are all better than Chalmers’, but he gets docked with lower team numbers.
Is that because Chalmers is a better team defender or is it because Cole isn’t on the court with James as much? My guess is that it has something to do with that.
12. Jrue Holiday, New Orleans Pelicans, 98.93
Defensive Usage: 12.6
Defensive PPP: .87
Net DRtg: -5.7
WAM: 97.55 (5)
Scouting: 101.7 (13)
Speed and Athleticism: 19.0
Jrue Holiday is not “fast” so much as he is “quick.” His lateral movement and reaction time are exceptional, and that’s indicated by his isolation defense. He didn’t have an eye-popping number, but he was in the top 25 percent of players there.
He is suitable at keeping most players out on the perimeter, but against elite point guards he has more problems. Players like Deron Williams, Kyrie Irving and John Wall blew by him fairly consistently. Average players struggled, though.
Size and Strength: 19.9
Holiday has ample size for a point guard, standing a shade over 6’4” in shoes, and weighing in at 205 pounds. The problem is he doesn’t use that height or strength as well as you’d like to see. He doesn’t play on the ball physically, utilizing that advantage. He gives up too much space and still gets beaten.
Then, when players pull up and shoot, he doesn’t use his length to close and get a hand in the face of the shooter. It’s not uncommon to see him “challenge” shots with both feet on the floor. He has above-average size and strength, but he doesn’t play like it. This could be something that Monty Williams, a coach with outstanding player development skills, can work on in New Orleans now that Holiday is with the Pelicans.
Perhaps it was the fact that the Philadelphia 76ers were having a disappointing season without their newly acquired star, Andrew Bynum. Perhaps he just grew weary of Doug Collins' act. Whatever it was, Holiday was just not bringing effort on the defensive end last year.
He closed out on jump-shooters half-heartedly, which is bad enough, but when you combine that with the way he played pick-and-roll plays, it was even worse. He almost always went under the pick.
I suspect that some of this might be by design, as Holiday bore a leading part of the burden on both ends of the court for his team, so it’s understandable to a point, but not to the extent I saw.
It looked like teams designed plays counting on him being lazy.
Holiday wouldn’t just go under the pick; he would go too far under the pick. Frequently, teams would set the screen, and the point guard would just step behind the three-point line while Holiday was still underneath it (often all the way into the center of the lane) and drain wide-open treys. As a result, opponents shot 42.9 percent from deep against him in the pick-and-roll.
Basketball Intelligence: 20.6
It’s frustrating watching Holiday play because when he gets out of position, it doesn’t appear that it’s because he’s “caught” out of position in the sense that he doesn’t know where to be. He’s always looking where he’s supposed to go, and moving in that direction, but he just takes his time getting there.
This is especially true when closing out on defenders.
Holiday knows what to do, but he doesn’t always do it. When he does do it, he does it half-heartedly. He doesn’t make stupid mistakes, but he doesn’t anticipate plays either. He doesn’t use the shortest angles when running under picks, but he takes path of least resistance instead. Perhaps the best word to describe his defense is “lollygaggy.”
When you look at his on/off numbers, you expect that he’d be a solid help defender, but you don’t see much evidence of that. He doesn’t help much, but he doesn’t get a lot of help either, so it’s a bit of a wash.
To his credit, he has the best WAM score of any point guard without a great defensive center to back him up.
11. Deron Williams, Brooklyn Nets, 98.92
Defensive Usage: 10.8
Defensive PPP: .83
Net DRtg: 4.2
WAM: 98.98 (14)
Scouting: 98.8 (11)
Speed and Athleticism: 20.2
It is startling to see the regularity with which opponents blow past Deron Williams. As one of the elite point guards in the NBA, you would expect him to have elite athleticism, but he actually doesn’t. His lateral quickness is below-average, and his straightaway speed isn’t much either.
This proves problematic, especially in isolation, where Williams usually just backs up. While it does keep the opponent in front of him, it defeats the purpose if the opponent is still getting to the basket. It’s why Williams gives up .92 points per play in isolation, one of the worst averages among point guards.
Size and Strength: 18.0
He’s only 6’3,” which is relatively good size for a point guard, but he just seems bigger. He has a barrel chest, broad shoulders and 20 pounds on most point guards, so he gives the appearance of dwarfing players that are technically as tall as he is.
He is tremendous at using that muscle to his advantage, too. He defends pick-and-rolls exceptionally well because he’s able to shake off picks without much trouble, even pushing around stronger players like Carlos Boozer or Robin Lopez at times. He arguably powers through picks better than any point guard in the league.
He also defends well against post-up plays, yielding just .54 points per play, although that’s on an admittedly small 17-play sample size. Then again, the limited number of plays may be, in part, due to the fact that he’s so hard to post up.
Williams tends to play defense, but he only seems to do the minimum. You don’t get the sense in watching him that there’s a point of pride in it. It’s like he’s just punching the clock and collecting his wages.
If someone goes past him, he’ll usually just wave goodbye. He can be stagnant when his man doesn’t have the ball. He doesn’t put a lot of effort into chasing his man through screens. He does those things; he just doesn’t do them very hard.
Basketball Intelligence: 19.7
For a player who lacks lateral quickness and a player that has been in the league as long as he has, you would think Williams would have learned to do a better job of steering opponents into the help defense. He doesn’t cheat in either direction, though.
Williams needs to do a better job of forcing opponents out of the middle and into the strong side of his defense, but he tends to fall straight back instead, letting them into the lane, which allows for easy scores.
Apart from that, he seems to do what he’s supposed to be doing when he’s away from the ball. He falls into his rotations smoothly. He doesn’t disrupt team defense with unnecessary gambles. He keeps track of his man when holding back in the lane to cut off passing lanes. He does all those little things that don’t show up in box scores.
If Williams had more pride in his defense, he would actually ask for, and depend on, help more than he does. There’s nothing wrong with knowing when you need it.
He’d also be more willing to provide it. People that just do their job don’t usually pitch in and help their co-workers. His net defensive rating of 4.2 is an indication of both a lack of his helping and asking for help.
It will be interesting to see if his new coach, Jason Kidd, can help him to work on this, as Kidd was a terrific help defender. Williams needs to have a bit of a paradigm shift in the direction of team defense. But will he listen enough to a player he was just playing against to make that shift?
10. Jeremy Lin, Houston Rockets, 98.73
Defensive Usage: 13.3
Defensive PPP: .87
Net DRtg: .6
WAM: 98.81 (12)
Scouting: 98.7 (9)
Speed and Athleticism: 21.3
Jeremy Lin is not one of the faster point guards in the NBA, and he’s not particularly quick either. He gets crossed over pretty easily, and not just by the Association’s elite point guards. Even players like Derek Fisher will hang him up and then hit him with the step-back.
However, he’s not the slowest point guard in the league either, and when he’s not biting on the crossovers, he’s able to do a decent job of staying in front of most average point guards. He’s not as horrible as some people would make it sound.
Size and Strength: 19.2
Lin is 6’3” and 200 pounds, which is decent size for a point guard, in the neighborhood of Derrick Rose, Deron Williams and Russell Westbrook. However, he doesn’t appear to have the same strength they do.
While he’s able to keep himself from getting pushed around when point guards, or even shooting guards, try and post up on him, he’s not able to dig through picks the way the other three are. He sometimes gets tangled up and left hopelessly out of the play.
When he’s not getting wrapped up, he plays the pick-and-roll well.
He also only has a 6’5” wingspan, which is short of the other bigger point guards, but what he has, he uses well. He plays “longer” than he actually is. Somehow, he seems to be able to get his hands in the way of a lot of shots and passes that should be out of reach.
Lin plays with consistent effort on defense, but he’s stuck in fourth gear. When the game is on the line, you like to see players find fifth, but Lin never does.
For example, in the clutch, with the Rockets engaged in a playoff run, the team locked up in a tight battle with the San Antonio Spurs and the score close with less than five minutes remaining, Lin consistently showed the same 90 percent effort he always shows. It just feels like there should be another notch where pride kicks in, he gets passionate—or even angry—and he hits another level. But he never does.
Basketball Intelligence: 18.4
Some would argue that just because he went to Harvard, it doesn’t mean he has a high basketball IQ, or that “book intelligence” isn’t the same thing. Of course having “book smarts” doesn’t preclude you from knowing what you’re doing on the court either.
Watching video on Lin gave me one impression that stood out above everything else: his awareness of where he was on the court and where he needed to be.
When he was off the ball, it was spectacular. Watching him rotate was watching perfection. He seemed to keep ahead of the play, moving to the next rotation a fraction of a second before the play even developed in that direction. And I never saw him go in the wrong direction, not once.
There are times where he makes a bone-headed gamble and loses, trying to get the extra steal, but that’s about the only flaw there is with him mentally.
Lin is a mixed bag when it comes to help defense. His stellar pick-and-roll defensive score has more to do with being backed up by Omer Asik than it does his own play. However his brilliant and consistent team defense team keeps passing lanes secure and helps prevent a lot of plays from developing the way they normally would.
His net defensive rating is fairly close to even, and slightly above average for point guards. It probably tells the accurate story here. What he gives up at the point of attack, he makes up for with his team defense.
9. Jarrett Jack, Cleveland Cavaliers, 98.36
Defensive Usage: 11.9
Defensive PPP: .84
Net DRtg: 1.5
WAM: 98.82 (8)
Scouting: 98.3 (10)
WAMS: 98.36 (9)
Speed and Athleticism: 20.8
It is a testament to Jarrett Jack that he makes this list. By NBA standards, he jumps like an elephant and runs like a turtle (and not one of those fast turtles you’ve heard tell of either—a slow turtle). In fact, no drafted guard has ever measured a worse sprint, vertical and agility test. He literally may be the least athletic guard in the Association.
Yet somehow he manages to compensate and do a reasonably fair job of defending, even in isolation.
He does so by using positioning, skillful footwork and what lateral quickness he does have (which is a liberal use of the word "quickness") to minimize the damage.
Size and Strength: 21.1
He has decent size for a point guard, at 6’3” but he doesn’t have much of a vertical: 28.5.”
He manages to defend the pick-and-roll reasonably well by doing something I can only call “bouncing” over picks. When the pick gets set, he just hurls into it and uses the momentum of the “bounce” to send him in the right direction. As a result, he rarely gets tangled up with the pick-setter.
But his lack of any vertical leap kills him on the jump shot. He does a poor job of defending the spot-up, surrendering 1.07 points per play. Most of those come for one of two reasons: Either he bites on the fake and is too slow to recover, or the shooter shoots over him and he doesn’t have the ups to challenge it. He’s just unable able to get high enough to legitimately challenge the shot.
Jack has good but not great effort. He applies himself and stays committed, but when he’s beaten on a play, he’ll relax waiting for his bigs to pick up the slack. Occasionally he’ll chase the play after he’s been beaten, but not always. When he lets it go, though, it seems calculated. He applies his energy smartly.
He also plays through to the end of the play when his man doesn’t have the ball, which is not something you see all point guards do. Some will just hang around waiting for the play to end, but Jack keeps track of his man and also helps if it’s needed.
Basketball Intelligence: 18.5
Jack is one of those players that a lot of people don’t know what he brings to a team in the locker room. What he offers goes beyond the court. He has a real grasp of the game, and he helps convey that to his teammates.
He is going to get beaten, without question. That’s rarely going to be because of a mental error, though. He has a high basketball IQ, and he has that veteran savvy thing going for him, too. He doesn’t have to race around to get in position because he’s almost never out of position.
It’s probably no coincidence that Stephen Curry’s defense took a giant step forward this season playing alongside Jack, and you might see a similar progression from Kyrie Irving next year. He appears to communicate the wisdom he’s accrued to his teammates.
Don’t be surprised to see him as a head coach someday.
I’m cheating a little here. Jack gets beat and bailed out frequently by his teammates.
Strictly speaking, he should have a score closer to 20, but because of all the help he is in the locker room and practice, he gets a little leeway. Seriously, you should hear Mark Jackson rave about him. Not everything about a player’s value can be seen even through advanced stats, or even while he’s on the court. Jack’s presence on a team is one of those things.
8. Kirk Hinrich, Chicago Bulls, 98.14
Defensive Usage: 102.8
Defensive PPP: .85
Net DRtg: -2.3
WAM: 98.37 (10)
Scouting: 97.7 (8)
Speed and Athleticism: 21.7
Kirk Hinrich wasn’t the fastest player in the NBA when he came out of college. A decade of playing and a plethora of injuries haven’t helped him get any faster. He’s one of the slower point guards in the league now, but in spite of that, he’s almost ubiquitous at times.
If he’s on the court, he’s moving at full speed. He applies every bit of failing athleticism he has all the time. Sometimes, that’s just not enough, especially if he’s left to guard in isolation, where he’s horrid, giving up .92 points per play.
Size and Strength: 19.4
Hinrich has a bit more going for him in terms of size. At 6’4”, he’s big enough to guard shooting guards, as well as point guards. He’s able to use that size advantage by being physical, playing close and aggressive, often forcing shooters into shots they aren’t comfortable taking.
He gave up just .87 points defending the spot-up (making him one of the few players to defend the spot-up better than the iso). Considering his challenges with speed, he did reasonably well with the pick-and-roll, again because of his size and strength to fight through picks.
He also is tougher than most point guards to post up.
The most striking thing about Hinrich is just how often he is the initial defender on the play. His defensive usage was the highest of any player with at least 1,200 minutes.
This is what I mean by ubiquity. With his limited speed, he is always in full throttle and getting himself around the court, pestering whoever has the ball. He might not be the fastest guy in the world, but that doesn’t keep him from trying to be.
If you want the perfect picture of what Hinrich brings to the defensive end of the court, think of him tackling the runaway freight train, otherwise known as LeBron James, in the game which stopped the Miami Heat’s streak. The debate over whether it should have been a flagrant is moot—clearly that got into James’ head because he was talking about it after the game.
Basketball Intelligence: 18.8
Hinrich always had a high basketball IQ. Getting paired with Tom Thibodeau has made it even better. He picked up a complicated system almost immediately, and the Bulls were consistently a better defense with Hinrich on the court, in large part because of how well he understood the system.
Humility can often be a sign of intelligence at work, and it is with Hinrich. Smart people recognize their limitations. He uses his feet and body well, steering his man into the help defense when he knows he’s not able to keep up.
As a result of his hurling himself around the court with utter abandon, he was generally a positive when it came to help defense. That being said, Joakim Noah was frequently required to bail him out of trouble. In balance he was a plus, but his deficiencies can’t be ignored.
7. Brandon Knight, Milwaukee Bucks, 97.66
Defensive Usage: 12.1
Defensive PPP: .87
Net DRtg: -7.7
WAM: 97.84 (6)
Scouting: 98.4 (6)
Speed and Athleticism: 18.9
Brandon Knight has exceptional speed and quickness. In the history of the combine, only nine players have recorded better sprint and agility scores, and of those, only three had a better vertical than his 37.5 inches.
He tends to use that speed and athleticism well when he’s in position, too. He does an air-tight job of keeping players out of the perimeter. The .72 points per play he gives up in isolation is elite-level defense. His low foul rate of 4.5 percent is another indication that he’s adept at getting into position quickly.
Size and Strength: 20.6
At 6’3,” with a wingspan of almost 6’8,” he has decent size. But he’s slightly built, and that raises some issues, especially when he’s caught a fraction of a second behind a play. Closing out on jumpers is an issue, especially when coming off screens, where he yields a 46.7 shooting percentage from the three-point line.
If he had just a little more strength and could get through the screens just a tad bit quicker, then that ground could be eaten up ever so fractionally sooner, and he would be able to have that smidgen of success needed to effectively challenge those three-point shots.
His issues related to intelligence, detailed later, compound this problem.
When he went up and challenged DeAndre Jordan, and then got blown up, the entire basketball world acted like they’d just seen the greatest basketball play ever. Something was great about that play, but it was Knight showing the heart to challenge Jordan, not Jordan dunking on a man a foot shorter than himself.
Whatever else you want to say about Brandon Knight, just don’t say he never tries. He’s pouring out effort every minute he’s on the court. Refusing to back down because you’re afraid of being put on a poster is a good thing, not a bad thing.
Basketball Intelligence: 20.3
There was always that kid in high school or college who tried so hard to get decent grades. They tried just as hard as the valedictorian, but all they got were Bs. Then there was that kid who just read the assignment on the bus and got straight As.
That’s the difference between what I call “work intelligence” and “natural intelligence.” Some people just have to work to pick things up. They work harder, and they get things eventually, but not quite as well. Brandon Knight has work intelligence. He’s incredibly focused while on the court, but he’s always working things out in his head; they don’t come automatically, and that costs him time.
He gets caught thinking, and while he makes the right decision, it’s a split second too late.
He gets a higher score here than he technically deserves because he tries so hard. Eventually, that learning has to become instinct, though.
Knight gets almost no help whatsoever from help defense. Greg Monroe has talent on the offensive side of the ball but not a whole lot on the defensive side. On the other hand, he was frequently bailing out whoever was playing shooting guard on numerous occasions.
Knight doesn’t always recognize the help situations, but when he does, he is usually effective. Even when he gets switched up on opposing shooting guards trying to post him up, he does a solid job.
His net defensive rating of minus-7.7, combined with his lack of a defensively-solid backup big, is a strong indication of his value as a help defender. It will be interesting to see how well he does with Larry Sanders behind him in Milwaukee.
6. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder, 97.78
Defensive Usage: 11.1
Defensive PPP: .84
Net DRtg: 1.6
WAM: 98.07 (7)
Scouting: 96.6 (5)
Speed and Athleticism: 18.1
Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose are the two most physically gifted point guards of their generation, and, as a result, are constantly going to be compared to one another. While Rose is slightly faster, Westbrook is slightly bigger.
With both, it’s the combination of their size and speed that makes them so phenomenal. Also with both, they’ve shown more success utilizing their physical attributes on the offensive end than the defensive end. Finally, both are improving on the defensive side of the ball.
Westbrook’s Synergy numbers on the pick-and-roll (.75) and isolation (.7) suggest he’s better than he actually is. By my count, about 70 percent of the time, the ball-handler will get past him and get a shot off.
However, when he gets beaten, Serge Ibaka is a huge asset in help defense, altering the shots of many a shooter who has just blown past Westbrook. Kevin Durant, surprisingly, also bails out his co-star a lot.
Size and Strength: 18.3
When he gets set for a defensive play, he does a respectable job. He bulls through picks well and is not afraid to go over them. He’s fearless, and no matter how large the big setting the pick is, he won’t back down.
He uses his length well when trying to close out on jumpers, utilizing all of his elevation and his full length. He still struggles against the spot-up, though, because of issues that will be addressed later.
You can’t say that Westbrook doesn’t try on defense, but you can say he doesn’t show consistent effort on defense. Sometimes he won’t give that much effort, and then the next moment he’ll be trying too hard. He’s like a runner trying to run a mile by alternating between walking and sprinting 100 yards at a time.
It would be beneficial for Westbrook to even things out and play at a consistent level throughout the game.
Basketball Intelligence: 21.2
This is where everything focuses on Westbrook. It’s what separates him from being a valuable, slightly overrated defender, and an elite defender. He is entirely too aggressive. He’ll overshoot passing lanes, gambling for the steal. Closing out on shooters, he’ll go sailing past them. He spends too much time getting back into the defensive play because he ran himself out of it.
On pick-and-rolls when he’s not set, teams have learned to expect this. Aware of his predilections, they’ll pass the ball out to the perimeter, and simultaneous to the ball-handler catching it, they’ll set a pick on Westbrook. He’ll go flying outside the play, right as his man catches the ball, and then he’ll not only have to make up that ground, but he’ll also have to fight through the pick. As a result, the picks work extremely well.
He benefits tremendously from help defense as previously mentioned, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t also provide help defense. His helter-skelter wizziness has him flying around the court, and sometimes it’s good. He’ll get to the corners to challenge threes; he’ll pick off passes; he’ll get rebounds; he’ll get some chase-down blocks. He does add a lot, but it’s not frenetic, it’s just frantic. He needs more of the former and less of the latter.
If Westbrook could channel his energy in a consistent way, he would be an elite defender, but for now, he’s just a solid defender who’s kind of spazzy.
5. Tony Parker, San Antonio Spurs, 97.11
Defensive Usage: 12.5
Defensive PPP: 85
Net DRtg: -3.1
WAM: 96.91 (4)
Scouting: 97.4 (7)
Speed and Athleticism: 18.7
Tony Parker is one of the fastest players in the league if you’re going by pure speed. On the other hand, he’s not tremendously athletic. An indication of this is the fact that he’s had only nine dunks in his career, the last of which was over seven years ago. He simply doesn’t have the same ability as the elite point guards to get up in the air, and that hinders his ability to defend the jump shot.
He uses quickness to capably guard the perimeter, but that’s in large part because he’s not always defending the elite point guards. In essence, he’s athletic enough to do a respectable job of what he’s asked to do.
Size and Strength: 20.2
He’s listed at 6’2” which seems about right, and he’s broad-shouldered and strong for his height, but he also seems to have shorter limbs, although I can’t find his wingspan listed on Draft Express. It doesn’t seem that it would be that impressive if found it. I doubt it’s much beyond his height.
This is also manifested in his spot-up defense. Parker has a hefty 1.05 points per play against defending the jumper, even though he typically gets there and challenges shots. He yields a whopping 41.5 three-point percentage on the spot-up, which is just not good. He has the speed to get there, but not the length to disrupt the shot once he does.
Parker applies himself defensively in bursts, and this appears to be by design. Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard, two of the better perimeter defenders in the league, often take up the responsibility for guarding the best point guards. That makes sense since Parker has assumed the primary responsibility on offense and there’s no reason to wear himself out playing defense.
When he needs to button down, he does, but he also tends to take off the middle of games, relying heavily on the help defense. While that is by design, he shouldn’t get the same credit as players who bring their full attention the entire time they’re on the court.
Basketball Intelligence: 18.2
Watching Parker play defense for a while, particularly zooming in on the pick-and-roll plays, his impressive court awareness stands out. He always seems to know exactly where everyone is. He probably can even tell you where the hot dog vendor and mascot are.
Even when picks are set behind his back, he instinctively knows they are there and just steps over them seamlessly. His Synergy scores are worse than expected, but that appears to be from players just shooting over him more than getting past him.
As previously stated, he gets the help from Green and Leonard to guard the top point guards. On top of that, when Parker’s man slips past him, he has one of the best defenders in the history of the universe, Tim Duncan, to help him out.
Neither of those is really a criticism of Parker, but it’s a reality. He gets a ton of help from his teammates and isn’t asked to give a lot back.
4. Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers, 96.88
Defensive Usage: 10.8
Defensive PPP: .83
Net DRtg: 5.4
WAM: 99.17 (15)
Scouting: 92.3 (1)
Speed and Athleticism: 18.3
If you just look at his measurables, Chris Paul is not impressive. Even his athletic scores don’t indicate greatness. Sometimes, measurables don’t tell the whole story. His foot speed is as good as anyone's in the league, and you can’t measure that. That helps him to dominate games defensively without having to leave the ground.
His quick feet give him tremendous lateral movement. Opponents don’t have much success getting around him. Even the fastest point guards tend to get bottled up.
He also uses his quick hands to steal the dribble, and he does so without taking risks. He’s led the league in steals per game five times in the last six years.
Size and Strength: 19.6
Paul is just listed at just 6’0”, and that might be generous. His wingspan isn’t much better at just 6’4”. He weighs in at only 175 pounds. He is not a guy you would single out as an NBA player in a crowded room. He’s so undersized, you’d think he was just some regular guy.
He compensates for his diminutive size by fighting hard and using that aforementioned quickness. He also has such superior court awareness that most picks don’t catch him squarely, and he just glides over them. When they do, he gets tangled up pretty badly; it happens so rarely, though, you’d think he had eyes in the back of his head.
He has trouble compensating for his lack of size when challenging jump shots. He gave up 1.01 points per play on the spot-up last year. He just doesn’t have the length to effectively guard against them.
Some contend it’s not his fault that he’s short, but it’s not Jarrett Jack’s fault that he’s slow either.
When it comes to intangibles, Chris Paul is the elite point guard in the league. He doesn’t just bring effort to every game; he brings it in all the right ways. He’s controlled in how he plays hard.
After watching Paul play defense for a while, what stands out over everything else is that he just never stops moving—literally. Most players will take a little on-court breather now and then. Not Paul. I actually looked for him to do it and couldn’t find it. He may get beaten occasionally, and he might get outmuscled more frequently, but he never gets outhustled.
Basketball Intelligence: 18.2
Chris Paul had the awkward situation this year of being smarter than his head coach, Vinny Del Negro. The Clippers never quite seemed to have a true defensive identity, even if they were improved. Del Negro just worried about the matchup without ever developing a true defensive system or identity with the Clippers.
Adapting your system to every opponent and knowing their nuances is understandable. Seemingly overhauling your system for every opponent is not. Just telling your players to play harder and close out on threes isn’t a real system.
That Paul was able to keep the Clippers on track through much of the season with the ever-changing defensive schemes the team had is pretty miraculous. His on-court coaching and leadership is probably the biggest reason the Clippers had the eighth most-efficient defense in the NBA last year.
Paul gets caught in a trap that WAM can’t entirely avoid because it can only look at what happens, not why it happens.
Per NBA.com/STATS, the Clippers were almost 10 points per 100 possessions better defensively while Lamar Odom was on the court instead of DeAndre Jordan, yet Paul was on the court three times as much with Jordan as Odom.
Blake Griffin was 21st out of 47 power forwards, and Jordan was 23rd out of 38 centers. He had absolutely no help backing him up, and that inflates his objective numbers.
And when he’s on the bench, Eric Bledsoe, who is a 15th on this list, was with Odom. That had the effect of distorting Paul’s on/off numbers. While the Clippers were better when Paul was on the bench, it wasn’t because he was on the bench. It’s because Griffin and Jordan were on the bench next to him.
I gave Paul the highest possible score here to offset the total ineptness of the coaching staff, and the frontcourt “help” he got last season, but he would have a high score regardless. That’s the advantage of the scouting portion. You can look at “why” things happen and offset the misleading things.
With Doc Rivers in charge, things should turn around shortly, and next year his WAM score will be among the best in the league.
3. Derrick Rose, Chicago Bulls, 96.17
Defensive Usage: 10.9
Defensive PPP: .77
Net DRtg: 3.1
WAM: 96.56 (3)
Scouting: 95.4 (3)
Speed and Athleticism: 18.0
Rose is arguably the most athletic point guard in the league, though Russell Westbrook could present a challenge. He’s still learning to apply that tremendous athleticism on the defensive end of the court, though.
He tends to be beaten off the dribble more often than he should be, considering his physical advantages, but he also uses his physical ability to recover when he is beaten. Just because someone gets past him doesn’t mean they’re going to score.
Probably no point guard in the league does a better job of recovering defensively than Rose does.
Size and Strength: 18.4
There aren’t many point guards in the league who can match Rose’s pure size and strength. He’s 6’3” with a 6’8” wingspan and an 8’3” standing reach. When you combine that with his 40-inch vertical, you have a player that gets higher (139 inches) than any point guard in the league—even Russell Westbrook.
He uses his length well, too.
Chasing down balls, he’ll reach from behind and disrupt the dribble. He also uses that length to be one of the best shot-blocking point guards in the league. His MVP season, he had the second-best block total by a point guard in history (although John Wall exceeded that total last year.)
However, he tends to play soft at times against the pick-and-roll, tending to rely on his quickness when he could muscle through a pick quicker. It’s interesting that when he plays against elite point guards, or when he plays angrily, he plays much more of a physical game. He actually plays his best games against his best opponents.
It’s amusing that some people say Rose doesn’t apply himself on defense. That’s just simply not true, and any amount of watching him play will verify that. He never stops moving. He fights through picks, going over them when he can and under them when he can’t. Either way he chases the ball until he catches it.
He’s a key component in Tom Thibodeau’s defense, and frankly, with Thibs, you just don’t stay on the court if you’re not putting in the effort on the defensive end. While Rose was fairly criticized for not playing hard defensively prior to Thibodeau, that criticism is no longer accurate. He has become one of the hardest working point guards in the league on both ends.
Basketball Intelligence: 20.4
With his athleticism and speed, there is no way that Rose should get beaten off the dribble as often as he does. While he recovers most of the time, it’s worth asking why he gets beaten.
The biggest reason appears to be a fundamental one. He’s not looking at the ball-handler's chest, which makes him susceptible to fakes, so when his opponent breaks, Rose is momentarily frozen. From there, he’s playing catch up.
Even though he normally does, he shouldn’t have to and wouldn’t if he were playing smarter.
For Rose, his biggest issues on both sides of the ball have to do with fundamentals and understanding. He is so athletic and so strong for his size that he’s been able to get away without learning lessons he should have.
On the positive side, Rose does a decent job of understanding his role in a complex system. He does a capable job of knowing when to help and when to stay. He’s a learning player, and his extensive time sitting last year may have helped his grasp of defense as well as offense.
Because of his combination of length, speed and jumping ability, Rose has become an excellent team defender against the jump shot. He’ll frequent the area at the top of the key, just above the free-throw line, and when a shooter starts to shoot, he’ll close out quickly to challenge the shot, regardless of where it is coming from.
What’s remarkable is how quickly he gets to the shooter and gets a hand in his face, even if it’s all the way to the corner three and the shooter is setting when Rose takes off.
One aspect of Rose’s year-long absence that gets lost is how much the team suffered defensively without him. According to Hoops Stats, in his MVP season, the Bulls gave up the fewest points to opposing point guards. Last season, when Rose was healthy early on, they gave up the third most, 16.3 points.
After the All-Star break, when Rose hardly played, that number fell to 17.8 and the Bulls dropped to ninth. This year, without Rose, the Bulls were 23rd, at 21.0 points per game. That’s a difference of almost five points a game given up to point guards.
That’s a strong indication that Rose was not relying on help defense because that same help was there for C.J. Watson, Kirk Hinrich and Nate Robinson. Overall, he is more of a “gives-help” defender than a “needs-help” defender.
2. Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies, 95.87
Defensive Usage: 12.2
Defensive PPP: .84
Net DRtg: -8.1
WAM: 95.60 (1)
Scouting: 96.4 (4)
Speed and Athleticism: 18.6
Mike Conley is exceptionally quick, virtually teleporting himself from one part of the court to another at times. He’s not just ordinary quick, either; he’s pesky-quick, with fast hands that dart in and take the ball out of the ball-handler's dribble with alarming frequency.
He led the league in total steals this year and did so without playing a lot of gambling defense. The bulk of his thefts came by stealing the dribble, not by shooting the passing lanes.
Conley also has crazy hops, measuring a 40.5-inch vertical at the combine, and he is one of the quickest point guards in the league. He merits a high score here.
Size and Strength: 20.6
Conley is generously listed at 6’1” and 180 pounds. Perhaps if he’s in shoes and standing on a milk crate filled with milk, that’s true. His length is better; he has a 6’5.75” wingspan.
But he’s just not very strong. To say he gets pushed around would be generous. He gets easily overpowered when bigger point guards post him up.
The greater problem is how easily he gets disrupted on pick-and-roll defense. He lacks the strength to effectively go over screens consistently, so he has to go under them. When going against point guards who have a respectable jump shot, that becomes problematic. For example, the Spurs absolutely ate him alive in the playoffs with Tony Parker, who averaged 24.5 points for the series.
His Synergy numbers tell the story. He only gave up .66 points per play in isolation, but he yielded .86 to the ball-handler on the pick-and-roll. That’s a pretty large difference, and it shows he is at his best when he can utilize his quickness, while at his worst when he has to use his strength.
He is easily one of the physically weaker players in the league, even for his position.
Conley is inconsistent in how he applies effort on the court. He presses hard as long as the opponent is in front of him, but will frequently give up on the play once the defender is past him. Needless to say, you don’t see a lot of LeBron-Jamesian-chase-down blocks from Conley.
While he’s not going to get a lot of those at his size, regardless of what he does, he could probably do more to try and recover. At the very least, he could stab those quick hands of his at some more balls and disrupt the dribble from behind. He does such a good job of it while the ball is in front of him, there’s no reason he couldn’t do it after the ball-handler gets past him. His score represents the average of trying hard and not trying at all once the ball gets past him.
Basketball Intelligence: 19.1
It seems so much of Conley is either there or not there; you get it or you don’t get it. It is the same with his mental engagement in the game. He tends to do the right thing, but then he’ll do something kind of stupid that makes you wonder what he’s thinking—even if what he’s thinking is right.
For example, there was a play in which he was switched up against the Clippers, and he was put on Chauncey Billups, while Tony Allen was on Chris Paul. Conley looked away from Billups and was pointing vehemently to Paul, trying to tell Allen to get over there and cover him.
While he was doing that, Billups, who actually had the ball the whole time, just stepped back behind the three-point line and drained the three.
Conley correctly identified the defender who was out of position, showing intelligence, but stupidly ignored that his man had the ball and an accurate jump shot.
That’s pretty much what you see with Conley. Sometimes even when he’s being smart, he gets a little dumb. But mostly he plays smartly with an occasional brain fart.
Help Defense: 18.8
Some would look at Conley’s frontcourt and assume—not entirely incorrectly—that having Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol to back him up pads his stats. His Synergy numbers compared to some of his team numbers validate that.
Having said that, he does play team defense, too, and he is part of the team. He was the primary defender on 1,127 plays last year in all, surpassed only by Stephen Curry among point guards. In systems like the Grizzlies play, the point guard is the first line of defense.
While he does benefit from help defense, it’s not as often as you might think. And, there are also times when he does the bailing out. He works well within a system where there are no real defensive weaknesses.
1. Rajon Rondo, Boston Celtics, 95.43
Defensive Usage: 11.5
Defensive PPP: .77
Net DRtg: 0
WAM: 96.29 (2)
Scouting: 93.7 (2)
Speed and Athleticism: 18.4
Rajon Rondo is probably the most athletic player in the league who plays most of his game below the rim. He arguably makes more plays on his feet, both offensively and defensively, than anyone else.
His lateral quickness is exceptional, making it hard for people to get around him, and that’s a big part of why he is tied with Derrick Rose for the fewest points per play among qualified point guards.
It’s also a big part of why he has the most defensive plays per 36 minutes, using his quickness to get to those long rebounds.
If there’s a weakness, though, it’s that when he comes up against the elite offensive point guards, he will get beaten in isolation. Players like Rose, Russell Westbrook and Kyrie Irving consistently cross him over and get past him.
Size and Strength: 20.8
At 6’1” and 171 pounds, Rondo is pretty small by NBA standards, but he plays much tougher than his size. In fact, he’s a bit of a bull on the court and tries to intimidate his counterpart. He’s the closest thing in the world to Kevin Garnett’s Mini-Me.
Rondo likes to do this chest bump thing where he meets the opponent past the half-court line and just bumps his chest into him repeatedly. It’s amazing he doesn’t get punched sometimes. It’s got to be annoying, but it’s also disruptive, and being disruptive is positive on defense. In fact, it’s probably the most important thing.
The other thing that’s surprising about Rondo with his size is how well he fights over picks. In fact, he’s probably as adept as anyone at this, and his Synergy numbers, .68 points per play against the pick-and-roll, certainly back it up.
Rondo consistently applies every bit of effort in him on the defensive end. You don’t see him take plays off, and you don’t see him give up on plays. He’s not going to get beaten back, and he doesn’t give up in transition.
Whether you like him or not (and I personally don’t), you have to respect that he plays the game as hard as it can be played.
Basketball Intelligence: 18.0
Doc Rivers has had a lot of input into how Rondo plays the game. He might physically play below the rim, but few can touch how he plays above the neck. While he is frequently noted for his ability to see the court and make the right play on offense, he doesn’t get the same recognition on the defensive end.
You just don’t see him make the wrong plays. The only time he’ll go under a pick is when he’s supposed to. He always picks up on the switch. He never leaves his man to help a defender that doesn’t need help, but he always seems to be there when help is needed.
He averages 1.8 steals per game. Per Synergy, he forces turnovers 18.5 percent of the time, and he does so barely giving up any points. His high rebound rate, while partly indicative of his speed is also a result of positioning, which relates to his IQ. He and Chris Paul are the contenders for smartest defensive point guard in the game today.
This is one of those cases where scouting helps. Previously, I’d had the impression that Rondo was beaten more often than he actually is and that Kevin Garnett just constantly bailed him out, which made his numbers look better than they are. Sometimes that happens, but not all that often.
Watching specifically for this, I found only three instances in 50 plays where Garnett bailed out Rondo on isolation plays, a rate which is lower than most point guards receiving help. Rondo’s lack of a need for help defense allows Garnett to help more elsewhere.
In fact, Rondo gives more help than he gets—contrary to my previous opinion. But that’s why we do the research.