Ranking the Best Defensive Shooting Guards in the NBA
The second part of our five-part "best defensive players in the league" series ranks the shooting guards.
All the rankings are based on Weighted Averaged Metrics (WAM) and Weighted Averaged Metrics with Scouting (WAMS), two new metrics.
WAM is obtained by compiling various other metrics that include individual and team stats, on/off advanced stats, Synergy numbers and traditional defensive numbers. It then converts all of that into one tidy figure.
With WAMS, each player was scouted for at least 100-200 defensive plays (typically about 20 percent of the season) and scored in five areas. The scouting score was then factored in with the WAM score. The score represents the estimate of the number of points a team of like-talented players would give up in 100 possessions.
All the ins and outs of how the numbers are obtained can be read in the first part of the series, the point guard rankings.
Notes and Learned Lessons from Part 1
A project of this magnitude isn’t going to be without its hiccups. Full confession—I just flat out miscategorized George Hill as a shooting guard. He is a point guard but was not included in the point guard rankings because of my error.
He’s one of a number of players who play more than one position, such as Jimmy Butler, Tim Duncan, and Andre Iguodala. With many of them, it’s a coin toss as to how they get listed. If you say Duncan is a power forward, there are going to be a hundred comments saying he’s a center. If you list him as a center, the comments will rage that he should be considered a power forward.
The bottom line is that every player with at least 1,200 minutes is eventually ranked. If a player plays multiple positions and he’s not on one list, he’ll be on another.
With any objective rankings, there are going to be some weird results. With any subjective ranking, you are subject to internal biases.
According to on/off stats, Chris Paul is a horrible defender. Based on Synergy stats, Monta Ellis is a spectacular defender. If you look at some of the advanced plus/minus stats, he’s “better” than Rajon Rondo.
There will always be outliers. However, having outliers doesn’t mean that none of these are worthwhile stats.
With most objective rankings, there’s something I call the “90 Percent Test.” If it “feels” about 90 percent right, it’s probably a good gauge.
If it gets to be less than that, the stats probably have an innate flaw. If it gets to be much more than that, it has a different problem. When they only tell us what we already “know,” then they’ve probably become too subjective.
The best way to learn from an exercise like this is by zeroing on the 10 percent of “weird” results. There’s honestly not a lot of point in exploring what you already “know,” after all.
The purpose of this research is to learn, not to just confirm pre-existing notions.
It’s only by actually looking that we can discern the relevance of certain anomalies. Sometimes it turns out a player is just overrated or underrated. Other times there is something about the team’s system that is either helping the player’s numbers or killing them. It’s actually the outliers we learn the most from.
Ideally, scouting would be done for every player, but time becomes an issue. To get a reasonable appreciation for a player’s defense takes about two hours of watching him play on average. To do that for over 260 players would take months of full-time work, and that’s not even counting the time to collect all the data (another 40 hours), do the write up and proofread it (another two days).
I just don’t have that much time to devote to this.
Therefore, in the interest of being able to churn these out on a weekly basis, I had to reduce that number to 10 (the initial article had 15).
The rankings should not be viewed as dried in cement. They are a starting point for conversation. There may be players outside of the top 10 who belong in the top 10, and there is at least one player who is not a top-10 defender in reality, but his statistics “lied,” so he is placed there. I can’t change that, but I can explain that, and I did.
The bottom line is WAMS is more trustworthy than WAM, but even then, these rankings should be viewed as the beginning of a conversation, not the conclusion of one.
The Average Player and the Rest of the Rankings
For the sake of comparison, the following are the average scores for each position in each unique metric used. More is available on the meaning of each of the stats in the first part of the series here.
Defensive Usage: 10.3
Defensive PPP: .9
Net DRtg: 1.2
Here are the other 37 qualified players.
Roger Mason Jr.
Ben Gordon is the official winner of our booby prize for all shooting guards. In fact, he deserves a special bonus! In the entire NBA, he is the worst defensive player who logged at least 1,200 minutes. It takes a special kind of bad to accomplish that and take home a $12.4 million check. Congratulations, Mr. Gordon!
Opponents’ player efficiency rating (oPER), defensive rating (DRtg) and net defensive rating (Net DRtg) can be found at 82 Games.
Minutes and the traditional data for rebounds, blocks and steals were obtained from Basketball-Reference. Play index and play index plus were also used substantially.
10. Monta Ellis, Dallas Mavericks, 99.04
Defensive Usage: 11.7
Defensive PPP: .77
Net DRtg: 2
WAM: 95.16 (1)
Scouting: 106.8 (10)
Speed and Athleticism: 21.1
On offense, Monta Ellis does some amazing things, but when it comes to defense, he’s about as effective as a windmill guarding the wind. All he does is get spun around.
His measurables are a long way from what you would expect based on his offensive displays. His three-quarter-court sprint was just 3.31 seconds, and his vertical was only 31.5”.
When he’s guarding in isolation, it’s horrid. He has such a slow reaction time that even average players fly past him. It’s hard to judge his lateral quickness because he doesn’t start to react in time. By the time he does, his opponent is usually past him.
His one redeeming quality is his quick hands. He reaches them into passing lanes, including at times when he shouldn’t. He does a nice job of stealing the dribble, too.
Size and Strength: 21.5
Ellis is perpetually bound by two realities. He’s not fast enough to be a point guard, and he’s not big enough to be a shooting guard. He uses his tremendous agility to create scoring chances for himself on the offensive end, which assures he’ll always find a place in the league.
On the other hand, there is no defensive equivalent to that. He’s just too small and slow to guard anyone effectively. He’s physically overmatched when guarding shooting guards who can just push him back and post him up, so he ends up guarding the point guard most of the time. But the point guards just blow past him.
Ellis shows decent effort. He’s not lazy. He keeps moving all the time. He just doesn’t do it in any kind of constructive way.
When he bites on a pump fake, he does it enthusiastically. He jumps with all his worth while the shooter smoothly watches him soar by and then calmly knocks down the shot. You can’t fault his effort; it’s more about the application of the effort that is flawed.
Basketball Intelligence: 21.4
If you ever want to run a scam on an NBA player, my suggestion would be to try to target Ellis. It literally seems like he bites on every pump fake.
You can almost imagine the conversation on the court.
Opponent: “No, I’m not gonna do it this time!”
Opponent: “Really!” Pump fakes as Ellis jumps by.
Ellis: “I thought you said you weren’t going to do it.”
Opponent: “I lied.”
Ellis does a decent job of steering his man (that is beating him) to the strong side, but the volume of stupid mistakes is hard to overlook.
It may sound like I’m being harsh on Ellis, but it’s impossible to be too harsh. I pretty much had to Clockwork Orange myself to scout Ellis. My eyes may have actually bled a little before it was over.
I don’t think it’s possible to have a bigger difference between the statistical results and the actual reality.
How is it possible to have such a massive difference? Well, he’s the perfect confluence of events to throw the WAM formula out of whack. The Bucks made him their primary perimeter defender because the alternative, Brandon Jennings, was just as bad. To compensate for that, in the pick-and-roll, they almost always trapped with one of their forwards.
That left a player unguarded, and as a result, the play adjusted with the ball being passed to the wide-open shooter. Ellis got credit for a play, since he was the initial defender, and a stop, even though he didn’t really deserve credit for either. As a result, he has a ridiculously high defensive usage and a low points per play, both of which make him appear to be a better defender than he really is.
Statistically, you can see this when you look at the number of field-goal attempts (205) his opponents have, compared to the plays (300) they’ve run against him.
9. Lance Stephenson, Indiana Pacers, 99.02
Defensive Usage: 9.5
Defensive PPP: .86
Net DRtg: 1.0
WAM: 98.47 (10)
Scouting: 100.1 (9)
Speed and Athleticism: 20.4
Lance Stephenson is not fast, nor is he particularly athletic, but he plays in a system that does a good job of letting him hide those failings. Of the 1,128 players who have been measured in the three-quarter-court sprint, 805 were at least as fast as Stephenson, which places him slower than about 71 percent of the league. His 33-inch vertical and his 11.39 agility test don’t measure particularly well, either.
In fact, when I plug in his measurables into the Draft Express database, he is one of the least athletic guards playing right now. The closest match is Kyle Korver, who is hardly esteemed as being an elite athlete.
This shows in his defense, particularly when he’s left to stop quicker guards in isolation, where he yields .85 points per play because he can’t stay in front of most.
Size and Strength: 19.1
What he lacks in speed, he makes up for in size, strength and length. His wing span stretches nearly 6’11”, which helps him to have a decent steal rate without having to take a lot of gambles. Most importantly, what he does very well is use that length to challenge shots.
About half of all points scored in the NBA come off of jump shots, but defending the jump shot is rarely considered as a measure of great defense. It’s what Stephenson does exceedingly well. It’s why he’s in the starting lineup for the Pacers, and it’s why he makes this list.
His .79 points per play against the spot-up is one of the best in the league, and he averages that because he closes out so well, using his full length in the process.
Stephenson likes to play physically, but for a player who plays as physically as he does, he also likes to flop a lot. When he’s not pushing players around, he’s getting sent to the ground if the air conditioning cuts on.
I like his effort most of the time, but if you’re going to try to be an intimidator (such as he was when he tried to get in LeBron James’ head in the Eastern Conference Finals), you shouldn’t be flopping. Flopping doesn’t intimidate anyone.
You tend not to get the calls, either. It is not uncommon to see refs merely shooting him an amused glance while he’s mopping the floor with his back sweat.
Basketball Intelligence: 20.1
Stephenson does what he is asked to do. He fills his limited role in a system where he’s the fifth-most important player in the starting five. His job on defense is to navigate the defender toward Roy Hibbert, one of the best rim-defenders in the business. He’s not asked to be a perimeter stopper, just a navigator.
That doesn’t require a great basketball IQ.
That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have one; it just means it doesn’t require one. For all we know, he’s the Noam Chomsky of basketball defense, but he hasn’t shown it on the court. His play in that regard is neither special nor flawed. Other than the previously mentioned flopping hiccup, there just isn’t enough to make a judgment here.
On one hand, Stephenson was a starter on the NBA’s stingiest defense last year. On the other, it was not elite because he was on it. He received some help but wasn’t really asked to provide that much of it.
With Danny Granger going down to injury in the preseason and Paul George sliding over to fill the starting small forward position, Stephenson did better than anyone could have hoped, though. While the Pacers were a point better in their defensive rating with him off the court, it’s a marginal enough difference that not too much can be read into it.
He definitely benefited from the help provided by the four elite defenders around him, but the biggest help he could have provided—filling meaningful minutes—he did.
8. Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers, 97.86
Defensive Usage: 10.3
Defensive PPP: .85
Net DRtg: 4.4
WAM: 98.29 (8)
Scouting: 97.0 (7)
Speed and Athleticism: 19.6
Bryant actually has below-average speed and athleticism at this point in his career. He’s been able to compensate on offense by honing his skills, but on defense, it’s harder to do because you’re always reacting to what the other player is doing.
When Bryant is guarding the quicker guards in the league, he gets blown by with regularity. That’s not just with elite guards like Russell Westbrook, either, but even players like Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard made him look like his shoes were nailed to the floor.
Size and Strength: 19.2
Bryant might be getting slower in his old age, but he’s not getting any smaller. He is 6’6” and plays longer and bigger than that. His defensive rebounding has been one of the most overlooked aspects of his Hall of Fame-caliber career. No shooting guard in history has more defensive rebounds than Kobe Bryant.
He has the size to defend the small forward, but he really doesn’t do that against elite players unless it’s the end of the game or when he’s blocking LeBron James' shot in the All-Star Game.
When he uses it, Bryant uses his size well.
Kobe Bryant’s defense can be summed up by what he does on long twos. Repeatedly, you see him look at the shooter, consider who it is, and then you can almost read it on his face as the thought comes, “I’m too old for this.”
He doesn’t always close, and usually when he doesn’t, the shooter misses anyway. Bryant has gotten a reputation for picking his spots when he chooses to press on defense but probably doesn’t get enough credit for how smart he is in how he does it.
He doesn’t try on defense all the time anymore. He doesn’t even press most of the time. But the Lakers don’t suffer nearly as much as you might think from his not trying.
Basketball Intelligence: 18.0
Bryant’s critics have argued about his allegedly elite basketball IQ on offense, but that doesn’t carry to his defense.
Nothing makes this clearer than what is described above.
How does he know when to lay off the long two and when to close out on his man? Preparation.
Bryant seems to know the leanings and tendencies of every team and player in the league. He’s not just intelligent; he’s aware, and he applies that preparation in real time.
He’s aware because he hits the film hard, arguably as hard as any player in the league ever has.
The Lakers' defensive rating was 4.4 points worse while Bryant was on the court. The Lakers were in chaos this year. Between the schemes of the defensive un-guru, Mike D’Antoni, Dwight Howard going in and out of the lineup, and Steve “I got crossed over by Justin-Bieber” Nash playing next to him, he gets a pass for some of that, but not all of it.
In spite of playing next to Nash, he rarely guarded the elite backcourt player. He had one of the lowest usage rates of any shooting guard.
He may not have been part of the problem, but he didn’t do much to be a part of the solution, either.
He also got a lot of help form Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol, who frequently batted away the shots of those elite guards who had beaten him off the dribble. He was certainly helped more than a help.
7. Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors, 97.32
Defensive Usage: 12.8
Defensive PPP: .81
Net DRtg: 3.2
Speed and Athleticism: 20.8
Klay Thompson is a solid defender, but he is not your prototypical solid defender.
He ran a sprint of 3.24 and had a 31.5-inch vertical in his predraft combine. His agility time of 10.99 seconds was a little more impressive, but overall, he did not measure well, and there’s nothing in his defense to suggest that it is misleading.
He is flatfooted, slow and clunky on defense. He tends to move back more than laterally because he lacks lateral quickness. All the things you think of when you think of elite defenders don’t apply here.
Size and Strength: 18.8
What Thompson does have is great size for a shooting guard, enough so that he spends a lot of time at the small forward position as well.
While he gets beaten a lot, he is able to use his length to recover. His 6’7” height and 6’9” reach help him tremendously. By merely backing up and staying in front of his opponent, his length frequently is enough to keep his opponent from shooting over him.
Counterintuitively, opponents beat him rather easily by posting up, in spite of his size advantage. He’s particularly susceptible to a drop step with an inside pivot because of his tendency to back up.
By stepping toward the baseline (a drop step), the opponent gets him to back down; then pivoting inside (inside pivot), the shooter moves in the opposite direction that Thompson is moving. Because he’s a little slow, this creates a decent amount of space, and the shooter can get the clean jump shot against him.
He falls prey to that move a lot.
Thompson’s defensive effort is acceptable but not exceptional. He’s diligent, and he hustles, but he doesn’t attack the ball-handler like the elite defenders do.
That may be an aspect of discretion being the better part of valor. If he were too aggressive, he would probably get burned because of his lack of quickness.
Basketball Intelligence: 19.1
If discretion is the better part of valor, though, it deserves a reward, right?
Thompson knows what his limitations are and how to compensate for them as much as possible. There are athletes more gifted than Thompson who don’t defend as well as he does.
There is a bit of a “Larry Bird/Paul Pierce” quality to his game. He’s learned how to be effective even though he’s slow. That says something about his basketball brain. It bodes well for him going forward that he’s been able to adapt so much in just his second year. He’ll never be All-Defense, but he’ll never be a real liability on defense, either.
He is not a good help defender because he just doesn't have the speed to rotate quickly and not lose track of his own man. The Golden Sate Warriors' defensive rating is 3.2 points better when he’s on the bench.
Meanwhile, he also gets a decent amount of help, particularly from Andrew Bogut, on the occasions he gets beat.
He fills his role reasonably well, but his role doesn’t demand much.
6. Danny Green, San Antonio Spurs, 96.91
Defensive Usage: 13.2
Defensive PPP: .87
Net DRtg: -.9
WAM: 97.12 (7)
Scouting: 96.5 (6)
Speed and Athleticism: 19.1
Danny Green’s sprint speed, 3.3 seconds, and vertical of 33 inches, don’t scream exceptional. His agility time of 11.3 was slightly above-average for a shooting guard but not awe-inspiring. What none of those tests measure is reaction time.
Green responds quickly to what his opponent is doing, which minimizes the damage that could be otherwise done. This has its limitations, though. When he’s defending in isolation, Green gives up .81 points per play. That’s good, but it’s not on the level of the most elite defenders. When he’s guarding elite guards, they tend to get around him.
Size and Strength: 19.3
At 6’6” and 210 pounds, Green is a big enough defender to dig through most picks well. He tends to hold his own when players try to post him up.
Overall, he does well against shooting guards. He doesn’t have excessive length, but he doesn’t bite on fakes and it’s hard for players to get any separation on him. Without that, he has enough length to keep most guards from going over him.
However, when he’s switched up on bigger men, he doesn’t have the vertical or length to challenge them, so they tend to have more success.
It is amazing that Green is as solid of a defender as he is without having the athleticism that some of his counterparts do, and a lot of the reason for that goes to his effort.
He is one of those players who got into the NBA the hard way. He played a couple of stints in the D-League and another in Europe. Hard work is not something new to him, and he still applies that on the defensive end of the court.
The only problem is that sometimes he “over-helps,” forgetting about his man, and that can be problematic. He’ll get so far out of position that he has no realistic chance at challenging his opponent’s shot, especially on the spot-up, where he gives up a relatively poor average of 1.06 points per play.
Basketball Intelligence: 18.8
As long as the Spurs are in their set defense, Green tends to know and understand his role. He rotates well, going where he should. As long as things stay together, he’s in the right place.
However, once plays start to break down, he can get too aggressive, trying to do much rather than trusting his teammates to fulfill their roles. Scrambling for loose balls is commendable; leaving your man to your teammates for loose balls is not. It increases the chances that your opponent is going to get the ball and score.
Apart from that flaw, Green’s head seems to be on straight most of the time, and if you’re biggest flaw is that you occasionally try too hard, it’s something a team can live with.
In order to give Tony Parker rest on the defensive end, Green will frequently guard the best player in the backcourt, leaving the alternate for Parker to worry about. This results in Green having the highest defensive usage rate of any shooting guard with at least 1,200 minutes.
Additionally, the San Antonio Spurs' defensive rating is one point better while he’s on the court.
Clearly, he is more of a help than a hindrance to the Spurs.
5. Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat, 96.25
Defensive Usage: 9.6
Defensive PPP: .85
Net DRtg: -3.9
WAM: 97.13 (8)
Scouting: 94.5 (5)
Speed and Athleticism: 19.2
There’s no question that with all the leg and knee issues he’s had, Dwyane Wade does not quite have the same “Flash” that he used to. Nothing illustrates this more than the plunge in his Synergy numbers, particularly in isolation defense.
In 2012, he yielded just .53 points per play; this year, that number swelled to .85.
He is above-average still, but he is not the stopper he used to be (and frankly, he never received sufficient recognition at his best).
Size and Strength: 19.1
Wade is not the biggest shooting guard in the NBA. He is actually pretty small at a generously listed 6’4”. Probably not many play as big as Wade, though. With eight more blocks, he will have more than any player in history at his height.
His strength shows up there. So many of his blocks are not just deflections, where he slightly alters the shot, but full on blocks, where his body is in the air and he is ripping the shot out of the often-larger shooter’s hands. That requires real strength.
He is also an exceptional rebounder for his size. He is fifth all time in defensive rebounds per game for players his height and under, and he is first among shooting guards under 6’4”.
He might not be big, but he plays bigger than he is.
Wade is getting into that stage of his career where the smart thing to do is pick his battles, and that’s what he does. He will take plays off on defense. It’s not uncommon to see him watching when he could be pressing, but he does so smartly.
He clearly has another gear he shifts into during the clutch, though, when his defensive rating plunges to 82.3.
He is clearly leaving something in reserve for the end of the game when he needs it. There’s nothing wrong with that, particularly with him being north of 30 now. He doesn’t deserve the same score as those who are bringing their full defensive effort every minute they’re on the court, though.
Basketball Intelligence: 18.2
Both Wade and his Super Friend, LeBron James, have basketball IQ's that are the charts, and that is a big part of the reason the Heat win. Wade is so adept at recognizing where the holes in the defense are and filling in the need.
On one sequence in the finals, Chris Bosh got lost on defense and was out aimlessly doing whatever Boshosaurs do. Wade saw the gaping hole in the middle of the lane and stepped in to fill the void. Three times, the Spurs tried to get the ball inside, and three times, Wade stopped the drive.
How many 6’4” guards can effectively cover the center position? Not many. That’s why Wade deserves credit as one of the smartest shooting guards in the game.
When he’s applying himself, Wade is a massive asset to the help defense for reasons such as outlined above. However, he’s not always engaged. It’s not rare to see him just watch someone score when he could make a play if he dug down a little bit.
He can be a liability, and that’s why there are more than a few games where you see the Miami Heat falling behind by double digits early.
While they usually compensate for that by stepping things up when they have to, it would better if they didn’t have to. Having said all that, he’s certainly an asset when the Heat turn up the (sorry for doing this) heat.
Overall, there’s no question that he’s an asset more than detriment defensively—most of the time.
4. George Hill, Indiana Pacers, 95.06
Defensive Usage: 12.6
Defensive PPP: .83
Net DRtg: -1.9
WAM: 95.70 (3)
Scouting: 92.2 (4)
Speed and Athleticism: 18.7
Hill is one of the fastest players in the league, end to end, recording a 3.07 three-quarter-court sprint on his predraft measurements. His lateral quickness is not quite as impressive, but it’s still well above-average.
For the most part, he is able to keep the ball in front of him, but when he faces players who have exceptional ball-handling skills, he can be caught leaning in one direction. And when he is, opponents have success crossing him over.
This is nitpicking, though. Overall, he’s one of the best isolation defenders in the league, giving up only .68 points per play.
Size and Strength: 19.1
Hill is neither big nor tall at 6’2”, but he is very long. His wingspan is 6’9”. That deceptive length is a pesky thing that he uses to his advantage, swiping his long arms around to nab balls from surprised ball-handlers, block shots or deflect passes.
They reach, sweep and paw, and they are downright disruptive, and disruptive can be one of the most important things on defense.
Where he struggles, though, is when opponents can set a square pick on him, and he gets taken out of the play entirely. He doesn’t have the bulk or strength to fight over them.
Most of the time, he is a diligent defender. But when opponents get past him, he’ll often give up a moment too soon, allowing his more than capable bigs, David West and Roy Hibbert, to take over for him. He doesn’t follow through.
You’d like to see him keep defending from behind, trying to use those long arms of his to steal the ball or get a chase-down block.
Again, this is nitpicking. He puts forth solid effort 95 percent of the time.
The only other flaw is that he doesn’t always extend himself when challenging jump shots. He’ll put his hand up, but his feet don’t leave the floor.
These are minor blemishes, though, and his score is very good, so don’t take this as picking on him.
Basketball Intelligence: 18.8
Hill seems to know his place and keep it in a relatively complex system. He normally finds the right position and does a good job of keeping his man going in the right direction.
He does seem to bite pretty easily on fakes, getting caught going the wrong direction, and that will take him out of the play from time to time. In a system like the Pacers run, where it’s very team dependent, that can be a big no-no.
Most of the points that are scored on Hill come from zigging when he should have zagged. It doesn’t happen regularly, but when it does, it usually ends up in a score.
Hill was an important cog in last year’s most efficient defense. He wasn't the most important cog, but he was an important cog, so the defense benefits him, but he benefits the defense a little bit more. If he breaks down, the entire thing breaks down.
The Pacers' position as the Association’s most elite defense last year is a testament to how rarely that actually happens.
Note: I misidentified Hill as a shooting guard in my spreadsheet, so he was not in the point guard rankings. For whatever reason, I always think of him as a shooting guard, even though I know he’s not anymore. It was a mistake.
I included him here because it would be remiss of me to call him a point guard now and keep him off of both rankings. Were he correctly identified as a point guard initially, he would be ranked second on the list.
3. Avery Bradley, Boston Celtics, 94.62
Defensive Usage: 12.1
Defensive PPP: .73
Net DRtg: .7
WAM: 95.82 (4)
Scouting: 92.2 (3)
Speed and Athleticism: 18.6
Avery Bradley’s speed and athleticism aren’t quite at the highest level of any shooting guard, but they're very close. What’s more important is that he uses what he has as well as anyone in the league.
His footwork is practiced to the point of perfection.
There is artistry to the way he plays.
Always leaning his head forward, he forms a kind of “triangle” with his feet, with the “fulcrum” of it centered on his opponent.
Doing that enables him to shuffle his entire body with an exceptional deftness that keeps him, always, always, always in front of the ball-handler. It is amazing how seldom he is beaten. Of all the guards in the NBA, he is the hardest to beat off the dribble.
That’s why he has the lowest points per play of any player with at least 400 defensive opportunities.
Size and Strength: 18.9
Bradley has decent size for a point guard, but at 6’3” and 180, he’s slightly below-average for a shooting guard. That doesn’t appear to hinder him much, though. He is among the best in guarding almost every play type recorded by Synergy.
Bradley doesn’t “use what he has” so much as he avoids letting it be a hindrance. He is quick enough that it’s just hard to set a clean pick on him. If players try to post him up, he’s able to use his quick feet to keep the opponent from pivoting cleanly, and many times it either results in them taking a bad shot or walking.
His only struggle is coming off of screens where his smaller stature is harder to compensate for. Even there, he gives up just 1.03 points per play, which is still close to the top third of players in the league.
What makes Bradley’s effort so sweet to watch is how he controls it. He is like a jet engine.
Think about this the next time you fly. Basically, what’s happening is that you’re riding a controlled explosion. There is this massive release of energy, but it’s perfectly controlled. That’s Bradley’s defense.
Many players who try to play frenetic end up playing frantic. While there’s energy there, it often ends up being a plane wreck because it’s uncontrolled. With Bradley, though, his body control is so perfect that none of that effort is wasted.
For example, a lot of high-energy players when rushing to close out on a shooter will do one of three things: They’ll pull up short, go soaring past the shooter on a pump fake or foul.
With Bradley, he measures his jump perfectly, always extending himself in front of the shooter without going past him. It’s not just that he gives maximum effort; it’s that he doesn’t waste any energy or momentum doing so.
Basketball Intelligence: 18.0
The best way to always be in position is to always know where to be. Bradley just never seems to be out of position.
Perhaps after his body control, the most impressive thing about him is his court awareness. He always seems to be able to keep track of where everyone is on the court, where he is in relation to them and where he needs to be. You’ll often see him rotate almost before the play even develops.
When he gets a hand on a ball, he doesn’t always try to pick it up. He’ll more frequently tap it to a teammate, or if that doesn’t seem possible, he’ll bounce it off the opponent and send it out of bounds. Nearly 14 percent of his opponents’ possessions end in turnovers because of that propensity. Other players could learn from this.
He has a bit of a reputation for being a gambler who shoots passing lanes. I did not see that. I think sometimes people just assume that about players who have a high steal rate. Or else, he resolved the issue last season.
The Boston Celtics gave up more points when Bradley was on the court, but this seems like one of those situations where it is more coincidental than causational. When Bradley was on the court with the starters, the Celtics' defensive rating was 98. When Jared Sullinger replaced Garnett in that lineup, the rating dropped to 112. That suggests the issue was Sullinger, not Bradley.
Bradley is a good help defender, but so is Garnett, and that did help Bradley’s numbers a little bit. That, and the fact that he can only guard one of the wing positions, is why he “only” gets an 18.6 here.
2. Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls, 94.55
Defensive Usage: 10.9
Defensive PPP: .76
Net DRtg: -.6
WAM: 95.97 (5)
Scouting: 91.7 (1)
Speed and Athleticism: 18.6
Some people probably don’t realize just how athletic Jimmy Butler is, so to put things in perspective, consider this. His sprint speed (3.15) and vertical (39”) are nearly identical to John Wall’s (3.14 and 39”). That puts him in the category of “freakish athlete.” The only difference is Butler is three inches taller.
Butler supplements that speed with amazing lateral quickness, which allows him to stay in front of opponents.
He doesn’t just stay in front of them, though; he stays right in front of them, almost obnoxiously blanketing them. He is an extremely pesky defender, difficult to get around and hard to push back. Because he has great length and hops as well, it’s also hard to shoot over him.
Size and Strength: 18.0
Butler is much more athletic than a pick that went 30th overall should be, but his size is another major advantage. He’s big enough to guard the small forward position, but he’s a little small for that. He’s much more effective defensively as the shooting guard.
His stats as the shooting guard are ridiculous. His oPER drops to 7.0, an insanely low number. He’s too quick-footed to go around and too big to go over.
He’s strong enough that he’ll often even defend power forwards in the post and do it effectively, though not at an elite level. But when you’re talking about a shooting guard who can effectively guard players like David West or LeBron James in the post, you’re talking about one who has rare size and strength.
Joe Johnson is the only starting shooting guard who is bigger than Butler, and he doesn’t use his size nearly as well on defense.
Butler plays every game like it might be his last. Maybe it’s because of the hardships he faced growing up. Maybe it’s because he was taken as the last pick of the first round. Maybe it’s just his Texan personality. Whatever it is, he’s a worker on defense.
If that weren’t enough, he played ridiculous minutes after he stepped in as the starter, logging 42.8 minutes per game after assuming a full-time role. He also played 48 minutes five times in the last seven playoff games.
He’s one of the hardest workers in the league. When a player is giving you maximum energy at an elite level for 48 minutes a game—while guarding arguably the greatest athlete ever to play—you recognize his effort.
Basketball Intelligence: 18.7
Butler just doesn’t make bad plays on either side of the ball. He’s quickly picked up on one of the most, if not the most, complex systems in the NBA.
In the Bulls' defensive system, it’s difficult enough to learn one position, but his ability to defend four of them proves his IQ is high.
One play that occurred during the playoffs highlights Butler’s IQ. Deron Williams beat Nate Robinson off the dribble and was breaking to his left. Butler took two steps toward Williams, stopping him and forcing him to pick up his dribble. Williams smartly passed it out to Johnson on the wing, but Butler, anticipating the pass, actually broke to Johnson’s spot before Johnson even started to go there.
Butler knew just how far to step in to force Williams to pick up his dribble and how the play would develop afterward. He knew where Johnson was going before Johnson did.
His preparation goes along with playing for Tom Thibodeau, but he is remarkable for applying that prep work into real-game action.
When Butler was the starting shooting guard, the Bulls were 9.7 points better on defense. Not only is he one of the best on-the-ball defenders in the game, effectively guarding LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony at various times, but he’s also an outstanding help giver who can lock up anyone 6’9” or under.
In the postseason, while defending guards, he gave up just .62 points per play in spite of spending most of it guarding LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson. He held James to a .385 field-goal percentage when he was the initial defender on the play. That’s pretty helpful.
1. Tony Allen, Memphis Grizzlies, 94.25
Defensive Usage: 10.1
Defensive PPP: .78
Net DRtg: -6.7
WAM: 95.48 (2)
Scouting: 91.8 (2)
Speed and Athleticism: 18.2
There is something graceful about the way Tony Allen plays defense. His footwork and legwork look like they belong in a ballet more than a basketball game; they are so smooth and practiced.
Because of that, he effortlessly keeps in front of defenders, gliding more than running. Against the pick-and-roll, he’s especially effective because he is so deft with his feet, yielding an absurd .61 points per play. His nimbleness allows him to dance around screens more than fight over them.
Size and Strength: 19.4
Allen doesn’t have a “weakness” in his game so much as areas where he’s only incredibly good instead of nearly perfect. The least strong part of his defense is against the spot-up jumper where he is merely awesome.
Allen is 6’4” with a 6’9” wingspan and a 36.5-inch vertical. That’s not that small, but it’s not that big for a shooting guard. So when he’s going against bigger shooting guards, he can be scored on there, particularly from the three-point line, where his opponents shoot 38.6 percent. Overall, he gave up almost as many points, 201, on threes as he did on conventional twos, 246.
Allen is not asked to provide much on offense, so he’s able to reserve almost all his energy for the defensive side of the court, and he uses it. He is a veritable energizer bunny on defense, constantly moving.
On the occasions where his opponent does get past him, he sticks with the play. He is one of those defenders who take it personally when they're beaten, redoubling their efforts afterward. It’s not rare for him to get the steal “just because” he got beaten.
Basketball Intelligence: 19.4
You don’t see many mistakes when he plays. When he is in help defense, he keeps a good awareness of his man is and always seems to have enough time to get back to him. His positioning with his feet is always precise, and because of that, he is able to control where his opponent drives the ball.
Unlike earlier in his career, he’s not particularly prone to fouling either, tapping out of just one game last season.
The only “mistakes” he makes are that he sometimes can be too aggressive in going for the steal, but even that’s understandable considering he has Marc Gasol to back him up. It’s less of a gamble if there’s not much chance you lose.
The Memphis Grizzlies are one of the best defensive teams in the game, and they have one of the best centers in the game holding down the post. But they are at their best when Tony Allen is patrolling the perimeter.
They give up 6.7 fewer points when he’s in the lineup. He’s a member of eight of the 16 best defensive three-man lineups in the league with at least 500 minutes played. That tells you he’s a massive part of the Grizzlies' defensive success.