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Ranking the Best Defensive Small Forwards in the NBA

Kelly ScalettaFeatured ColumnistAugust 26, 2013

Ranking the Best Defensive Small Forwards in the NBA

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    In the third of a five-part series ranking every rotation player in the NBA who played at least 1,200* minutes last season, here are the small forward** rankings.

    The first two articles ranked the point guards and the shooting guards based on two new metrics, Weighted Averaged Metrics (WAM) and WAM with Scouting (WAMS). The method for them is explained in the point guard rankings.

    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.

    Then, all of that was reduced to a simple number, which projects what a team of like-skilled players would give up in 100 possessions. Therefore, the lower the score, the better it is. The WAMS for the top 10 players is listed next to their name.

    The number in parentheses next to the WAM and scouting scores in the slide represents each player's rank in that category.

     

    *There are a small number of players, Derrick Rose, Danny Granger, Kevin Love and Andrew Bynum, who have been selected to at least one All-Star game and are still in their prime, but did not play sufficient minutes to qualify last season. In those cases, the numbers from 2012 were used to rank them.

    **Some players, such as Andre Iguodala, play multiple positions. In such cases, they are usually listed by what position they are expected to play more minutes in next season's rotation, although there are exceptions. Overall, don't get too hung up on which position is "right." 

The Average Player and the Field

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    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.

    OPER: 14.1

    Defensive Usage: 9.8

    Defensive PPP: .9

    TDP/36: 6.5

    DRtg: 106.7

    Net DRtg: -.5

    Here are the rankings of the 39 small forwards who qualified, but did not make it to the top 10. Jeff Taylor is the boobie prize winner for being the worst rotation small forward in the NBA. I included every player who played at least 1,200 minutes. If they are not here, they are either listed as a shooting guard, or they will be in the upcoming power forward rankings. 

    And, for those wondering, I counted Josh Smith as a power forward. 

    RankPlayerTeamWAM
    11Metta World PeaceNYK97.72
    12Gerald WallaceBOS97.80
    13Tayshaun PrinceMEM97.83
    14Kyle KorverATL98.14
    15Shawn MarionDAL98.46
    16Chandler ParsonsHOU98.51
    17Rudy GayTOR98.99
    18Al-Farouq AminuNOH99.00
    19Nicholas BatumPOR99.12
    20Shane BattierMIA99.13
    21Evan TurnerPHI99.18
    22Vince CarterDAL99.26
    23Andrei KirilenkoBRO99.34
    24Danilo GallinariDEN99.79
    25Earl ClarkCLE99.90
    26Mike DunleavyCHI100.12
    27Tobias HarrisORL100.36
    28Corey BrewerMIN100.53
    29Michael Kidd-GilchristCHA100.53
    30John SalmonsSAC100.84
    31Gordon HaywardUTA100.97
    32Steve NovakTOR100.98
    33Wayne EllingtonDAL101.13
    34Kyle SinglerDET101.16
    35Harrison BarnesGSW101.82
    36Maurice HarklessORL101.93
    37Alan AndersonBRO101.99
    38Marvin WilliamsUTA102.17
    39Carlos DelfinoMIL102.40
    40Jared DudleyLAC102.90
    41Martell WebsterWAS103.21
    42Dorell WrightPOR103.28
    43Dante CunninghamMIN103.30
    44Caron ButlerPHO103.66
    45Alonzo GeeCLE103.89
    46Michael BeasleyPHO103.92
    47E'Twaun MooreORL103.95
    48Quincy PondexterMEM104.27
    49Jeff TaylorCHA104.44

     

    All stats are obtained from the following websites unless otherwise posted. 

    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.com. Play index and play index plus were also used substantially.

    The points per play and total plays were obtained from Synergy.

    All predraft measurements were obtained from the Draft Express database.

    All splits and zone data are from NBA.com/STATS (account required). 

    Hoopsstats.com was also used for player stats.

10. Danny Granger, Indiana Pacers, 98.43

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    OPER: 12.4

    Defensive Usage: 10.0

    Defensive PPP: .83

    TDP/36: 5.8

    DRtg: 103.0

    Net DRtg: -3.6

    WAM: 97.44 (7)

    Scouting: 100.4 (10)

    WAMS: 98.43

     

    Speed and Athleticism: 20.8

    Danny Granger has below-average speed for his position, and he doesn’t use what he has very well on defense. He gets easily beaten off the dribble, but being backed up with a sensational interior defense helps him out. Being fair, some of that help comes from himself. 

    When he gets beaten, he sticks with the play and is adept at steering his man into his help, so Roy Hibbert—one of the best rim protectors in the business—is able to work his magic.

    But when he’s out in the open and his job is to keep the ball-handler from getting past him, his success rate is not very high.

     

    Size and Strength: 18.8

    Granger uses his size and strength to make up what he lacks in speed. He likes to play physical, getting up into his opponent. He tries to create contact and tangle up his man as much as possible. When he does that, he tends to win the battle. He’s easier to go around than to go through.

    While he uses his strength very well, he could do more to use his full length. He has a 7’1.5” wingspan, but he doesn’t utilize it well. Rarely do you see him extend his full length when he’s closing out on spot-up shooters. Most of the time, you don’t even see his hand go particularly far over his head, a problem which is amplified by the fact he doesn’t always jump to challenge the shot.

    The result is, he gave up .98 points per play against the spot-up, which is below average league-wide. And that’s on a team that led the league in that category this season without Granger dragging them down. 

     

    Effort: 20.8

    Granger is a lollygagger on defense. He doesn’t press. When the play is away from him, he trots, more than runs, through is rotations. He doesn’t close with even the most remote sense of urgency. He doesn't do much to help his teammates when the play is away from him.

    When it starts to come down to crunch time and the game is on the line, you see Granger amp it up, and you see that he’s actually capable of being an exceptional defensive player when he wants to be, but the percentage of the game he spends applying himself is unacceptable.

     

    Basketball Intelligence: 19.1

    Part of what makes Granger’s “effort” even more frustrating is that he knows what to do. He does the right things, just not with any urgency. He meanders his way through the rotations and does everything he’s supposed to do 78 percent of the way.

    It’s good that he knows what to do; it’s bad that he doesn’t seem to know that if he doesn’t commit himself to doing it all the way, it defeats the purpose of doing it.

     

    Help: 20.9

    While these things are hard to gauge specifically, it would seem that the points the Pacers gave up while Granger was on the court in 2012 were most frequently the responsibility of Granger, either directly or indirectly.

    If the points weren’t scored directly on Granger, they were more frequently scored because there was a hole left by someone who had stepped in to fill a hole created by Granger’s mistake.

    The Pacers were 3.6 points better defensively while Granger was on the court, but that seems to be more of a factor of Granger playing with elite defenders who helped compensate for him than it was Granger’s own defense.

9. Matt Barnes, Los Angeles Clippers, 96.56

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    OPER: 15.6

    Defensive Usage: 13.1

    Defensive PPP: .84

    TDP/36: 7.0

    DRtg: 13.1

    Net DRtg: -3.8

    WAM: 97.54 (9)

    Scouting: 94.6 (5)

    WAMS: 96.56

     

    Speed and Athleticism: 19.3

    When he’s guarding in isolation, Matt Barnes is not the elite defender he used to be. As he’s aged, he’s lost a step, and he’s just not as adept at staying in front of his opponent. His athleticism is not what it used to be.

    The further out the play starts, the more true that is, as there is more court for opposing players to use. But as Barnes backs in, and there is less room for his opponent s to get past him, the better Barnes gets.

    He’s still in the top 25 percent guarding the iso, but that’s not at the same level he was at when he was one of the elite perimeter stoppers in the league.

     

    Size and Strength: 18.6

    A remarkable thing about Barnes is that, even though he’s only 6’7”, he’s an exceptional defender in the post. He yields a field-goal percentage of just 54.1 percent inside five feet, which is on par with players who are seven-feet tall.

    The reason is, Barnes is exceptionally strong for his size. He is tough to move out of the way, and the further he gets backed into the paint, the less his loss of speed matters and the more he can use his experience and understanding of how to defend to his advantage.

    When he’s defending the pick-and-roll, he fights off picks as though they didn’t exist, which is why he gives up just .59 ppp in those situations.

    When he can use his strength, he is a much better defender than when he has to rely on his athleticism. Still, at 6’6”, he’s not very long, and he can be shot over, particularly when he has to travel further to close out on shooters, especially longer small forwards.

     

    Effort: 18.9

    His defensive usage is off the charts at 13.1. That’s the second-highest among 3s. He gives up just .84 points per play overall, which places him in the 25 percent. Coupled together, that means he’s frequently taking the defensive responsibility, and he’s doing it well.

    However, he’s also doing it off the bench. When he played, he played hard, but he didn’t have the same demands put on him as the starters who made the top 10.

    He deserves high marks here, but not quite as high as those who play with just as much energy, but who do it 38 minutes a game.

     

    Basketball Intelligence: 19.2

    Doing the scouting on various players, certain words jump out to describe them. For Barnes, the word was “savvy.” He’s incredibly difficult to fake. He’s never caught leaning in the wrong direction. He anticipates where holes are going to open up and fills them well.

    As a result, what he’s lost in his speed and athleticism, he’s made up for in understanding.

    He’s a smart player, but he has one stupid propensity that doesn’t sit well. He gets in foul trouble a lot, particularly since he’s coming off the bench. Over the last three years, he’s averaged 4.1 fouls per 36 minutes, which is one of the worst foul rates among small forwards in the league.

     

    Help: 18.6

    The Los Angeles Clippers are 3.2 points better while Barnes is on the court. The question is whether they are better because Barnes is on the court.

    They are 17 points better defensively when the reserves are on the court than when the starters. That gives you a good impression that there’s a lot going on, and a large part of that is some really horrid defense from Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.

    Part of the reason for such a dramatic difference is the stark contrast between how good and how bad the Clippers defense can be. But when you look at their eight best lineups, they all feature Barnes, so you have to figure, he’s definitely more of a help than a hindrance.

                    

8. Paul Pierce, Brooklyn Nets, 95.96

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    OPER: 14.3

    Defensive Usage: 8.4

    Defensive PPP: .79

    TDP/36: 8.4

    DRtg: 103.7

    Net DRtg: -2.7

    WAM: 95.96 (3)

    Scouting: 97.7 (9)

    WAMS: 95.96

     

    Speed and Athleticism: 20.7

    Here is one of the least controversial statements typed in the history of the Internet, “Paul Pierce is not an enormously athletic player.” And what little athleticism he had has been lost as he’s gotten older.

    Pierce is almost as fast as the free-throw stripe, but he has managed to have a career that will inevitably land him in the Hall of Fame.

    Part of that is because he’s learned to compensate for his lack of athleticism. He has learned to play “better” than his athleticism. Few in the history of the game have made as much out of their innate talent as Pierce.

     

    Size and Strength: 19.6

    At 6’7”, Pierce is not very tall either, but he’s got some bulk to him, and he’s strong. He’s usually guarding the least athletic wing for the other team, and that means that he’s not at such a disadvantage with his lack of speed.

    He guards the jump shot well, playing shooters tight, which makes it difficult for them to just shoot over him.

    When he has a chance to put his body on them, it’s hard for them to work their way around him. When they succeed in that endeavor, he usually has Kevin Garnett there to protect him. And Garnett is only one of the best defensive players in the history of forever, so that’s a pretty soft cushion for him to land on.

     

    Effort: 19.3

    Pierce is one of those players who needs to turn it on and off as he goes along. He’s just too old to be giving it 38 minutes a night of hard-pressing defense. What he does give you is about 30 minutes a night, with five of them being hard-playing, clutch-time, elite-level minutes.

    Part of Pierce’s game has become knowing when to pick his battles, and he saves his energy for the end of the game. When it comes to the clutch, he can play fantastic defense, but other than that, he just plays minutes on defense, electing to use his energy more as a shot creator on offense.

     

    Basketball Intelligence: 18.2

    I don’t mean to diminish Pierce’s athleticism on a general level, but as a future Hall of Famer who played in an era with some of the most elite perimeter athletes in the history of the league, Pierce pales in comparison. But not many of those superior athletes have accomplished more than Pierce.

    If you were to make an accomplishment-to-raw-talent ratio, Pierce would be the best wing since Larry Bird on that scale.

    He’s done that by playing what we like to call “old man’s game.” He uses an understanding of the game to compensate, and he does it exceptionally well. He’s done it on offense, and he’s done it on defense. He’s been one of the better defenders in the league for the last half-decade because he plays so intelligently.

     

    Help: 19.9

    Pierce also gets help from some truly great defensive players around him; Rajon Rondo was first in our point guard rankings, and Avery Bradley was third for the shooting guards. I’m not giving any spoilers here, but Kevin Garnett will fare pretty well, too.

    It’s not insulting to say that he benefitted from that help.

    Now that he’s in Brooklyn and has less defensive help around him, it will be interesting to see if he’s able to maintain the same elite numbers he’s had in the past.

7. Trevor Ariza, Washington Wizards, 96.34

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    OPER: 10.2

    Defensive Usage: 9.6    

    Defensive PPP: .76

    TDP/36: 7.7

    DRtg: 102.8

    Net DRtg: -2.3

    WAM: 96.65 (6)

    Scouting: 95.7 (7)

    WAMS: 96.34

     

    Speed and Athleticism: 19.2

    Trevor Ariza is about average when it comes to speed and quickness, but he is skilled enough with his feet to play quicker than he is.

    He keeps them squarely beneath him when the ball-handler is trying to get past him, which keeps him from being caught off balance. That helps him to guard players who are faster than he is.

    The quicker shooting guards can still get past him, and he’s not able to guard point guards, but he is able to keep most wings in front of him, as much because of skill as anything else.

    Ariza’s perimeter defense was a major factor in the Washington Wizards jumping form the 21st most efficient defense to the fifth last season.

     

    Size and Strength: 19.1

    Ariza has average strength and above-average length with a wingspan of 7’2” that he uses exceptionally well. He extends himself when challenging jump shots and always seems to have a hand in the face of the shooter.

    His defense of the spot-up is a brilliant .79 points per play. He guards the player coming off the screen with equal adeptness. He’s one of the hardest 3s to post up, yielding just .70 points per play. All of those things together give him one of the better overall Synergy scores in the NBA, at just .76 points per play, and they are all because of how well he uses his length.

     

    Effort: 19.0

    Ariza shows good effort, and he’s managed to curtail that excessive effort thing he had going for a while, too. After signing his contract with New Orleans, he tried to step things up on both sides of the ball, and he played outside of himself, forcing things.

    Now he’s more moderate, and that’s what he needs to be. He’s not going to be a defensive player of the year, but he could be an All-Defense player if he plays within himself. With John Wall now being healthy and the Wizards looking like a potential playoff threat, that could happen this year.

     

    Basketball Intelligence: 19.3

    Ariza tends to do what is expected of him, and you don’t see a lot “wrong” with his decision-making. He follows through on his rotations, getting where he’s supposed to be when he’s supposed to be there, but you don’t see anything “special” about his decision-making either.

    He tends to be more reactive than proactive. He responds well to what has happened, but doesn’t seem to anticipate what will happen. This limits the range of his ability to get over and help his teammates. He does his job, but isn’t the Wizards' leader on defense. Those little things that make the difference between a good high-IQ player and an elite-IQ player are absent.

    Perhaps one thing that would help is if he were more vocal and exercised more leadership.

     

    Help: 19.1

    While I touched on his length in the previous section, I didn’t say much about his giant steps. It’s kind of remarkable how he eats up ground in one or two steps which helps him to reach his teammates in help defense.

    The Wizards were 2.3 points better defensively with Ariza on the court, and that’s not surprising. He doesn’t need much help, unless it’s with the quicker guards, and he provides help much more frequently than he asks for it.

    Overall, my impression is Ariza is probably the most underrated defender in the league.

6. Luol Deng, Chicago Bulls, 96.33

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    OPER: 12.5

    Defensive Usage: 10.5

    Defensive PPP: .85

    TDP/36: 5.3

    DRtg: 104.5

    Net DRtg: 1.7

    WAM: 97.64 (10)

    Scouting: 93.7 (4)

    WAMS: 96.33 

     

    Speed and Athleticism: 19.8

    Sometimes in the NBA, we think of athleticism in a very narrow sense, where it almost gets equated with ball-handling skills. We see players like Russell Westbrook or Derrick Rose make amazing moves to the basket with the ball, and that’s athletic, so we think, conversely, that’s what athleticism is.

    Luol Deng appears to be unable to dribble the ball without looking at it, so we give him a reputation of being unathletic.

    He’s actually not a bad athlete, though. He’s not an outstanding one, but he’s not terrible.

    He moves his feet well and stays in front of the defender. He has a strong sense of balance, which helps him from getting caught leaning. He can get beaten by quicker players, but he can stay in front of most. While I wouldn't say he is an outstanding athlete, he is slightly above average, and he maximizes what he has.

     

    Size and Strength: 18.4

    Deng isn’t the tallest small forward in the league, but perhaps surprisingly, he is one of the longest. His standing reach of 9'0.5" is only 1.5 inches short of Kevin Durant’s, and 1.5 inches longer than Paul George.

    Deng supplements that length with the strength of a power forward. Opponents struggle the most to score when they can’t get around him. When it comes to defending the post, he’s tough to push around, and he’s even more difficult to shoot over.

    Deng also uses his length exceptionally well when closing out shooters off screens, where his .65 points per play against is one of the best averages in the NBA. He closes hard, and he uses his full length.

     

    Effort: 18.0

    Deng has led the league in minutes per game each of the last two years, with an Olympic stint in the middle. He’s played those minutes in a defense that presses its wing defenders harder than any in the league. He’s done it with a torn ligament in his wrist for most of that time. And he spent the last two months of the 2013 season playing with a broken thumb on the same hand.

    Then, as though that weren't enough, he actually went out and tried to warm up before a game while he was literally facing a life-threatening illness. While no one knew the severity of the illness at the time, it shows how hard Deng is willing to push his body in even trying. That’s the kind of effort he always maintains.

    The only player in the Association who might put forth as much effort as Deng is his teammate, Joakim Noah.

     

    Basketball Intelligence: 18.8

    On the court, Deng has a tremendous basketball IQ. He is a critical cog in a highly complex system, and he is the player most likely to be filling in for everyone else’s mistakes, and by everyone else, I mean Carlos Boozer.

    Deng sees the court well. He anticipates where mistakes are going to happen, and he usually gets there in time to make up for them. It appears that he’s trained his defensive protégé, Jimmy Butler, to do the same thing. On the court, you couldn't ask for more.

    The problem is, sometimes his heart gets in the way of his head. Some decisions, such as not getting surgery on his wrist for the second summer in a row, have long-term impact.

    Playing through the injury last summer for his adopted nation and Olympic host is understandable. If the injury doesn't heal on its own now, it’s going to be hard to ignore that he should have gotten surgery this summer.

    While you can have all the respect in the world for his heart, he needs to be smart enough to know when to say, “when.” He needs to ask out when he has nothing left to give. He needs to let his body heal when it’s broken.

     

    Help: 18.7                               

    Deng’s help defense is hard to measure by on/off stats for two reasons. First, there’s the Carlos Boozer factor. Carlos Boozer drags down the defense of everyone he plays with, and he played over 75 percent of his minutes with Deng. 

    The second thing is that the player who replaced him most frequently at the small forwards was Butler, who is arguably an even better defender than Deng.

    When Boozer sits, and Deng doesn't essentially have to play two defensive positions at the same time, the Bulls give up four fewer points per 100 possessions.

    Perhaps, the greatest testament to Deng’s help defense is that Carlos Boozer has the fifth-best defensive rating in the league since becoming a Chicago Bull.

5. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder, 95.94

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    OPER: 11.2

    Defensive Usage: 9.9

    Defensive PPP: .80

    TDP/36: 9.4

    DRtg: 103.5

    Net DRtg: 1.3

    WAM: 95.61 (2)

    Scouting: 96.6 (8)

    WAMS: 95.94

     

    Speed and Athleticism: 19.8

    Kevin Durant is the second-best player in the world. That doesn’t mean he’s the second-best athlete in the NBA, though. He’s actually not that athletic. His sprint score at the combine was just 3.45. His agility score was 12.33. His vertical was only 33.5 inches.

    That’s not great. In fact, only 18 players have ever been drafted who scored worse than Durant on all three of those measures, so in terms of pure athleticism, Durant is lacking some. He has found a way to compensate, though.

     

    Size and Strength: 18.8

    Kevin Durant has amazing length for a small forward. His standing reach is 9’2”, which makes him the longest by an inch-and-a-half of any of the top 10 small forwards. He’s actually longer than many of the centers in the league.

    That makes him very difficult to shoot over. He’s able to compensate for his lack of quickness by giving the ball-handler a lot of space. It’s easier to move forward than backward, and with his length, it’s easy for him to just step up and challenge the shot.

    However, he’s still slightly built and has trouble guarding bigger players. He doesn’t guard the 4 as often as he could, and when he does, his oPER is nearly three points worse than when guards the 3. If he hit the weights, he’d be a fearsome interior defender.

     

    Effort: 19.1

    Durant is an offensive superstar who starts with a second offensive superstar in Russell Westbrook and three defensive specialists in Kendrick Perkins, Thabo Sefalosha and Serge Ibaka. He’s not asked to carry the majority of the load on defense, and he doesn’t, but he does apply himself to his job.

    This year, in particular, he’s made major strides in his defense. The Thunder went from the 11th-most efficient defense in 2012 to the fourth-most efficient in 2013, and I attribute the bulk of that improvement to Durant’s gearing up defensive focus.

    And, while he may have gotten criticism for working out with LeBron James last summer, I can’t help but think that had something to do with Durant’s vast improvement this year.

     

    Basketball Intelligence: 19.0

    Durant does what he is supposed to do within a pretty narrow spectrum. He’s not asked to go out and defend the best players in the league. He’s not asked to provide a lot of help, but he does what he is asked, and he knows how to play within himself.

    A lot of basketball IQ isn’t beating your opponent at chess. It’s learning to take advantage of your advantages and how to minimize your weaknesses, and Durant has done that. Because he’s done that, it frees up the defensive specialists on his team to focus on the best offensive players without having to worry about helping Durant.

    That means he’s gone from being a liability on defense, as he was early in his career, to being an asset now.

     

    Help: 20.3

    For the most part, he gets more help than he gives, just by being relieved of the responsibility of having to guard the quickest players, but he’s learned to provide help defense by playing in his secondary defensive role.

    One area he has become especially adept in is getting steals and blocks without taking unnecessary gambles. He is the only player in the NBA who managed 100 of each last season, and he’s one of five players to accomplish it in the last six years.

    Durant gets steals by getting his long arms into passing lanes. He gets his blocks helping Ibaka, who is so good at altering shots that a lot of times a shooter will shift the ball to Durant’s side to take it, and then Durant will bat it away. When he does get the block, he’s adept at directing it to his teammates.

4. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs, 95.71

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    OPER: 12.0

    Defensive Usage: 10.3

    Defensive PPP: .82

    TDP/36: 9.4

    DRtg: 99.8

    Net DRtg: -4.6

    WAM: 96.17 (4)

    Scouting: 94.8 (6)

    WAMS: 95.71

     

    Speed and Athleticism: 19.1

    Kawhi Leonard is not quite an elite athlete. He’s more accurately placed at the next level. He had a 3.15 sprint speed and only a 32-inch vertical. His agility test measured 11.45, which is average, tied with 11 players for 643 out 1,240 players measured.

    He’s better than his measures when he plays, but he’s not spectacular. He tends to play well off better ball-handlers, and in many cases, too far off. He has to give a lot of cushion because he doesn’t have exceptional lateral quickness.

     

    Size and Strength: 18.9

    Leonard is a freak, like a circus freak. After his NBA career is over, he can get into an actual freak show as "Mr. Stretch." He is only 6’6” without shoes, but his wingspan is 7’3”. That’s the same length as Myers Leonard, who is 7'.

    Only three players in the history of the combine have measured a shorter height and a wider wing span.

    Leonard also has crazy hand size too, 9.75 inches long and 11.25 inches wide. His hand is almost a foot! 

    There are advantages to being tall, and there are advantages to being long, even though you’re not very tall.

    Subconsciously, it’s easy for ball-handlers to feel areas are safe that aren’t safe based on Leonard’s height. Even if consciously they’re aware of how long he is, they slip.

    That allows Leonard to nab a lot of sneaky steals that his opponents don’t see coming, block shots and grab rebounds they don’t anticipate. As a result, his 9.4 defensive plays per 36 minutes is the best of any top-10 small forward and is fourth among small forwards overall.

    While his length is excellent, the lack of height and bulk make him easier to post up on.

     

    Effort: 18.8

    Overall, Leonard gives forth good effort, but it’s a kind of tentative effort at times. He plays like what he is—a tremendous, hard-working talent who is learning on the job.

    He’s in an interesting situation, similar to Rajon Rondo’s for the past few years. He’s on a team surrounded by future Hall of Fame probables, so he is able to learn from them and be covered by them when he makes a mistake. It also gives him the chance to earn the reputation of being a “winner” without having to carry a team until he’s ready to do that.

    That supporting structure takes some of the pressure off him that some of the other young stars in the league have to shoulder on their own. Of the elite defensive small forwards, Leonard probably has the least real responsibility.

     

    Basketball Intelligence: 19.1

    Leonard has a natural affinity for learning the game, but he’s not on the same level as some of the smartest players in the league. There are some things that come with time and experience, and he just hasn’t had enough of that yet.

    While he tends to fill his role well and play within the system, there are little mistakes you see him make. Sometimes, it’s the ill-advised foul. Sometimes, it’s playing too far off a proven shooter.

    That’s not to be critical; it’s just to distinguish why he’s not getting the same type of score as LeBron James or Andre Iguodala for intelligence. There are just some lessons that Leonard still needs to learn.

     

    Help: 19.3

    Leonard’s guarding LeBron James in the finals is a perfect descriptor of his help defense. It would be irresponsible to either ignore what he brings to the defense or to ignore that he receives help in that defense, too.

    He was tremendously effective as the primary defender on James by doing what was asked of him. He kept in front of him for the most part. When he didn’t, Tim Duncan, or one of the other Spurs, was there to help him.

    Leonard is the best perimeter defender the Spurs have, but he’s not the only elite defender they have. Danny Green and Duncan are among the best in their position too, and they work together well, with each of them helping the other two.

    Overall, the Spurs defense is 4.3 points better with Leonard on the court, which is a pretty clear indication that he’s a critical part of their team defense. Perhaps, he's the most important part,  but it would be remiss to ignore how much help he gets from his teammates.

3. LeBron James, Miami Heat, 95.39

10 of 12

    OPER: 13.8

    Defensive Usage: 8.3

    Defensive PPP: .84

    TDP/36: 8.9

    DRtg: 104.2

    Net DRtg: -3.6

    WAM: 97.44 (8)

    Scouting: 91.3 (1)

    WAMS: 95.39

     

    Speed and Athleticism: 18.0

    LeBron James doesn’t go to the doctor; he goes to the mechanic to get his cyborg parts replaced. He’s one of only two players in the league with a 40-inch vertical who weighs over 250 pounds (the other being Miles Plumlee).

    He does that while being on par with the fastest and most athletic players in the league. On a purely physical level, LeBron James is in the conversation for the greatest athlete ever.

     

    Size and Strength: 18.0

    He is as powerful as he is athletic. He gives up just .56 points on post plays, and he yields only .61 points per play against the roll man on the pick-and-roll. He’s a point guard in a power forward’s body, and that’s what makes him almost a cheater just by existing.

    People who are that big are not supposed to be that strong and that fast. I’m not trying to make a hyperbolic point on this, but how do you exaggerate his physical prowess? Opponents can’t get around him, over him or through him. Their best hope is to just pass the ball.

     

    Effort: 19.2

    When James is applying himself, he is arguably the best defensive player in the league. The problem is, he doesn’t always apply himself. He tends to take plays, quarters or even entire games off defensively, particularly when going against weaker opponents.

    Based on Hoopsstats.com, he gave up an efficiency of 15.0 or greater 41 times last season—19 of those times was to opponents who were on teams who missed the postseason. James tends to relax when he “knows” he’s going to win.

    For a player who has been carrying the heaviest burden for his team in three successive trips to the finals, it’s understandable why he gets disengaged from time to time defensively. But he still has to take a marginal hit for not having the same kind of intense effort a few of the other players do.

     

    Basketball Intelligence: 18.5

    James is one of the smartest players in the league, a long-underrated aspect of his game.

    There’s a myth that he’s “just” a physical specimen whom we’ve never seen the likes of before. This is neither true nor fair. It is bubble-logic which James’ haters spoon feed to one another to make themselves feel better.

    He’s a great physical specimen we’ve never seen the likes of. That much is true. But he is a brilliant player who works on and hones his skills just as much as Kobe Bryant does, and anything else you’ve heard or read is pure garbage.

    Very rarely, on either side of the ball, do you see James make the wrong play. Beyond that, he’s also a captain for the Miami Heat on defense, and he’s an on-court coach. He doesn’t make wrong plays.

     

    Help: 18.0

    There is a sort of controversy over whether James, “defends all five positions.” Some people want to assume that since he doesn’t defend all five positions at the same time, he doesn’t guard all five positions. That’s a bit disingenuous. He does, at times, guard all five positions.

    Scrolling through his list of defensive plays on Synergy, he frequently will guard the shooting guard, small forward and power forward positions. He’ll guard the point guard and center positions as well, though with less frequency. He guarded both Tony Parker and Tim Duncan at times during the finals.

    There are not many players in the league who can make that claim, though it’s not true that he’s the only player who does it either. There are a few other players, such as Joakim Noah, who have guarded all five positions.

    His ability to guard all five positions, and the fact that the Heat are 3.6 points better defensively when he is on the court, gives James the best possible score here.

2. Andre Iguodala, Golden State Warriors, 95.09

11 of 12

    OPER: 11.8

    Defensive Usage: 9.7

    Defensive PPP: .8

    TDP/36: 6.9

    DRtg: 104.9

    Net DRtg: -4.7

    WAM: 96.29 (5)

    Scouting: 92.7 (3)

    WAMS: 95.09

     

    Speed and Athleticism: 18.2

    Andre Iguodala has exceptional speed and athleticism, and even guarding the 2 most of the time last year, he was able to dominate the league in isolation defense, giving up a Scrooge-McDuckian .58 points per play.

    If you want to put that into perspective, in the 118 times he guarded the isolation play, his opponents scored 25 times in 86 games. That’s less than one iso bucket every three games.

    So yeah, he’s kind of tough to get around.

     

    Size and Strength: 19.5

    Iguodala is not that big. He’s only 6’7” with a wingspan of 6’11”. That’s good size for a 2, but for the 3, it’s a little small. While it would be a stretch to say he “struggles” with picks, it’s fair to say he’s merely “very good” at dealing with them.

    His opponents have more success scoring on him when he has to fight through the picks, whether they come off a screen, where he gives up .97 points per play, or they keep the ball on the pick-and-roll, where he gives up .82 points per play. In both instances, he’s in the top third of the league, but not in the top 25 percent.

    He fights hard through screens, but he’s still overmatched physically, so he takes a moment to work his way through them, and that is often the difference his opponents need.

     

    Effort: 18.4

    Iguodala generally plays hard. He plays really hard. He also played really hard in Denver, which is a really hard place to play really hard because of the altitude.

    That worked in his favor a little, too, though, as George Karl was one of the best at using his bench to keep fresh lungs coming in, keeping the pressure turned up on the opposition.

    As a result, Iguodala was generally fresher than his opponent. There’s certainly nothing “wrong” with that, but it’s hard to give him the same kind of score as a player like Luol Deng or Paul George who were playing monster minutes and/or seemingly the primary defender on virtually every play.

    It would also be good to see Iguodala consistently find that “extra” gear when the game is on the line. He has found it sporadically, but not consistently. When he does find it, he’s as good of a defender as there is in basketball.

     

    Basketball Intelligence: 18.0

    There is probably no defender in the league who watches film as hard as Iguodala. He doesn’t start defending when his defender gets the ball. He’s started defending before the game ever started. He knows what his opponents want to do, and he knows to anticipate those things.

    If you want to read a great article on just what that is, read this piece by Mat Moore of CBS Sports here. The general gist of it, if you don’t want to read it, is that Iguodala plays great defense between the ears, and that’s why he’s a great defender. He knows what he needs to do before he needs to do it.

    He knows what the other team likes to do. He knows what other players like to do. He doesn’t just think about whom he’s playing against, he thinks about who he’s playing with. He’ll gamble more with Andre Miller than with Ty Lawson for example, because he knows with Miller he can get away with it.

    Iguodala is the smartest, most well-prepared small forward in the league when it comes to defense.

     

    Help: 18.6

    He made the Denver Nuggets 4.7 points better while he was on the court, and he did that in just one season with the team. The fact that his presence immediately made the Nuggets a much-improved defensive team shows that he is a great help defender. Going to Golden State, he is going to be even better.

    In the past, he’s always been the best offensive player on the team as well. Suddenly, he’s maybe the third option, maybe even the fourth. That means he can give all his energy on the defensive end now, which is a frightening prospect for opponents of the Warriors.

    With Iguodala to help the perimeter defense and Andrew Bogut shoring up the interior defense, the Warriors are set defensively. That, combined with the perimeter scoring of Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry, as well as the interior scoring of David Lee, make the Warriors a well-balanced team. And to crown all that, Igudoala should make a great mentor for the young Harrison Barnes.

    Iguodala, for the first time in his career, is going to have his primary job be the thing he is the best at. He should have the best defensive year of his career.

1. Paul George, Indiana Pacers, 92.74

12 of 12

    OPER: 11.2

    Defensive Usage: 13.9

    Defensive PPP: .82

    TDP/36: 8.6

    DRtg: 100.1

    Net DRtg: -2.7

    WAM: 93.16 (1)

    Scouting: 91.9 (2)

    WAMS: 92.74

     

    Speed and Athleticism: 18.1         

    Other than LeBron James, there’s probably not a more athletic small forward in the NBA right now. Paul George is quick and smooth in his defense. He stays in front of his opponent exceptionally well. He goes over picks before they’re even set. He has quick reflexes and uses his feet superbly. It’s like he’s playing on roller skates.

    With George, it’s about efficiency of motion. He doesn’t waste a lot of energy. Some players tend to overdo it with their feet as though they’re in the boxing ring, and they get caught in all that shuffling and dancing around. George keeps his steps precise and pragmatic, which also makes him as quick as anyone in terms of lateral movement.

     

    Size and Strength: 18.5

    You hear rumors about how George grew two inches since he came into the league. Whether those are true or not, is hard to say. He didn’t look two inches taller than LeBron James while he was guarding him in the conference finals, but that’s just me.

    Regardless, he’s still a long player, with a wingspan of 6’11.25". (Notice that our entire top-six group measures at least 6’11”—a pretty good indication of how important that is.)

    He uses his length exceptionally well. Once again, you see a precision to the way that George plays. He uses his entire length, which might be what helps him get away the impression that he’s 6’10”.

    He’s able to get his hands in on balls and disrupt dribbles, deflect passes and be an overall nuisance.

    He might be the same height as James (or if you want to believe it, slightly taller), but he’s nowhere near as strong.

    He’s good in the post, but not exceptionally good. He’s much better in isolation or defending jump shots where he can rely more on his quickness and length.

     

    Effort: 18.0

    George was the initial defender on 1,444 plays last scene, which is just frankly, a disturbingly high number. What else needs to be said about his effort? No player in the league was the initial defender on more plays.

    He’s not just the “initial defender” either. He’s usually the initial defender on guys like LeBron James or Kobe Bryant, and he’s usually defending them well, staying in front of them and doing pretty amazing things.

    His overall points per play is .82, which is only “really good,” but when you factor in that he’s only doing that against the best perimeter player on the other team all the time, that number looks better.

     

    Basketball Intelligence: 18.8

    George is learning every season. He’s still only 23, which means he has plenty of time to continue to grow, and he is not just getting better, he’s also getting smarter.

    One area this is visible in is his improvement in foul rates. In 2012, he averaged 3.5 fouls per 36 minutes, but last year, he averaged just 2.7.

    A lot of that has to do with knowing when to press and when not to press. It’s an important lesson for him to learn as he is a full-time starter. Last season, he fouled out once and accumulated five fouls in eight other games.  

    So he’s shown improvement, but there is still more room to grow, and that’s where a lot of things can be said about him. He has room to grow.

    George is a viable future defensive player of the year (I believe he should have won last season). He’s that good already. The scary thing is, he has room to get even better as he learns the subtle tricks and nuances that come with being a veteran.

     

    Help: 19.0

    With the Indiana Pacers, measuring help defense is difficult. To slightly revamp the traditional phrase, "Frank Vogel helps those who help themselves."  The coach has a system that works extremely well. In fact, it was the top-rated defense in the league last season.

    Part of the reason for that is the Pacers have elite defenders in all five positions. Lance Stephenson, the “weakest” defender among the starting five was only the eighth-best defender at his position in the shooting guard rankings. Everyone else ranks better than that.

    So there’s not a lot of need for anyone to be helping anyone. By extension, George doesn’t have to play a lot of help defense. At the same time, that whole system starts to fall apart if George isn’t able to shut down the best player on the court all the time. He’s the most essential cog in the well-oiled machine.

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