Ranking the Best Defensive Power Forwards in the NBA
In the fourth of a five-part series ranking every rotation player in the NBA who played at least 1,200* minutes last season, here are the power forward** rankings.
The first three articles ranked the point guards, shooting guards and small forwards 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
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: 8.3
Defensive PPP: .9
Net DRtg: -.1
Here are the rankings of the 39 power forwards who qualified but did not make it to the top 10. Markieff Morris is the boobie prize winner for being the worst rotation power forward in the NBA.
I included every player who played at least 1,200 minutes. If they are not here, they are in the small forward rankings, or they will be in the center rankings.
Luc Mbah a Moute
There are some surprising results here. There are some players who have reputations as good defenders who are lower on the list than you would expect. One possibility is that stats are totally meaningless garbage. Another is that not every player deserves his reputation, for better or for worse.
The most realistic is that there's probably some truth to both. Lamarcus Aldridge brings up one interesting focal point. Many people would be surprised to see that he is not in the top 10. They would have some basis in pointing out that the Trail Blazers are better defensively with him on the court.
However, his oPER of 16.7 is tied for 23rd among power forwards, his points per play of .86 is tied for 22nd, his defensive usage is 22nd. His 8.4 total defensive plays per 36 minutes is 26th. He is not even in the top 20 in a single category that reflects individual defense.
So, it's possible the stats are right.
Another player is Serge Ibaka, who has been named to the All-Defense team the last two years, leading the league in blocks both times. Surely, he should be in the top 10, right? This "proves" that stats are a bunch of (insert choice expletive here)!
On the other hand, Ibaka's .89 points per play on Synergy numbers was 36th of the 45 power forwards who qualified. Of all the defensive stats, including the plus/minus stats, the one that remained the most consistent from their old teams to their new teams was their Synergy numbers.
That's not to say Synergy is the only measure. Ibaka's not ranked 36th either; he's ranked 13th.
There are also a few good coaches who have done a good job of disguising average to below-average power forwards in their systems, which land them artificially good stats. In the scouting reports on the slides, I mention who these are and how it works.
In any case, remember the goal with these rankings is not to establish some concrete, etched-in-stone, uncompromising, absolute rankings. They are presented as a starting point for conversation. When we see something like Dirk Nowitzki ranked over Aldridge or Ibaka, it should prompt curiosity, not outrage.
How does a defender like David Lee, whom we know is a bad defender, end up statistically better than Serge Ibaka? That's a question worth asking.
That doesn't mean Lee is better; it just means statistically he's better. The question, "How is Lee statistically better?" should be asked genuinely, not rhetorically. Aldridge and Ibaka are top-10 defensive power forwards, but the fact that statistically, they are not, should provoke thought, not just argument.
The reason I didn't set aside the statistics and rank them by my opinion is that to set aside the stats would be to set aside the goal of the entire exercise.
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).
On off stats were obtained from NBAWowy.
10. David Lee, Golden State Warriors, 99.67
Defensive Usage: 9.2
Defensive PPP: .81
Net DRtg: 1.3
WAM: 97.30 (8)
Scouting: 104.4 (10)
Speed and Athleticism: 19.8
In terms of his combine results, you’d think that David Lee was Mr. Athleticism, but he doesn’t play like it. None of the top-10 power forwards recorded a better three-quarter sprint speed or agility test than Lee, but when you watch him play, you don’t see the agility.
His straight ahead speed is decent. You can see that when he’s closing out on shooters, but his lateral quickness isn’t, “off the charts.” In fact, it’s not even, “on the charts.” In other words, it doesn’t qualify to make the charts. If the only thing standing between an opponent and two points is David Lee, there’s going to be two points scored.
Size and Strength: 20.3
At 6’9” and 240, Lee is about average for a power forward. He isn’t particularly strong, but he’s not weak either. He can be pushed off the block with a little work, but he doesn’t give in easily. He gives up .84 points per play on post-up plays, which is about average for power forwards.
There’s nothing particularly bad about him here, but the fact that he only has average size doesn’t couple well with him having below average quickness.
It wouldn’t be fair to say that Lee doesn’t try, but it wouldn’t be fair to compare him to players whose effort is more productive either. He does what is asked of him, but very little is asked of him.
It’s probably also worth mentioning here that he is an excellent defensive rebounder, and rebounding is largely an effort stat, as well as an aspect of defense that is often overlooked. Nothing ends a defensive possession like actually ending a defensive possession. Lee led all power forwards in defensive rebounds and was third in the NBA overall this season.
Basketball Intelligence: 21.1
Watching Lee defend a player when he’s the only thing standing between a ball-handler and the bucket is like watching a deer try and defend a pair of headlights. He will freeze, look confused, and at the last minute make some sort of panicked move in on direction or the other, with his best hope to avoid getting hit by the driver.
Lee has horrible defensive instincts. He rarely reacts in a way that would even fit the word “reacts.” On the other hand, Mark Jackson (more on that in a moment) has devised a system that overcomes his deficiencies, and he’s learned to play in that system. Credit him for that.
This is similar to the Monta Ellis situation in the shooting guard rankings. It’s a case where a player is bad on defense, but the defense has been designed to cover up his deficiencies brilliantly. Credit Mark Jackson, not David Lee, for Lee’s placement here.
Two play types make up the majority of Lee’s defensive plays: the spot-up and the roll man on the pick- and-roll. When he plays the pick-and-roll, his job isn’t to play the roll man, even though he’s the initial defender on the play. He’s just asked to stick with him long enough for the small forward to help navigate the roll man into the center.
Meanwhile the shooting guard, usually Klay Thompson, will then switch over to pick up the responsibility to guard the 3.
Lee’s job is to watch for the ball to go back out to the perimeter, usually either to the shooting guard or to a stretch four. There, his decent straight ahead speed and length are assets. He gives up just .82 points per play on the spot-up.
He gives up just .6 points to the roll man too, but that’s a case of him getting credit for what someone else did. That correspondingly helps his other defensive stats.
So, no, I really don’t think David Lee is a better defender than LaMarcus Aldridge or Serge Ibaka, but looking at why his numbers are better does reveal an interesting wrinkle about how Mark Jackson has brilliantly done what little can be done with Lee.
9. Jeff Green, Boston Celtics, 98.32
Defensive Usage: 11.4
Defensive PPP: .81
Net DRtg: -.6
WAM: 96.10 (4)
Scouting: 102.2 (9)
Speed and Athleticism: 19.6
Jeff Green is a “tweener” forward. He’s not quite big enough to be a true power forward, and he’s not quite quick enough to be an effective small forward. As a result, he split his time evenly between the two positions last year, playing 28 percent of the Celtics’ power forward positions and 27 percent of their small forward minutes. The one-percent difference is why he ends up on the power forward listing.
If I did this again, I’d probably mark him as a small forward, as he seems to have spent most of his time guarding the small forward position, based on Synergy’s tracking.
His speed and athleticism are good for a power forward. He’s quick enough to guard slower 3s and most 4s.
He Synergy numbers look great, but they are somewhat deceptive. In isolation, he gives up .73 points per play, but he gets beaten often, and Kevin Garnett’s help is the reason he doesn’t get scored on.
Size and Strength: 20.4
If you prefer to count him as a small forward, you can swap his size and strength numbers with his speed and athleticism.
He has good athleticism for a power forward, but poor size. He has good size for a small forward, but below average athleticism.
He rarely guarded true big men on post-up plays, unless you count LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony as “true” big men, but neither of them is a traditional power forward. Green just doesn’t have the muscle to hold his own on the block against bigger players.
Once again his Synergy numbers look good, but they are greatly enhanced by the presence of Kevin Garnett.
There is nothing remarkable about Green’s effort, either good or bad. Probably, the best thing that you can say about him is that he fights hard to go over picks, even if he doesn’t do so very effectively. He gives up .89 points per play to the ball-handler on the pick and roll, which ranks him 196th.
When closing out on shooters, he’ll push hard but he’ll mistime his jump or he’ll over-pursue, and the ball-handler will run past him, and he’ll get caught running past him. He doesn’t have the agility to change direction quickly.
Basketball Intelligence: 20.8
As you can derive from above the paragraph, Green is not privy to what his limitations and strengths are. This might be part of the reason that he’s still struggling to find a true position, or it may be a product of not having found one.
He knows his role, but he doesn’t know himself. He needs to figure out who he is as a player. He’s 27. The “learning curve” is past its time. We’ve been waiting for Green to “break out” for a while now, and he’s gotten a pass because of his heart problems. It’s truly wonderful that he’s overcome those, but it’s a make or break year for him.
Lest you think that I’m exaggerating the help that Garnett gives him, consider this: The Celtics defensive rating with Green and Garnett on the court together was 96.7 last season. When Green was on the court without Garnett, it grew to 109.7. That’s a full 13-point increase.
That is a strong indication that Garnett is helping Green out. It’s a clear case of the stats confirming what the eyes see. Green gets enormous help from Garnett’s presence, and it will be interesting to see what happens this year without his help to bail Green out.
8. Tyler Hansbrough, Toronto Raptors, 97.62
Defensive Usage: 7.9
Defensive PPP: .72
Net DRtg: 1.1
WAM: 97.78 (8)
Scouting: 97.3 (5)
Speed and Athleticism: 19.8
Tyler Hansbrough conjures images of being unathletic for some reason, but those images aren’t true. He’s not an exceptional athlete by any stretch, but he’s a decent one. He has a 34-inch vertical, which is “meh,” but not bad. His 11.2-agility and 3.27-sprint times registered in the combine are above average for power forwards, but only slightly.
Overall, he’s an average athlete for his position, but he uses what he has reasonably well, especially in regards to his hands. He’s adept at swiping the ball away from players as they roll around him on the block.
He looks like he’ll let his opponent go around, and then swipe his hand in and steal the dribble. His 11.3-percent forced-turnover rate is an indication of that.
Size and Strength: 19.2
Hansbrough is the worst of one world, and the best of the other, in this category. His arms are so short he has to bend over to scratch his waste. OK, maybe it’s not that bad, but a 6’11.5” wingspan on a 6’9” player is pretty small by NBA standards for a power forward.
What he lacks in length though, Hansbrough more than makes up for in strength. He doesn't get moved in the paint. Once he decides he’s not moving back, you’re not moving him back, and his Synergy numbers reflect that.
Overall, he gives up just .72 points per play, which is the best of any player in the league with 1,200 minutes played. When you think “power forward,” defensively you think post-up defense and the roll man in pick and roll. In guarding those two plays, Hansbrough gives up just .58 points and .52 points, ranking him eighth and third among all players in the NBA.
You don’t get named “Psycho T” if you don’t play hard. There is no question that Hansbrough does that. He doesn’t take his foot off the gas pedal while he’s playing, but there are times when he should at least pump the brakes and doesn’t.
Sometimes, he’ll run to give help defense at ill-advised times, and that exposes the defense for an easy score. The effort is good, but it could be better managed.
Basketball Intelligence: 19.3
Like all the Indiana Pacers (and I don’t think this is a coincidence), Hansbrough played smart last year. Frank Vogel knows how to coach up his players on defense. Hansbrough seems to know who his opponent is and play them accordingly.
He does a good job of playing shooters tight and backing off of players who don’t have range. He seems to have a good notion of which direction players like to go and cheats in that direction. The kinds of little things that you wouldn't notice unless you were watching for them, you see in Hansbrough.
On the other hand, when he gets screened, Hansbrough can get lost. He’ll often have to look around and get his bearings before he figures out where to go.
He is focused on what’s in front of him, but he needs to have more overall court awareness.
Hansbrough is a net profit on defense, so long as he’s with someone who is long. When he was on the court without Roy Hibbert, the Pacers gave up a defensive rating of 104.1, but when he was with Hibbert, the team gave up just 98.2 points.
However, Hibbert was helped by Hansbrough as well, as he gave up 99.9 when he was alone.
Overall, the Pacers were better without Hansbrough on the court, but that has a lot to do with his playing less time with the Pacers elite defenders, Hibbert and Paul George.
7. Kevin Love, Minnesota Timberwolves, 97.54
Defensive Usage: 8.3
Defensive PPP: .79
Net DRtg: .4
WAM 97.17 (6)
Scouting 98.1 (7)
Speed and Athleticism: 20.1
Kevin Love is not very quick, especially if he has to come out to the perimeter in help defense, or against stretch fours (which is kind of ironic when you think about). His biggest struggle is on the spot-up, where he gave up .91 points per play in 2012, which was still good enough to rank 118th in the NBA, the top 25 percent.
But most of his defense isn’t out there, it’s inside the paint. There, he’s a better defender than advertised. He has quick enough feet that opponents aren’t easily able to pivot around him in the post.
Size and Strength: 18.7
Love did 18 reps on the bench press in the combine, which was tied with Tyler Hansbrough for the most among the power forwards in our top 10. I can only find five current players with more reps in the Draft Express database.
Against the post-up Love was exceptional, yielding a miserly .69 points per play. He has tremendous lower-body strength, and he uses it when the offensive player tries to push him off the block.
Love is not that long though, having a comparably stubby wingspan of 6’11.25”. That probably contributes to his fairly anemic block and steal rate.
Some people will say that Love does not put in the work on defense. Rebounding takes effort. Sure, there are some easy rebounds, but not all rebounds are easy, and you’re not going to amass tons of rebounds just by getting the easy ones.
He does have some issues with effort though. For example, he is slow to close out on shooters.
Mostly though, he just does what he’s asked to do, which is protect the paint. He does a better job of that than his reputation would suggest.
Basketball Intelligence: 20.2
What’s interesting about Love is that when he lines up on a three-point shooter, he tends to close hard and effectively. He gives up just a 27.3 percent field-goal percentage from deep. So he can do a good job of closing when he has to. That he does so when closing on threes shows a grasp of the fact that it’s a high-efficiency area and therefore, “worth” challenging.
However, when it comes to long-twos, he seems to give them to all shooters equally. It would behoove him to distinguish between the shooters who hit from mid-range and those who don’t. It makes sense to give the shot to the shooters who don’t have a good shot, staying home to secure the rebound, and the ones who do.
But if he were to challenge the better shooters, even from long two, he would be a better defensive player.
The Timberwolves are hardly the club you think of when you think, “help defense.” In fact, the ‘Wolves are hardly the team that comes to mind when you think of defense at all. Love is not the kind of player that is going to turn around a defense, but he isn’t going to ruin one either.
What’s worth noting is that Minnesota was a much better defensive rebounding team when Love was on the court, securing 72.4 percent of their defensive rebounds while he was on the court, compared to just 67.8 percent when he was on the bench.
6. Zach Randolph, Memphis Grizzlies, 97.21
Defensive Usage: 7.8
Defensive PPP: .75
Net DRtg: -.6
WAM: 95.40 (1)
Scouting: 100.3 (7)
Speed and Athleticism: 20.4
If you ever needed an example of why Synergy stats can’t be taken as the gospel of everything defense, look no further than Zach Randolph’s isolation stats. If you just go by the numbers, Randolph’s .52 points per play against makes him the third-best iso defender in the NBA.
However, when you watch the plays, it’s pretty apparent that Randolph’s isolation defense has a lot more to do with Marc Gasol blocking or altering shots after the ball-handler blows past Randolph, than it does Randolph’s defense.
He doesn't have much in the way of foot speed, and he is easily beaten off the dribble. He is not what you think of when you think of elite athletes, even for a power forward.
Size and Strength: 20.2
Randolph has good size, and he’s strong, but he doesn’t use that size well in the post. He gets pushed around easier than you’d expect. However, the truth is, most of the time moving him isn’t the strategy players use, they prefer to go around him.
Once again, his Synergy stats look good on post-up plays, but what happens is players spin around him, then go straight into Gasol, who blocks or alters the shot.
Randolph is a good rebounder, which is about the most he offers on defense. He tries to do what he’s supposed to do. He’s active. He attempts to stay in front of players. He’s just not able to.
I think it’s an honest characterization to say that he wouldn’t be able to have better defensive stats than he does. He gives the effort the is supposed to, and it’s earnest, but it’s hard to give him anything better than an average score for effort, because the effort doesn’t produce the results, the help defense does.
Basketball Intelligence: 19.7
Randolph may not be great, but he’s smart enough to know he’s not great. Part of the reason that Gasol is always there to help him out is that Randolph tends to at least cheat to the right side. In that way, he effectively steers the offensive player into the Grizzlies’ center.
Sometimes the smartest do-it-yourself plumber is the one who calls the professional plumber. That’s Randolph’s defense in a nutshell.
Randolph is definitely an asset to the Memphis Grizzlies, and he’s a solid rebounder, but he is not a great defender. The Grizzlies hide him more than use him. His defensive usage is in the bottom 25 percent of power forwards.
His numbers are a product of being hidden by the scheme, and backed up by Gasol. That’s not a criticism. Gasol is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, after all. When they were on the court together, the Grizzlies gave up a defensive rating of just 97.8, but when he didn’t have that backup help, and Randolph was on the floor, they gave up 108.7 points.
Randolph was consistently beaten last season, and Gasol was consistently there to back him up. Randolph makes this list because of Gasol’s play, not his own.
5. Nene, Washington Wizards, 96.96
Defensive Usage: 101.7
Defensive PPP: .84
Net DRtg: -4.4
WAM: 97.79 (10)
Scouting: 95.3 (4)
Speed and Athleticism: 19.3
From a raw perspective, Nene is ridiculously quick for a man his size. He had the fastest three-quarter-sprint of any of the top 10 power forwards, as well as the quickest agility test. He may have lost a fraction of that over the years, but he’s still retained most of it.
What’s more remarkable is that the measurements may sell him a little short. His feet and hands are both extremely quick, and that makes it hard to go around him on the block.
He’s not much of a leaper though, and he’s sometimes lethargic on defense. So when players pull up and shoot on him, he’s ineffective. He doesn’t seem to try to close out, and when he does make some attempt, he’s ineffective. The poor .98 points per play he gives up on the spot-up is an indication of this.
Size and Strength: 18.2
At 6’11” and 250 Nene is large for a power forward—large enough that he has spent a good portion of his career as a center.
He utilizes that strength well in the post. He’s strong as an ox and uses his weight well. He’s not moving unless he decides to. He’s tough to go around because of his quickness, but he’s even tougher to go through. As evidence, he gives up just .63 points per play on post-up plays.
He also has a 7’4.5” wingspan which makes it hard for him to shoot over when he’s up close. However, because of his lack of energy and hops, if opponents can get some distance, he can be gone over.
It’s weird watching Nene play. He’ll look like he’s slow at times because he’s just not trying. He’ll be downright sluggish, dragging his feet and plodding around. Sometimes he’ll even just stand still and watch the play, even when he should be rotating.
Then, all of a sudden, he practically transports himself elsewhere on the court, in the blink of an eye.
At first it’s weird, but then it gets frustrating.
He could be an elite defender if he gave the effort that he should, especially for the amount of money he’s getting paid. The only thing separating Nene from being All-Defense is Nene.
Basketball Intelligence: 19.4
Nene is a smart player. He seems to remain cognizant of everything that is happening on the court, and that helps his team in a lot of ways that don’t show up in box scores.
For example, he’s not a prodigious rebounder, yet the Wizards are a significantly better defensive rebounding team while he’s on the court, snaring 6.7 percent more rebounds than when he’s off. That’s because he tends to box out well.
With him, you see a lot of the little things happen, but you wonder why someone that clever can’t figure out that hustle is important too.
Help: Only three power forwards have a better net defensive rating than Nene’s minus-4.4, and in this case, it truly is a result of the player's play, and no masterminded defenses. It’s the third year in a row that his team has been better defensively with him on the court than off.
That includes a variety of teammates and teams, going back to the pre-Carmelo-Anthony-Trade Nuggets, to the post-trade Nuggets to last year’s Nuggets, to last year’s Wizards to this year’s Wizards, with and without John Wall. The one constant through all that has been Nene’s defense.
4. David West, Indiana Pacers, 96.89
Defensive Usage: 8.2
Defensive PPP: .81
Net DRtg: -1.0
WAM: 96.28 (3)
Scouting: 98.1 (6)
Speed and Athleticism: 19.7
David West has decent quickness for a 31-year-old power forward who has recovered from major knee surgery. He wasn’t the quickest player in the league when he came in, and he’s not as quick now as he was when he came in.
But he does apply what he has, and he’s learned some of the tricks of the trade which help him to compensate for his basic lack. West doesn’t play as slow as he should.
Size and Strength: 19.4
West fares better in terms of size. He has great length, with a wingspan of 7’4.25”. He wasn’t strong when he came into the league, but he’s added some bulk, and he’s gotten better. He holds his own on the block, and with his length he is able to challenge shooters effectively when they pivot and try and shoot over him.
The .89 points per play he gives up on post-up plays is above average, and it’s the play where he’s most likely to be singly responsible, not needing help from Paul George or Roy Hibbert.
West usually gives decent effort, but you will see him give the minimum from time to time. He won’t just give up entirely, but he’ll let his teammates take the bulk of the responsibility. That’s understandable considering his age and how much the offense depends on him.
George and Hibbert bear the brunt of the defensive burden though. While West expends enough energy to fill his role, he isn’t asked to burn a lot of it on defense, and he doesn’t have to provide help defense.
Basketball Intelligence: 19.1
West’s main weapon on defense is his brain. He’s learned some things through the years that make him more effective than his skill set. He’s good with his hands, using them to direct the ball-handler to the sidelines or into Hibbert.
He’s also pretty clever at using them to foul without getting called for the foul. He knows how to play a little bit dirty, and he knows how to flop. He’s a savvy vet.
In general, he knows how to compensate for being slow, and he does.
West benefits a lot more from help defense than you might suspect. Frank Vogel has worked out a system that fits him. With Paul George on one end, and Roy Hibbert on the other, West is protected.
That’s pretty good protection. George will protect him on the perimeter side keeping the ball-handler from moving to the outside, which forces him to the inside. From there, West’s main job is to steer the player into Hibbert, who is one of the best rim protectors in the league.
As a result, West has some numbers that look great, but when you look at what he does without Hibbert’s and George’s protection it’s apparent how much he benefits from them.
While he’s on the court with the pair, the Pacers give up a defensive rating of 99.6. When he is without them, that soars to 109.8 though.
While the Pacers tend to be better defensively with him on the court, that seems to be the byproduct of the majority of that time being with Hibbert and George.
3. Taj Gibson, Chicago Bulls, 96.10
Defensive Usage: 8.8
Defensive PPP: .77
Net DRtg: -2.5
WAM: 96.99 (7)
Scouting: 93.38 (1)
Speed and Athleticism: 18.9
Gibson is an outstanding athlete, but with the type of athleticism that lends itself to defensive more than offensive excellence. There are certain players that have tremendous reaction time, and that makes them great defenders. Gibson is one of them.
He has remarkable lateral quickness, but his reflexes make him even quicker. It’s very hard for players to get around him, even small forwards and guards.
Because of that you see a good chunk of his plays, almost 20 percent, come on isolation plays, and he is exceptional in guarding in those situations, yielding just .66 points per play.
Size and Strength: 19.3
Gibson gives up some bulk to many other power forwards, but it doesn’t have as much impact as you would figure. He gives up .75 points per play on post-ups, which places him in the top-15 percent of NBA players.
He does a pretty decent job of holding down the block, unless he’s defending a larger center like Brook Lopez, who was able to move him out of the way with relative consistency during the Bulls series with the Brooklyn Nets last postseason.
Still, if the spectrum of players you can guard with effectiveness “only” ranges from Deron Williams to Brook Lopez, you’re a pretty versatile defender.
The words Stacey King most commonly uses to describe Taj Gibson on their CSN Chicago broadcasts are, “hard hat, lunch pail.” That’s the type of defender Gibson is. He’s a blue-collar man. If he’s on the court, he’s giving his full effort.
Gibson constantly hustles, and muscles and makes himself a defensive presence on the floor. He even stands out as a hard worker on the Bulls, which is hard to do. He is definitely one of those players who are better than their stat lines.
Basketball Intelligence: 18.5
Taj Gibson has great defensive instincts. He is among the per-minute leaders in virtually every kind of advanced stat there is. He just knows how to play defense. And he defends everyone.
One thing that gets lost when you look at players who defend all five positions with regularity is that it’s almost like speaking different languages.
You don’t just need to be able to know what to do; you need to be able to switch gears and be “conversational” at an instant’s notice. There’s not time for “translation” where you can sit and think about what to do next, or where to rotate. It needs to be instinctive.
Gibson’s defensive versatility is largely an aspect of his high basketball IQ.
Negatively, the one thing that you would like to see him work on is getting his foul problems under control. Last season, Gibson averaged 4.1 personal fouls per 36 minutes which will be problematic if he’s going to replace Carlos Boozer in the starting lineup eventually.
In the last two years, with the exception of Ronnie Brewer, every Chicago Bull has been better defensively when they are on the court with Taj Gibson, and Brewer was only .1 points worse with Gibson.
The reality is that Gibson is not just a great defensive player, he’s the kind of defensive player that makes every other player better as well.
There was a lot of conversation about whether the Bulls should have retained Gibson or Omer Asik, but Gibson’s maintaining the same kind of defensive success without Asik goes a long way toward vindicating retaining him.
2. Lamar Odom, Free Agent, 95.71
Defensive Usage: 9.8
Defensive PPP: .82
Net DRtg: -9.2
WAM: 96.67 (5)
Scouting: 93.8 (T1)
Speed and Athleticism: 18.4
Lamar Odom is one of the most athletic and nimble power forwards in the league. He is freakishly good in isolation plays. Coming out to the perimeter, he’s effectively guarded players such as Isaiah Thomas and Tony Parker.
Not many people his size have the lateral quickness he does, which makes it hard for ball-handlers to go around and impossible for them to shoot over him. As a result, he gives up just .54 points per play when defending the iso.
Size and Strength: 19.5
Odom has the height of a power forward at 6’10”, but weighing in at 230 pounds he’s usually giving a little weight. This can be a problem, particularly when he’s trying to guard centers or stronger power forwards who can effectively back him up, off the block.
This was evident during the Los Angeles Clippers series with the Memphis Grizzlies, where he was bullied with regularity by Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, who have a dramatic size and strength advantage over him.
That’s not to say he is bad against everyone—just against the powerful bigs. Overall, he gives up .79 points per play, which is 101st in the league.
Probably. No player I’ve ever seen can have his play impacted by his mood. The sad recent events surrounding his personal life are not even factored in here.
It was evident prior to that. Odom has mood swings which can have a massive impact on his defensive performance.
When he tries, he’s an elite defender. When he doesn't, he might as well not even be there. And when he’s depressed, he doesn't try.
Basketball Intelligence: 18.8
Odom has a reputation for being a low-IQ player, but that’s not entirely fair. He does stupid things, but that doesn’t mean he’s a stupid player. Most of the time he’s doing the right, smart thing, but sporadically, he loses concentration and does something dumb.
You’ll see him do things like inexplicably back off a gifted shooter when he should be closing out, or pull up in the middle of a play, look around to get his bearings and head towards wherever he’s supposed to be. These mistakes are the exception though, not the rule.
Unfairly, he has come to be defined by the exception.
Only one player in the NBA, Kevin Garnett, had a better net defensive rating than Odom’s minus-9.2. There can be no question he was a huge asset to the Clippers help defense. That’s certainly visible by watching as well. The Clippers were just better defensively when he played.
Odom also had the fourth highest defensive usage among power forwards. He was often tasked with the responsibility of defending the better forward on the court. He would come out and guard the perimeter or stay at home and guard the paint.
Clippers’ opponents shot an opponent’s field-goal percentage 5.8 percent lower while he was on the court. It’s a safe argument he gave the most help defense of any power forward in the league last year.
1. Josh Smith, Detroit Pistons, 95.38
Defensive Usage: 9.7
Defensive PPP: .81
Net DRtg: -.6
WAM: 96.16 (2)
Scouting: 93.8 (T1)
Speed and Athleticism: 18.0
Josh Smith has the best athleticism of any power forward in the league, with the possible exception of Blake Griffin, who hasn’t learned to use his athletic ability on both ends of the court. Smith is an explosive leaper, who nearly hits 40 inches on his vertical. His 12’2” max-vertical reach is only one inch shy of Dwight Howard’s.
He uses that athleticism extremely well, and because of that, is already one of the 12 best five-tool players of all-time, as only 11 players are ahead of him in all five major statistical categories.
Smith is nearly invincible in isolation, where he gave up only .65 points per play on the season. His lateral quickness makes him difficult to beat off the dribble, while his length and vertical make it hard to pull up and shoot over him.
Size and Strength: 20.1
At 6’9” and 225, Smith is better suited to play small forward, as we he will in Detroit (at least defensively). He doesn’t have the bulk to hold his own in the block against larger offensive players.
In the postseason, he struggled in the post against David West and Roy Hibbert, who were able to overpower him.
That being said, he’s big enough to guard 80 percent of the power forwards in the league and quick enough to take on many guards.
Smith is a diligent defender, applying constant pressure on the ball, and he does so without being reckless. The 128 defensive plays he guarded in isolation is a lot for a power forward, especially for one who was truly responsible for the power most of the time.
His willingness to step out to the perimeter, and square off against guards, makes him a rare commodity among power forwards. His success rate makes him even rarer.
Basketball Intelligence: 19.2
Smith has a reputation for getting in his own way, and that is certainly true on the offensive end, but on the defensive end it’s hard to stick him with the same label. He is much smarter on the defensive end.
Smith is not great at knowing who he’s guarding and learning their tendencies, but his instincts and timing are outstanding. He’s a fantastic intuitive defender, with a high natural IQ defensively. In part that shows up in his blocks and steals, but it also shows up in other areas.
He checks off of screens well, anticipating them before they’re set. He has a good grasp of where the pieces are on the court and instinctively goes to the right spots.
If he were to complete those instincts with more commitment to learning his opponents, he could be a Defensive Player of the Year, but sadly, he doesn’t appear to be inclined to going in that direction.
Smith is definitely a plus in terms of help defense. In part, that’s because of the fact that he never seems to require any. He also provides a tremendous amount of it.
That Kyle Korver finished 14th in the small forward rankings is largely a tribute to the defensive help provided by Smith.
The Hawks were only slightly better with him on the court than off of it, but that would have a lot to do with the fact that the Hawks had a number of good defensive players who come off the bench, including Ivan Johnson at the power forward.