The Mystery of Point Guard Defense in the NBA

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 5, 2014

Feb 21, 2014; Memphis, TN, USA; Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley (11) dribbles the ball as Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul (3) defends at FedExForum. The Grizzlies won 102 - 96. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Big men block shots while functioning as the last line of a defense, cleaning up other players' mistakes and protecting the rim. Wing defenders shut down isolation players and close out on shooters while displaying some degree of versatility. 

What do point guards do? 

They don't tend to make glamorous plays around the hoop, and steals can be the most misleading stat in the sport. They're sometimes a good indicator of active hands and tenacity, but they can also boost the reputation of a player who gambles incessantly, even when it's detrimental to the team. 

A year ago, D.J. Foster argued for Chris Paul as the best defensive 1-guard on ESPN by writing, "It's all in the hands. Paul has led the league in steals four out of the last five seasons thanks to those mitts, and with a strong frame, great lateral quickness and the mentality of a pest, there's no point guard immune to his harassment."

For a player like CP3, that's a valid assessment. But steals can't be blindly cited. 

In fact, the justification for why a player is a good defensive point guard is usually something along the lines of, "I heard he was from [Source X]. He just is." 

Floor generals don't tend to engage in one-on-one isolation battles, simply because so many plays begin with pick-and-roll action. They don't tend to record many defensive stats either, so we're left relying on scouting reports. 

But what should go into that? What should help solve this mystery of point guard defense?

Historical Lack of Respect in DPOY Voting

3 Dec 1996:  Seattle Supersonics guard Gary Payton stands on the court during game against the Los Angeles Lakers at the Great Western Forum in Los Angeles, California.  The Lakers won the game 110-106. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Dunn  /Allsport
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Big men and wing defenders are always the players who earn respect from those voting for Defensive Player of the Year. It's easier both to quantify and recognize the contributions they make, and voters act accordingly. 

To be fair, big men usually deserve the award. They're at the center of everything that happens for a defense, thereby granting them more responsibility and opportunity to thrive. 

DPOY has been around since 1982-83, and after wing players went 4-of-6 in the final voting to begin the award's history, only two players have won without spending the majority of their time in the paint—Gary Payton in 1996 and Metta World Peace (Ron Artest back then) in 2004. 

The Glove remains the only 1-guard to win the award, but again, that's not too surprising. When asked by a reporter during a press conference at Oregon State about what bothers him in today's NBA (h/t's Sekou Smith), Payton responded, "Basically everything. It's no defense; it's just run and gun."

That's taking things to an extreme, but Payton has always been one to do exactly that. Even if The Glove is correct, though, everything is still relative from one position to another. 

What's actually surprising is the complete lack of respect the position has been given over the last decade: 

DPOY Voting Ranks of Top Defensive PGs
YearNo. 1 Defensive PGNo. 2 Defensive PGNo. 3 Defensive PG
2004No. 10 (Earl Watson)N/AN/A
2005No. 11 (Allen Iverson)No. 12 (Kirk Hinrich)N/A
2007No. 13 (Kirk Hinrich)No. 24 (Devin Harris)N/A
2008No. 7 (Chris Paul)No. 16 (Kyle Lowry)No. 16 (Rajon Rondo)
2009No. 6 (Chris Paul)No. 10 (Rajon Rondo)N/A
2010No. 5 (Rajon Rondo)N/AN/A
2011No. 5 (Rajon Rondo)No. 12 (Chris Paul)N/A
2012No. 12 (Chris Paul)No. 14 (Avery Bradley)No. 14 (Mike Conley)
2013No. 11 (Chris Paul)No. 12 (Avery Bradley)No. 17 (Russell Westbrook)

That's a flat-out travesty. 

Over the last decade, only two different floor generals have earned spots in the top 10 of the voting. Rajon Rondo topped out at No. 5 (twice), and Chris Paul was never able to earn anything better than No. 6. 

One year, no point guards got a vote. Only three seasons saw three 1-guards earn votes, and we're stretching it each of the last two seasons since Avery Bradley lined up at both spots in the backcourt quite frequently. 

This is the very picture of a position being underrepresented.

It's easy to understand why, though, because point guard defense is often hard to notice.

Mistakes can be cleaned up by the second layer of the point-preventing unit, which marginalizes the successes of the more skilled defenders. If the poor play of the league's worst defenders have the same result as the stellar play of the league's best—namely a missed shot, whether it's caused by an interior defender or the point guard—then it's harder for the average fan to recognize what deserves recognition.

Additionally, so much of what's important happens without the play resulting in a steal, defensive rebound or block, the only box-score quantities that represent defensive effort. 

So, let's change that. Let's make it easier to understand what types of efforts you should look for. 

Because CP3 has been the leading vote-getter among 1-guards each of the past two seasons, I'll be using him as an example in each section. That's not to say he's the best of the bunch, though, so don't let that be the focus of your thoughts. 

Navigating Pick-and-Roll Sets

Dec 10, 2013; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Miami Heat  center Chris Bosh (1) sets a pick for guard Mario Chalmers (15) as he drives to the basket against Indiana Pacers guard George Hill (3) at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Indiana defeats Miami 90-84. Mandatory Cre
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Today's NBA is largely dependent on the pick-and-roll game in the half-court setting. There are some superstars who create offense in isolation, but almost everything runs through one screen after another. 

Pick a team—any team. 

Chances are, it runs a helluva lot of pick-and-roll basketball. The San Antonio Spurs, for example, run over 22 percent of their plays in this vein when you combine the possessions that are finished by either pick-and-roll ball-handlers or roll men. The Utah Jazz have a slightly higher percentage, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required). 

If a point guard doesn't know how to react when he runs into a screen, he's essentially dead in the water. Reaction is what's truly key, because a floor general must know exactly how to react while making a split-second decision. 

The wrong choice creates either an open jumper or an easy drive to the basket. Hesitating is even worse. 

Fortunately, CP3 doesn't tend to do either, and you can see a prime example below: 

Screen shot from Synergy Sports' video archives.

Paul, wearing sleeves as he continues to regain full strength after separating his shoulder against the Dallas Mavericks earlier this season, begins the play guarding Brian Roberts. 

The New Orleans Pelicans don't run an incredibly creative offense, and there's no effort to disguise the play. Anthony Davis is coming to set a screen, and CP3 will have to figure out how he wants to navigate past the Unibrow, who has a long and lanky frame. 

Screen shot from Synergy Sports' video archives.

It's worth noting that Davis' screens are not easy. 

Some bigs don't make much of an effort when setting picks, opting instead to let their massive bodies do the work. Davis screens with 100 percent effort, just as he does everything else. 

Once Roberts accepts the screen and works his way around Davis, the onus is on Paul to make the correct choice. It's the crux of the play, because a wrong decision could lead to either a wide-open shot or a five-on-four situation as his man drives to the hoop.

As you can see from the orange dashed arrows, CP3 can either duck under the screen, ceding a perimeter jumper and cutting off any driving opportunities, or he can do the opposite by fighting through it. 

He opts for the latter, and that's likely because Roberts doesn't brush shoulders with Davis. There's so much separation between the two offensive players that Paul knows he can take a more aggressive line and catch up to his man. 

Screen shot from Synergy Sports' video archives.

That's exactly what he does. 

CP3 recovers in time to prevent Roberts from even thinking about a drive to the hoop, and he instead leaves him with a bit of space for a jumper. It's imperative that he remains close enough to close out on a jump-shot attempt, though. 

Screen shot from Synergy Sports' video archives.

And he does, forcing Roberts to shoot with a higher trajectory than he'd prefer. As a result, it's a successful defensive effort, and Roberts' jumper clangs off the rim.

Now that's only one type of on-ball defense, though it's an extremely important one. It's also worth noting that point guards are asked to play isolation defense, though it's not going to be covered in this article because it's so easy to recognize and understand. 

But what about off the ball?   

Preventing Open Catch-and-Shoot Situations

Typically this is what a shooting guard is asked to do, but that doesn't mean a point guard is exempt from chasing his man around and through screens. While most 1-guards won't torture defenses like Kyle Korver does for the Atlanta Hawks, they still do engage in quite a bit of movement when they aren't controlling the rock. 

Unlike pick-and-roll situations, catch-and-shoot plays require the defender to engage more physically than mentally. You can get by while mindlessly chasing an opponent, so long as you have the physical tools, but the same can't be said when discussing pick-and-roll plays. 

The reason is fairly obvious. 

When trailing a player, a defender is at a natural disadvantage. He has to react to the motions of the offensive player, acting accordingly whenever there's a change in direction or a juke. 

Take this play, one in which CP3 is guarding Kyrie Irving during a game against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Screen shot from Synergy Sports' video databases.

At the beginning of the play, Irving starts along the baseline, but he's cutting out toward the top of the key and using Anderson Varejao as a screener. Paul has to get around the pick from the long-haired center, and he must do so quickly in order to prevent an easy jumper.

This is happening off the screen (the literal screen shot, not the screen Varejao is setting), but Jarrett Jack has the ball at the center of the court. He's a solid passer, so Paul can't afford to leave much space between him and his mark. 

Screen shot from Synergy Sports' video databases.

This is exactly what I was referring to when saying that offensive players have advantages. 

Irving is crouched and waiting for the pass to arrive (the ball is right under the start of the arrow), and CP3 is cutting sharply in an effort to catch up. He's at a natural disadvantage on a play like this because of both Irving's ability to move without reacting and the problem of having to overcome a screen.

Screen shot from Synergy Sports' video databases.

Fortunately for the Clippers, CP3 can recover. 

He does, and the open driving space is suddenly, well, not so open. Instead of having an easy jumper or lane to the basket, Irving is now stuck with limited options, and he chooses to drive toward the baseline.

Screen shot from Synergy Sports' video databases.

That's not usually going to turn out well, and it doesn't here. 

Paul doesn't even have to bother contesting the shot, because Irving lets it fly as he's falling out of bounds and fading away. It's a low-percentage shot, and if it happened to fall, the Clippers would just have to shake their heads knowing they did everything they could to force a shot they could live with the Cavs taking. 

All of these situations—pick-and-roll defense, chasing shooters and isolation defense—take place in half-court sets, which is where defensive excellence usually gets the most attention. However, a point guard's job isn't isolated to one end of the court. 


All About Transition

Think about positioning when a player is shooting a free throw. 

The big men and forwards line up along the paint, and the guards are typically left out beyond the three-point arc. Why? Because they need to prevent fast-break opportunities in case of a missed shot, defensive rebound and quick outlet pass. 

It works out that way in the flow of a game as well—at least for the most part. 

There are obvious exceptions, like when a point guard has driven into the teeth of a defense to take a shot, but the majority of the time, a floor general is the last man back in the offensive set. And that means he's the player most capable of stopping a counterattacking fast break. 

A truly excellent defensive point guard is one who can stop the ball before it gets to the basket in transition, forcing the opposing team out of an advantageous situation and into a normal half-court set. 

All you need to do is watch the first play in that video. 

The Ty Lawson transition bucket came against the Chicago Bulls during the 2012-13 season, and it's Marquis Teague who gets criticized here for his lackluster defensive effort. It's hard for anyone to stop a four-on-three with a point guard like Lawson at the helm, but Teague waits too long to stop the ball. 

Another great example comes at the 27-second mark. After the Clippers pull down a rebound, they score when Paul waltzes into the lane. He goes right past Steve Blake, who is powerless to stop him due to an incorrect anticipation of one of CP3's shifty moves.

That's exactly what you don't want to see. Stop the ball early and do everything possible to slow down transition plays, which is usually just about as efficient as an offense can get.  

However, there's one other type of play that falls into the transition category, and I'll let Jeff Teague redeem his family name after Marquis let everyone down: 

Point guards come up with steals in many types of situations, but they usually fall into two overarching sections—on-ball swipes and thefts stemming from jumping passing lanes. 

It's the latter that applies here during the 2012 NBA playoffs, as Teague anticipates the dish and intercepts it with ease. 

Now, you might be asking, why is this special to point guards? Can't all positions rack up steals? 

Well, it's particularly important for 1-guards because they're in the best position to start a fast break. A truly impressive defender won't just commit himself to the theft, but he'll gain possession of the rock and then finish the play, either by himself or by dishing the ball out to a teammate in better position. 

Feb 26, 2014; Dallas, TX, USA; Dallas Mavericks point guard Jose Calderon (8) steals the ball from New Orleans Pelicans point guard Brian Roberts (22) during the second half at the American Airlines Center. The Mavericks defeated the Pelicans 108-89. Mand
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

In a way, transition points are key when analyzing point guard defense because the best players are capable of turning defense into offense. Of course, that can be complicated, because you have to pay attention to everything that happens, deciding whether or not the point guard is the one who ultimately deserves credit for the play. 

"Complicated" is a good word to use whenever describing point guard defense. 

Not only are the little guys' mistakes wiped away by the interior, thus making it more difficult for the good players to stand out, but the defensive plays also come in nontraditional situations. If you want an accurate picture, you're forced to watch plenty of off-ball action, and replays and slow-motion highlights might be necessary as well. 

The analytics movement might eventually come up with the ultimate stat to measure a point guard's defensive impact, but for right now, scouting reigns supreme in this area. 


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