Who Ya Got on Defense: Draymond Green or Kawhi Leonard?

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistSeptember 7, 2017

Who Ya Got on Defense: Draymond Green or Kawhi Leonard?

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    Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green own the last three Defensive Player of the Year Awards, and any conversation on the NBA's top stopper starts with them.

    Ending that conversation with a definitive answer on who's better—as we must in upholding the fearlessly declarative spirit of the "Who Ya Got?" format—is almost impossible.

    If we were comparing breadth of vocabulary, in-game kick counts or words spoken per minute on the floor, it'd be Green in a landslide. But if the standards focused on orderliness of cornrows, handspan or gigabits processed per second, Leonard would take the easy win.

    No such luck here, as we're stuck considering awards, stats, fit and everything else that goes into building a great defender. Who's actually better: Green or Leonard?

    Hopefully, by the end of this, we'll figure it out.

Accolades

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    We know they're often as much the result of campaigning as a reflection of value, but awards still matter. If only because we tend to rely on them when settling arguments.

    Who has the most rings? The most All-Star appearances? These criteria always arise in "who ya got?" debates. So we have to include them here.

    Green's trophy case is populated by one DPOY, three All-Defensive first-team nods, two All-Star bids and two championship rings. Leonard owns two DPOYs, three All-Defense first-team nods, two All-Star bids, one championship ring, two All-NBA first-team spots and a Finals MVP.

    It's close, but Leonard's possession of two Defensive Player of the Year honors gives him the edge—even if Green finished second in both years Leonard won. It's tempting to give Green's extra championship some weight, but Leonard's Finals MVP and All-NBA advantage rebalance the scale.

    The best awards case for Green depends on recency. He's the reigning DPOY.

    Still, the larger record favors Leonard. If Green goes back-to-back, he'll deserve to win this category next time around.

    Verdict: Leonard

Perimeter Defense

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    Judging perimeter defense is among the hardest tasks in player evaluation. Defensive field-goal percentage allowed has been debunked as a useful statistic, as it is effectively random from year to year. Nylon Calculus' Krishna Narsu broke down its unreliability last season.

    That leaves us with the eye test and maybe, maybe, something like steal rate as our best indicators of dominant perimeter defense.

    Narsu elaborates:

    "So what are we looking for? Theoretically, we want defenders who will disrupt the offensive player's comfort zone. A player does that by getting up in the opposing player's airspace and potentially creating turnovers. This is why we generally perceive aggressive players on defense to be good defenders (and why steal rate may be an important statistic as a proxy for evaluating defense)."

    Green narrowly topped Leonard in steal rate last year (3.0 percent to 2.7 percent), and he also deflected 295 balls last season, topping Leonard's 252. They spent almost exactly the same amount of time on the floor in 2016-17, so the counting stats have probative value.

    Based on the numbers, Green seems to have a lead here, which is odd because Leonard is more of the prototypical wing-stopper. He's a pure perimeter defender, while Green's switchy role is hazier.

    But let's not forget the value of deterrence. Without spoiling our "intimidation" section, it's vital to acknowledge that one of the best ways to measure a perimeter defender's value is to track how frequently he even allows opponents to shoot. That's more useful than field-goal percentage allowed because no player ever makes a shot he doesn't take in the first place.

    So who more effectively stops offensive players before they start?

    Last year, Green defended 7.1 shots per game outside of 15 feet. Leonard, in roughly the same number of minutes per game, defended only 4.9. Green's penchant for flying around and helping could be the culprit here; if he's sprinting all over the floor to pick up slack for his teammates, maybe he's getting tagged as the "nearest defender" when he's not even guarding his own man. In a sense, it feels like we're penalizing Green for being especially active.

    But it's still telling that Leonard is the greater shot-deterrer on the perimeter.

    That, along with his lockdown reputation and more clearly defined "perimeter defender" role, gives him the category win.

    But not by much.

    Verdict: Leonard

Rim Protection

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    This one is easier.

    Even if Leonard has more than his share of highlight rejections, Green is the winner in this category.

    Unlike on the perimeter, defensive field-goal percentage at the rim is consistent from year to year. And it does indicate a true skill.

    Green defended 441 shots inside six feet last season, allowing opponents to convert at a 48.3 percent clip. No high-volume rim-protector was better in 2016-17. Not Rudy Gobert (620 shots defended at 48.9 percent); not Hassan Whiteside (498 shots defended at 51 percent); and not DeAndre Jordan (421 shots defended at 56.5 percent).

    Gobert was a factor on a larger number of shots, but you can still make the case Green was the best interior defender in the NBA last season. Nobody who defended even half as many shots as he did matched his field-goal percentage allowed. And he's not even technically a center.

    Leonard defended only 198 shots within six feet last year, and he allowed opponents to shoot 63.1 percent on them.

    There's a reason the San Antonio Spurs rarely employ Leonard, whose height and wingspan are identical to Green's, as a power forward—let alone a center.

    Verdict: Green by a mile

Versatility

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    We've just finished establishing that Green is nearly Leonard's equal on the perimeter and that he's far superior around the basket.

    So you can see which way the versatility section is already tilting.

    Put simply, Green may be the most compete defender we've ever seen. That sounds hyperbolic, but try to name the last 6'7" player who could:

    1. Turn away opponents inside better than elite 7-foot shot-blocking specialists.

    2. Play center in critical moments for two title-winning teams.

    3. Switch across five positions on a single possession.

    4. Shut down James Harden in isolation.

    5. Stay in front of speedy point guard Dennis Schroder and stuff him at the rim. 

    Green is the reason Golden State can play its hybrid brand of switching defense. He is never overmatched. Never out of position, no matter who he's guarding.

    Leonard is a brilliant wing stopper who can guard at least three positions, but Green is in his own class on this one.

    Verdict: Green

Intimidation

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    Fear is personal. What frightens one person to death might not bother another in the least.

    If you're put off by yelling, stomping and high-decibel trash talk, Green is the greater intimidator.

    But if it's the quiet ones who concern you—the silent, detached observers you just know are going to do something terrible—Leonard's nonverbal terrorism instills more fear.

    Think of it in Game of Thrones terms. Green is pre-hand removal Jaime Lannister, braggadocio backed up with a battle record unlike anyone else's. He'll smile as he bests you. Leonard is Ser Ilyn Payne, the mute executioner.

    Both are terrifying. Personally, I think the seeming boredom and emotional detachment that comes with Leonard's defensive dominance is a little scarier. Green will tell you what he's going to do to you and then laugh after he does it.

    With Leonard, you never know when the pain is coming.

    Verdict: Leonard

Indispensability

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    Big word, simple concept. Whose team needs its best defender more?

    Curiously, the Spurs defended better with Leonard on the bench last season. Nobody ever got to the bottom of that development, but it's possible San Antonio's opponents never gave Leonard's man the ball in an effort to minimize his defensive involvement. Sort of like never throwing at a lockdown cornerback.

    Couple that with some single-season sample-size variance, and you can explain away some of that statistical oddity. But we have to credit Green for doing the opposite: making his team about five points stingier on D when he played.

    And we must also acknowledge how Green's specific brand of defense is so integral to the way the Warriors have built their schemes. Without him switching around, there's no Death Lineup. Without his 1-to-5 defensive acumen, Golden State can't obliterate every pick-and-roll.

    Without Green, the Warriors defense isn't the same.

    Take him away, and Golden State can't go small so easily, which mucks things up on both ends. Take Leonard away, and the Spurs still have Danny Green to throw at elite perimeter opponents. The subtraction isn't as devastating.

    That's not to say Danny Green is Leonard's equal. But he can do many of the same things well. Not only do the Warriors not have a Draymond Green replacement...nobody does.

    Verdict: Green

Final Verdict

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    There's no clean way to break a deadlock like this, but it's important to note that if (IF!) Leonard has slipped behind Green on defense, it's only because he's taking on such a massive burden on the other end. Leonard is San Antonio's offensive hub, while Green plays a more limited role.

    Still, we have to dig for tiebreakers.

    Narratively, Green gets an edge for making sure the Warriors didn't skip a beat after losing their centers in the 2016 offseason. Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli both wound up elsewhere, and the Dubs defense was supposed to suffer. Green didn't let it happen.

    Then there's the hazy, hugely anecdotal concept of clutch defensive play. Last year, Green made five noteworthy late-game contributions on D, each of which swung a game's result in favor of the Warriors. Tim Kawakami, then of the San Jose Mercury News, chronicled them in his case for Green's winning DPOY last March.

    Somebody has to win because that's how these comparison pieces work, but I'm not sure there's ever been a closer contest. If ties were allowed, this would be the place to cop out and issue one.

    But I'm going with Green, whose versatility and critical importance to the Warriors' scheme puts him narrowly over the top. Picking the reigning DPOY as the best defender in a one-to-one comparison shouldn't feel this potentially controversial. Consider that one last testament to Leonard's excellence.

    Final Verdict: Green

             

    Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference or NBA.com.

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