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Defensively Ranking Every Starting Point Guard in the NBA

Kelly ScalettaFeatured ColumnistAugust 21, 2011

Defensively Ranking Every Starting Point Guard in the NBA

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    Rajon Rondo was named to the NBA All-Defensive Team, but is he the best defensive point guard in the NBA? Can that pass an objective test, and is there even an objective test that exists for defense?

    There are a few measures of defense, some newer and some older. I want to take a look at some various measures, and why I did and didn't consider them in these rankings. In the first few slides I'll discuss what I didn't use, what I did use and why.

    While you don't need to read the slides about the methodology (feel free to skip over them if you aren't interested), I would highly recommend reading them if you want to disagree. There will be some of these rankings that are going to make you think I'm stupid, crazy or both.

    That's why I ask you to read the methodology. I fully realized the possibility that I'm wrong or that there's something wrong with my methodology, but before criticizing it it's best to learn what you are criticizing. I don't mind criticism; in fact, when it's constructive, I welcome it.

    I've spent considerable time researching and considering these rankings because I think there needs to be some improvements in the way that defense is measured. If you have contributions to that discussion, that improves my goal, it doesn't disprove it.

    In order to improve it, though, you first need to understand it, which is why I ask you to read the methodology.  

What I Didn't Use

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    Steals and Blocks

    Steals are a pretty overrated statistic for defense for two reasons. First it only accounts for a fraction of their defense. Even a top tier defender will only steal the ball on a small percentage of all defensive plays. Chris Paul, who led the league in steals last season, forced turnovers on only 14.7 percent of his defensive plays last year.

    Second, the object of defense is to prevent the other team or player for scoring. Take two hypothetical players who both defend 10 plays. One forces a passing turnover and gives up one field goal on nine attempts. Another steals the ball four times and gives up three field goals on six attempts. 

    Who did a better job of stopping the other player from scoring, the player who didn't have any steals and gave up fewer points, or the player who had four steals but also gave up more points? Furthermore, what if those three field goals came when the defender was going for a steal and so then was caught out of position?

    In short, steals can be the product of good defense but aren't proof of good defense. Blocks are pretty much the same, but even less so as the offensive team can recover a blocked shot.   

     

    Defensive Rating

    Defensive Rating is an attempt at measuring how many points a player's team gives up per 100 possessions while he is on the court. While there's some attempt at evening out the responsibility for the scoring, it's still heavily team dependent and a bad defender can be helped by being on a good team, and a good player can be hurt by being on a bad team.  

    If you want proof that there's some issues with defensive rating, consider that Carlos Boozer had the seventh lowest DRTG in the NBA last season. Need I say more?

     

    Opponent PER

    Opponent PER has the benefit of actually trying to measure out what a player is personally responsible for, but it goes so far that actually goes too far in ignoring team defense. There are two reasons I say this.

    First, it takes the counterpart's PER for the game and assumes the defender is responsible for all of it. There are various reasons that it might not be the case. The defender might be on the bench for instance. Whatever you want to say, you can't really fault a player for what happens when he's not on the court.

    There's also the fact that sometimes players aren't defending their counterpart. Elite defenders frequently guard out of position. Luol Deng, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and others will frequently take the other teams elite player.

    The other reason is that by looking at the opponent's PER, it includes assists. How do you defend an assist? I can only think of two ways that you can do it. First, by simultaneously guarding every player on the opposing team. The second is by throwing down such a blanket defense that your opponent is literally never able to pass the ball.

    Once the ball is passed, the player guarding the player to whom it is passed becomes the responsible defender. Assigning the responsibility to the player who stopped the player who passed the ball and ergo, prevented him from scoring, is just upside down logic.

    Opponent PER is an attempt at looking at the individual defense of a player beyond blocks and steals, but it's sloppy. It assumes to much and ignores too much. 

What I Did Use

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    Points Per Play

    Part of the reason that things are so difficult is that they are all ways of looking at conventional box scores and trying to determine from them what a player has done defensively. However, conventional box scores simply don't tell us what we need to know. 

    The only way to really figure out who the best defensive player is, is to literally watch every play of every game and track what happened when the player was on defense.

    Synergy Sports did precisely that. Their primary way of sorting players was using "points per play," which is the average number of points a player gives up when he is the primary, or initial, defender on the play. 

    While this resolves the issue to a large degree there is still a "team effect." Devin Harris gave up .88 points per play while with the Nets and 1.09 with the Jazz. Deron Williams gave up .86 with the Jazz and .91 with the Nets. Both did better with their initial teams. 

    This suggest that familiarity with the team and the system, as well as the team's familiarity with the player, are important aspects of defense.

    Fortunately for us, Synergy also tracks by play type. Therefore we can also see how the players did in isolation defense, where the player is essentially guarding "one on one." It also keeps track of shots attempted while the player is guarding him, opponent field goal percentage, and the percentage of times the player scored.

    Through all of these things while the effect of team defense can't be completely mitigated it can be largely accounted for. The same can be said on offense, though. Rajon Rondo, at times, had his choice between literally 100,000 points worth of scoring to pass to, but that doesn't discount him as a great passer, though.

    The fact is in a team sport teammates are always going to have an affect on an individuals stats.

     

    Rankings

    For my rankings, I used Synergy's data and ranked the players by points per play overall, points per play in isolation, opponent field goal percentage and the percentage of times which they were scored on.

    Overall points per play is obvious. It gives you a clear reading on a players overall performance. It does include the help defense provided by the teammates, though.

    To compensate for that I've also added in isolation defense where the player is individually responsible for the man he is guarding. This reflects the players ability to prevent penetration. I also included opponent field goal percentage, which reflects a players' ability to get out and challenge shots.  

    Finally, percent scored is the percent of times where the opponent scored when the player was the primary defender on the play. This will reflect certain things not otherwise reflected when plays don't result in shots such as the times the player forces turnovers or gets steals positively, or fouls and sends the player to the free throw line negatively.

    The four combined stats should give an overall picture of how a player performs defensively. I'll explain a little more on that in the next slide.  

    The rankings following are based on the average rank of those stats. In each case I have detailed the actual numbers and the rankings in parenthesis.

    I also include a number I'm calling "Help Rating" which is their points per play in isolation minus their overall points per play. While I don't include this number in the ranking, it's something I wanted to look at. My general thought is that the lower the number, the less "help defense" a player is depending on.

    There are a couple of things that you'll notice that need some explanation. Both the points per play and field goal percentages will seem kind of low to you.

    The points per play will be a little lower than what you might expect if you're expecting it to correlate to defensive rating. The reason is that plays are not the same as possessions. Multiple plays can be run on a single possession for various reasons, such as offensive rebounds.

    The reason that field goal percentage are going to look high is that first, point guards tend to be perimeter shooters so there's already a default lower than average field goal percentage. Add to that that not all shots are guarded. Most fast break points won't have a "responsible" defender. Since this is only tracking points where someone is defending, there's going to be a lower field goal percentage

What Makes a Good Defender?

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    So the question becomes, what makes a good defender? Let's return to the notion that the purpose of defense is to prevent the opponent from scoring. I point this out because 90 percent of good defense will never be on a highlight reel. Good defense is boring. 

    Defense that makes highlight reels is usually a player getting up in another player's grill and keeping him from being able to dribble. Or else it's a player shooting for the steal and starting a fast break. I'm not saying that's not good defense, I'm saying that's the 10 percent you see, but it misses the other 90 percent of defense. 

    A player can have that 10 percent but be missing out on the other 90 percent while another player may be proficient at the other 90 percent and not the 10 percent on highlight reels Therefore basing concepts of what "good defense" is on what you saw on Sportscenter is insufficient. 

    For the most part, 70 percent of scoring by point guards is from outside the paint. Most of what you see on the highlights is defense which prevent penetration. Stopping penetration only accounts for 30 percent of all defensive plays.

    This is really important because based on highlights we are programmed to think of good defense as stopping the dribble, but that ignores the bulk of defensive plays. Good defense is stopping the dribble on the one hand, but also stopping the jump shot the other 70 percent of the time.

    Players can cheat to stop the dribble playing too far off the ball. They create the illusion of being good defensive players by doing so, but that allows for the ball handler to step back and take wide open jump shots. Seeing how that accounts for the other 70 percent of defense cheating away from the ball is bad defense.

    Players can also err the other way. They can get too far up into a players grill. They shoot the gap and go for steals. Sometimes that has a positive effect. Other times though, and more frequently, they end up gambling too much and getting beat.

    They end up behind the ball carrier which is a bad place to be, and for every steal there is there is two times the ball carrier scores.You won't see those plays on SportsCenter though.

    A good defender plays the right distance from the ball handler. Far enough away to keep in front of him, but close enough that he can get a hand in the opponent's face and challenge jump shots. The best defenders will have both a low points per play against on isoloation plays and a low opponent's field goal percentage.

    They will also have a low percent scored. The range there is from 35.5 percent to 42.6 percent. Average is around 40 percent. Below 37 percent is elite level. Over 42 percent is shabby. This reflects an ability to force turnovers and to prevent field goal attempts without fouling. 

Qualifier

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    I want to emphasize these stats are 100 percent statistically based, well almost 100 percent statistically based. I did exercise opinions in what stats to include and not include. However, the actual rankings are based on those, not opinion.

    I want to remind you, these are not some random numbers. These are the careful auditing of games by experts who have tracked in detail every play of every game. They track who is on offense, who is on defense, what kind of play is run, and whet happened. It's not arbitrary and it's not done by stat geeks who have never watched a game. 

    In fact it's precisely the opposite. It's the most respected scouting agency in the world watching every single play of every single game. Silly platitudes about "try watching a game" won't fly here. They've watched more than you, I assure you. 

    That's the basis of these numbers. 

    In essence, I didn't put anyone anywhere. The stats did. Some people say "the numbers don't lie," Others say "stats lie." Clearly, the answer here isn't going to be overused adages. 

    The truth is numbers say exactly as much as they say, no more and no less. There are some things they don't say. Two things that it is impossible for them to tell are narrative and the effect of help defense. 

    By narrative I mean things that happened which aren't directly reflected by the numbers. Sometimes a player is traded. Sometimes it's not the player but a key teammate that's traded. Sometimes there's a coaching change. Sometimes there's an injury to a player that he's playing through. All of these things are things that can affect the numbers but not be seen in them. 

    The other thing is help defense provided. The best example here is Dwight Howard.. Suffice to say that trying to guard an entire team by yourself is going to have it's impact. When I get to the centers you'll notice that Howard's personal numbers are impacted by the help defense he provides.

    Because he's giving help defense sometimes he's caught in an impossible situation and his numbers suffer as a result. 

    Doing a ranking like this will always have some surprising results, you just don't know what they're going to be until you put all the numbers into the database and then click sort. 

    Therefore there's no personal bias for or against anyone. I didn't rank anyone higher because I'm a homer and I didn't rank anyone lower because I'm a hater. I ranked everyone where they are because when I hit sort that's where they landed. 

    That doesn't mean that I absolutely agree with every single ranking either. I think some players for various reasons might be a little high or low but I kept the rankings where they landed.So yes, I agree that the numbers aren't the end of the discussion. 

    I do believe they should be the start of it though. We shouldn't just shove them aside and ignore them. It's entirely possible that the stats are telling the truth and you just don't want to hear it. If you feel the numbers are off you should say why specifically in that case they are off. 

    The numbers tell part of the story, but not the whole story. If you feel they aren't telling the whole story, tell the part they aren't telling. Just don't throw out the part they are telling in the process. 

30: John Wall, 28.50

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    Overall PPP: .94 (30)  

    Isolation PPP: 10.3 (28)  

    Opp FG Percentage: 43.7% (28)  

    Percent Scored: 42.6% (28)

    Help Rating: .09 

    John Wall is an absolutely electric offensive player. Unfortunately for the Wizards, so is whomever he's guarding. Where he wasn't the worst starter, he was close to it.

    On the upside, there's no reason to think that he can't improve. He has every bit the athleticism and ability to be an elite defensive player. Being a rookie with one year of college who had the bulk of the responsibility put on him, there's plenty of room for forgiveness here.

    Watch for him to improve over the next few years and it may be defensive improvement, not offensive that makes the Wizard a playoff team.   

29: Jose Calderon, 26.00

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    Overall PPP: 0.93 (27)

    Isolation PPP: 0.86 ( 24)

    Opp FG Percentage: 44.0% (29)

    Percent Scored: 42.5% (27)

    Help Rating: -.07 

    Jose Calderon is an across the board bad defender, placing no higher than 24th in any category. Unlike Wall, he's not likely to improve a great deal either.

    While he's a terrific passer, his days as a starting point guard may be limited because he's a liability everywhere else, particularly on defense. 


28: Tony Parker, 24.75

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    Overall PPP: .91 (20)

    Isolation PPP: .96 (25)

    Opp FG Percentage: 43.2% (26)

    Percent Scored: 42.6% (28)

    Help Rating: .05

    Welcome to your first big surprise. I really expected Parker to be much higher. I really never thought of Parker as a weak defensive player. 

    The initial instinct might be to chalk this off to pace or something, as San Antonio ran a faster pace this season. However, these are not game averaged stats, they are play averaged stats, so pace would not affect them. 

    Considering he has Tim Duncan providing help defensively and that his help rating is a .05 (fifth worst), it's hard to blame it on his teammates, too. 

    While I am truly surprised by this ranking, I'm hard pressed to find a reason to dismiss it. 

26t: Mo Williams, 23.75

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    Overall PPP: .92 (25)

    Isolation PPP: .92 (24)

    Opp FG Percentage: 40.08% (18)

    Percent Scored: 42.6% (28)

    Help Rating: .00 

    Perhaps the only thing that surprises me here is that he's not lower. Williams is truly one of the NBA's most overrated players who never had any business in the All-Star game. Were it not for LeBron James brilliance making it look like there must be another All-Star in Cleveland, then he never would have been. 

    Now he's with the Clippers, where he can be their bane for at least another year. It's hard to believe the Clippers found a taker for Baron Davis and made a bad trade, but they did. 

27t: Derek Fisher, 23.75

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    Overall PPP: .92 (25) 

    Isolation PPP: .99 (27)

    Opp FG Percentage: 42.5% (22) 

    Percent Scored: 41.2 (21)

    Help Rating: .07 

    Derek Fisher, it's time to retire. You're getting really old, and yes, it's showing in your play. I know you're playing alongside Kobe, and your 6.8 point per game, 1.9 boards and 2.7 assists just isn't cutting it, particularly when you're just as bad on defense.

    Is Fisher the worst starter in the NBA right now? I mean there are some players equally inept offensively, like Keith Bogans, but at least they bring it on D'. Fisher isn't there on either. Maybe a die hard Laker/Fisher fan can enlighten me on what he brings, but just knowing the triangle offense isn't enough anymore.

    LA needs a new point guard. 

25: DJ Augustine, 23.50

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    Overall PPP: .92 (25)

    Isolation PPP: .97 (26)

    Opp FG Percentage: 42.4% (21)

    Percent Scored:41.3% (22)

    Help Rating: .05

    Some writers try to convince you that they watch every game by ever team every season. I'm not going to lie. My exposure to the Bobcats last season was only about a half dozen games, so I'm not going to try and pretend that I've scouted Augustin extensively. 

    Since most of the games I saw he was guarding Derrick Rose, he didn't look like the greatest defensive player in the world. Guarding Derrick Rose will do that to you. However, he does look like a promising young player. 

    As with Wall, he needs to develop. Also, as with Wall, his offense is going to come first. He's not a great defensive player, but it's understandable at this stage in his career. He has the ability and room to develop.

24: Devin Harris, 21.50

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    Overall PPP: .93 (28)

    Isolation PPP: .65 (2)

    Opp FG Percentage: 44.2 (30)

    Percent Scored: 42.2 (26)

    Help Rating: -.28 

    Statistically, Devin Harris was fascinating to me. He was the second best in isolation defense, but the worst in opponent field goal percentage. Curious to see how there could be such a huge disparity, I looked more closely at his numbers. 

    Against the pick and roll he was absolutely schooled when he had to take on the ball handler, yielding a 45.7 percent field goal percentage. That accounted for 45.7 percent of his defensive plays. He also gave up 44.0 percent on jump shots.   

    It's a combination, which suggests a player who is playing too far off the opponent. It helps in terms of keeping people from getting around him, but he gives enough cushion that players are able to shoot unchallenged jump shots.

    The other possibility is that he's just plain lazy on defense.

    Whatever it is, he had the largest disparity between.  

23: Baron Davis, 20.00

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    Overall PPP: .93 (28)

    Isolation PPP: .79 (11)

    Opp FG Percentage: 40.8% (17)

    Percent Scored: 41.5% (24) 

    Help Rating: -.14 

    Baron Davis is a hard man to figure. He had the ability to be an annual All-Star, but he never seemed to really want to be one. Sometimes he seemed to be on the precipice of blossoming into an absolutely huge star, then he just fell back into what can only be described as Baron weirdness.  

    Defensively, it's the same. He really could have been an All-Defensive player if he ever really wanted to be, but he never seemed to want to be. His isolation defense shows what he's capable of, doing quite well in spite of going from one bad defensive team to another.

    It's just the rest of the time he doesn't seem to have the effort.  

22: Russell Westbrook, 19.50

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    Overall PPP: .90 (16)

    Isolation PPP: .83 (17)

    Opp FG Percentage: 42.3% (20)

    Percent Scored: 41.7% (25)

    Help Rating: -.07 

    Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose are often compared because of their offensive numbers having some similarities. Westbrook averaged 3.1 points less and 0.7 assists more. They are both explosive point guards who can both score and pass. They are also the two top rebounding point guards in the NBA. 

    Defensively though, they aren't on the same level. In spite of the fact that Rose was the primary defensive player on 53 more plays, Westbrook gave up 87 more points on the season than Rose. 

    Westbrook does not play on as good of a defensive team, but a large part of that team is Westbrook himself. It's where people commit a common fallacy when analyzing defense. They try and separate the "team" from the "team members." 

    You can't do that.

    Westbrook is part of the defensive problem because he is part of the defense. His isolation defense is below average, and his opponent field goal percentage is in the bottom third of the league. Those things indicate more that Westbrook's defense is part of the Thunder's defensive woes.  

21: Darren Collison, 18.00

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    Overall PPP: .89 (14)

    Isolation PPP: 1.13 (30)

    Opp FG Percentage: 40.5 (13)

    Percent Scored: 40.1 (15)

    Help Rating: .24 

    What was noteworthy here is the 1.13 ppp in isolation. It wasn't just the worst among point guards, it was far and away the worst. He was a full 10th of a point worse than anyone else. That's because Collison is an example of a player that takes too many risks.

    He plays tight on the ball handler, so when he gets beaten, the opponent usually scores. The advantage, though, is that it allows him to compensate for his size by challenging shots. His field goal percentage against is only 40.5 percent, which is good for 13th best among starting point guards in spite of the fact that he's only generously listed as six feet.

    He's the polar opposite of Harris, but if you're going to err one way or the other, it's better to go the way Collison does. Even the most elite scoring point guards like Westbrook take only about one-third of their shots inside.

    That means that if you're going to play too far up tight you're going to err in your favor twice as often as against it. As Collison grows he'll get better at picking his spots and learn when to stay back and when to pressure the ball handler. He has the attitude and ability to become a good defender, but probably not a great one. His size will always work against him. 

20: Mario Chalmers, 17.50

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    Overall PPP: .89 (14)

    Isolation PPP: .91 (23)

    Opp FG Percentage: 40.6% (14)

    Percent Scored: 40.8% (19)

    Help Rating: .02 

    Mario Chalmers is on the one hand, possibly coming into his own. He's in a tough situation for a point guard, where two of the better ball handlers in NBA history are both on the team with him. Not many point guards in the NBA are the third option to distribute the ball. 

    Defensively, he's an example of a gambler. He has a fairly poor isolation ppp of .91, 23rd in the league. He also averages an above average 1.7 steals per 36 minutes. When you put those things together, it indicates a player who gambles and loses. 

    Chalmers also has the benefit of having some very good defenders to back him up, including arguably the best help defender in the NBA.

    Overall Chalmers is an up and down defender. Sometimes he looks really good, and sometimes he gets burned. My impression generally is that he just needs to mature. At least for now he is on a team that is forgiving of mistakes. 

18: Jrue Holiday, 19.50

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    Overall PPP: .90 (16)

    Isolation PPP: .83 (17)

    Opp FG Percentage: 41.4% (19)

    Percent Scored: 41.5% (24)

    Help Rating: -.07 

    Jrue Holiday needs a holiday. He was the primary defender on 1,213 plays last season. That's nearly 15 plays per game. Teams went at Holiday. 

    Part of the reason for that is that Philadelphia was a good defensive team. They were seventh best in the NBA in points per play last season.

    He is developing and really does have good defensive instincts. He tends to react well to the ball handler. He defends the jump shot well, giving up just a 39.6 percent field goal percentage, but he seems to have trouble with picks.

    That's the sort of thing that maturity will help, and with Doug Collins coaching, expect that improvement to come quickly.   

17t: Chauncey Billups, 17.25

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    Overall PPP: .91 (20)

    Isolation PPP:  .73 (4) 

    Opp FG Percentage: 42.6% (23)

    Percent Scored: 41.3% (22)

    Help Rating: -.18 

    Chauncey Billups is a good example of a good defender on a bad team. While his overall points per play is .91, 20th in the NBA, it's a bit misleading. His "Help Rating" of -.18 is a good indication of that. 

    Now you might be wondering why when I look at the disparity with Devin Harris, I conclude one thing, and when I look at similar numbers with Billups, I conclude another.  

    There are a couple of reasons. First, while Billups opponent field goal percentage is relatively high, it's nowhere near as bad as Harris. The second is what happened when Billups went to New York and how things changed when he was playing against the pick and roll.

    Whether he stuck with the ball handler or switched to the pick man, his average points per play were both a full 10th of a point better in New York. That indicates that he wasn't getting the defensive help on the pick and roll in Denver. In essence there was no "right way" to play the pick and roll because he wasn't getting the help defense he should.

    New York needs to turn to Billups and adopt his mindset if they want to run for the title. Over the last 30 years, over 80 percent of NBA champions have been in the top five in defensive rating and all but one have veen in the top 10. It's almost a guarantee that if you don't play good defense you will not win a championship.  

17t: Mike Conley, 17.25

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    Overall PPP: .90 (16)

    Isolation PPP: .80 (12)

    Opp FG Percentage: 42.7% (24)

    Percent Scored: 40.3% (17)

    Help Rating: -.10 

    A lot of people were shocked when Memphis signed Mike Conley to an extension early last season. However, as Memphis improved and then had a nice playoff run, the questions were answered. 

    He's another player who needs to learn to pick when he goes for the steal. While he was fifth best in the NBA in steals last season, his opponent field goal percentage indicates he may have gambled too much. 

    Overall though, he's a potentially good defensive player and could be part of an annual playoff team in Memphis for years to come. It will be interesting to see how Memphis does when they reincorporate Rudy Gay into the lineup. 

16: Chris Paul, 17.00

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    Overall PPP: .91 (20)

    Isolation PPP: .78 (9)

    Opp FG Percentage: 43.0% (25)

    Percent Scored: 40.0 (14) 

    Help Rating: -.13 

    Oh my, oh my! I can hear the hating already. Let me remind you that I did not "rank" the players. I sorted a list based on statistical realities. It's not an opinion here. It's just where the numbers landed him. 

    Now, as previously mentioned, the numbers tell part of the story, but they don't always tell the whole story. What we need to ask here is are they missing something? 

    Looking at the numbers there's one big thing that jumps out at me, and that's Chris Paul's opponent's shooting percentage, a relatively and unexpectedly high 43 percent. I also notice a relatively good help rating of -.13. 

    Looking at the play break downs in plays that emphasize stopping penetration such as isolation and defending the ball handler on pick and rolls, Paul does quite well, yielding just .78 ppp on both. However, when it comes to defending jump shots, off-screen .92, spot up, 1.04, and post-up, 1.2, Paul does not fare well at all.

    The fact is that Chris Paul is an elite defender when it comes to stopping penetration, but at just six feet tall, he's challenged when it comes to defending the outside shot. This is further reinforced by the fact that he only has 36 blocked shots in his entire career. Compare that with Derrick Rose, who had 53 just this season.

    On the other hand working through the shooting guard list I came across a stat that sheds a little more light on things. Paul's backrourt mate isn't just he's downright awful. In fact, Marco Bellinelli's ppp is 1.04, the worst by an starting guard in the NBA. His isolation defense is "make you shudder" awful at 1.17. So there is that. Paul's numbers are probably also affected by constantly having to bail out his comrade. 

    Truth be told, the numbers here actually told some truth though. I am fully aware that Paul was All-Defense the last three years. He still gave up a 43 percent field goal percentage this year though. I watched about 10 minutes of footage of just Paul defending jump shots and the simple truth is that opponents just shoot over him. 

    Sometimes stats aren't lying, they are teaching. The question then becomes are we willing to learn what they teach.

15: Kyle Lowry, 16.00

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    Overall PPP:  ,88 (12)

    Isolation PPP: .75 (6) 

    Opp FG Percentage: 43.4% (27)

    Percent Scored: 40.7% (18)

    Help Rating: -.13 

    Is this starting to sound familiar? A smallish, quick point guard who does a great job of stopping penetration but gives up a high field goal percentage. Lowry is similar to Harris in terms of the disparity between isolation and opponent field goal percentage. 

    I wish that I had the ability to share the footage form synergy because it's easily apparent as to what happens with Lowry. He routinely leaves three feet between himself and the ball handler, at which point the shooter can take a step back and drop a wide open jumper. 

    NBA guards are going to hit wide open jumpers. Lowry tends to play too far off the ball. It's why he does well in stopping penetration, but given his height he needs to play up closer. 

14: Rodney Stuckey, 15.50

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    Overall PPP: .91 (20)

    Isolation PPP: .78 (10)

    Opp FG Percentage: 40.8% (16)

    Percent Scored: 40.2% (16)

    Help Rating: -.13

    Rodney Stuckey is another case of a good defender on a bad team. He has decent speed and at 6'5" and has the size advantage on most of his opponents. He would be an interesting player on another team, both offensively and defensively. 

    When Stuckey is in position he defends the jump shot well, but he has a tendency to get caught out of position a lot. There are several times a game when Stuckey will be on the opposite end of the court when his man gets the ball. 

    After eating a small sandwich and washing it down with some Gatorade his opponent still has time to square up and take an easy shot. 

    With Stuckey, defensively, it's mostly a matter of focus. If he can maintain that he'll go from average defender to top tier defender. Being on a contender would probably help along those lines, too. It can be hard to maintain focus when you're getting clobbered on a nightly basis.  

13: Deron Williams, 14.75

23 of 35

    Overall PPP: .90 (16)

    Isolation PPP: .82 (16)

    Opp FG Percentage: 40.7% (15)

    Percent Scored: 39.1% (12)

    Help Rating: -.08  

    And here's our next great surprise. Let's again revisit the question. Are the numbers telling the whole story here? Consider a few facts.

    Deron Williams started off the season with a new starting front court. Then as soon as he started to get used to his new teammates, his head coach quit. Then, as soon as he started to adjust to his new coach he got traded to a new team.

    Then throw into that mix the fact that he was battling a wrist injury for half the year, and yes, there's ample evidence to show that there parts of the story missing here.

    I really do wish that Synergy would show me the stats from 2010 so I could have something to compare last year to, but I have to conclude that based on the circumstances of last season, Williams placement here is almost an achievement.

    I can conjecture that based on his defensive rating with Utah falling 5 points, that his points per play was probably affected by about .05, which would correlate with an estimated seven spots in his ranking. Of course that involves a lot of conjecture.

    The bottom line is that when you factor in the "rest of the story" (to borrow a Paul Harvey phrase) Williams probably deserves his reputation as one of the top five defensive point guards, but in order to establish that with more certainty I'd have to be able to see his 2010 Synergy stats.  

12: Tyreke Evans, 13.75

24 of 35

    Overall PPP: .87 (11)

    Isolation PPP: .84 (19)

    Opp FG Percentage: 40.5% (12)

    Percent Scored: 39.3% (13)

    Help Rating: -.03

    Here is an example of a player who the numbers are showing a tendency to play a little too tight, but as with other young players, I'd rather see a player err in that direction. His opponent field goal percentage is above averages, and his percent scored number is reasonable. 

    Does he get thoroughly torched sometimes and get put on YouTube, the proud owner of a pair of freshly broken ankles as a result? Yes. That's better than playing too far back to save face and having your opponent punish your  team by taking target practice so that you can save face, though. 

    Evans is another young and improving player that will learn and develop over time. He has the athleticism to be an elite defender, just not the experience. 

    It bears mentioning that the Kings were a pretty weak defensive team overall as well. Evans wasn't exactly getting gobs of help from his teammates. 

11: Luke Ridnour, 12.75

25 of 35

    Overall PPP: .88 (12)

    Isolation PPP: .85 (20)

    Opp FG Percentage: 39.0% (8)

    Percent Scored:39.0% (11)

    Help Rating: -.03 

    I know what you're thinking. "If you think that Luke Ridnour is a better defender than Chris Paul you're a fool. I get why you think that. To that I just say that these are facts not opinions. Luke Ridnour, playing on a far inferior defense got scored on less frequently than Chris Paul. 

    He probably got dunked on a lot more often. I'm not positive, but that's my guess. That's an opinion. He got scored on less, though. That's a qualified fact, not a subjective opinion. Chris Paul's opponents shot 43 percent, Ridnour's shot 39 percent. Again, fact, not opinion. 

    Sometimes it's not about stats being "deceptive" so much as it is about them being "enlightening." The difference is whether we arbitrarily sweep stats we don't understand aside, or if we try and understand why what happened happened.

    It's a matter of accepting facts that conflict with our perspective and it's called intellectual honesty. I mean it's a fact, Ridnour statistically is a superior defender.    

    I don't know what to do with that fact. I can't just ignore it and pretend it doesn't exist because I'm afraid of getting abused by commenters. It's still a fact. 

    All I can say is that the way we, the basketball viewing audience, have been groomed, is to think that the be all and end all of defense is not getting taken to the hole. That's the deception, not this. 

    About 70 percent of defense is defending jump shots and the facts show that Ridnour does that relatively well, no matter how many times he watched the opponents back. 

    In the end, whether it's a dunk or a jump shot it's still a basket. Good defense is about stopping the opponent from scoring, not looking good doing so. Chris Paul might look better trying to accomplish that goal, but Ridnour does better. 

10: Ty Lawson, 12.00

26 of 35

    Overall PPP: .85 (9)

    Isolation PPP: .88 (22)

    Opp FG Percentage: 39.2% (9)

    Percent Scored: 38.5% (9)

    Help Rating: .03

    One thing lacking in Synergy is that they don't have the ability to look at splits. The bulk of Ty Lawson's minutes came as a backup, which meant while other players were guarding Derrick Rose, he was guarding CJ Watson, a somewhat easier task.

    So again it's a bit of a case of looking at what narrative is missing from the numbers. It doesn't automatically correlate to his numbers being worse as a starter, but it's not a huge leap in logic to figure they probably went up when took over the starter's role after Billups departed.

    It will probably be another year before we get a real honest look at Lawson's potential as a starter. For now though I can say that his opponent's field goal percentage looks good. I'm just concerned that at 5' 11" it's destined to go up. 

9: Jameer Nelson, 10.75

27 of 35

    Overall PPP: .83 (3)

    Isolation PPP: 1.03 (28)

    Opp FG Percentage: 38.8% (6)

    Percent Scored: 37.7% (6)

    Help Rating: .20

    Here's an example of someone else making their teammate look good. Imagine I'm the guy in the Old Spice commercial. 

    Look at his isolation rank. Look at his overall rank. Look back at his isolation rank. Look back at his overall rank. Now look at Dwight Howard.

    Look, I'm not going to try and put it any other way. The reason Jameer Nelson is on this list is 6'11", 265 pounds and wears a Superman cape. That much disparity is explained by help defense.

    Yes, his opponent field goal percentage is pretty decent, but even that's because of the Howard effect. After watching footage of him defending for a while it became apparent that that's more to do with where the shots are coming from than Nelson's defense.

    I went to hoopdata.com an look at opponent shot locations and confirmed my suspicion. Orlando's opponents attempted more than 60 percent of their shots outside of the paint, highest in the NBA, and 38.3 percent of their shots from 16 feet or deeper.

    Nelson's opponent field goal percentages are about on par with the league averages of shooting from there. The only reason his numbers are low is that opponents are afraid of Howard so they settle for shots from deep. When put in that light Nelson's numbers aren't anything special.

    When you factor in that based on his horrible isolation numbers opponents could apparently go inside at will, it's even worse.

    This is a case of the numbers only telling part of the story, and what the numbers tell us is that Howard makes his teammates look like better defenders.   

7: Steve Nash, 8.5

28 of 35

    Overall PPP: .85 (7) 

    Isolation PPP: .77 (7)

    Opp FG Percentage: 40.4% (10)

    Percent Scored: 38.8% (10)

    Help Rating: -.08

    Reach down to the floor. Slip your hand gently under your chin. Pull up. 

    No, I did not do anything to make this happen. What can I say? This is another case of facts just saying what they say. 

    Look, all of Steve Nash's numbers are top 10. He plays on a 25th ranked defense, so nope, it sure isn't help D' that's doing it all. 

    I'd kind of wondered whether this might happen, though. I've always felt that based on what I'm seeing Nash's reputation as a notorious defender is undeserved. I know people are going to be tempted to parrot what they heard other people say, but based on actual detailed observation one of two things is true. 

    Either Nash doesn't deserve is reputation as a bad defender or he's a greatly improved defender. Either way, the fact is that this year he was a good defender, and a top 10 defensive point guard. 

7: Brandon Jennings, 8.50

29 of 35

    Overall PPP: .86 (3)

    Isolation PPP: .81 (12)

    Opp FG Percentage: 40.4% (11)

    Percent Scored: 38.8% (8)

    Help Rating: -.05

    Brandon Jennings is at a physical disadvantage at only 6'1" and 165 pounds. He does have the luxury of playing on the fourth best defense in the league in defensive rating, though. The question is, are the Bucks where they are because of him, in spite of him, or just with him. 

    His overall points per play suggests that he it's because of him but the rest of the numbers that it's just with him. What I mean by that is he neither makes the defense better or worse. While his overall numbers are top 10, the individual numbers are good, but outside of the top 10. 

    Considering his youth, that's still not bad. Still, Andrew Bogut is one of the premiere defenders in the NBA. When he was on the court with Jennings the Bucks gave up five fewer points than when Jennings was on the court without help from down under. Of course using on/off stats can be tricky, and you can't cement any logic based entirely on that.  

    It does seem though that the Bucks defensive success has more to do with Bogut, and Jennings was good enough to not mess things up. 

    Milwaukee will be an interesting team to keep an eye on this year. If they can stay healthy they could be making a playoff run. 

6: Stephen Curry, 8.25

30 of 35

    Overall PPP: .86 (10)

    Isolation PPP: .81 (14)

    Opp FG Percentage: 38.5% (4)

    Percent Scored: 37.7% (5)

    Help Rating: -.05

    Stephen Curry's numbers are in spite of team defense. No one, and I mean no one, accuses Golden State of great team defense. Curry may be in a similar situation to Steve Nash's, though. 

    When you compare Curry's numbers to his backcourt mate, Monta Ellis, you realize that he may be on the wrong side of a defensive partnership. 

    Compare Ellis numbers to the ones above. 

    Overall PPP: .91

    Isolation PPP: 1.04

    Opp FG Percentage: 42.8%

    Percent Scored: 41.8%

    It doesn't take a Synergy Scout to realize where the weak spot in the backcourt is. Yet there's a tendency when looking at defense to assume that if a team defense is bad all the individual components are bad. 

    It would be interesting to see what would happen if Curry were on a good defensive team. 

4: Jeff Teague, 7.75

31 of 35

    Overall PPP: .83 (3)

    Isolation PPP: .81 (14)

    Opp FG Percentage: 39.0% (7)

    Percent Scored: 37.8% (7)

    Help Rating: -.07

    Jeff Teague certainly got some attention when he took over the starting role in the playoffs against the Bulls last season. Was Derrick Rose's field goal percentage in the series the issue of a partially torn ankle ligament or the outstanding defense of the youngster?

    Teague does what young players should do. He worries more about defending the jump shot than stopping penetration. His isolation ppp is decent, but not great. His other numbers are very solid, but is he really the fourth best defensive point guard in the NBA?

    Probably not. By probably I mean there's a 99 percent probability that he's not. The fact is that majority of his numbers came against backups.

    While he's probably not a top four defender, there's still a very promising future with the youngster. He should have won the starting job in a tremendous audition and Atlanta may be realizing they had their starting point guard of the future all along.  

4: Andre Miller, 7.74

32 of 35

    Overall PPP: .85 (7)

    Isolation PPP: .78 (8)

    Opp FG Percentage: 38.8% (5)

    Percent Scored: 36.8% (3)

    Help Rating: -10

    Andre Miller is the invisible man of the NBA. He's only the ninth player in NBA history to post 14,000 points, 7,000 assists and 1,000 steals. He's the only one to ever do so without ever being named to an All-Star game.

    He didn't even make it when he led the league in assists in 2002. Oh, you didn't know he ever led the league in assists? 

    Invisible man. 

    Miller's appearance here is no mirage. He's a consistent defender and he has been wherever he's gone. If you don't think he's gotten attention for his offensive accomplishments though, you better believe he's never been noticed for his defensive ones. 

    If you're surprised by his appearance here don't be, and it's not an aberration like the man he's tied with. He actually really belongs here. His numbers across the board are top 10, and close to top five.

    He'll be back in Denver for another stint with the new look Nuggets. Do me a favor. Put this man in the All-Star game! 

3: Jason Kidd, 3.75

33 of 35

    Overall PPP: .84 (6)

    Isolation PPP: .74 (5)

    Opp FG Percentage: 37.1% (1)

    Percent Scored: 36.8% (3)

    Help Rating: -.10

    There was a time, believe it or not, when Jason Kidd was seen as a defensive liability. After a few years in the pros, though, he started to build a reputation as an elite defender. In 1999, he was named to the All-Defensive Team for the first time.

    Now he's been a member nine times in all, five times to the first team and four times to the second. His numbers here indicate he's still at the top. His opponent field goal percentage was the best of any starting point guard in the NBA last year.

    Since there's not a lot of controversy on this one let me ask an unrelated question. Kidd and teammate Dirk Nowitzki were two of the greatest players who had never won a ring. Now that they've won who would you put higher on the all time list, Dirk or Kidd? 

2: Rajon Rondo, 2.25

34 of 35

    Overall PPP: .79 (2)

    Isolation PPP: .67 (3)

    Opp FG Percentage: 37.9% (3)

    Percent Scored: 35.5% (1)

    Help Rating: -.12

    Rondo's placement, if anything, is only controversial in that he's not No. 1. However as the debate is inextricably tied to who is No. 1, I'll just save it for the next slide. 

    No. 1, you may have guessed is... 

1: Derrick Rose, 1.50

35 of 35

    Overall PPP: .78 (1)

    Isolation PPP: .64 (1)

    Opp FG Percentage: 37.9% (2)

    Percent Scored: 36.1% (2)

    Help Rating: -.14

    Let me start by saying that yes, I am a Derrick Rose fan and a Chicago Bulls fan. Let me then add that contrary to what some people would like to suggest, my being a Bulls fan and Rose fan, it actually has no impact on what actually happened in the NBA this season. 

    It's an ad hominem fallacy. Ad hominem fallacies aren't just personal attacks, but they are attempts to make the argument about the person, rather than the content of the argument. Whether I am a Bulls fan or not, it doesn't change the facts. Derrick Rose, based on the statistics chosen, was the best defensive point guard in the NBA. 

    Now you might argue that I'm using a statistical bias. If that's your argument then that's fine, but you should point out 1) how the statistics I chose actually present a misleading argument, 2) how that is and 3) further statistical evidence that demonstrates something different.

    Merely saying that's what I did is just more ad hominem attack.

    I took considerable time to explain my logic in selecting the data in the first six slides. If you want to address my logic feel free, but please address my logic, not my loyalties.

    Now having said all of that let me address what I think would be the most common argument about how Rose's numbers could be misleading. Some will argue that it's because he's on such a great defensive team.

    However there are several things inconsistent with that argument. First, he was the primary defender on 1,118 plays, that's more than all but three point guards in the NBA. That's not suggestive of the beneficiary of a lot of help defense. 

    Second, his defensive numbers are generally better than CJ Watson, Keith Bogans or Ronnie Brewer, the other guards on the Bulls. This is in spite of the fact that Rose often would cover the superior offensive threat defensively, particularly when the game was on the line.

    Third, there is a myth that only Bulls fans have this notion that Rose emerged as an elite defender last year. Tom Thbiodeau, the architect of the defense has said "Our defense all starts with Derrick Rose. He's the reason we're so good." Rob Mahoney of the New York Times wrote a persuasive argument in January about Rose's defense (which includes video clips.) Finally, Rose received the third most votes among point guards for MVP.

    While I wouldn't try to make an argument that popular perception means anything, I'm just pointing out that if you feel it does, you might be surprised that popular perception doesn't entirely agree with you.

    Finally, and I think most tellingly, what can you say about Rose's teammates that you can't say about Rondo's? Boston runs the same system as Chicago. Rose has Joakim Noah, but Rondo has Kevin Garnett. The only difference is Garnett missed a lot fewer games last year.

    Yes, Rondo had some transitional issues with Perkins and the O'Neals but Rose had "help' from Carlos Boozer.

    Yes, Rose had Luol Deng and Keith Bogans to help him, but Rondo had Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.

    So why is it that even though Rose has better numbers, his teammates and system get all the credit? And if you want to get snarky and say "because I watch the games" then I'd ask how it is that by watching the games you see something other than what the preeminent scouting agency in both pro and amateur basketball is seeing.

    If by "watching the game" you are seeing something other than what happened either you are seeing thing through tented lenses, not really watching the games, or heavily medicated.

    Saying "if you watched the games" doesn't mean that you watched the games, and it doesn't mean whoever your saying it to didn't. If you actually watched the games you wouldn't have to say "if you watched the games." You could just point to what happens in the games.

    What happens when Derrick Rose plays through defense is that he's very good at fighting through picks, he is tremendous at coming out and challenging jump shots, and he is very hard to get around. And if you're going to say "Jeff Teague" you should be aware that only 28 of the 82 points Teague scored were on Rose.

    The fact of the matter is that after Joe Johnson's big first game Rose spent a lot of time guarding him. He also spent a lot of time guarding Jamal Crawford. In total Synergy only charged Rose only with 50 points in the six game series.

    In the Miami series he was charged with 38 points. In the Pacers series he was charged with 36 points. In total in the 16 postseason games, counting free throws, he was charged with 124 points. That's just 7.75 points a game. 

    Not bad for a man with a partially torn ligament in his ankle huh?

    Look, I get these rankings are challenging convention, but I think that convention needs to be challenged when it comes to looking at defense. If defense is about preventing the opponent from scoring, then what we should look at is the success in doing that.

    I know it sounds completely outlandish that the best defensive players are those who do the best job of actually defending, but entertain the notion for a while. When it comes to doing that Rose does it better than any point guard in the NBA with Rondo a close second.  

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