Metrics 101: The Top 5 NBA Defenders at Every Position
- ESPN.com's defensive real plus/minus, presented such that a positive score is beneficial and a negative score indicates below-average play.
- NBA Math's defensive points saved, which accounts for defensive volume and efficiency while also taking defensive rebounding into consideration.
- Field-goal percentage differential, such that a negative score indicates a player is holding his assignments below their typical shooting percentages.
- On/off differential, such that a negative score indicates a player's team has a lower defensive rating with him on the floor.
Don't test these guys.
Though offense often reigns supreme in today's NBA, especially with the ceaselessly expanding use of three-point jumpers, some players can slow down almost anyone. And while big men have historically dominated the Defensive Player of the Year race, there are plenty of legitimate stoppers on the wings and in the backcourts of the Association's 30 squads.
We've already looked at the league's worst defenders at each position. Now, it's time to flip the script.
Avoid attacking these 25 players, as determined by four different defensive categories:
All 310 qualified players (minimum of 15 minutes per game) were ranked in each of the four categories, using stats accurate heading into games March 18. Their defensive scores were determined by summing their ranks across the board: the lower, the better; the higher, the more porous.
Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
No, we're not saying Kawhi Leonard is a bad defender. He's still a phenomenal one who should receive award hype after winning Defensive Player of the Year each of the last two campaigns. But that's based largely on the eye test and contextual evidence, since his numbers weren't strong enough to merit placement in these rankings.
At the time of data collection, Leonard ranked No. 91 in ESPN.com's defensive real plus/minus (DRPM)—a shocking placement after a top-10 finish in 2015-16. He sat just outside the top 40 in NBA Math's defensive points saved (DPS). And though opponents shot worse against him as an individual, the San Antonio Spurs were allowing 8.5 fewer points per 100 possessions with him off the court, giving him an on/off differential that topped only four qualified players.
Why? You might as well including a shrugging emoticon.
Maybe this is a fluke, driven by unsustainable three-point percentages from the opposition while he's playing. After all, while players can prevent three-point attempts, they can't do much to alter their success rates over large samples. Perhaps this is all a credit to the Spurs' schemes (we'll have more on this later on). It could be opponents' willingness to leave him isolated in the corner while they play four-on-four, as CBS Sports' Matt Moore has broken down.
Regardless, Leonard's exclusion is emblematic of the need to apply context to defensive numbers. So don't view his omission as anything more than what it is: a fluke that's in no way meant to be interpreted as an insult to one of the game's great wing stoppers.
Avery Bradley, Boston Celtics
Blame injuries and Isaiah Thomas here.
Avery Bradley has needed to spend too much time either rehabbing or covering for the sieve he plays alongside, and it's affecting his hounding defense. He hasn't been able to keep up with quicker players in 2016-17, and he's often looked out of place in head coach Brad Stevens' schemes, which ask bigs to ice pick-and-rolls before recovering instead of just switching upon solid contact.
The result? A negative score in ESPN.com's DRPM, as well as a bottom-half finish in each of the four categories used throughout these rankings.
Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies
Much as we may wish players had indefatigable motors, they boast limited energy supplies. When they take strides forward on offense and are tasked with excessive responsibilities for limited scoring outfits (see also: Butler, Jimmy), they often need to sacrifice some of their defensive chops, taking possessions off to catch their breath for the next offensive sequence.
Mike Conley may be this year's best example.
Fresh off signing a megadeal to remain with the Memphis Grizzlies, the point guard has exploded on the more glamorous end, averaging 20.0 points and 6.3 assists while shooting 45.1 percent from the field and 40.3 percent from downtown. But that production has come at the expense of his defense, since he hasn't been able to keep up with spot-up shooters as well as in the past. As a result, he received a below-average mark in each portion of the criteria for his work in 2016-17.
Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors
Seldom have players earned such persistent reputations as sterling defenders with middling defensive numbers. Klay Thompson's metrics haven't validated his status as a legitimate stopper for years now, but he still enjoys credit as a leading two-way player.
It's no different this season. But fortunately, the issues are relatively easy to explain.
Thompson rarely records defensive rebounds, which does factor into the equation since ending possessions is necessary before vacating the less glamorous end. He often switches onto the other team's best backcourt member, which depresses some of his individual numbers by virtue of him drawing monumentally more difficult assignments.
And perhaps most importantly: He passes the eye test by thriving as an on-ball stopper, but it's more difficult to notice just how bad he can be away from the primary action. Getting lost chasing players through screens, taking possessions off in the corners and watching the ball rather than his man doesn't work in his favor.
No. 5 Point Guard: John Wall, Washington Wizards (445 Defense Score)
Defensive Real Plus/Minus: minus-0.5 (No. 186)
Defensive Points Saved: 14.56 (No. 109)
Field-Goal Percentage Differential: minus-3.4 (No. 44)
On/Off Differential: minus-1.5 (No. 106)
John Wall's defense doesn't always come in disciplined fashion. He can get caught out of position or torched in isolation, which is why he doesn't always grade well in the one-number-fits-all metrics.
But his impact on the Washington Wizards' efforts remains substantial.
More so than any other point guard, Wall is willing to deviate from his assigned position and wreak havoc—not just in the passing lanes, but often as a weakside shot-blocking threat. He routinely flies from out of nowhere to deter a shot attempt from an unsuspecting player, even if that gamble could expose him to a spot-up opportunity.
His work is just predicated on effort, and an early-season lesson ensured that effort would be there in 2016-17.
"In the team's first film session after its home-opening loss to the Raptors, [head coach Scott] Brooks pointed out several times where Wall either didn't sprint back on defense or failed to sit down in a defensive stance. He underscored it all by calling Wall the worst defender on the team 'by far,'" Ric Bucher reported for Bleacher Report in late November.
Apparently, the message was heard.
Honorable Mentions: Seth Curry, Kris Dunn, George Hill, T.J. McConnell, Russell Westbrook
No. 4 Point Guard: Tyler Johnson, Miami Heat (405 Defense Score)
Defensive Real Plus/Minus: 0.65 (No. 100)
Defensive Points Saved: 35.12 (No. 74)
Field-Goal Percentage Differential: 0.1 (No. 145)
On/Off Differential: minus-2.1 (No. 86)
"He's relentless to the end of the possession," Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said about Tyler Johnson in January, per Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. "A lot of players, particularly shot-blockers, won't put themselves out there, because they're afraid of getting scored on or dunked on or a highlight play against 'em. If you're not thinking about any of that and putting yourself out there, not giving in to the competition, you'll make a lot of plays. You'll also get scored on. And he doesn't care about that."
That mentality is reflected in the numbers.
Johnson doesn't push his matchups' field-goal percentages below their typical levels. He gives up 0.8 points per possession in isolation, which leaves him in the 66th percentile. He's even worse against pick-and-roll ball-handlers, sitting down in the 41st percentile.
These are all middling numbers, but Johnson's willingness to take on difficult assignments and play fearless defense still impacts the Heat positively. Even though many of his minutes don't come alongside interior stopper Hassan Whiteside, Miami still allows noticeably fewer points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor.
No. 3 Point Guard: Ish Smith, Detroit Pistons (403 Defense Score)
Defensive Real Plus/Minus: 1.04 (No. 79)
Defensive Points Saved: 12.34 (No. 114)
Field-Goal Percentage Differential: 0.8 (No. 177)
On/Off Differential: minus-5.1 (No. 33)
Ish Smith is a perfectly solid defender for the Detroit Pistons.
He's held his own in most situations, even if that runs counter to the reputation he's established throughout his NBA career. During his previous six campaigns, he's only posted a positive defensive box plus/minus twice, and neither came while he filled a role nearly as large as this one.
Discipline plays a large part in this development, as does a fundamental understanding of the Detroit schemes. But as Duncan Smith pointed out for PistonPowered.com, it may actually be his offense that's helping his defense most.
"Ish Smith's biggest contribution to the Detroit Pistons defense is the fact that he almost never puts that defense in a bad position in transition, protecting the ball better than almost any player in the NBA who gets regular minutes and average usage or better," Duncan Smith explains.
In this competition, though, there's another reason for the point guard's lofty standing: Reggie Jackson grades out as the league's worst defender, which significantly affects Smith's on/off differential. Since they don't frequently share the court, his work almost always looks stronger when held up against his replacement's.
No. 2 Point Guard: Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers (283 Defense Score)
Defensive Real Plus/Minus: 3.45 (No. 9)
Defensive Points Saved: 27.17 (No. 85)
Field-Goal Percentage Differential: 1.0 (No. 186)
On/Off Differential: minus-9.7 (No. 3)
This is about so much more than Chris Paul's lightning-quick hands.
The Los Angeles Clippers point guard is always near the league lead in any categories related to thievery. He's not on pace to top the NBA in steals per game for the seventh season or surpass the field in steal percentage for the fifth time, but he does join Draymond Green as one of just two players north of two and three in those respective categories.
Still, steals alone don't make for a great defensive point guard. It's Paul's brain that pushes him toward the head of the pack.
This floor general is always acutely aware of everyone's positioning, and it allows him to force opponents into disadvantageous situations. He can steer them toward traps in the corner, into the clutches of a teammate or toward the teeth of the defense, where DeAndre Jordan is waiting to swat shots away into oblivion.
No one on the roster can replicate this ability, which allows Paul to post the NBA's third-largest on/off differential, trailing only Andrew Bogut and (in a smaller sample) Delon Wright.
No. 1 Point Guard: Jrue Holiday, New Orleans Pelicans (217 Defense Score)
Defensive Real Plus/Minus: 0.96 (No. 81)
Defensive Points Saved: 21.17 (No. 92)
Field-Goal Percentage Differential: minus-5.9 (No. 7)
On/Off Differential: minus-4.5 (No. 37)
Counterintuitive as it may seem, how a player affects individual field-goal attempts isn't the most telling defensive statistic, subject to plenty of year-to-year noise and overlooking any attempts at contextual evidence. But the extreme numbers earned over larger samples should still receive some scrutiny.
Jrue Holiday is one such example, and his ability to depress opponents' field-goal percentages matches his reputation as an on-ball stalwart. With his size, length and tenacity, he's a difficult assignment for any scoring guard, and he knows it.
Rarely can you watch the New Orleans Pelicans without witnessing Holiday pressuring the ball, especially in pick-and-roll situations.
"He's a physical defender, creates a lot of steals by being in the guards," Terrence Jones told SB Nation's Kristian Winfield in late February. "He definitely reacts to all my calls, when it comes to my communicating on the pick-and-rolls, correct almost every time. It makes it real easy when a guy is pressuring the ball like he does."
Holiday can be exposed in off-ball situations, but not frequently enough to cancel out the impact he has as the first line of defense for an improving bunch of New Orleans stoppers.
No. 5 Shooting Guard: Tony Allen, Memphis Grizzlies (336 Defense Score)
Defensive Real Plus/Minus: 1.72 (No. 50)
Defensive Points Saved: 79.26 (No. 23)
Field-Goal Percentage Differential: minus-1.0 (No. 102)
On/Off Differential: 0.2 (No. 161)
You knew he'd show up at some point.
Tony Allen has made his living in the NBA as a fearsome defender, one who entered the season with five All-Defense appearances throughout his professional career. Even though he's 35 years old, he has a legitimate chance to earn a sixth nod, thanks to the never-ending intensity with which he plays.
It's a cliche to claim players have two gears: on and off. But for Allen, it's actually true. Whenever he's on the floor, he's using every watt of power he can suck from his ever-churning motor. Whether he's sticking with players through screens to prevent spot-up opportunities or locking down in his defensive stance against an isolation set, he's a brutal matchup for any offensive threat.
Allen averages more turnovers than assists. He's scoring just 9.2 points per game while shooting 45.8 percent from the field, 30.4 percent from downtown and 62.3 percent from the charity stripe. At times, those numbers are so bad that defenders can slide away from him, electing to leave the 2-guard open in the corner and rededicating their efforts elsewhere.
Thanks to his defense, he's still an obvious all-around positive.
Honorable Mentions: Manu Ginobili, Eric Gordon, Andrew Harrison, Justin Holiday, Dion Waiters
No. 4 Shooting Guard: Danny Green, San Antonio Spurs (335 Defense Score)
Defensive Real Plus/Minus: 1.72 (No. 50)
Defensive Points Saved: 82.21 (No. 20)
Field-Goal Percentage Differential: minus-1.3 (No. 91)
On/Off Differential: 0.6 (No. 174)
When Danny Green was first earning a role with the San Antonio Spurs, his ability to thrive as a "three-and-D" contributor got him the initial look. No one doubted his ability to shoot the basketball, and his work at North Carolina and in the NBA Development League made it clear he was capable of shutting down tougher opponents.
But few realized just how crucial he'd become to head coach Gregg Popovich.
Six years later, Green remains integral to the Spurs. He's kept his job despite enduring a season-long shooting slump in 2015-16, largely because he's never stopped expending energy on the preventing end, where he can use his size (6'6") to pester opposing shooting guards and switch onto tougher assignments.
That's been especially important during the current campaign, as Green has often been tasked with picking up the proverbial slack for Tony Parker. As the aging French point guard fails to keep up with some of his marks, others have needed to engage in extra switching and be even more ready to play significant help defense in the driving lanes.
Guess who's been great in that role?
No. 3 Shooting Guard: Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics (307 Defense Score)
Defensive Real Plus/Minus: 0.51 (No. 108)
Defensive Points Saved: 31.97 (No. 76)
Field-Goal Percentage Differential: minus-2.4 (No. 61)
On/Off Differential: minus-3.1 (No. 62)
Marcus Smart is not without his flaws.
Even looking past his limited offensive game, he gives up 0.93 points per possession in isolation, which leaves him in the 41st percentile. He's just as bad (40.6 percentile) against pick-and-roll ball-handlers, often making incorrect decisions when greeted with screens. Spot-up shooters score 1.03 points per possession against him, good for nothing more than the 41.3 percentile.
But all those results come when Smart allows players to finish plays. And his ability to deter those situations is what makes him special.
The young Boston Celtics guard has often seemed to replace Avery Bradley—who has inexplicably struggled to make a huge defensive impact in 2016-17—as the primary source of hounding pestilence. He harasses players up and down the court, never afraid to show off his relentless physicality and ability to bait—both mentally and physically—opponents into careless mistakes.
Plus, while Smart has spent most of his minutes (78 percent) at shooting guard, his athleticism and stocky 6'4" frame give him the ability to switch onto opposing 1-guards and small forwards in a pinch.
No. 2 Shooting Guard: Patrick Beverley, Houston Rockets (300 Defense Score)
Defensive Real Plus/Minus: 2.03 (No. 39)
Defensive Points Saved: 64.83 (No. 36)
Field-Goal Percentage Differential: minus-1.5 (No. 82)
On/Off Differential: minus-0.5 (No. 143)
Patrick Beverley's name should be synonymous with agitation. And that's a compliment.
This Houston Rocket thrives when he's allowed to function as a pest. He loves locking down opponents far bigger than him, hounding ball-handlers even before the rock is inbounded, pushing his matchups away from the three-point line and doing everything imaginable to get under an opponent's skin.
It usually works.
Against Beverley, basketball isn't played in half-court bursts. Players must keep their heads on swivels whenever they're on the hardwood, and he may even get in their brains while they're catching wind on the bench. That's the primary impact of his relentless physicality and ceaseless intensity, even as he's switched to a new position in 2016-17.
Beverley stands just 6'1" and had logged 88 percent of his minutes at the 1 heading into the current season. But James Harden's new role has forced him to slide over to shooting guard, where he's recorded a staggering 71 percent of his action—and even found time to play a little small forward in ultra-small lineups.
Ultimately, that's just putting a title on an amorphous role. Beverley plays everywhere, frequently guarding the toughest members of the opposing backcourt. Whatever he does, it tends to work.
No. 1 Shooting Guard: Jonathon Simmons, San Antonio Spurs (215 Defense Score)
Defensive Real Plus/Minus: 1.85 (No. 46)
Defensive Points Saved: 28.22 (No. 83)
Field-Goal Percentage Differential: minus-1.7 (No. 80)
On/Off Differential: minus-8.2 (No. 6)
Jonathon Simmons trails Patrick Beverley in ESPN.com's defensive real plus/minus by a modest amount. The gap is larger in NBA Math's defensive points saved, and the two guards are in a dead heat when looking at field-goal percentage differential.
But the 27-year-old sophomore's ability to positively impact the San Antonio Spurs pushes him into pole position.
Without Simmons, the Spurs defense is perfectly adequate, allowing no more than 103.8 points per 100 possessions. But it plunges into historically excellent territory when he's on the floor, wreaking havoc with his athleticism and ever-growing understanding of head coach Gregg Popovich's schemes.
Looking at the Four Factors here is instructive, because they show that in spite of Simmons' gambling habits (leading to increased free-throw rates and offensive rebounds for the opposition), he's helping his team depress shooting percentages and generate plenty of turnovers.
An additional 2.5 percent of opponents' possessions result in cough-ups when this 2-guard is playing, and that, in conjunction with a declining effective field-goal percentage, makes it impossible to convert against a stifling Spurs configuration.
On/off numbers feature plenty of confounding variables—especially true in San Antonio, where schemes mitigate flaws and maximize strengths better than anywhere else. But while his differential may be exaggerated, it feels like less of a fluke when he's done such an impressive job working on his positioning and overall defensive game.
No. 5 Small Forward: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers (154 Defense Score)
Defensive Real Plus/Minus: 1.51 (No. 56)
Defensive Points Saved: 79.48 (No. 22)
Field-Goal Percentage Differential: minus-3.9 (No. 31)
On/Off Differential: minus-4.2 (No. 45)
Remember, we're talking about statistical value in 2016-17 alone. Work in the past doesn't matter, which is why you see Jimmy Butler relegated to the honorable mentions as he maintains an offensive focus for the Chicago Bulls. The same rule applies to Kawhi Leonard, who doesn't show up in the rankings during a season in which the San Antonio Spurs have been far stingier with him off the court while he ranks just No. 122 in ESPN.com's DRPM. Last year, he trailed only eight players in that same metric, and all were big men.
LeBron James isn't another casualty of the focus on the present, but it does prevent him from rising any higher. There's only so much he can do on defense while in his 30s and working to spark a Cleveland Cavaliers offense that's wholly dependent on his skill set.
And still, the Cavs are significantly tougher to score on while he's playing. Though he can be prone to falling asleep away from the action, his ability to dart into passing lanes and recover to his primary assignment is otherworldly—even on his off nights.
The chase-down blocks don't happen as frequently these days. He can get thrown off his game by the league's strongest offensive players, and he's no stranger to taking a few plays off and letting his teammates do the heavy defensive lifting.
But athletes such as James still aren't supposed to exist, and that physical superiority routinely manifests itself on the preventing end.
Honorable Mentions: Jimmy Butler, Kevin Durant, Rudy Gay, Solomon Hill, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
No. 4 Small Forward: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks (142 Defense Score)
Defensive Real Plus/Minus: 2.15 (No. 30)
Defensive Points Saved: 166.41 (No. 4)
Field-Goal Percentage Differential: minus-3.6 (No. 38)
On/Off Differential: minus-2.8 (No. 70)
Giannis Antetokounmpo primarily earns his "Greek Freak" nickname because of his offensive game. No one can Euro-step through traffic for a dunk quite like he can, and the collection of moves he's able to throw together inspires disbelief when coming from a player with his 7'0" frame (forget about whatever height he's listed at and compare him to the game's other giants).
But he's a bit freakish on defense, too.
Antetokounmpo's height and Pterodactyl arms allow him to impact plays all over the court—plays most wouldn't even dream about stopping. He can come soaring in for an out-of-nowhere block on one possession, tip away a pass on the next and then buckle down for an isolation stop a few minutes later.
Just consider Antetokounmpo's rim protection if you need yet another example. Despite running the show on offense and spending most of his time suited up as either a shooting guard or a forward—really, he defies description by traditional positions—Antetokounmpo guards 5.1 shots per game at the hoop and allows opponents to connect on a meager 47.4 percent of their attempts.
Only 10 other players can match that combination of volume and stinginess, and every one of them spends a significant chunk of their action at the 5.
No. 3 Small Forward: Luc Mbah a Moute, Los Angeles Clippers (136 Defense Score)
Defensive Real Plus/Minus: 2.29 (No. 23)
Defensive Points Saved: 41.37 (No. 68)
Field-Goal Percentage Differential: minus-3.7 (No. 35)
On/Off Differential: minus-6.8 (No. 10)
The Los Angeles Clippers have utilized a never-ending cycle of contributors at small forward over the last few years. Now, their unwillingness to fully commit to Luc Mbah a Moute is a bit baffling.
Sure, this particular wing isn't a terrific scoring threat, but that should be nearly irrelevant while he plays alongside Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and J.J. Redick. His ability to prevent other players from posting gaudy figures is even more important with this roster construction, and he's already helping LAC allow 6.8 fewer points per 100 possessions while he's on the floor.
"Luc right now, there's nobody in the league that's a better defensive player than Luc," head coach Doc Rivers said after this small forward shut down Andrew Wiggins during an early November contest, per Dan Woike of the Orange County Register. "What he's doing, and when you have him and D.J. [DeAndre Jordan] together, it just makes our defense special. And the fact that he's scoring, it's all gravy."
Perhaps the novelty has worn off throughout the season, especially as focus has shifted to the omnipresent injury woes and overall struggles that have prevented Los Angeles from maintaining the contender status it achieved during the campaign's opening salvo. But Mbah a Moute is still thriving as a tough-nosed perimeter defender, and he's still making the Clippers far better because of it.
No. 2 Small Forward: Andre Roberson, Oklahoma City Thunder (105 Defense Score)
Defensive Real Plus/Minus: 2.17 (No. 29)
Defensive Points Saved: 75.77 (No. 25)
Field-Goal Percentage Differential: minus-4.3 (No. 23)
On/Off Differential: minus-5.4 (No. 28)
Andre Roberson is the textbook example of how to carve out a rotation role when your jumper doesn't work. The three-point attempts he bricks out of the corners are rendered almost irrelevant by his point-preventing prowess and rebounding edge, which factors into NBA Math's defensive points saved.
"Coaches have taught me whichever way you're sliding you throw the hand that's closest to them," Roberson told Vice Sports' Michael Pina for a must-read article about the small forward's Defensive Player of the Year hopes. "Because every second matters, every little contest matters, every percentage matters when it comes to winning games. It can always come down to a point or two."
That mentality can't be missed.
Roberson makes an effort to contest every shot. He works hard to recover after his man gets by him. He never takes a possession off. He scouts opponents thoroughly, trying to gain even the most marginal advantages in the hopes of helping out the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Those may seem like little pieces of the overall puzzle, but it's shocking how many players don't buy into that mentality. Roberson does, and that, paired with his physical gifts and gigantic wingspan, has allowed him to move from plus-defender territory to the fringes of the DPOY conversation.
No. 1 Small Forward: Robert Covington, Philadelphia 76ers (101 Defense Score)
Defensive Real Plus/Minus: 3.66 (No. 7)
Defensive Points Saved: 85.37 (No. 19)
Field-Goal Percentage Differential: minus-3.1 (No. 46)
On/Off Differential: minus-5.3 (No. 29)
Though it's easy to assume Joel Embiid was the sole explanation behind the Philadelphia 76ers' defensive resurgence, nothing could be further from the truth. Robert Covington has been every bit as important, even if he doesn't have the extreme rim-protecting numbers that would have bolstered the rookie's Defensive Player of the Year case if he'd remained healthy.
The 6'9" Covington frequently challenges players around the basket, where he's holding opponents to 49.8 percent shooting. He takes on difficult wing assignments, checking players such as LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo in Eastern Conference matchups without a second thought. He's even willing to switch onto dynamic guards, where he can show off his surprising lateral quickness and fast-twitch instincts to remain between his man and the hoop.
When he's on the floor, the Sixers have given up just 103.2 points per 100 possessions—an impressive figure for a team constantly switching between so many youthful contributors and dealing with injuries to the defensive centerpiece (Embiid). But his individual impact is even more impressive, as reflected by his finish in ESPN.com's DRPM, where he beats every other non-big in the game.
No. 5 Power Forward: Patrick Patterson, Toronto Raptors (211 Defense Score)
Defensive Real Plus/Minus: 1.83 (No. 47)
Defensive Points Saved: 7.79 (No. 127)
Field-Goal Percentage Differential: minus-7.0 (No. 2)
On/Off Differential: minus-4.8 (No. 35)
Would extra playing time help or hurt Patrick Patterson?
There's often a tradeoff between volume and efficiency, which means an increased role could see him slip down the leaderboard in ESPN.com's DRPM and allow players to shoot better against him (extra shots mean less noise with this stat). But at the same time, he'd have a superior score in NBA Math's defensive points saved—the one part of our criteria that rewards players for sheer volume, operating under the assumption that the best players receive more minutes.
Thus far, Patterson has maximized his allotted minutes.
He's a physical and fundamental defender capable of guarding plenty of different players, even if his contributions aren't too glamorous. He doesn't record an inordinate number of steals or blocks, but instead makes solid plays that increase the difficulty for his assignments.
Perhaps even more importantly, Patterson avoids mistakes. That doesn't just refer to positioning mishaps, because this power forward is quite adept at minimizing whistles, rarely sending his marks to the free-throw line for easy points. And that's a rarity for bigs who play a tough-nosed game.
Honorable Mentions: Al-Farouq Aminu, Derrick Favors, David Lee, Kyle O'Quinn, Kristaps Porzingis
No. 4 Power Forward: Amir Johnson, Boston Celtics (176 Defense Score)
Defensive Real Plus/Minus: 3.64 (No. 8)
Defensive Points Saved: 64.18 (No. 37)
Field-Goal Percentage Differential: minus-2.2 (No. 67)
On/Off Differential: minus-3.0 (No. 64)
"Amir [Johnson] has been really good," Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens told CSNNE.com's A. Sherrod Blakely. "He gives us a ton of defensive versatility with that first group. A lot of times we ask him to guard a bigger guy or a 5. He's guarded 4s a lot in his career. The way the game has changed, for the most part people are playing 4s that are 3s, and at the 5 they're playing 4s. And he's able to defend both spots pretty well with his versatility."
If Patrick Patterson is a solid defensive power forward who thrives because he does the little things well, then Amir Johnson is a rich man's Patterson. He records only 0.6 steals and 0.8 blocks per game—in part because he lines up for only 20 minutes per contest—but his impact on the proceedings goes well beyond the box score.
For example, the Celtics love icing pick-and-rolls, and they can do so because Johnson's foot speed allows him to slide out and deter dribble penetration before recovering to his original man. Even when he's working from the weak side, he can drift over to provide a quick double before getting back to prevent an open spot-up attempt from his primary mark.
Around the rim, Johnson also provides solid contributions. Though Boston can sometimes give up easy opportunities at the tin when their rebounding woes rear their ugly head, this power forward is always involved and contests an impressive 9.2 attempts per 36 minutes.
No. 3 Power Forward: James Johnson, Miami Heat (150 Defense Score)
Defensive Real Plus/Minus: 1.54 (No. 54)
Defensive Points Saved: 71.91 (No. 28)
Field-Goal Percentage Differential: minus-5.8 (No. 8)
On/Off Differential: minus-3.4 (No. 60)
It's not just James Johnson's facilitating that has led to his breakout for the Miami Heat. Head coach Erik Spoelstra also understands how to deploy him on defense, allowing him to make use of his frenetic energy reserves by switching on picks and straying far from his off-ball assignments to contest extra shots.
His versatility helps, as he has the speed necessary to stick with quicker opponents and the requisite strength to bang around with bigger players in the post. Coupled with an innate understanding of the schemes, that's allowed him to become a one-size-fits-all defender in South Beach.
But Johnson still has one ability that stands out above all the rest. Attacking him in isolation is a terrible, terrible idea.
"JJ is No. 1 in the NBA in iso defense," Hassan Whiteside explained to Anthony Chiang of the Palm Beach Post. "Why does nobody know that? He's the best iso defender, go look it up. You all like numbers, so he should be a first-team All-Defensive guy to me. Nobody talks about it. We have a ton of guys that's just amazing defenders. I just used him because he's No. 1 in the NBA. A lot of people would be like Kawhi Leonard or Draymond [Green]. No, James Johnson is No. 1."
We did look it up.
Johnson is allowing opponents to score just 0.4 points per possession in isolation, which leaves him in the 98.6 percentile throughout the league. But among the 220 players who have faced at least 30 relevant possessions, no one ranks higher.
No. 2 Power Forward: Thaddeus Young, Indiana Pacers (90 Defense Score)
Defensive Real Plus/Minus: 2.25 (No. 26)
Defensive Points Saved: 65.66 (No. 34)
Field-Goal Percentage Differential: minus-5.3 (No. 14)
On/Off Differential: minus-6.3 (No. 16)
If you're a stretch 4, stop trying to score against Thaddeus Young.
Seriously. Just stop it.
The 6'8" power forward can occasionally be overpowered around the basket and doesn't do much to keep players from scoring at the hoop. According to NBA.com's SportVU data, he's facing only 4.4 shots there per 36 minutes and allowing opponents to convert at a 59.6 percent clip.
But the Indiana Pacers can live with that, and not just because they have Myles Turner to clean up any messes. Young is that good darting out to the perimeter in the modern NBA, adding a skill that can't be replicated by Turner, Lavoy Allen or any of the team's other bigs.
Though he still allows 0.99 points per possession to spot-up shooters (53.3 percentile), it's his ability to deter shooting attempts and force foes into schematic shifts that makes him so valuable. Whereas they'd want to space the floor with skilled bigs against other lineup configurations, they frequently need to play to their weaknesses rather than their strengths when he's running shooters off the arc.
No. 1 Power Forward: Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors (35 Defense Score)
Defensive Real Plus/Minus: 5.01 (No. 2)
Defensive Points Saved: 224.43 (No. 1)
Field-Goal Percentage Differential: minus-5.5 (No. 10)
On/Off Differential: minus-5.8 (No. 22)
This couldn't be any more obvious.
Even though Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant are the Golden State Warriors' offensive leaders, Draymond Green is every bit as important. He sets the defensive tone, propelling them near the top of the point-preventing hierarchy with his versatility, rim protection and ability to lock down virtually any assignment.
Maybe you think Green should be the Defensive Player of the Year favorite. Maybe you think he should be the No. 2 candidate, trailing only our top-ranked center.
Either way, you have to respect the work this former second-round pick has done on the less glamorous end. And it's not even due solely to the insanity of his defensive numbers—despite Green's 6'7" frame, he's still holding opponents to 43.7 percent shooting at the rim while facing seven shots per game.
His attitude means everything. Though he might rub some the wrong way, he gives the Dubs an edge they wouldn't otherwise possess by refusing to fear (or, in some cases, even respect) the opposition. No matter who he's guarding, he operates under the assumption that he's going to shut them down.
And more often than not, he does.
No. 5 Center: Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers (130 Defense Score)
Defensive Real Plus/Minus: 2.14 (No. 33)
Defensive Points Saved: 103.92 (No. 10)
Field-Goal Percentage Differential: minus-3.8 (No. 32)
On/Off Differential: minus-3.7 (No. 55)
Myles Turner's defensive growth has been staggering, allowing him to outpace the many stopping studs relegated to honorable mentions or left out entirely. Just take a gander at how much better his numbers look than they did during his rookie season out of Texas:
|DRPM||DPS||FG% Differential||On/Off Differential|
|2015-16||0.25||38.51||2.4 better||0.6 worse|
|2016-17||2.14||103.92||3.8 better||3.7 better|
The sophomore has been far more disciplined during his second season with the Indiana Paces, no longer electing to recklessly pursue blocks at the expense of proper interior positioning. He understands how to handle the nuances of pick-and-roll sets and can deal with the tricks used by veterans on the perimeter.
His thievery is also evidence of his overwhelming growth.
It's not luck that Turner is averaging an extra 0.4 steals per 36 minutes in 2016-17; he understands how to read passing lanes and can anticipate the action, allowing him to insert himself in plays that would've otherwise baffled him one year prior.
Honorable Mentions: Aron Baynes, Dwight Howard, DeAndre Jordan, Lucas Nogueira, Nikola Vucevic
No. 4 Center: Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers (97 Defense Score)
Defensive Real Plus/Minus: 2.08 (No. 37)
Defensive Points Saved: 51.67 (No. 53)
Field-Goal Percentage Differential: minus-6.6 (No. 3)
On/Off Differential: minus-9.6 (No. 4)
Joel Embiid isn't fair.
The fact he ranks so prominently during his rookie season—yes, that first campaign was delayed a few years by injuries, allowing him to gain experience watching from afar—is nothing short of stunning, and it's a major part of the reason the Philadelphia 76ers have to be so excited about their future. Had he been able to stay healthy and gradually expand his time on the court, he may even have factored into the Defensive Player of the Year race.
Embiid doesn't have the volume necessary to rise up the ranks in NBA Math's DPS or make the same overall impact as the league's other rim-protecting studs. He does, however, have some incredible per-minute scores.
The big man still needs to improve on the perimeter, where he can foul excessively against smaller players. Averaging 5.1 whistles per 36 minutes is less than ideal, and it's part of the reason he couldn't get more run, even while working on a minutes restriction.
However, challenging him on the interior is already foolish. Not a single one of the 57 players facing at least five attempts per game at the hoop was stingier than Embiid, who held his opponents to a meager 41.0 field-goal percentage. That number is even more mind-numbing when you realize he was squaring off against a staggering 10.9 shots per 36 minutes.
No. 3 Center: Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans (54 Defense Score)
Defensive Real Plus/Minus: 3.27 (No. 11)
Defensive Points Saved: 112.96 (No. 8)
Field-Goal Percentage Differential: minus-6.0 (No. 6)
On/Off Differential: minus-5.3 (No. 29)
Anthony Davis' defense may have been overrated in the past.
He didn't protect the rim adeptly, despite his block totals. And while he was able to flit around the court and insert himself in plenty of plays, his team wasn't a dominant defensive unit capable of stifling even the NBA's middling offenses.
That's no longer true.
"Davis isn't the type of shot-blocker who tries to go after every attempt, partly because bigs who do that often leave themselves out of position to rebound or stay in the play defensively. Many of his swats are the result of him coming from the weakside to snuff out a shot by a man he isn't assigned to guard," Jim Eichenhofer wrote for NBA.com in January. And Davis concurs.
"I'm doing it within the team defense," he explained. "We're big on helping each other, if someone gets beat off the dribble. I'm kind of that low man trying to get a block. It's about taking pride on defense, guarding one-on-one. Any time I feel like I can go get a shot, I try to. I just try to go get whoever's at the rim."
Even last year, the New Orleans Pelicans gave up 107.3 points per 100 possession when Davis played, which was actually worse than the 107.2 defensive rating without him. This year, his presence pushes the mark down to 102.7, and the team is worse than ever when he isn't playing.
No. 2 Center: Dewayne Dedmon, San Antonio Spurs (49 Defense Score)
Defensive Real Plus/Minus: 4.36 (No. 3)
Defensive Points Saved: 69.35 (No. 32)
Field-Goal Percentage Differential: minus-6.6 (No. 3)
On/Off Differential: minus-6.8 (No. 11)
This isn't a typo.
Dewayne Dedmon has grown that much under head coach Gregg Popovich's supervision, blossoming into a sterling interior defender who can anchor the San Antonio Spurs' schemes, regardless of whether he's operating in conjunction with Kawhi Leonard or anchoring the second unit.
"Rim protection is Dedmon's bread and butter, like basically every other San Antonio big ever. Opponents are shooting 45.1 percent against him at the iron—the sixth-best mark among the 94 players who've defended 200 or more point-blank looks..." Dan Favale wrote for NBA Math in early March.
"And yet, this doesn't do Dedmon's interior presence justice. He's not just a protector; he's an actual deterrent. Ball-handlers pull up for more long twos when he's on the floor, and offenses in general don't get to the bucket as readily—an effect none of the other Spurs' bigs share."
In fact, if you're looking for the primary reason Leonard doesn't get his due credit in these entirely objective rankings, Dedmon may be to blame.
His ability to keep opponents away from the basket has remained present irrespective to the lineups he's used in. As such, he's strengthening the second unit—with which he's played even when opening games in the starting five—by disproportionate amounts, since it doesn't have a Leonard replacement to prevent dribble penetration.
He's become a legitimate stopper—one who's going to get Paid (yes, with a capital "p") this summer in free agency.
No. 1 Center: Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz (21 Defense Score)
Defensive Real Plus/Minus: 5.71 (No. 1)
Defensive Points Saved: 205.53 (No. 3)
Field-Goal Percentage Differential: minus-5.5 (No. 10)
On/Off Differential: minus-8.1 (No. 7)
There shouldn't have been any doubt here.
Rudy Gobert is the only player to place within the top 10 in all four of our categories—Draymond Green missed out in on/off differential—and it's impossible to call the Utah Jazz stopper's field-goal percentage differential a fluke. Most of his contests come around the rim, where he's making an impact unlike anything we've seen in recent seasons.
Throughout the NBA, no one comes close to matching his value in those tight spaces. Not only does he contest 0.6 more shots per game than anyone else, but he does so while ranking second in percentage allowed among the 57 facing five or more per contest.
Oh, and this is all happening in spite of the widespread belief that you shouldn't challenge Gobert at the rim. For all the shots he forces to clang off the rim or make contact with the palm of his oversized hand, there are more that never happen because of his mere presence. That's why he's become Utah's MVP, even as Gordon Hayward made the All-Star squad and is enjoying the best go-round of his career.
Gobert isn't necessarily a lock for Defensive Player of the Year, as Green's versatility and defensive intangibles have been invaluable to a Golden State Warriors squad experiencing even more success. But in terms of sheer statistical impact? He's first with plenty of room to spare.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.