Exposing the NBA's Worst Defender at Every Position
Even in today's three-point-bombing, rim-rocking NBA, elite defense still gets played on a nightly basis.
Just don't expect to see that from the following five players, who have been objectively identified as the 2019-20 season's worst defenders at their respective positions.
Because defense can be so hard to evaluate—even if advanced metrics are still getting a grasp on it—we wanted to remove our own opinions and biases from the equation. We're trusting that numbers never lie, or at least hoping that a combination of some of the best statistics available can fill in the spots on our No-Defense Starting Five.
To keep this objective, we're leaning on three specific metrics: Basketball Reference's defensive box plus/minus (DBPM), ESPN's defensive real plus/minus (DRPM) and Basketball Index's defensive player impact plus-minus (D-PIPM). Specifically, we took each position's 30 worst-ranked players in DRPM (minimum 500 minutes), ranked those players by the other metrics and averaged all three for a composite score.
We're calling this—drum roll, please—defensive score, and the lower the number, the worse the defender.
Sounds simple enough, right? Great, let's start exposing, then.
Point Guard: Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks
Statistics: Minus-2.7 DBPM, Minus-4.66 DRPM, Minus-3.73 D-PIPM
Defensive Score: 3.0
Trae Young is the Association's most fascinating cornerstone. The way real plus-minus sees it, he's both this season's best offensive player and worst defender—not just at this position, but overall. Neither category is particularly close, too.
Offensively, he's a perfect mixture of creativity, handles, vision and limitless range. But at the other end, he's a nightmarish blend of no size (6'1", 180 lbs), no length (6'3" wingspan), limited explosiveness and wavering off-ball focus.
"Defense is obviously an area I want to continue to get better at," Young told USA Today's Scott Gleeson. "But that's all about an effort thing. Getting in better conditioning, better shape."
That would help, as would sharpening his instincts to make the kind of rapid reads that have helped similar scoring guards like Stephen Curry and Isaiah Thomas survive basketball's less glamorous end before. But an astronomic amount of work is needed.
Atlanta's overall defense is dreadful (28th in efficiency), but it's at its worst with Young. The difference playing with him and without is a team-worst swing of 9.7 points per 100 possessions in the wrong direction. He also allows opponents to shoot better against him than they do on average at every level, including huge spikes inside of 10 (8.5 percentage points) and six (13.3) feet.
Dishonorable Mentions: Collin Sexton (3.3), Frank Jackson (3.7), D'Angelo Russell (3.7), Derrick Rose (7.7), Damian Lillard (8.7)
Shooting Guard: Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards
Statistics: Minus-3.0 DBPM, Minus-3.69 DRPM, Minus-3.48 D-PIPM
Defensive Score: 2.0
The bad news for Bradley Beal: He's normally a better defender than these numbers show, but they rank as the position's worst all the same.
The good news for Beal: At least he'll recognize a few faces on our no-defense team, which might as well be rebranded as the Washington Wizards and Friends.
It's been all awful, all the time for the John Wall-less Wiz, who have a better defensive rating than only one team in NBA history. Considering Beal has been saddled with a usage percentage more than five points above his previous career high (33.5, was 28.4), he probably doesn't have the legs to help stop the bleeding.
But understanding why someone is struggling isn't the same as excusing it.
Washington's defense is 10.9 points better per 100 possessions when he's not in the game. Among the 251 players to defend at least 20 isolations, Beal has allowed the eighth-highest scoring rate (1.36 points per possession, 5th percentile). Players boost their two-point percentage by 8.2 points when he defends them.
"It has been a rough season and a half for him on that end," ESPN's Zach Lowe wrote. "... The Wizards have been staggeringly worse with Beal on the floor. There is a ton of noise in those numbers, but they are so dramatic, you can't totally ignore them."
Dishonorable Mentions: Eric Gordon (3.7), Anfernee Simons (3.7), JJ Redick (4.0), Buddy Hield (8.3), Nickeil Alexander-Walker (10.0)
Small Forward: Justin Jackson, Dallas Mavericks
Statistics: Minus-2.4 DBPM, Minus-2.06 DRPM, Minus-1.94 D-PIPM
Defensive Score: 1.7
Surprised to see Justin Jackson here? So is the field-goal differential metric, which notes that opponents shoot 0.4 percent worse against him than they do normally.
But our chosen categories are nearly in unanimous agreement that he's fared the worst at the position. He brings up the caboose in both DBPM and D-PIPM, and DRPM only places him two spots up from the bottom. That gives him the worst average ranking of any player on our list—including all the Wizards!
While he has a decent size-length combo (6'7" with a 6'11" wingspan), he has trouble matching both strength and explosiveness. And despite having some reach, he's just not disruptive. Of the 314 players to log 500 minutes this season, he's one of five to have no more than nine steals and six blocks. He hasn't drawn a charge all season, and his 24 deflections are tied for 18th-fewest (minimum 500 minutes).
Being a non-factor on the glass isn't helping, either. His career 7.1 rebounding percentage ranks 145th out of the 154 players 6'7" or taller to log 2,000-plus minutes since he entered the league.
Jackson received double-digit minutes during his first four games this season. His playing time has fluctuated ever since, and he doesn't make it off the bench some nights. His problems go beyond defense, but it will be tough to solidify a rotation role without major improvement on that end.
Dishonorable Mentions: Kevin Knox (6.7), Glenn Robinson III (7.3), Miles Bridges (8.7), James Ennis III (9.0), Andrew Wiggins (9.0)
Power Forward: Rui Hachimura, Washington Wizards
Statistics: Minus-2.3 DBPM, Minus-2.30 DRPM, Minus-2.05 D-PIPM
Defensive Score: 2.0
This was the only position at which two players posted a defensive score south of three. But Rui Hachimura edged fellow freshman Eric Paschall for this dubious distinction thanks to Washington's dumpster-fire defense and Hachimura's own role in those struggles.
He looks like he should be a stopper. He packs 230 pounds of strength, quickness and athleticism onto his 6'8" frame, and his 7'2" wingspan allows him to play even bigger. But the predraft scouting report from B/R's Jonathan Wasserman raised red flags with these cautionary four words: "Pro comparison: Jabari Parker."
That's "they don't pay players to play defense" Jabari Parker, in case you'd forgotten.
In other words, defensive challenges were expected with Hachimura. He's neither a shot-blocker (five blocks in 30 games) nor a ballhawk (22 steals), and he isn't the rebounder his physical tools say he should be (5.5 defensive rebounds per 36 minutes). He sometimes sees the game and reacts to it at dial-up speeds.
Granted, some of this could be different had he landed outside the District. Nothing drags down defensive metrics faster than major minutes with this Washington team. But he was expected to struggle on defense, and statistically speaking, he's done that more than any other power forward.
Dishonorable Mentions: Eric Paschall (2.3), Danilo Gallinari (7.3), Kyle Kuzma (7.3), Davis Bertans (7.7), Kevin Love (7.7)
Center: Thomas Bryant, Washington Wizards
Notable Numbers (Ranking): Minus-0.2 DBPM, Minus-2.66 DRPM, Minus-1.35 D-PIPM
Defensive Score: 3.0
Expected to see Karl-Anthony Towns here? DRPM and D-PIPM were right there with you, placing the scoring 7-footer at the bottom of their center rankings. But he was saved by a 16th-place finish in DBPM (due in no small part to his work on the defensive glass). Instead, Thomas Bryant makes it a Washington trio in our no-defense starting five.
Like Hachimura, Bryant looks like he should be a positive presence on the point-prevention side. He has size (6'10", 248 lbs), length (7'6" wingspan) and some bounce (33" max vertical), and sometimes he'll put all three together for a massive rejection. But his presence as a rim protector, rebounder and interior anchor is seldom felt.
"Bryant has struggled to guard the rim, stymieing pick-and-rolls, playing help defense and boxing out opponents to make rebounding easier for his teammates," The Athletic's Fred Katz wrote in October. "The coaching staff is constantly working with him on his boarding. His flaws ... are the types that can bog down a true center's market value."
Bryant is tied for 74th in blocks per 36 minutes and tied for 68th in boards per 36 minutes. Among high-volume defenders, he allows the eighth-highest conversion rate within three feet (61.1 percent). Only Beal does more damage to the Wizards' defensive rating differential (8.4 points better per 100 possessions without Bryant).
Dishonorable Mentions: Damian Jones (5.3), Cody Zeller (5.3), Karl-Anthony Towns (6.0), Frank Kaminsky (6.7), Moritz Wagner (6.7)
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.