Spotlighting the NBA's Best Defenders
Cover stories, MVP buzz and internet stans are generally a product of a flashy skill set and gaudy offensive numbers. There's a reason for the "defense wins championships" cliche, though.
Even in this era of pace, space and three-point shootouts, the average defensive rank of the last 10 title-winning teams is between fifth and sixth. And Defensive Player of the Year contenders (like Anthony Davis, Draymond Green, Kawhi Leonard and Tim Duncan, to name a few) were fixtures on several of those teams.
Championships don't require a first-team All-Defensive performer, but having one sure doesn't hurt.
Here, we're looking for the defenders who do the most to tilt their teams toward wins (and possibly titles). That's not easy, though. Stats do a great job of measuring offense, but they still struggle to capture everything on the other end.
For example, how do you account for the number of times a driver sees Rudy Gobert in the lane before abruptly U-turning back to the perimeter? How do you quantify teams simply not passing the ball to the player blanketed by Kawhi Leonard? Should we count the number of words the best communicators shout on defense?
The short answer is that a lot of those things simply aren't captured by the numbers. To effectively analyze NBA defense, you have to watch it. A lot. And you have to watch the defenders instead of the ball, which takes a bit of deprogramming.
That doesn't mean numbers are entirely useless in this endeavor. In fact, you'll see a handful below that can be solid guides. Just remember, they are closer to that than the end-all, be-all.
With analysis of NBA defense being such an inexact science, it's difficult (probably impossible) to narrow any list down to an objective top five, 10 or whatever number you choose. That means plenty of defenders worthy of a few paragraphs get left out. A few of those can be found below (and you surely have more in mind).
Bam Adebayo isn't just a solid rim protector who can anchor a defense from the paint. He also has the athleticism to hang with guards and wings when switched onto the perimeter. For his career, he's averaged 1.2 steals and 1.3 blocks per 75 possessions.
Last year's fourth-place finisher in Defensive Player of the Year voting, Ben Simmons' calling card on this end of the floor is versatility. He's 6'10" and has the lateral quickness of a guard, which makes him one of the most switchable players in the league.
The only argument against including Simmons on this slide might be the amount of time he's spent playing alongside Joel Embiid. It's tough to pull apart who's most responsible for the Philadelphia 76ers' defensive successes, but on-off data can help.
During their time together, the Sixers have allowed 111.1 points per 100 possessions with Simmons on the floor and Embiid off, compared to 105.4 with Embiid on the floor and Simmons off.
He's not quite the perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate he once was, but Draymond still moves the needle for the Golden State Warriors. He's still more trustworthy than most 4s on a switch, and Golden State has allowed 3.1 fewer points per 100 possessions when he's been on the floor in the post-Kevin Durant era.
Here we have yet another Sixer. Matisse Thybulle gets an honorable mention largely because of his absurd counting stats. It's only his second season, but no one in league history matches his averages for steals (2.8) and blocks (1.4) per 75 possessions.
And these aren't just empty-calorie stats. Philadelphia's defense is comfortably better when he plays.
Rudy Gobert understandably gets most of the credit for the Utah Jazz having the league's best defense over the last five seasons, but Royce O'Neale certainly deserves a shoutout.
Often tasked with defending the opposition's primary guard or wing scorer, O'Neale is one of the game's best at staying in front of difficult assignments.
One of the ultimate "does all the little things" players in the NBA, Marcus Smart is tied for third in the NBA in steals per 75 possessions over the course of his career. And like O'Neale, he's typically tasked with defending the opposition's biggest perimeter threat.
This is only De'Anthony Melton's third NBA season, but he's already proved to be a game-changing perimeter defender. During his season and change with the Memphis Grizzlies, his team has allowed 5.1 fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. And he's one of the game's very best at collecting steals.
2020-21 Defensive RAPTOR Rating: 3.0
2020-21 Defensive Field-Goal Percentage: 44.5 (compared to 47.8 expected)
Defensive Box Plus/Minus since 2018-19: 2.4
Career Net Rating Swing: Plus-5.0
The Los Angeles Lakers have been a great defensive team during this era led by LeBron James and Anthony Davis. With those two, JaVale McGee, Dwight Howard, Marc Gasol and a number of feisty wing defenders, they've brought a level of toughness to that end few teams can match.
Pinpointing the best individual defender of that bunch isn't hard, though. AD, who finished second in DPOY voting last season, has career marks of 8.4 defensive rebounds, 2.6 blocks and 1.5 steals per 75 possessions, averages matched only by David Robinson and Ben Wallace.
Beyond the basic numbers, Davis has the size and vertical athleticism necessary to be a traditional defensive foundation (i.e., a big man who serves as the last line and protects the paint). He's also quick enough to hold his own in short spurs on the perimeter and still play the 4 as that position looks more and more like the 2s and 3s of old.
That versatility gives the Lakers options. With Davis at the 5, they can play a more spread, modern game without necessarily sacrificing their defensive identity. Last season, the 106.7 points per 100 possessions they allowed in those situations ranked in the 84th percentile. When he's at the 4, where he starts, L.A. can play a bruising, more old-school defense while creating a mismatch on the other end.
2020-21 Defensive RAPTOR Rating: 7.8
2020-21 Defensive Field-Goal Percentage: 38.6 (compared to 47.6 expected)
Defensive Box Plus/Minus since 2018-19: 1.9
Career Net Rating Swing: Plus-1.3
This past offseason, the Boston Celtics had a chance to land Myles Turner as part of a sign-and-trade that would've sent Gordon Hayward to the Indiana Pacers.
"Talking to people and reading the tea leaves as best I could, it really comes down to the Celtics didn't want Myles Turner," ESPN's Zach Lowe said on The Lowe Post in November. "I did hear from some teams around the league that the Celtics have done some preliminary research on what Myles Turner's trade value would have been to them had they acquired him either in this deal or in a separate deal, and obviously didn't like what they saw."
Now, it appears Turner may be on a mission to prove his value to both the team that reportedly shopped him and the one that didn't want him.
Turner is posting career highs in defensive box plus/minus, steal percentage and block percentage. If his mark in that final category stays above 10, he'll become the third player in league history to qualify for the minutes leaderboard and exceed that threshold (Nerlens Noel could be fourth, as he's on pace too).
His 3.9 blocks per game is the highest average in that category since Alonzo Mourning's 3.9 in 1998-99.
And it's not like Turner is chasing these blocks at the expense of defensive rotations or the team's success. On the contrary, Indiana is allowing 9.7 fewer points per 100 possessions when Turner plays, a swing that ranks in the 90th percentile.
There's plenty of time for some of these numbers to come down to earth (or closer to his still strong career norms), but Turner looks like a front-runner for DPOY right now.
2020-21 Defensive RAPTOR Rating: 3.2
2020-21 Defensive Field-Goal Percentage: 46.8 (compared to 45.6 expected)
Defensive Box Plus/Minus since 2018-19: 1.6
Career Net Rating Swing: Plus-5.8
Like Draymond, Kawhi doesn't appear quite as engaged defensively as he was four or five years ago. Age, his responsibility on offense and the desire to leave a little in the tank for the postseason all contribute to that.
Still, if you needed one stop in a one-on-one, high-leverage possession, it'd be hard to pick anyone over Leonard.
Off the ball, he's almost never caught napping. He's like an elite shutdown corner in those situations. Teams sometimes don't even try to get the ball to his assignment. On the ball, he seems to know exactly when to reach in for a steal. The slightest vulnerability can be exposed in an instant.
At the moment, Kawhi's combination of defensive awareness and physical tools aren't always fully leveraged. The Los Angeles Clippers have the luxury of throwing Patrick Beverley or Paul George (both of whom probably could've made the honorable mentions slide) at tough perimeter threats. There will be times in the playoffs when Kawhi activates full Terminator mode, though. And they'll serve as reminders of what a force he is.
2020-21 Defensive RAPTOR Rating: 7.3
2020-21 Defensive Field-Goal Percentage: 41.6 (compared to 48.3 expected)
Defensive Box Plus/Minus since 2018-19: 2.1
Career Net Rating Swing: Plus-7.5
Gobert is to Defensive Player of the Year as LeBron is to MVP.
Sure, voter fatigue and stellar individual seasons from others may prevent LeBron from winning the league's highest individual honor every season, but there's almost an unspoken understanding that he's continually been the NBA's best player for well over a decade.
Gobert can't match that longevity yet, but he has to be a fixture of any conversation regarding the game's best defensive players.
He's been a rotation player for the Utah Jazz since 2014-15. Over that stretch, Utah has the best defense in the NBA. Gobert, individually, leads the league in blocks and is third in defensive rebounds. When he's on the floor, the Jazz have allowed 4.7 fewer points per 100 possessions.
And that only begins to tell the story of Gobert's dominance on that end.
The Jazz have built their entire defensive scheme around Gobert. His presence in the paint allows perimeter defenders to play more aggressively. Their drop coverage in pick-and-roll sets makes it difficult to pile up points inside.
Sure, detractors on Twitter can cherry-pick moments when Gobert is beaten by a guard or wing from the perimeter, but those individual possessions mean almost nothing when compared to the big man's overall impact.
2020-21 Defensive RAPTOR Rating: 0.6
2020-21 Defensive Field-Goal Percentage: 44.4 (compared to 46.6 expected)
Defensive Box Plus/Minus since 2018-19: 3.7
Career Net Rating Swing: Plus-6.0
Reigning Defensive Player of the Year Giannis Antetokounmpo isn't the rim protector Gobert is, nor is he the lockdown perimeter defender Kawhi is. However, his ability to do a little bit of everything on that end of the floor has made him one of the game's most impactful players.
Often operating as something like a free safety for the Milwaukee Bucks, Giannis can wreak havoc in passing lanes and as a help defender. And even when he's overzealous or deviates from the scheme, it's usually not past the point of recovery. That's one of the perks of a 7'3" wingspan and guard-like explosiveness.
With those ridiculous tools, Milwaukee may need to be more willing to deviate from that general role for Giannis. In the postseason, Mike Budenholzer has been hesitant to throw him at difficult individual matchups the way Kawhi or Draymond have been used in the past.
Finally breaking through and getting to the Finals may require it, though. In the East, Milwaukee could face Jayson Tatum, Joel Embiid, any of the Brooklyn Nets offensive superstars or Jimmy Butler, just to name a few. Giannis might be the Bucks' best shot at slowing them down.