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How NBA's Most Dominant Defenders Really Make a Difference

Mo DakhilFeatured Columnist IJanuary 21, 2022

Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green (23) reacts toward the Miami Heat bench after shooting a 3-point basket during the second half of an NBA basketball game in San Francisco, Monday, Jan. 3, 2022. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

Thanks to the NBA’s new points of emphasis, defenders have been able ply their trade at a much higher level in 2021-22. It is significantly harder for offensive players to draw fouls, so defenders can be more physical. 

Last season the Washington Wizards led the league in free-throw attempts at 26.2 per game, but this season, the league-leading Houston Rockets have hoisted just 24.7 free throws each night. This makes having solid defensive players even more valuable. 

Not all defenders are built the same, but each type can be effective. There are your traditional shot-blockers, good positional defenders, the ones who can guard multiple positions and some who can disrupt on the perimeter. One thing they have in common is high defensive IQs that allow them to make plays.

Below are those defenders broken down into different categories and in no particular order among the tiers. 

         

The Do-Everything Big Men

The big men in this category are capable of anything defensively. They can switch onto guards with ease. They can seemingly defend several guys at once with their timely rotations. Their presence on the court will always be a concern for opposing offenses. 

Draymond Green

This conversation can't be held without mentioning Draymond Green

The 2016-17 Defensive Player of the Year quarterbacks the NBA's best defense, as the Golden State Warriors lead the league in defensive rating at 102.3. There isn’t anyone in the league capable of diagnosing a problem and prescribing a solution faster than Green. 

Take this play. After a miss on the offensive end, the Portland Trail Blazers are pushing the ball in transition. Green loads up on CJ McCollum and discourages the drive when McCollum rejects the screen. 

After McCollum kicks it to Larry Nance Jr., Green closes out hard and then stays with him step for step to get the block at the rim. To go even further, Green saves the ball from going out of bounds, making sure the Warriors get a new possession. 

Green has to be the early DPOY front-runner. Teams often try to find ways of running their sets to keep him out of their actions. Despite all of that, Green still finds his way into the play. 

         

Giannis Antetokounmpo

The Milwaukee Bucks have suffered several injuries, so the team’s defensive numbers are not great. But Giannis Antetokounmpo still brings the defense to another level. With him on the court, the Bucks’ defensive rating is 103.4, and with him off, it rockets up to 109.0. 

Antetokounmpo’s length and speed make him a defensive menace. 

His prowess was displayed during the NBA Finals, including on the denial of Deandre Ayton off a lob late in Game 4—a play he nearly recreated on Christmas Day against the Celtics. Antetokounmpo rotated over to Jayson Tatum on a drive and then recovered in time to reject Robert Williams III at the rim.

His nickname is the Greek Freak for a reason, and Antetokounmpo is beginning to make these types of plays look routine. He is just never out of the play with his motor, skill and size. Even if he gets burned on the perimeter, Antetokounmpo’s long strides allow him to make up ground and get back in time to make a play. 

         

The Cleanup Men

Several big men anchor defenses. They are the cleanup men. When a guard gives up dribble penetration or there is a defensive breakdown, these big men are called into action to clean up those mistakes. 

 

Rudy Gobert

No one comes to mind before the pillar of the Utah Jazz defense, Rudy Gobert. The three-time DPOY is just a dominant force on that end. 

This season the Jazz give up 51.4 drives per game, which is the fifth-highest in the league. The team’s philosophy is to funnel the ball toward its elite shot-blocker. Gobert is third in blocks per game (2.3), and the Jazz have a defensive rating of 102.9 when he is on the court. That is 5.8 points better than Utah's defensive rating for the year. 

Here's a small example of Gobert’s work in paint as a cleanup guy. Keita Bates-Diop gets a step on Bojan Bogdanovic as he drives baseline. That triggers Gobert, who had an eye on the ball, to react. He comes off his man on the opposite elbow and meets Bates-Diop at the rim to send the shot away. 

            

Nikola Jokic

A few years ago, it would have been ludicrous to include Nikola Jokic on a list of best defensive players. But that’s changed over the last few seasons, as he has made massive strides on that end. 

Not all cleanup men are shot-blockers. There is space in this category for the ones who are great positional defenders, such as Jokic. He is consistently in the right position and often forces opponents to have to shoot over his outstretched hand. The reigning MVP is tied for fourth in contested shots per game at 12.2

The Denver Nuggets’ on/off defensive-rating splits for Jokic are obscene. With him on the court, the team has a 103.7 defensive rating—a number that jumps to 113.1 when he’s off the court. 

Jokic has specifically done a much better job of defending the pick-and-roll. According to Synergy Sports, he's spent the fifth-most possessions defending the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll. He gives up just 0.771 points per possession, which is the third-lowest among that crowd. 

Despite not being an elite shot-blocker, he does come up with timely blocked shots, such as this game-saver on Jonathan Kuminga in the Nuggets’ Dec. 28 win over the Warriors. 

             

The Defensive Playmakers

A defensive playmaker is the opposite of an offensive one and can often disrupt their opponent’s flow. It's someone who can win their one-on-one matchup and/or rotate from the weak side to blow up plays. Just as it takes a high-IQ player to be an offensive playmaker, the same holds true for a defensive playmaker. 

This does not necessarily mean they are the best defensive player on the team. It just means they have a tendency to disrupt for a variety of reasons. 

 

Alex Caruso

For years, fans across the NBA couldn’t believe the hype Alex Caruso was getting from Lakers supporters. They have a history of overhyping their role players, after all. But Caruso was not one of those guys. He was a key part of L.A.’s defense, and now the Bulls are experiencing firsthand the impact he can have. 

Chicago came out of the gates this season with a top-five defense. It faltered recently as the Bulls dealt with COVID issues (and Caruso himself is out because of health-and-safety protocols). The drop-off, however, didn't occur when Caruso was on the floor. With him on the court, the Bulls have a defensive rating of 103.0, and that number spikes to 112.0 when he steps off. 

He is second in the league in steals per game at 2.0, and Chicago has the best points per possessions after forcing a turnover, according to Inpredictable.com. Getting stops triggers the Bulls offense. 

Here is a good example of the disruption Caruso can cause. First, he beats Denver's Monte Morris over the initial screen and denies him coming off the dribble handoff. Caruso even jumped to Aaron Gordon for a second before going back to Morris. Then, when Morris got the ball back with a short shot clock, Caruso shut down the baseline drive, poked the ball away and blocked Morris’ shot as the buzzer sounded. 

The Bulls have been using Caruso to come off the bench and disrupt an opponent’s offense. Against the Knicks, they threw him on Julius Randle, and he held his own. 

Caruso is an underrated defensive playmaker for the Bulls, and it gets even better when he's paired with Lonzo Ball. When the duo is on the floor at the same time, Chicago has a defensive rating of 102.2.

          

Marcus Smart

One of the consistent pieces to the Boston Celtics defense over the years has been Marcus Smart, and he’s become the team’s most dependable defensive playmaker. This season he is just 0.1 steals per game behind second place and often gives up his body by either diving on the floor or taking a charge. 

Smart is always ready to make a heady play. Down two against the Orlando Magic, he sneaked up on Franz Wagner from the weak side for the strip and got the ball out to Jaylen Brown for the Celtics to tie the game. They eventually got the win in overtime. 

Smart can change the tenor of a game with his defense. He can absolutely disrupt offenses and create opportunities for the Celtics to score. 

           

Mikal Bridges

Mikal Bridges showed why he belongs on this list with this defensive performance against Stephen Curry in the Phoenix Suns’ first game against the Warriors this season. 

Bridges was the primary defender on Curry, who shot 4-of-21 from the field and 3-of-14 from three. But it was more than just what Bridges did when Curry had the ball—it was how he kept the two-time MVP away from it. 

In the video below, Bridges does a good job of avoiding the screen and meeting Curry on the other side of it. He gets his hand in the passing lane as the pass is made, knocking the ball into the backcourt, which he scoops up for the transition dunk. 

For the Suns, Bridges often has to take on the toughest perimeter assignment. He has become a top young three-and-D specialist, and he’s likely to make an All-Defensive team this season, which will be his first of what should be many appearances. 

             

Matisse Thybulle

When he entered the league in 2019, Matisse Thybulle was expected to defend. He has lived up to that reputation for the Philadelphia 76ers. 

The 24-year-old is all over the place and makes multiple efforts on every defensive possession. He is tied for third in deflections and posts 1.8 steals and 1.1 blocks per night.

Thybulle’s defensive motor is just different. In the Sixers’ Dec. 16 win over the Brooklyn Nets, he flashed it in crunch time. 

First, he shows it on the James Harden-Kevin Durant pick-and-roll by deflecting the pass to Durant before contesting and quite possibly getting a piece of the three-point attempt. That was a huge play in a critical moment. 

Philly head coach Doc Rivers never has to hesitate in putting Thybulle on some of the elite scorers in the NBA. Thybulle put on a defensive show against Curry in another Sixers win earlier in the season. He is just a defensive playmaker through and through. 

           

Mo Dakhil spent six years with the Los Angeles Clippers and two years with the San Antonio Spurs as a video coordinator, as well as three years with the Australian men's national team. Follow him on Twitter, @MoDakhil_NBA

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