0 out of 5
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Even in the information age of the NBA, when everyone has access to detailed numbers that even home offices weren’t aware of ten years ago, accurately measuring the defensive impact remains an undefeated frontier.
In its explicator for box plus / minus (“a measure based on the score of a basketball box that estimates a basketball player’s contribution to the team when that player is on the court”), Basketball reference recognizes some of the limitations of defensive catch-all numbers.
“Critical components of defense such as positioning, communication and the other factors that make Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan an elite defensive player unfortunately cannot be captured.… Box Plus / Minus is good at measuring offense and strong overall, but defensive numbers in particular should not be taken as final. Look at defensive values as a guide, but feel free to rule them out when a player is well known as a good or bad defender.
For this exercise, we will be deploying three of these guides (Defensive Box Plus / Minus, Dunks & Threes’ defensive estimated plus-minus and 538 RAPTOR defensive rating) and defensive odds (the number of points a team awarded per 100 possessions when a given player is on the field) to give us an idea of who was the biggest handicap in this regard at the start of 2021-2022 .
When you sort each player with more than 100 minutes by the average of their ranks in those four issues you get the next five first: Gary Payton II, Isaiah Hartenstein, Andre Iguodala, Nikola Jokic, and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Maybe there’s Hartenstein raising his eyebrows. And while his numbers may come back to earth a bit over the course of the season, the Los Angeles Clippers are allowing a huge 12.8 less points per 100 possessions when playing. Other than that, the top five pass the sniffle test (despite misconceptions about Jokic).
Of course, this is not a perfect exercise. Every number has its flaws, and the defensive odds largely depend on who the player is sharing the floor with. But these guides, along with the video and a handful of other numbers, at the very least, point us in the right direction.
And unlike the aforementioned top five, you’ll find the bottom of the list below.
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For years, Tristan Thompson was known as a strong defender who could dominate glass, block a few shots and generally be in the right places at that end of the pitch.
Contrary to that reputation, however, Thompson’s teams allowed more points per 100 possessions when he was on the ground in eight of its 11 seasons. And the bottom appears to have fallen from that number in 2021-2022.
This season, the Sacramento Kings allow 120.5 points per 100 possessions (a rating that ranks in the third percentile) when Thompson plays, compared to 110.1 when he doesn’t.
While there are other contributors to this brand, as a center, Thompson is ostensibly the anchor for the units he is in. And it offers little resistance inside.
When defended by Thompson, opponents are shooting 55.4 percent from the field, against an expected field goal percentage of 47.9.
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Michael Wyke / Associated press
Very few can master the speed and size of players, let alone the complexity of defensive schemes, in their first NBA season. Evan Mobley is the exception to the rule that most rookies just aren’t very good on defense.
So, Jalen Green ending up on a roster like this after about a quarter of his first season shouldn’t ring much (if at all) alarm bells.
But he is here. And when you look at his individual numbers, it’s not hard to see why.
When Green is no longer on the field, the Houston Rockets give up 102.3 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would rank behind only the Golden State Warriors 100.4. When playing, Houston’s defensive rating reaches 114.2.
Of course, that’s not really a fair comparison. Most of Green’s possessions are played against starters. These non-green alignments are often deployed against reserves. But this big swing is worth noting.
A lack of basic defensive numbers also contributes to the rookie’s rank. Among the players with at least 200 minutes this season, there are only Seven who have a defensive rebound percent less than 10.0, a steal percent less than 1.0, and a blocking percent less than 1.0.
The green, of course, is there.
3 out of 5
Karen Pulfer Focht / Associated press
Still, the “don’t worry, he’s a rookie” warnings apply to Ziaire Williams, the Memphis Grizzlies first-year reserve winger who averages 2.5 defensive rebounds, 0, 9 interceptions and 0.6 blocks for 75 possessions.
Any of those numbers alone (with the possible exception of defensive rebounds) wouldn’t be a big deal. Together, they paint a picture of someone who does very little to move the needle in the right direction in defense.
Low scores don’t necessarily mean bad defense. Remember our intro discussion. Defensive tote bags are a guide. Klay Thompson is an example of someone whose prowess as a perimeter defender was not captured by blocks, steals or rebounds.
But for Williams, at least for now, there is no reputation to make up for the bad numbers. Memphis, that is dead last in defense (by a long shot), is significantly worse when Williams is on the ground. Adversaries to go past their expected percentage of field goals when defending. And there isn’t a single catch-all that considers him a replacement defenseman.
4 out of 5
Michael Wyke / Associated press
There is a lot of work against DJ Augustin on the defensive end.
First, they are part of a bad defensive team that are almost entirely devoid of players who can cover up their weaknesses. For years Rudy Gobert has made below average defenders look good statistically, simply because he wipes so many points off the board. There’s no such help for the Houston Rockets’ Augustin.
It’s hard to blame him for the other issues too. Everyone slows down a bit with age, and Augustin is 34 years old. Standing 5’11 “is also a natural drawback. Even the most disjointed players under 6 feet simply can’t make up for their lack of height in some games.
On occasions when he’s able to keep his clash in front of him, players of average (or near-average) NBA height can just shoot Augustin.
All of the above adds up to appalling defensive numbers, including Houston allowing 11.3 more points per 100 possessions when Augustine is on the ground and his opponents shoot an astronomical 13.4 points better on the field when he keeps them.
5 out of 5
Matt Slocum / Associated press
Once upon a time, Terrence Ross had decent threes and ds. Indeed, its teams authorized fewer points per 100 possessions when he played in five of his seven seasons prior to this one. And in 2016-17 and 2017-18, he had above average results Brands in the plus / minus defensive zone.
But in 2021-22, everything fell off a cliff. Steal Rate, Block Rate, Defensive Bounce Rate, Defensive Tote, Defensive Rating Swing. You name it, it’s down. And bottom big.
There are a few possible explanations.
The former absolves Ross of any blame. As has been mentioned a few times, defensive holdalls can run counter to reputation. And when you look at Ross, there are still times when you see the wing with decent size and athleticism that can bother opponents.
Bad teammates could also help. The Orlando Magic have the worse league bench. And four bad defenders dragging a good one down is a much more likely outcome than a good defender saving a unit that is a last place. minus-8.3 points per 100 possessions.
However, it is probably not fair to use this default explanation. There should be some responsibility on Ross’s part. And from a 30-year-old gunner at the thermal checkpoint of a tank team, extended periods of selfless defense are not surprising. And that’s exactly what Orlando gets from Ross.
If the Magic move him to a playoff team (or contender) at some point this season, we might see a renewed effort on his part. But right now Ross looks verified.