This is the fifth consecutive year I've selected All-Defensive Teams, a process that started in 2005-06 at 82games.com and has become an annual tradition here at Basketball Prospectus since its inception. In that span, there have been two fixtures: Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett, two of the greatest defensive power forwards this league has ever seen. Now in their mid-30s, both Duncan and Garnett have slowed down, but the magnitude of their drop-off may have been overstated. In the end, I returned Garnett to my All-Defensive First Team at power forward, with Duncan as the Second Team selection. But the debate was typical of a year where, more than any other, the difference among the top handful of defenders at each position seemed to be very small.
When the NBA's head coaches cast their All-Defensive votes, they are asked to pick two guards, two forwards and a center. Because the responsibilities for point guards and shooting guards and small forwards and power forwards are so different, I've again broken my votes down by the five positions. For the most part, I aim to keep players where they defend the majority of their minutes, though that is not always clear.
The selection process starts, naturally, with all the game action I've watched this season in person and on television (much more of the latter than the former, alas). Quantifying defense remains a challenge for statistical analysts. Still, there are many tools we can use to bluntly evaluate individual defense. Specifically, I put together a spreadsheet with the following information about each player:
- Team Defensive Rating
- Individual Defensive Rating from the WARP system
- Defensive WARP, which is the wins above replacement player that can be credited to a player's defense based on rebounding, blocks, steals and personal fouls.
- Each of the above rates for individual defensive statistics.
- Net defensive plus-minus, via BasketballValue.com.
- dMult, my colleague Bradford Doolittle's estimate from box-score data of how opposing counterparts performed against the player relative to season-long averages, as available on the Basketball Prospectus player pages.
First Team - Rajon Rondo, Boston
Rondo's defense is far from universally adored in New England, though I think that might be representative of a trend I commented on last year during the playoffs (when Derrick Rose was, alas, torching Rondo): There's no way to stop quick point guards with the current rules limiting hand-checking on the perimeter, so every team's own fans are down on their team's point guard defense. Rondo can be burned when he gambles, but those risks also help him post the league's second-best steal percentage (only teammate Tony Allen is a superior ballhawk) and Rondo has held opposing point guards nearly 10 percent under their usual production. That adds up to a third First Team selection in as many years.
Second Team - Brandon Jennings, Milwaukee
Don't laugh. While the book on Jennings was that he was too slight to be anything but a liability on defense, I've been impressed when I've seen him play and his numbers are strong across the board. In particular, Jennings' dMult of .864 (meaning opposing point guards produced at 86.4 percent of their usual rate against the Bucks) is tops among the point guards I considered.
Andre Miller, Portland: While super-quick point guards like Houston's Aaron Brooks can still be a problem, Miller has solidified the Blazers' defense, which allows 3.5 fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. Miller's size makes him a versatile defender.
Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City: A phenomenal athlete, Westbrook has the best block percentage of any of the point guards at whose stats I looked. His long wingspan causes problems for opposing point guards.
Raymond Felton, Charlotte: In terms of defensive value from individual statistics, Felton was second to Rondo at the point guard position. His combination of decent size and quickness makes him a defensive asset.
First Team - Thabo Sefolosha, Oklahoma City
We've seen no shortage of "next Bruce Bowens" over the past half-decade, but with Bowen retired I think it is the Thunder's shooting guard who has inherited the title of the NBA's best one-on-one perimeter stopper. At 6'7" with an enormous wingspan, Sefolosha has greater physical tools than peers like Bowen and Raja Bell and puts them to excellent use. His addition catalyzed Oklahoma City's transformation into a defensive power, and opposing wings have had a terrible time against the Thunder this season (both Sefolosha and teammate Kevin Durant, who often trade defensive assignments, have elite dMult ratings). A poor net defensive plus-minus seems more attributable to the strength of the defensive-minded Oklahoma City second unit.
Second Team - Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers
The addition of more talent on offense may have helped Bryant at the other end of the floor as well, since he no longer needs to conserve as much energy. Bryant has the best counterpart statistics of any shooting guard, holding opponents 21.7 percent below their usual production.
Dwyane Wade, Miami: Wade and Bryant are essentially a coin flip for the Second Team spot at shooting guard. Wade's counterpart numbers are nearly as strong, and he piles up more blocks and steals than almost any other two-guard.
Jared Jeffries, Houston: Before being dealt at the trade deadline, Jeffries was spending time defending all five positions in New York. He's probably best cast on the perimeter, where he can use his size to blanket and suffocate smaller players.
Jason Kidd, Dallas: While Kidd is the Mavericks' point guard on offense, he spends much of his time defending twos, especially when paired with Jason Terry in the backcourt. A liability against quick point guards, Kidd is much more effective using his size and strength against bigger players. At either position, Kidd is a huge presence on the defensive glass and piles up steals.
First Team - Andrei Kirilenko, Utah
AK-47's return to being a force at the defensive end has been a major factor in the Jazz's emergence as legit contenders in the Western Conference. The plus-minus numbers confirm that Kirilenko is the biggest reason Utah has improved on D; the Jazz's Defensive Rating is 5.5 points lower with him on the floor. The only strike against Kirilenko is that injuries and his early reserve role have limited his minutes.
Second Team - Gerald Wallace, Charlotte
By doing less, Wallace has done more. His steal rate is down from last season, but that's a good thing because it has meant Wallace has stayed at home more, dramatically improving his dMult from .962 to .869. Eschewing risky plays on defense may also have helped Wallace improve his defensive rebound percentage, which is tops among all small forwards. Add it up and Wallace is the leader of the league's second-best defense.
LeBron James, Cleveland: James hasn't stood out as much at the defensive end this season, but his statistics remain strong. He's held opponents 38.7 percent below their usual production, which ranks third in the league. So why is he only an honorable mention? Simply the depth at small forward; any of the top four players could easily be First Team selections.
Ron Artest, L.A. Lakers: Artest's arrival in L.A. has certainly been a mixed blessing, but he's had a positive impact at the defensive end and is a big reason why the Lakers spent much of the year among the NBA's top defenses before a late slide that has dropped them to fifth. Artest can beat up opponents physically, though it's a mystery why such an impressive athlete is grabbing just 9.8 percent of available defensive rebounds.
Luol Deng, Chicago: Deng's defensive numbers are strong across the board, and as discussed in our exploration of LeBron James' foul rate earlier this season, his best trait may be his remarkable ability to defend while rarely if ever fouling.
First Team - Kevin Garnett, Boston
Yes, Garnett has lost a step. Yes, players can occasionally turn the corner on him defensively, which was unthinkable just two years ago. Still, Garnett had room to slip slightly while remaining among the league's better defenders. His numbers continue to put him at an elite level, and a Boston defense that ranks fourth in the league in per-possession scoring still relies heavily on Garnett's presence as a quarterback on defense. Opponents have been 25.0 percent less productive than usual against Garnett, tops among power forwards.
Second Team - Tim Duncan, San Antonio
As he's aged, the Spurs have actually asked more of Duncan. Once upon a team, he played most of his minutes alongside 7-footers. Now, Antonio McDyess is the only thing close to a true center San Antonio has in the rotation. Duncan is paired with Matt Bonner, who is limited athletically, and 6'7" DeJuan Blair. San Antonio's defense has suffered for it, but the Spurs are still ninth in the league in Defensive Rating thanks largely to Duncan's prowess and Gregg Popovich's schemes.
Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Milwaukee: A relentless individual defender who started at both forward positions and defended shooting guards at times, Mbah a Moute's versatility is a major part of the Bucks' defensive success. The cross-matching must explain why his dMult (1.069) is worse than average. Mbah a Moute received a nice accolade when Kevin Durant called him one of the league's two toughest defenders to play against (along with Artest) on Twitter.
Anderson Varejao, Cleveland: Varejao certainly has his fans--John Hollinger had him on his All-Defensive First Team and John Schuhmann had Varejao on his Second Team--but I've never been quite as sold. Varejao's strong net defensive plus-minus (the Cavaliers allow 5.5 fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the floor) also is indicative of the fact that J.J. Hickson has struggled at that end of the floor. Varejao is very good at playing the pick and role, but so too are Duncan and Garnett and they combine it with superior ability as help defenders. So I'm of the opinion that Varejao is more good than great on defense.
Josh Smith, Atlanta: There's an argument to be made that Smith belongs atop the group of power forwards. In terms of defensive WARP, that's where he would go. Smith's defensive versatility was neatly encapsulated by Hollinger, who noted that he is the tallest player in the league's top 10 in steals and the shortest in the top 10 in blocks. Smith isn't quite as good as an individual defender and the Hawks' middle-of-the-road Defensive Rating also holds him back. Still, the difference between Garnett and Smith is negligible, and you could even throw in a sixth reasonable power forward candidate in Oklahoma City's Nick Collison, who leads the NBA in drawing charges per hoopdata.com and has a phenomenal +7.9 net defensive plus-minus.
First Team and Defensive Player of the Year - Dwight Howard, Orlando
When I fill out my awards ballot tomorrow, there will be two honors that merit virtually no discussion because they are so obvious. One is MVP and the other is Defensive Player of the Year. Howard is so far beyond his peers defensively it is remarkable. He's accounted for 13.9 WARP at the defensive end, which would be good enough to place him in the league's top 10 in total WARP even if Howard was merely average on offense. Howard ranks second in the league in defensive rebound percentage and ninth in block percentage, and he's also stifled opposing centers. His dMult looks like a typo; opponents have been held an incomprehensible 41.4 percent below their usual production. Orlando is at the moment the league's best defensive team despite starting a converted small forward at the four, a poor defender at shooting guard and for much of the year either an aging Jason Williams or Jameer Nelson hobbled by knee surgery at the point. That's a testament to the incredible force that Howard is in the paint.
Second Team - Andrew Bogut, Milwaukee
Blocking shots and taking charges are usually an either/or proposition. Guys who do the latter do so in part because they can't do the former. Bogut is the reason for adding the "usually" clause to that statement. He ranks eighth in the league in block percentage, just ahead of Howard, but has also taken the league's second-most charges this season. To do that requires Bogut to be in the right place to offer help virtually all the time defensively, and he does so without shirking his individual defensive responsibilities (his dMult is second among centers to Howard's). Bogut's season-ending injury last weekend was devastating, though at least it did prompt an excellent breakdown of his season by Tom Haberstroh for Hoopdata.com.
Marcus Camby, Portland: Camby's defensive statistics are within shouting distance of Howard's, which explains why he was the Defensive Player of the Year in 2006-07. The question mark on Camby, especially when he was traded from Denver to L.A., is whether his stats overstate his impact because he is a poor defender on the perimeter, especially in the pick-and-roll game. Watching him on a more regular basis in Portland, it appears this criticism is overstated if not entirely inaccurate, and it reassures me that the sage Kevin Arnovitz reached a similar conclusion when Camby was a Clipper.
Al Horford, Atlanta: Horford was a rarity this season--an All-Star selected primarily on the strength of his defense. Not that Horford can't score, mind you, but his development into a defensive anchor has been even more rapid. His numbers are uniformly solid. Horford is quick enough to defend on the perimeter and physical enough to defend in the paint.
Ben Wallace, Detroit: Ordinarily, I'd be loath to consider a player from a team as poor defensively as the Pistons (27th in the NBA in Defensive Rating). In fact, no one else who finished the season on a squad ranked worse than 17th made the cut at any position. Wallace pulled it off because he was so far ahead of the rest of his team defensively. His +8.5 net defensive plus-minus was best of anyone I considered. Even at 35, Wallace remains incredibly (if perhaps no longer freakishly) quick, and his defensive fundamentals are impeccable.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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