This is the third consecutive year I've selected an Every Play Counts All-Defensive Team, using a combination of observation (in person and on TV) and advanced statistics to come up with the league's best defenders at each position. Here's the 2005-06 incarnation and last year's version. This year seems to present the hardest challenge of the three, with the least overlap between what I've seen and what the various numbers say.
Defensive statistics remain very much a work in progress, though we've come a long way in the past five years. The numbers I've relied on to pick this team include a defensive Wins Above Replacement Player based on a player's traditional individual statistics (defensive rebounds, blocks, steals and personal fouls) as well as his team's defense and factoring in minutes played; defensive net-plus minus, as available at 82games.com; and the PER posted by opposing players at the same position while on the court, again found at 82games.com. Together, these three numbers give a rough idea of the impact players are having on their team's defenses--especially when supplemented by scouting.
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 play the majority of their minutes, though I've done a little fudging to get the players I wanted represented on the first and second teams.
First Team - Rajon Rondo, Boston. As compared to the other positions, there is a distinct lack of standout contributors at the point. However, there is plenty to recommend Rondo. A year ago, Rondo showed promise with a strong net defensive plus-minus and ESPN Insider's John Hollinger picked him for his second team. Rondo's net defensive plus-minus (-1.0, where a negative means the team's defense is better with the player on the court) is not exceptional this year, but that's largely because the Celtics defend well at all times. Rondo is a big part of that, setting the tone by pressuring the ball fullcourt. In the halfcourt, Rondo's combination of size, length and foot speed is virtually unparalleled amongst point guards. Rondo also averages 1.7 steals, good for 12th in the league.
Second Team - Chauncey Billups, Detroit. Billups didn't make my honorable mentions last year, and I haven't really seen anything different in his play this season. However, several other players at the position have fallen off, allowing Billups to move up in the rankings. Detroit actually played slightly better defense with Billups on the bench (+0.8 net defensive plus-minus), but the PER posted by Billups' opponents was lower than for any other point guard I looked at. Billups has the size and strength to smother opposing point guards, and he is a very intelligent defender.
Rafer Alston, Houston. Never known for his defense, Alston has been a steadying force for the league's second-best defensive team, with a -3.7 net defensive plus-minus that ranks tops amongst starting point guards.
Jason Kidd, Dallas. Rumors of his demise have probably been exaggerated. Kidd struggles with quick point guards but rates as more valuable than any other point guard on individual statistics in large part because of his terrific rebounding.
Chris Paul, New Orleans. The Hornets have defended better with him on the bench, but his league-leading 2.7 steals per game and quick feet make him a contributor at the defensive end in addition to his terrific offense.
First Team - Bruce Bowen, San Antonio. The only question is whether Bowen will be a first-team selection at small forward, as he was last year, or whether I'll move him to shooting guard, as this year and in 2005-06. Bowen might have lost a half a step this season; the Spurs have used Ime Udoka at times in his place. The Spurs still shut down opposing wing players (13.2 PER for opposing shooting guards) and Bowen still frustrates opposing players like no one else in the league, except maybe...
Second Team - Raja Bell, Phoenix. Bell was ever so close to earning my mythical first-team vote for the first time. His reputation has historically exceeded his numbers, but not so this year. Bell's net defensive plus-minus is a terrific -4.0 and opposing shooting guards have posted a dismal 12.1 PER against him. That's way better than the 14.8 he posted a year ago.
Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers. This is the first time I've recognized Bryant, who has offered more consistent defensive effort this season, as reflected in his statistics.
Manu Ginobili, San Antonio. In combination with Bowen, the best pair of wing defenders in the NBA. Ginobili's size allows him to defend small forwards when Bowen is taking on shooting guards.
Anthony Parker, Toronto. My first team pick a year ago, Parker's numbers are way, way down and he hasn't stood out when I've watched him play.
First Team - Shane Battier, Houston. If press clippings are any indication, Battier's inexcusable All-Defensive drought will come to an end this season. He finished 11th in the voting a year ago, just missing a second team nod. This year, Battier has gotten attention for his work as a stopper, but that is still not the best aspect of his defensive game. He is much better at playing team defense than most lead defenders and is arguably the league's smartest defensive player.
Second Team - Josh Smith, Atlanta. Smith has always put up big blocks numbers, but those didn't necessarily always translate into good defense. In my opinion, that's changed this year. Smith has been much improved as a one-on-one defender and has made fewer mistakes going for blocks. The result is one of the league's best net defensive plus-minuses (-6.5). Smith is more power forward than small forward, but he and Marvin Williams are relatively interchangeable in terms of matchups and putting him here allows me to avoid relegating Smith to honorable mention status.
Jamario Moon, Toronto. In terms of value from individual stats, Moon actually tops all small forwards. He is very long and has blocked 1.4 blocks per game while posting solid advanced numbers.
Paul Pierce, Boston. The hype is legit--Pierce has bought in and is defending much better than ever before, both qualitatively and quantitatively.
Tayshaun Prince, Detroit. As I said last year, a victim of the depth at the small forward position. Prince has been an honorable mention all three years I've picked these teams, but is still a terrific wing defender.
First Team and the Every Play Counts Defensive Player of the Year - Kevin Garnett, Boston. In the past, I've argued that Garnett is a bit overrated defensively, that he can be scored upon one-on-one. I picked him as an honorable mention each of the last two years. Well, consider me a convert. Garnett has anchored the league's leading defense, and he's one of only two Celtics defenders (Kendrick Perkins is the other) with a very good net defensive plus-minus rating (-4.0, 13th in the league). Garnett is the NBA's best at defending against the pick-and-roll--and this year he has been the NBA's best defender overall.
Second Team - Rasheed Wallace, Detroit. Earlier this year, I described Wallace as an underrated cog in the Pistons' defense, then noted that I was equally guilty of underrating him, not even putting Wallace as an honorable mention at power forward a year ago. This year, I've returned him to the second-team status he held in 2005-06. Wallace is as versatile on defense as any big man in the NBA, equally capable of defending the post, stepping out to defend perimeter-oriented big man or defending the pick-and-roll.
Chris Bosh, Toronto. Bosh hadn't been on my All-Defensive radar before this season, but he has grown into a strong defender up front, offering length and the athleticism to defend on the perimeter. Opponents have posted a 13.5 PER against Bosh, second only to Garnett amongst the candidates at power forward.
Chuck Hayes, Houston. Hayes' minutes have been cut because of the additions of Carl Landry and Luis Scola. Both players are more well-rounded than Hayes, but can't match his impact on defense. Hayes' net defensive plus-minus (-7.9) is best in the league by a mile, matching his 2006-07 performance.
Shawn Marion, Miami. A perennial Honorable Mention selection, though at small forward the last two seasons. Very good, but not great, on defense.
First Team - Tim Duncan, San Antonio. Only in San Antonio would finishing third in the league in Defensive Rating be considered a down season. That's what happens when you've led the NBA in defense in seven of the last 10 seasons. Though credit must go to Head Coach Gregg Popovich, Bowen and strong role players, the key to the defense remains Duncan, who has seen no drop-off defensively. Duncan's net defensive plus-minus (-0.5) has hardly stood out, but given Bowen has met the same fate, I suspect that's a fluke. The emergence of Garnett pushes Duncan to center but can't knock him off the first team.
Second Team - Marcus Camby, Denver. In terms of traditional statistics, no one tops Camby, who has blocked 7.4% of opponents' two-point shots this season. No one else is above 7%; only New Jersey's Sean Williams (6.6%) is above 6.0%. When it comes to the other advanced numbers, Camby does not perform as well. His net defensive plus-minus (-1.3 this season) has not historically been as strong as Duncan's, and Denver is good but not amongst the league's elite defenses. Camby has a case for the first team, but ultimately I think he ranks behind Garnett and Duncan.
Dwight Howard, Orlando. Individually, trails only Camby and is far and away the biggest reason the Magic ranks 10th in the league in Defensive Rating.
Rasho Nesterovic, Toronto. Nobody ever talks about Nesterovic as an elite defender at center, but his numbers are consistently excellent. Not the toughest player around, but positions himself well in the paint.
Joel Przybilla, Portland. Before a broken hand brought his season to a premature end, Przybilla was playing terrific defense for the Blazers, blocking shots and rebounding for a team that is lacking in both areas.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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