It's not uncommon to read a lament about how the NBA's All-Defensive team is dominated by star players with sparkling scoring averages. Whether or not that actually happens is a matter of debate. It seems like more often, the coaches make poor choices based on gaudy shot-blocking or steals totals, but with names like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant cropping up annually on the All-Defensive squads, there's no question that some of the game's most explosive scorers have been honored for their work on the other end of the floor.
I have no problem with this. In baseball, there is an oft-discussed problem with great hitters winning undeserved Gold Glove Awards. (*cough* Derek *cough* Jeter *cough, cough*) Some of this backlash may have found its way into many people's response to NBA defensive awards. It shouldn't.
The best all-around offensive players in the NBA will almost invariably be the top defensive players in the league because they're tapping into the same skill set. Length, quickness, strength, leaping ability and desire are just some of the traits that differentiate the best players no matter which end of the floor we're talking about. Defensive specialists such as Bruce Bowen or Jared Jeffries can be terrific athletes but unskilled offensive players. They are able to carve out well-deserved reputations for defensive prowess by finding a niche and a being willing to accept that role. But even the best defensive specialists don't have the defensive ceiling of the NBA's transcendent athletes--James, Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard and, as Kevin Pelton pointed out in his latest piece on the Thunder, Kevin Durant.
I bring this up because today I'm going to list the players designated by NBAPET as this season's top defenders. The top of the list is star laden, reading very much like a rundown of the most valuable overall players in the league. Again, I don't have a problem with this, though there are some peccadilloes with some players on the list which I'll point out.
When you present a list like this, you always have to run off a string of caveats and explainers, as if I were Thomas Haden Church doing a voiceover for a shady pharmaceutical company. (Aren't they all?) Anyway, here goes:
1. The key defensive metric in NBAPET's rating of individual defensive prowess is dMULT, which is a non-creative way of abbreviating Defensive Multiplier. The bad name evolved from the role it played in NBAPET's system of rating overall player value. NBAPET wants to measure the differences in efficiency and production from what a player gets and what he allows. In one early incarnation of NBAPET, this resulted in a multiplier that mashed together several different approaches of measuring individual defense and was then used to "adjust" a player's offensive production. I dropped that methodology about five years ago, but the name dMULT remains.
What dMULT now attempts is to measure is the points created per possession used allowed by a player's box score counterparts versus their usual production. So a dMULT of .869, which is what Thabo Sefolosha currently sports, means that his counterparts have been 13.1 percent less productive when going against Thabo. A dMULT of 1.105 would mean that opponents have been 10.5 percent more productive. And so on. (Current dMULT scores are listed on our player pages.)
2. I make no claim to this being any sort of end-all/be-all of individual defensive metrics. The system doesn't work particularly well for measuring the defensive ability of reserves, and the numbers are heavily regressed for playing time to smooth this out. But that also means that a player with little playing time is going to rate close to average. Also, I have long been dissatisfied with the box score counterpart approach and, as such, I've been (very) gradually working on converting NBAPET to a play-by-play based system which tracks estimated opponent data on a possession-by-possession basis. (For me, it's a big project because I lack the programming skills needed to simply write a play-by-play parser. I have to use Excel for everything.)
3. In NBAPET's system of skill ratings, all players' dMULT scores are compared to their positional averages and then all players are ranked according to these computations. From there, a percentile ranking is assigned. Finally, the percentile ranks are fitted into a Bell Curve to give each player an integral rating between +5 and -5, with fewer players landing ratings on either end of the curve and more players clustered around the middle.
4. Even when I review skill ratings for defensive ability, I always look at them in conjunction with ATH (a rating for athleticism), BPS (position-adjusted blocks plus steals) and on court/off court stats. If all of these measures confirm what dMULT is telling me, then I'm much more prone to declare a good or lousy defender. If they don't support dMULT, then I start fishing for an explanation.
With that out of the way, let's move on to the list of the 17 players currently rated as +5 defenders by NBAPET, in order of dMULT.
1. Dwight Howard, ORL (C, .709): There is a near consensus that Howard has become the NBA's most dominant defensive force. Physically, he has it all and he really exhibits the kind of mobility it takes to be a great defending big man in today's NBA.
2. Kobe Bryant, LAL (SG, .732): I've never been able to think of an approach to adequately address this issue, but I suspect that the outstanding defensive numbers posted by some of the game's top scorers can be attributed in part to their ability on offense. Whether it's energy, foul trouble or what, the task of defending these guys bleeds over to the offensive end. In any event, you won't hear many arguments against Bryant's defensive skills.
3. Kevin Durant, OKL (SF, .738): He has every tool, he just needed the want-to and the support offered by better surrounding talent.
4. LeBron James, CLE (SF, .771): Once LeBron decided to make defense a priority, it was lights out for Cavaliers opponents.
5. Dwyane Wade, MIA (SG, .796): Wade is a player I'd point to as one that holds down opponents production in part by making them really work on defense. He also fills up the defensive box score with steals and blocks.
6. Luol Deng, CHI (SF, .814): Deng is underrated in many ways, but perhaps no more so than on defense. Having seen him play many times this season, I can attest that my eyes confirm what the numbers suggest. He gives Carmelo Anthony fits, just to cite one example.
7. Andrei Kirilenko, UTA (SF, .816): Kirilenko has always sported elite BPS and ATH ratings, but his dMULT has sometimes lagged. My theory is that he's had too much of a tendency to roam looking for defensive swag. This season, that hasn't been a problem.
8. Dirk Nowitzki, DAL (PF, .817): Nowitzki had a terrible defensive reputation when he was a young player in the league and I think that still colors many people's perceptions of his effort on that end of the floor. He's been consistently solid in dMULT the last few seasons, though never to quite this degree.
9. Kevin Garnett, BOS (PF, .842): Even with diminished athletic indicators and reduced playing time due to injuries, KG still rates as an elite defender.
10. Al Horford, ATL (C, .849): A dedicated and cagey post defender, Horford will garner support for second-team All-Defensive this season.
11. Ron Artest, LAL (SF, .858): Artest was a little annoyed at making "only" second team All-Defensive last season and he could be headed towards a repeat performance. He's been really good, as usual, but there have been other forwards having better defensive seasons. Incidentally, Trevor Ariza, who Artest replaced on the Lakers, has a +3 defensive skill rating for the Rockets.
12. Thabo Sefolosha, OKL (SF, .859): Sefolosha's complementary game makes him an ideal fit with Oklahoma City's first unit and he teams with Kevin Durant to give the Thunder a pair of top wing defenders.
13. Hedo Turkoglu, TOR (SF, .869): This one seems suspect, given Toronto's overall showing on defense. The only other Raptor with a positive defensive rating is Marco Belinelli. At the same time, Turkoglu had decent dMULT figures the last couple of years in Orlando. In the end the Raptors have been better defensively when Turkoglu has been on the bench, so chances are that he's getting at least some credit for somebody's else work.
14. Joe Johnson, ATL (SG, .870): Johnson has not always rated as a good defensive guard, but he experienced an uptick last season that has continued in 2009-10. The Hawks are in the middle of the pack defensively, but Johnson, Horford and Josh Smith give them a solid defensive core.
15. Lamar Odom, LAL (PF, .870): Odom's combination length and mobility is truly rare and his dMULT is backed up by the fact that the Lakers' Defensive Rating improves by 5.5 points when he's in the game.
16. Caron Butler, WAS (SF, .870): Butler's year-to-year consistency in dMULT has been nil--you never know what you're going to get. If his rating is real, however, and he ends up going to Boston as rumored, he'll fit right into Doc Rivers' defensive schemes.
17. Danilo Gallinari, NYK (PF, .873): When I've watched the Knicks, I haven't really taken any special care to watch Gallinari on defense. Next time, you can bet I will. I don't particularly buy this rating and suspect that there are some cross-matching issues involving Jared Jeffries, who does not fare well in NBAPET's defensive ratings.
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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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