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April 25, 2012
Every Play Counts
2011-12 All-Defensive Teams

by Kevin Pelton

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Welcome to the seventh annual Every Play Counts All-Defensive Teams, a tradition that started in 2005-06 at 82games.com and has become a fixture here at Basketball Prospectus since its inception.

This year marks a bit of a change in how I've selected the teams. In past years, I've generally been strict about picking by position because of the differences in defensive responsibility. This time around, I've been much more flexible. Differentiating between the wing positions and the post positions is always difficult because of the way teams cross-match and shuffle players back and forth. Now, I think we have to consider point guard along with the wing spots as a general "perimeter" group because of the growing trend toward putting size on point guards.

I'm still listing players by position, but I compared them among all perimeter or interior players and shuffled positions in a couple of notable spots to better balance out the First and Second Teams.

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 that I'll refer to throughout this article:

  • 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.
  • Defensive regularized adjusted plus-minus, via Stats for the NBA, and a value-based metric that incorporates this figure, replacement level and minutes played.
  • Statistics about individual defense from mySynergySports.com, depending on the position: defense against pick-and-roll ballhandlers and isolations for perimeter players, isolation plays for wings and post-up defense for big men.

POINT GUARD

First Team - LeBron James, Miami
Between playing backup point and taking the opposition's best player, James has spent enough time defending point guards this season that I think it's fair to put him here. One way or another, James belongs on the First Team and is a strong contender for Defensive Player of the Year. His versatility defensively is unmatched. James could handle nearly any defensive matchup in the league. James created more statistical value on defense than any other perimeter player, and don't even try to think about isolating against him. Opponents averaged just 0.58 points per possession on isolation, which ranked second to teammate Dwyane Wade among the players I considered.

Second Team - Ricky Rubio, Minnesota
Rubio's playmaking drew more plaudits during his rookie season, but he was most valuable to the Timberwolves on the defensive end of the floor. Minnesota allowed 7.0 fewer points per 100 possessions with Rubio on the floor, per BasketballValue.com. Rubio is skilled at playing the passing lanes and ranked third in the league in steal rate. His size was also a major asset against smaller players. When Rubio was beaten, he was still a threat to alter a shot from behind.

Honorable Mention

  • Iman Shumpert, New York: Shumpert proved a quick study at the defensive end. I can't remember the last rookie directly out of college (Rubio definitely does not count) who was so advanced right away. Shumpert is best against isolations; he's not quite as strong off the ball and didn't have a major impact in terms of on/off differential, which knocked him to the honorable mentions.
  • Rajon Rondo, Boston: This was not Rondo's finest defensive season. His steal rate was down considerably and the Celtics relied more on Avery Bradley for pressure in the backcourt. Rondo was still tough against isolations and a contributor on the glass.
  • Jrue Holiday, Philadelphia: Coming out of UCLA, the expectation was that Holiday would be better defensively than on offense. Instead, his defense was inconsistent early in his career, but he had a fine season for one of the league's top defensive teams. Holiday's numbers were solid across the board. His long arms and quickness make him tough for opponents to beat.

SHOOTING GUARD

First Team - Tony Allen, Memphis
For the second consecutive season, the Grizzlies led the NBA in forcing turnovers, and Allen is the biggest reason why. He's a ballhawk of the highest order who finished second in the league in steal percentage after leading it in 2010-11. As an individual stopper, Allen gives up nothing to players who take fewer gambles. He allowed just 0.65 points per isolation, one of the NBA's better marks.

Second Team - Avery Bradley, Boston
Like his Celtics predecessor Allen, Bradley had to improve offensively so he could stay on the court long enough to show of his defensive wares. Bradley could have landed at either guard position, but since he's emerged as Boston's starting two-guard, I stuck him here. Bradley overcomes a size disadvantage to deal well with off guards but is at his best defending point guards, since he hounds ballhandlers for 94 feet to the point they apparently ask him to back off.

Honorable Mention

  • Thabo Sefolosha, Oklahoma City: Sefolosha's defensive RAPM (+2.5 points per 100 possessions) was actually tops among all perimeter players. He reinforced that with an excellent defensive performance against Kobe Bryant on Sunday. Sefolosha's shortcoming is nothing more than availability; he played fewer than 900 minutes this season due to injury.
  • Dwyane Wade, Miami: More than most players on this list, Wade has a tendency to conserve his energy defensively. Still, no guard in the league is superior as a help defender. Wade's block percentage was not only tops among shooting guards but second among all perimeter players behind Toronto's James Johnson (who merits some attention for his defensive work as well).
  • Grant Hill, Phoenix: Hill's defensive value continues to elude plus-minus statistics (RAPM had as exactly average on the defensive end), but he continually frustrates wing players. When he was on the floor, opposing small forwards managed just a 12.3 PER, per 82games.com.

SMALL FORWARD

First Team and Defensive Player of the Year - Andre Iguodala, Philadelphia
In general, I'm a big believer that post defenders should win Defensive Player of the Year because they tend to be so much more involved defensively than perimeter players. This year, however, I'm making an exception. Because I don't think the crop of big men is especially strong, and because Iguodala has been so terrific leading an elite defense (the Sixers rank third in the league in Defensive Rating), I think he merits the award. Iguodala takes away opposing wings. He contributes as a help defender, racking up steals and coming up with blocks at a decent rate. And his defensive RAPM value ranked second in the NBA. Philadelphia allowed just 97.6 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor, the league's seventh-best mark.

Second Team Luol Deng, Chicago
Deng was oh so close to making the first team. I considered bumping Allen and putting Iguodala as a shooting guard, but settled on Allen's combination of steals and stops. Deng's defensive RAPM (+2.1 points per 100 possessions) was third in the league, just ahead of Allen and Iguodala. He blankets opposing wings and allowed just 0.66 points per isolation. The only minor quibble is that Deng provides less value in terms of rebounds and steals than other elite defenders.

Honorable Mention

  • Shawn Marion, Dallas: When it comes to defensive versatility, Marion ranks with anyone in the league. He deserves a lot of credit for holding together a Mavericks defense that exceeded expectations after Tyson Chandler's departure. In terms of on/off data, however, several other Dallas players showed up as more important to the team's defense.
  • Paul Pierce, Boston: One of the league's most underrated defenders, Pierce was solidly above average in essentially every category. He played the most minutes on the NBA's second-best defense, so clearly he's doing something right.
  • Gerald Wallace, New Jersey: Wallace ranked an impressive ninth in defensive RAPM. He still flies around as he did early in his career. Wallace does take a hit for his involvement in the Blazers' defensive collapse prior to the trade deadline, when he was dealt to the Nets.

POWER FORWARD

First Team - Kevin Garnett, Boston
As much hype as his move to center received, Garnett still played plenty of power forward down the stretch when he was paired with Greg Stiemsma, so I'm comfortable putting him here to make sure he's on my First Team for the third consecutive year. Garnett has lost a step from his prime but has compensated with unrivaled basketball IQ. As usual, nobody defended pick-and-rolls better than Garnett, who allowed roll men an average of just 0.61 points per play. Given how well the Celtics defended in the second half of the season, there's a case to be made for Garnett as Defensive Player of the Year. He is my runner-up.

Second Team - Elton Brand, Philadelphia
Whereas Garnett started with every physical tool possible to go with his intellect, Brand is a more unlikely defensive success story. Few big men listed at 6-9, 254 qualify as elite defenders, but Brand has taken to his role as an interior anchor under Doug Collins. As Tom Haberstroh noted for ESPN Insider a few weeks ago, Brand meets every criteria for Defensive Player of the Year. He plays for an elite defense and his Synergy numbers are outstanding (at 0.67 points per possession to roll men, he's second to Garnett, and he was second among the big men I looked at with 0.59 points allowed per post-up). Brand is a little behind Garnett in box-score defensive stats and RAPM value, but the gap between the two is narrow.

Honorable Mention

  • Josh Smith, Atlanta : I would be perfectly comfortable putting Smith on the First or Second Team, as he's been that effective at the defensive end of the floor. Smith's 7.5 defensive WARP were second in the league behind Dwight Howard, and his RAPM is solid if not spectacular. Smith is better than some of the other elite defensive big men at switching on the perimeter, though he can be vulnerable in the post.
  • Taj Gibson, Chicago: Gibson's defensive RAPM (+3.3 points per 100 possessions) led the NBA, and nobody else was within 0.8 points. The gap between him and second-place Sefolosha was as large as the difference between Sefolosha and 10th place. The Bulls allowed 90.6 points per 100 possessions with Gibson on the floor, the league's best mark, and his box-score numbers are solid as well. The only downside to Gibson's candidacy is that he played far fewer minutes off the bench than the other top contenders. If Gibson gets a starting job in Chicago or elsewhere, pencil him in for a spot on the First or Second Team.
  • Serge Ibaka, Oklahoma City: Ibaka's shot blocking went from great to otherworldly this season. He's got an outside chance of joining Manute Bol and Alonzo Mourning as the lone players in NBA history to block at least 10 percent of opponents two-point attempts. Ibaka is currently at 9.9 percent, and I don't care what other defensive shortcomings he has, that's hugely valuable. Ibaka's RAPM value puts him below the top four power forwards, but is solid nonetheless.

CENTER

First Team - Dwight Howard, Orlando
I think that Howard's defensive slippage has been overstated. As noted, he still led the NBA in defensive WARP (8.5). Orlando's slide toward the middle defensively has less to do with Howard's play and more to do with the lack of any other size on the roster. With Howard on the floor, the Magic allowed 101.5 points per 100 possessions, per BasketballValue--the same as in 2010-11. Now, status quo defensively does represent worse performance because offenses have been less efficient throughout the league since the lockout, but the far larger change is in Howard's net defensive plus-minus, which went from +3.0 to +7.5. Howard still ranked second among centers in defensive RAPM value. I suspect there's a confirmation bias at play in looking for poor defense from Howard to go with the storyline about his indifferent play during a chaotic season. I'm not convinced the objective evidence backs that up. Howard has been less valuable this season, in part due to his injury, which is why he isn't my Defensive Player of the Year pick--I would put him third on my ballot--but I still think he's been the best defensive center in the league.

Second Team - Tyson Chandler, New York
Chandler is a fascinating case because the numbers simply don't back up what we know must be true in terms of his defensive value. Watching Chandler play, along with the transformation the Knicks have made defensively, suggests Chandler has been as valuable as anyone in the league defensively. But New York has been no worse defensively with him on the bench, which holds up even when RAPM adjusts for the fact that he's played so often with Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire. Chandler has never been a big shot blocker and his defensive rebounding is down this year, so his defensive WARP (4.1) is nothing special. I wish some piece of evidence besides the Knicks' Defensive Rating would back up Chandler's play, but in the absence of it I have a hard time making the case that he's been the best defender in the league, or better than Howard.

Honorable Mention

  • Tim Duncan, San Antonio: No matter how much Duncan appears to have slid defensively, he's still fourth among big men in defensive RAPM value, rating as 1.7 points better than average per 100 possessions. Duncan remains excellent at controlling the paint; where he struggles now is defending the pick-and-roll, allowing 0.82 points per possession to roll men.
  • Marc Gasol, Memphis: Gasol's box-score defensive stats are only slightly better than average for a center, but his impact on the Grizzlies' defense has been immense. In fact, based on his defensive RAPM (+1.8 points per 100 possessions) and heavy playing time, he's been the most valuable defender in the league. I'd temper that assessment a bit, but Gasol does a terrific job of reading the angles to be in the right position.
  • Brendan Haywood, Dallas: Given that he replaced one of the league's top defensive centers and helped the Mavericks roll right along as an elite defense, I think Haywood deserves some credit. He has a tough time on the perimeter because of his lack of footspeed but is tough in the paint.

All-Time Every Play Counts All-Defensive Teams

PS  05-06        06-07         07-08        08-09        09-10        10-11
------------------------------------------------------------------------------
PG  Kidd         Hinrich       Rondo        Rondo        Rondo        Lowry
SG  Bowen        Parker        Bowen        Battier      Sefolosha    T. Allen
SF  Battier      Bowen         Battier      James        Kirilenko    Iguodala
PF  Duncan       Duncan        Garnett      B. Wallace   Garnett      Garnett
C   B. Wallace   J. O'Neal     Duncan       Howard       Howard       Howard

PS  05-06        06-07         07-08        08-09        09-10        10-11
------------------------------------------------------------------------------
PG  Watson       Harris        Billups      Alston       Jennings     Rondo
SG  Iguodala     Bell          Bell         Wade         Bryant       Ginobili
SF  Kirilenko    Battier       J. Smith     Artest       G. Wallace   James
PF  R. Wallace   Js. Collins   R. Wallace   Garnett      Duncan       Duncan
C   Camby        Camby         Camby        Duncan       Bogut        Bogut

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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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