Thursday, May 15, 2014

2014 Defensive Awards

As the playoffs progress, let us not forget the regular season, where few people cared about the Wizards and Durant was king. For this awards installment, it's all about defense, which remains the trickiest area to judge. A few advanced stats are useful, mostly plus/minus varieties, but the "eye test" is also very important. As such, video is available for every major player discussed. Since has every play accessible and viewable, I hope it's used more to discuss players, especially to an audience unfamiliar with them.

First-team All Defense

G - Ricky Rubio

Rubio makes first team for having the size to smother point guards or cover shooting guards. He picks up a high number of steals, but he's not a dangerous gambler. In the first clip below, you can see him guarding Chris Paul through picks, quickly recovering to stop Crawford, and then poking the ball out of his hands causing a turnover. The second clip shows a rare Chris Paul bad pass, where Rubio intercepts a pass to Griffin very easily with his wingspan.

G - Andre Iguodala

He's the league's premier wing defender in his prime, casting a large shadow on defense. Since he's changed teams a lot lately, we can see the outline of his impact. In 2012, Philly was 3rd in defensive efficiency, and when Iguodala left they fell to 15th. Denver improved from 20th to 11th. When Denver lost him after a single season, they dropped back down to 21st. And Golden State improved from 14th to 3rd. While there are other factors here like Bogut's health and coaching, Iguodala fares well by other metrics. He leads the league in pure adjusted plus-mins (RAPM) and is rated 8th by ESPN's RPM (RPM has a bias for big men, however, by incorporating height.) In the below clip you can watch him keep up with an aggressive LeBron and force a tough shot (which LeBron makes somehow.)

F - Paul George

Paul George is the top wing defender on the best (regular season) defensive team in the league. I'm not quite sure he tall he is anymore -- the offseason growth reports may not have the best sources -- but he's big enough to pester almost anyone on the perimeter and quick enough to cover multiple positions. You can watch him force Joe Johnson into a tough shot below.

F - Taj Gibson

The Bulls have consistently played better defense with Taj on the court for years. He's strong, long-armed, and executes Thibodeau's system well. Pure RAPM has loved him for years. In the clip below, he ends up guarding the uber-athletic John Wall, who can't get past Taj and launches an off-balance jump shot that's blocked.

C - Joakim Noah

He's the defensive player of the year, so this isn't a shocking pick. However, his plus/minus numbers have been lukewarm for a while, and it's unclear why this is. Perhaps RAPM is overrating Boozer's defense and not giving enough credit to Noah. For instance, Chicago's defense has been better or neutral when the same four-man lineups have Noah instead of Taj Gibson, who regularly posts a high RAPM. Nonetheless, Noah's an intense defender and the central defender on the league's second best defense, playing huge minutes and doing crazy things like being the only guy who defends in an all-star game, as shown below.

Second team

G - Patrick Beverley

The playoffs showed Beverley's peskiness, pressing Lillard and hounding him for every second despite coming off an injury and falling ill. He's probably the most annoying defender in the league, the Dennis Rodman of point guards. His low minutes total hurts him, but there weren't too many worthy guard candidates. He's a good enough thief to steal one from Chris Paul, as seen below.

G - Jimmy Butler

Butler's a tall, tenacious defender who's a perfect fit for Thibodeau's defensive system. He rates fairly well by most defensive metrics, but he's probably far from his peak. However, as with Beverley, the competition wasn't intense, and he's certainly better than, say, Chris Paul, who's not always engaged on defense. Butler guards LeBron fullcourt in the clip below, staying with him until the end, where he blocks LeBron's shot.

F - Kawhi Leonard

Like Butler, Kawhi has a great environment in which to learn defense, and he got an accelerated course in defense guarding LeBron in the finals. He wasn't a destructive defender like a Tony Allen, so given that he was under 2000 minutes Kawhi might be a surprising pick, but he only played low minutes because his team wanted everyone fresh for the playoffs. In the clip, he stays with Durant on the perimeter, taking away a three, and recovers on a drive to nearly steal the ball and bother his shot.

F - Tim Duncan

Old man Duncan remains a top-notch defender even as he approaches his 40's. His secret is being able to contest and block shots without even leaving the ground, often getting on his toes rather than jumping. This allows him to be nearly immune to shot fakes, keep his positioning, and be ready for a rebound. In the clip below, he comes over to stop a Durant shot at the rim at the exact right time and blocks the ball so well they call it a jump ball. He does this by barely jumping.

C - Dwight Howard

No one likes Howard anymore, but he's recovered from his major injuries and is back to being an ideal center on defense, guarding the rim, rebounding at a high level, preventing easy post-up plays, and being quick enough to navigate switches and guard smaller players. For instance, the intimidating Pekovic was destroyed on a post-up in the first clip. Howard's as strong as anyone, and he has a monstrous wingspan. The second clip shows an example of how Howard doesn't spike every blocked shot into the stands anymore; he's now directing them to his teammates. According to, when Howard blocks a shot, his team recovers the ball 64.8% of the time, which is significantly above average (the average is usually in the upper 50's.) For comparison, San Antonio team only rebounded 57.0% of Duncan's blocks, and last season it was still under Howard's mark: 63.9%.

Team Drtg
Iso/post PPP
Ricky Rubio
Andre Iguodala
Paul George
Taj Gibson
Joahkim Noah
Patrick Beverley
Jimmy Butler
Kawhi Leonard
Tim Duncan
Dwight Howard
*Iso/post PPP is the points per play allowed via Synergy. For C's and PF's, post PPP is used.
**"Pure" (RPI) RAPM was taken from this site.
***Team Drtg is a team's points allowed per 100 possessions adjusted for strength of schedule.

Defensive Player of the Year

With injuries to key defenders and the collapse of Indiana in the second-half, an opening emerged. Critics of the modern game like to tout the virtues of past legends, but they fail to give credit to the obstacles players face today -- playing against the best players from several countries, detailed video scouting rendering any weakness you have visible and exploitable, and a quick, athletic league with defensive rules that hurt slow help defenders. If you're going to be an elite defensive player in the modern NBA, it's not by accident.

3rd place

Dwight Howard

Howard's underrated now, and a multiple-time DPOTY winner who's back to looking like himself is not a strange pick for third place. I can imagine some people arguing for DeAndre Jordan, but that's silly: he still made too many mistakes, and his gaudy block totals aren't important if he's constantly being faked out of his shoes.

2nd place

Andre Iguodala

If he had played more minutes, I would have argued him for 1st place. I detailed his exploits above. He holds down the fort on a defense that collapses without him. While today big men are usually more valuable on defense, a smart, athletic, and long wing defender can cause the same impact.

1st place

Joakim Noah

He won due to attrition. He played a huge amount of minutes for an outstanding defense and played center. That's the argument in a nutshell. He's versatile and does well at almost everything you'd want from a center on defense. This is also likely to be his best season ever. It's a fine choice for the award, though a bit underwhelming.

Finally, there are a number of honorable mentions:

Mike Conley should be a candidate for a long time, but wasn't as good this season. You can see how he uses his quickness to stay in front of Lillard in the clip below, and forces him into a two-point fallaway jumper.

Tony Allen is still a terror on defense, and when healthy he's the only wing defender who approaches Iguodala. This was evident in the first round of the playoffs when the Grizzlies nearly upset the Thunder. In the first clip, Allen denies entry to Durant and steals the ball. In the second, he fights through a screen and blocks his shot.

And for the last part of the Grizzlies appreciation chain, Marc Gasol, who won the DPOTY last season and was out of the running when he injured his knee. But he remains a great defender and was unfairly forgotten this season. He's not exactly athletic, but he has great timing and knows just when to slide over; an example is below.

For the final clip, here's the underrated Amir Johnson destroying a Miami Heat pick and roll and saving the ball for his team.

Hibbert is the most notable exclusion, but Indiana actually defended much better with Mahinmi on the court and Hibbert had problems guarding quick players out of the paint or, really, the perimeter in general. The Atlanta series exposed these issues. Ibaka's a very good defender, but his blocked shot totals don't make him into a candidate -- he may not even be the best frontcourt defender on the team. Sefolosha regressed, though he's still pretty capable. Splitter was very effective when he played, but it was far too infrequent. Nene had the same issue -- and with him on the court, Washington punched above their weight and knocked out Chicago. And lastly, Draymond Geen may sneak onto a list someday, as the lineups with both Iguodala and Green dismantled other teams on defense.

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