Who Are the Best Defensive Shooting Guards in the League?

The NBA changes as rapidly as the seasons, and the league is heading toward a greater and greater reliance on versatile perimeter players. The prevalence of 3-pointers, combined with the emergence of bigger primary ball handlers replacing some of the smaller “point guards” of previous eras, has resulted in a single mandate for NBA defenses: to find defenders who are big enough and quick enough to guard anyone.

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Every team, from the best to worst, wants players who check this box. Clearly, it is vital to be able to accurately analyze how strong or weak a player is in fulfilling this function. The best way to address the question, in my view, is by using Matchup-Based Defense to break down a player’s defensive performance in the context of which opposing players he was assigned to defend.

By combining Shooting Defense (which adjusts for a player’s defensive load) with Non-Shooting Defense as detailed previously, we can analyze the performance of shooting guards relative to one another. In this case, dividing the players in quartiles by defensive load reveals some interesting, though unsurprising, results.

High load defenders have the greatest impact per-possession, which we expect since team-adjusted load is a part of the calculation for Points Saved. The medium load group and the role players, who need severely limited defensive loads, are similar to one another on a per-possession basis, though both are far less valuable than the high-load group. The players who comprise the small load group exhibit considerable spread, due in part to small sample size for several players in the group.

Who is the Best?

As with points guards, we will expect to find the best defensive shooting guards in the high-load segment of the population. When we sort the high-load defenders by their per-possession performance, we find that the upper crust of shooting guards is well stocked. 12 high-load defenders saved their teams at least 10 points per 100 possessions, led by Bruce Brown’s tremendous 14.6 points per 100. The top tier is:

  1. Bruce Brown
  2. Gary Harris
  3. Marcus Smart
  4. Jrue Holiday
  5. Victor Oladipo
  6. Klay Thompson
  7. Jaylen Brown
  8. Danny Green
  9. Avery Bradley
  10. Evan Fournier
  11. Eric Gordon
  12. Wesley Matthews

Consistent with my warnings about the danger of lists, however, the table below includes every high-load shooting guard and allows you to sort by total points saved, points saved per 100 possessions, defensive load, and team-adjusted load.

Shooting Guards

Which Players Were the Biggest Surprises?

There are a number of interesting results in the data. Though veterans are typically better defenders than younger players, Josh Okogie proved capable of carrying a heavy defensive load in his rookie campaign. One would surmise that it will be crucial for the Timberwolves to have a strong defender at one of their wing spots if Andrew Wiggins is indeed to form part of the bedrock of their future plans.

AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

Continuing the theme of surprising rookies, the top of the leaderboard features another one in Detroit’s Bruce Brown. If you need to know whether or not you can trust Brown’s defensive valuation, consider that he started for a playoff team despite shooting 39.8% from the field, 25.8% from three, and 75% from the line. Brown caused 5.28 opponent turnovers per 100 possessions, far and away the best rate among high-load shooting guards.

Which Players Lived Up to Their Reputations?

Marcus Smart, Danny Green, and Avery Bradley have well-deserved defensive reputations. The three veterans are widely regarded as all-league caliber defenders, and the statistics bear that out. Smart combines great Shooting Defense with 4.15 turnovers forced per 100 possessions. His ex-teammate Avery Bradley, though fighting injury in recent seasons, was able to effectively shut down opponents despite carrying the heaviest defensive load of any shooting guard in the league last year – 16.9 points per game, which was 37% above team average.  

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Jrue Holiday was also crucial to his team’s defense, carrying a load nearly 30% above team average. Holiday has often been undervalued throughout his career, though popular opinion does seem to be catching up with reality when it comes to his defensive impact. With Holiday frequently facing such stout competition, the model expects his opponents to have scored 1,313 points last season. In fact, the players guarded by Holiday netted only 1,244 points. In more direct language, this means that Jrue should have given up 6% more points than he did, given the quality of the players he was defending.

Klay Thompson has been a touchstone of controversy in NBA defensive statistics, due to his strong defensive reputation in the eyes of many in and around the league despite uninspiring steal rates. The majority of defensive metrics, including Individual Defensive Rating and Defensive BPM, portray Thompson as a subpar defender. ESPN’s version of Real Plus/Minus estimates that Thompson cost his team 1.82 points per 100 possessions last season. Historically, the same model has rated him at +0.13 points in 2018, -0.45 points in 2017, -0.61 points in 2016, -0.72 points in 2015, and -0.17 points in 2014.

Chris Victorio | Special to S.F. Examiner

The Matchup-Based Defense model also does not identify Klay as a player who forces a lot of turnovers – 22 of the 25 high-load shooting guards forced more turnoers per 100 possessions than Klay’s 1.91. His Shooting Defense, on the other hand, was elite. Last season, Klay Thompson saved the Warriors 11.7 points per 100 possessions by forcing misses – the third highest mark among high-load shooting guards.

While models that rely on box score defensive statistics (steal, blocks, fouls, rebounds) report that Thompson’s data is unremarkable, Matchup-Based Defense inspects the performance of the players he guards. When we follow this methodology, we find a substantial and recognizable impact caused by Klay’s defense that comports with his film but does not appear in other defensive metrics. In fact, if you sort the table above by total Points Saved, you will find that Klay Thompson saved more points over the course of the season than any other shooting guard last year.    

Interesting Notes for the 2019-20 Season

Two players on expiring contracts who were traded for each other this summer – Kent Bazemore and Evan Turner – both appear below the median level for their usage group. Bazemore did save his team approximately 1.6 points per 100 possessions more than Turner did last year, so it appears that Portland got the better end of the trade defensively.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The player on the “leaderboard” whose value was most dependent on forcing turnovers was Victor Oladipo. While Oladipo was less effective than the rest of the top 12 except for Eric Gordon in preventing his opponent from scoring, he forced 4.49 turnovers per 100 possessions. Without Oladipo as the head of the snake to begin the year, the Pacers’ performance figures to hinge on how well they rotate and whether Indiana’s help defense can apply enough pressure on shooters to compensate for a likely reduction in opponent turnover rate.

Before signing off, I’ll leave a table with all the shooting guards who played enough to qualify, regardless of load. Be sure to click “subscribe” on the sidebar, then tune back in for the top defensive small forwards in the league!

All Qualifying Shooting Guards


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