The Best Defensive Small Forwards in the NBA

In the last installment of this series, we evaluated the best defensive shooting guards. We noted that the shooting guard group is crucial in the modern NBA due to the advantages gained by employing versatile defenders capable of stopping opponents of different sizes and skill sets. The same rationale applies for the players in the “small forward” bin using’s play-by-play position designations. When compared with the previous group, the main difference is that the small forwards are larger. (perhaps we should start calling them “big wings”?)

Wings, whether they are categorized as “shooting guards” or “small forwards,” exhibit greater spread in the defensive load they carry than other position groups do.

While the median values are relatively consistent across positions, wings have a wider distribution than other positions. Raw defensive load for wings can range from very high (>15 ppg) to very low (<6 ppg). Other positions, especially interior defenders, have much more compressed distributions.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Though a relatively simple box and whisker plot does not tell us why wings have a greater spread in defensive load, it is certainly possible to make a likely guess. Since defensive positions mostly exist on a continuum of size to quickness, the players in the middle of the spectrum will usually have the greatest blend of the two. As these players are therefore physically capable of defending both bigger, slower opponents and smaller, quicker opponents, it is often in the team’s best interest to use their best defensive wing to cover the opponent’s best scorer. Even if the opposing team’s star has a physical profile more consistent with a “guard” or a “stretch 4,” the best option for the defense is oftentimes to deploy a rangy wing defender against him.

Who is the Best?

Thus far, we have discussed only the general impact of wing defenders, but have not directly addressed who the best defensive small forwards are. As in the previous posts about point guards and shooting guards, we can expect to find the best defenders in the subgroup of small forwards that carry a heavy defensive load. The table below illustrates why this is so:

In general, high-load defenders save more points per possession than any other group. This is to be expected in some measure, since team-adjusted load is part of the formula for Shooting Defense. I include the scatter plot for the purpose of providing a visual representation of the effect of load on a player’s defensive value according to the Matchup-Based Defense model.

The best defensive big wings last season on a per-possession basis were:

  1. Derrick Jones, Jr.
  2. Torrey Craig
  3. Josh Richardson
  4. Dorian Finney-Smith
  5. Kyle Anderson
  6. Justise Winslow
  7. Maurice Harkless
  8. Royce O’Neale
  9. Iman Shumpert
  10. Robert Covington
  11. Andre Iguodala

These are the high-load defenders who saved their teams at least 10 points per 100 possessions. The small forward group also has an interesting second tier of players between 9.0 and 10.0 PS/100, as well as a few overburdened players who are carrying a heavier load than they are capable of handling effectively. First, here are the top-tier defenders.

The Best Defensive SFs

Players at the Top of the Leaderboard


Josh Richardson generated far more total value than the others on the list. Though his rivals were equally effective per minute (including his ex-teammates Derrick Jones, Jr. and Justise Winslow), none could match Richardson’s total output.

The player who carried the heaviest defensive load was Torrey Craig, by a healthy margin. With two primary offensive options who are defensively deficient (Jokic and Murray) to work around, Denver had to rely on Gary Harris and Torrey Craig to match up against any and all perimeter scorers. Replacing the injured Will Barton, Craig established himself as a solid NBA rotation player with extremely strong defense, which the model recognizes.

Derrick Jones, Jr. also earned his place on the defensive end last season. With Miami undermanned, Erik Spoelstra threw Jones into the rotation as a stopgap to help in some zone-heavy schemes. Jones proved himself capable of helping, recovering, and staying in front of highly talented players. Since entering the league as an undrafted 19-year-old, Jones has bounced around. After putting in work on the defensive end, he is now on a guaranteed contract.

Noteworthy Players in the Top Tier

Maurice Harkless is notable in depending more on Shooting Defense for his defensive value than any of his peers. As the only member of the high-load, high-productivity group to force fewer than 2.0 turnovers per 100 possessions, Harkless nevertheless made a major impact by virtue of preventing his opponent from scoring.   

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Andre Iguodala and Robert Covington have been generally recognized by most advanced defensive statistics as very good defenders, and have both been named to the league’s All-Defensive teams. Despite Iggy having the equivalent of half a million miles on his frame, he still belongs to the upper crust of defenders. Covington battled injury last year, but was still as effective as ever in the time he was able to play.

As I hinted earlier, the rest of the high-load group that saved fewer than 10 points per 100 possessions is very interesting. The table below allows you to scroll through all 29 high-load small forwards, sorting them however you see fit.

High-Load Small Forwards

Players on the Second Tier

Two of the more well-respected defenders that were not in the high-productivity group above would clearly have been in that top group if they had forced more turnovers. Both Kawhi Leonard and Nicolas Batum saved more than 10 points per 100 possessions in Shooting Defense. Giving rebounders a share of the credit for these stops, as we do for all players, brings the two below 10.0 PS/100. While other players similar to these two compensate for the reduction by forcing turnovers, both Leonard and Batum caused fewer than two turnovers per 100 possessions. Thus, it would be fair to say that their defensive performance was elite, though it did not result in many opponent turnovers. Their contributions did, however, prevent the players they defended from scoring effectively.

Photo by Leon Bennett/Getty Images

Paul George and DeAndre’ Bembry are the opposite case. While the pair both caused more than three turnovers per 100 possessions, they were not as strong as the top flight defenders in preventing their man from scoring. As a result, their Total Defense figures are slightly below the top tier. A good way to describe these players using words instead of numbers would to say that they make important and disruptive plays, but do not shut their man down quite as well as an elite defender does. It is probably worth emphasizing that the tables here present data from only last season. With Paul George carrying the greatest offensive load of his career last year, it is perhaps unsurprising that his defensive performance was not quite at the level one would expect given his reputation.

Mikal Bridges and Kenrich Williams also belong to the group, which should be encouraging for such young and inexperienced players. Bridges is nearly certain to get a lot of playing time this season, and will have ample opportunity to prove himself as a two-way contributor.

The Biggest Surprise

The table above also includes the nine players with fewer than 9.0 PS/100. These players are overburdened, meaning that they are carrying a load that is beyond their capacity. If paired with more capable perimeter defenders, we would expect some of these players to be able to defend more effectively (with a more favorable split of time spend guarding major scorers versus time spent guarding non-scorers).

You can easily find these players yourself, but the one who stands out the most to me is Jimmy Butler. Anecdotally, there seemed to have been a wide range of opinions around the league on Jimmy Butler’s play last year. He was not named to either of the league’s All-Defensive teams, though he did receive votes. This was only the second time in the past six seasons that Butler was not named to an All-Defensive team, with the only other exception coming in 2016-17 (when he was named to the All-NBA Third Team). Butler’s strong of four consecutive All-Star Game appearances ended last year as well.

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

Box Plus/Minus and Win Shares both evaluated 2019 as a down year for Butler defensively, though actually slightly better than 2018. NBAMath’s Defensive Points Saved has 2019 rated more highly than some of Butler’s campaigns but lower than a couple of others, and he clocks in at #108 in the league in total defensive value for the season. PIPM-D gauges Butler at +0.2, meaning that he was slightly above league-average defensively last season.

My Matchup-Based Defense model allows us to hypothesize as to why Butler’s defense suffered last season: he was taxed too heavily. Carrying a defensive load of 14.5 points per game (fourth among all small forwards), Butler had to bear too much of the burden for a Sixers squad with no perimeter depth whatsoever for much of the season. Ben Simmons also appeared in the lower end of the high-load defenders at his position group in terms of per-possession effectiveness, indicating that he was carrying too heavy of a burden as well. When we take into consideration that these players were playing significant minutes with Tobias Harris and JJ Redick (as well as with a hodgepodge of replacement-level backups), it is easy to see how Philly relied so heavily on their best defenders.

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3 thoughts on “The Best Defensive Small Forwards in the NBA

  1. I’m surprised to see Otto Porter missing from the list. He seems to be the best defender on a team with poor overall defense, which theoretically put more load on him.

    1. Good instincts, @JM! Porter was right on the borderline between the first and second quartiles with a defensive load of 12.3 ppg and a team-adjusted load of 1.047 (4.7% above team average). Within his load group, he was near the top in per-possession effectiveness, falling barely below Wes Iwundu and Glenn Robinson and basically even with Stanley Johnson.


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