The Best Defenders in the NBA this Season

What Have You Done for Me Lately?

The NBA is a right now league. Each game can change in a moment. Every season’s trade deadline brings about substantial team restructuring, and the offseason free agency and trade market has become an event unto itself. Change happens quickly, and the team that wins the championship is often the team that becomes the best version of itself at just the right moment.

Many of the most important questions deal with which player or team is the best right now. “What have you done for me lately?” is the unspoken question on the minds of everyone in and around the league. In previous posts, I’ve used the defensive matchup data at stats.nba.com to create a model for defensive performance since 2013-14. The entire dataset is now features prominently on the homepage, and you can pull any player card for any season from the Google Sheets tool.

But what about this season?

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The Best Defensive Power Forwards in the NBA

Small ball is no longer the wave of the future – it’s the wave of the present. The 80’s and 90’s featured brawny, bruising power forwards who could soak up punishment in the post, clean the glass, and protect the paint as weak side shot blockers. In a game dominated by giants, power forwards were the centers’ sidekicks. Even the beginning of the 21st century saw the San Antonio Spurs’ “Twin Towers” follow the same frontcourt structure that had held sway throughout the league’s existence.

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Matchup-Based Defense

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Defense is the unsolvable puzzle in NBA analytics. No matter how advanced the advanced stats get, defensive metrics continue to crash against the same conundrums. Better data often leads to better models, and recent years have seen a dramatic improvement in the quality of defensive data available for analysis. Tracking data, opponent shooting data, play-by-play data, and more have all played a hand in modern defensive analysis. In spite of the improvements, or perhaps in part because of the improvements, it is clear that defensive analysis is still not highly accurate.

Most defensive metrics which are currently extant are based on one of two schools of thought. In order to take stock of why defensive analysis is still frequently inaccurate, it will help to investigate the underlying assumptions behind most current models.

The Plus/Minus School of Thought

The most popular method by far is The Plus/Minus School, which counts BPM, RPM, RAPM, PIPM, and more among its adherents. The distinguishing precept of the Plus/Minus School is the belief that we can ascertain a player’s defensive value by evaluating the team’s performance with him on the court, if only we properly adjust for strength of opponent, the team’s talent level, the team’s performance with the player off the court, and the player’s performance level in seasons past. The adjustments made to raw plus/minus are attempts to extract reliable data by excising confounding variables.

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The So-Called Disappearance of the Big Man, Part 2

In the first half of this study, I analyzed the conditions that would be necessary for a true “league without centers” – an ultimate small-ball paradise without any traditional big men. We found that the offensive value of high-efficiency finishers would be difficult to replace without an unimaginable increase in three-point shooting accuracy.

To this point, we haven’t yet analyzed the point at which most teams would not use a traditional big man for defensive purposes. While the foregoing analysis has laid out what I see as the necessary conditions for a big man to have no purpose on offense, the question remains as to what shape such conditions might take on the defensive end. When would it not make sense to have a big man on the defensive end?

Photo by Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
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