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.

AP Photo/Eric Gay

Change, though, is persistent. Stylistic and strategic changes alter the face of the league regularly. In the last decade, those changes have eroded the physical profile of the standard power forward. Horace Grant has given way to Jerami Grant. As stretch 4’s have gradually replaced the 4’s of yesteryear, the function of power forwards on the defensive end has changed considerably. As with all changes related to lineup construction, the small ball revolution is an arms race. The more stretch 4’s there are who can shoot from outside, the more teams need their “power forwards” to defend on the perimeter. Today’s power forward must be able to stay in front of some opponents outside while still holding his own inside.

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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 basketball-reference.com’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.

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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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Steals Don’t Mean Squat

If there’s one thing we know about defensive statistics in the NBA, it’s that steals don’t mean squat. James Harden was second in the league in steals per game last year, and Andre Drummond was eighth. This was not merely an illusion created by the two playing lots of minutes, as both ranked within the top 20 in the league in steals per 36 minutes. In 2016-17, Manu Ginobili and T.J. McConnell were first and second in the league, respectively, in steals per 36 minutes. Steph Curry and Nerlens Noel were both in the top seven in the league in 2015-16, while the same two players along with Pablo Prigioni all ranked in the top eight in the league the previous season. Andray Blatche was eighth in the league in steals per 36 in 2012-13. The illusion extends back as far as steals go in the statistical record.

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The Real Reasons Why Steals Don’t Mean Squat

          These examples are merely anecdotal evidence, though; what really makes steals unreliable indicators of defensive performance are the many different chains of events which can lead to a player being credited with a steal in the box score. Many of those sequences involve plays made by teammates of the player who gets credit for the steal. Any observer can recognize these plays when they happen: tipped passes, saves on balls headed out of bounds, instances in which an on-ball defender pokes the ball away from the dribbler and another defender grabs the loose ball, traps, double teams, errant passes caused by pressure on the ballhandler, etc. Sometimes a steal is the result of a phenomenal play by one defender, but oftentimes a steal is the result of one player disrupting the offense and another player recovering the ball. Steals create an immediate problem of attribution; the player who gets credit for the steal is not always the player who truly created the turnover.

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