Decoding offensive performance on the individual level has always been exponentially easier than doing so on the defensive end of the court. There are just so many more available benchmarks for offense such as points, assists, shooting percentages and numerous other extremely simple ways of quantifying a player’s value on the floor. Even just using our eyes, it’s typically far easier to watch an offensive play and immediately determine who did a good thing or a bad thing than it is to make the same assessment on the other end.
Accurate judgements of defenders on an individual basis are still possible, but they require a bit more legwork and, more importantly, an understanding of just how complex NBA defense can be. Assigning praise and blame can be such an indirect and imprecise process on this end of the floor, where all five guys have to work together and a damning mistake can happen far away from the ball. But it’s better to try than not, right? Let’s take a look at a few of the best available ways to track defensive value and performance.
The very lowest hanging fruit in these conversations comes in the form of the only two box score figures that are directly obtained while playing defense: steals and blocks. There’s certainly some broad, raw value to these numbers, and the league leaders will often feature some of the game’s better defenders.
With that said, their true uses are very limited; they capture just one small piece of what makes a good defender, and it’s very easy for players to excel at one or both of these particular skills despite sub-par play in many other vital areas. For example, a guy who gambles too often and jumps passing lanes all game long will rack up gaudy steal numbers, but is hurting his team in the long run due to all the possessions when he misses and ends up out of position.
Defensive rebounding is separated from the overall conversation by some, but certainly ties in and has some predictive value for defenders. Players who are best at keeping the opponent from rebounding their own misses (and therefore gaining extra chances to score) will naturally have value to a team’s defense, even if it’s indirect in many eyes.
We discussed various plus-minus measures a couple months back, and they have some merit as indicators of an individual’s gross impact on his team on both ends of the floor. A specific variation’s effectiveness can vary wildly based on the inputs it uses and what it attempts to track. Stats like Defensive Win Shares are considered virtually useless among real statisticians; at the other end of the spectrum, Defensive Real Plus-Minus figures are, while far from perfect, a reasonably solid proxy for the value a given player adds or subtracts while on the floor. Even Real Plus-Minus and similar metrics should absolutely never be used as end-all rankings though, especially defensively. At best, they’re solid proxies with plenty of noise.
Another related variation of plus-minus figures are simple on/off court numbers, tracked in detail on NBA.com. These are what they sound like: A straightforward way to view a team’s performance with a given player on or off the floor. The league’s site allows for numerous areas of observation, from simple point differentials to detailed scoring, rebounding, passing and opponent data while a particular individual plays or sits. One of the simplest and most useful is points per-100-possessions. The Golden State Warriors, for instance, allow 95.3 points per-100-possessions while Draymond Green is on the floor (an excellent figure), but yield a yucky 108.4 when he hits the bench.
All these variations have necessary context involved, just like virtually everything in this piece. On/off figures are often incredibly noisy, unable to account for simple considerations like teammate and opponent lineup configurations. Sample sizes can be a hindrance with some players. RPM and other more detailed metrics do a decent job of controlling for some of these factors, but even the most detailed of them remains imprecise for concretely rating players on more than a broad scale.
Various player tracking systems have grown in popularity and availability in recent years, and represent the most advanced format available for measuring defensive performance. They’re the most detailed numbers out there and examine granular elements of the game in ways broader metrics simply can’t.
Tracking from Synergy Sports makes the list, though the defensive sections of their publicly available data on NBA.com are honestly pretty limited and should be taken with a hefty grain of salt in many areas. Synergy breaks the game down into play types – pick-and-roll, post up, transition, isolation, etc. Players and teams are tracked for various statistics within these play types, on both ends of the floor.
This service can be enormously valuable in many areas, but the vast majority of these are on the offensive side of the ball. The same issues as always with tracking defense arise even for such detailed services: How do you assign “responsibility” on a play where several defenders were involved and may have had some level of fault simultaneously? If a guard blows by his man on the perimeter and beats a slow help man to the rim for a dunk, which defender takes the blame? A perfect world gives some to both, but even the most advanced publicly available services don’t operate this way.
Synergy’s proprietary client (used by nearly every team in the league) offers both accompanying video and further levels of detail to all their figures, but the public stuff is limited. A keen eye to which areas are more robust is helpful – defensive figures in the post or on isolation are typically pretty clean and worth gleaning real insight from, where areas like pick-and-roll coverage or “defense” on spot-up shooters are so noisy that they should virtually be ignored altogether. Frankly, this page on NBA.com should come with a “Use With Caution” disclaimer.
A distant cousin to Synergy data is that of Vantage Sports, a site that utilizes similar tracking through a very different eventual lens. Vantage tracks even more granular data – things like screen navigation success rate and detailed levels of shot contests, minutiae that often more directly impacts the scoreboard. Vantage runs into some of the same tracking issues as Synergy, though, and in fact likely has far more trouble with accuracy within their metrics. Combine this with the fact that it’s a proprietary, non-public service, and it’s not worthy of much consideration for anyone but hardcore basketball junkies.
And finally, of course, there’s SportVU player tracking based on camera-recorded data tracked multiple times per second in every arena in the league. For one with an unlimited budget and access to proprietary data, this is far and away the most comprehensive way to determine defensive value on an individual and team basis. The full SportVU tracking database contains the maximum number of data points available to the game of basketball given modern technology.
Here’s the problem: No one in the public sphere has an unlimited budget or access to proprietary team data (more than an occasional sneak peak, at least). That’s not to say the bits we’re privy to are useless, or anywhere close. Publicly available SportVU data has increased in quantity on NBA.com each of the past three seasons including this one, and can be enormously valuable. It was recently announced that more media outlets will be given access to SportVU data in the near future, which means more data should trickle down to the public as well.
The most useful within the defensive sphere is SportVU rim protection data, which tracks how efficiently opponents score within five feet of the basket while a given player is defending it. The raw percentages allowed are informative enough, but the folks over at Nylon Calculus have taken it even further and currently house a list of the league’s best rim protectors based on “value saved” at the rim compared with league average.
There are other useful defensive elements within public SportVU data, but one needs a careful eye for them. SportVU has detailed rebounding figures that go a long way toward separating the “best” guys on the glass from the lucky ones, data that once again is housed in an even more informative manner on Nylon Calculus. NBA.com also now lists opposing field goal percentages allowed from every area of the floor, not just at the rim. Frankly, this data is pretty unreliable and should largely be avoided unless it’s complementary evidence that supports several other more robust metrics. There’s just way too much noise involved in determining whether the player physically closest to a shooter is always “responsible” for the result of his shot, and these figures alone are an easy way to incorrectly characterize a defender.
All of the above are useful and pragmatic ways to try and untangle the web of understanding NBA defense, but one disclaimer for finality’s sake: None of the publicly available data currently out there can give us 100 percent of the picture. Not even close. There’s simply too much going on to parse it all with concrete results – too many variables at play, too many pieces on the chessboard. Shoot, even the NBA GMs with access to the full SportVU data set – and therefore literally every single movement of every player at every moment on the court – would say that while it’s leaps and bounds better than anything that’s previously been available, it still has its flaws.
But isn’t that part of what keeps basketball so fun? The fact that we can’t know everything about a particular part of the game is what makes debates about it so entertaining. Would we even want a metric that solved NBA defense? No. We’ll always chase a higher level of understanding, and the metrics in this piece are a guide, but the magic of the game is the stuff we’ll never figure out.
Listen to the latest episode of the Basketball Insiders podcast, in which Moke Hamilton and Ben Dowsett discuss their All-Star selections, the race for the eighth seed in each conference and the 12-man Olympic roster.
NBA PM: Patrick Beverley Set the Tone for Clippers in Season Opener
Patrick Beverley set the tone for the L.A. Clippers with his aggressive defense in their season opener.
“The LA Clippers are going to the Western Conference Finals. Guaranteed.”
That bold statement was made by Charles Barkley during TNT’s coverage of last night’s matchup between the Lakers and Clippers.
While Barkley may have had his hot take canon primed and in mid-season form, that should not overshadow the fact that the Los Angeles Clippers put together a strong showing in their first regular season game since the departure of Chris Paul.
Blake Griffin logged 29 points, 12 rebounds, three assists, two steals and knocked down three of his six three-point attempts. Griffin was aggressive and showed no hesitation on his jumper, which seemed to open up lanes for him to drive to the basket (where he is most effective). DeAndre Jordan was fantastic as well, contributing 14 points, 24 rebounds, one assist and one steal.
While the Clippers lost some significant contributors from last season, including J.J. Redick, Luc Mbah a Moute and Jamal Crawford, the team had some returning and new players show that they are capable of filling the void.
Milos Teodosic was just 2-9 from the field, but knocked down two three-pointers and looked comfortable and effective running the team’s offense. Danilo Gallinarni shot just 3-13 from the field but looked healthy and spry, displaying the kind of mobility that is necessary to play the small forward position. His ability to act as a secondary playmaker wasn’t on full display, but there were moments where it was apparent that he could be a big help in generating open looks for his teammates. Lou Williams also looked good in his Clippers debut, scoring in a variety of ways off the bench and contributing six assists as well. Wesley Johnson continues to look confident and aggressive, a continuation from his preseason performances, and is starting to knock down the open shots his teammates are creating for him (which has been a problem for him in the past).
While the Clippers looked solid in their opening act without Paul, it should be noted that the Lakers are a young team overall and their defense has been a major problem for the last few seasons. While the Lakers have added some promising young talent over the offseason, like most young teams, they are going to struggle to slow down veteran teams with potent offenses. It would be a mistake to think the Clippers can replicate this sort of offensive performance every night, especially against the better defensive teams in the league. However, perhaps the most promising part of the Clippers’ season debut was the fact that they seemed to feed off of and embrace the gritty demeanor and style of play that Patrick Beverley brings to the court each and every night.
Last night’s game was the NBA debut for rookie point guard Lonzo Ball, who many predict will develop into a star player. Unfortunately for Ball, his opening night matchup came against Beverley, who earned a spot on the 2017 All-Defensive First Team. Beverley repeatedly guarded Ball past half court, pushed him around and did everything he could to throw him off of his game. He held Ball to three points, nine rebounds and four assists in 29 minutes of action.
Beverley, like every NBA player, has heard the hype and noise surrounding Ball and his future in the league (most of it from his outspoken father, LaVar).
“I just had to set the tone,” Beverley said. “I told him after the game that due to all the riffraff his dad brings, that he’s going to get a lot of people coming at him. I let him know that after the game. What a better way to start than spending 94 feet guarding him tonight — welcome the young guy to the NBA.”
Beverley is one of the more aggressive defenders in the NBA and is known for trying to get under the skin of his opponents, so Lonzo may not face this level of intensity in every game. But based on Beverley’s comments, it’s clear that he expects other players around the league to defend Lonzo aggressively as well.
Snoop Dogg, the rapper and passionate Lakers fan, summed up the issue for Ball arguably better than anyone else has so far.
“His father put him in the lion’s den with pork chop drawers on,” said Snoop.
For his part, Lonzo complimented Beverley on his aggressive defense.
“[Beverley] plays hard. He knows his job. He does it very well,” said Ball. “He gets under people’s skin and plays defense and does what he can to help his team win.”
Beverley set the tone for the Clippers, who looked crisp and confident throughout the game. Griffin’s three-point shot looks like it could finally be a reliable part of his offensive arsenal. Jordan was very active on the glass, pulling down 24 rebounds (possibly inspired in part by his commitment to donate $100 per rebound this season to help the effort to rebuild his hometown of Houston after the damage inflicted by Hurricane Harvey). The rest of the supporting cast played with the sort of cohesion and confidence that takes at least a few weeks into the season to develop. Again, the Clippers’ performance could have stemmed primarily from the Lakers’ shaky defense, but it was encouraging to see the team play with such force and confidence in the absence of Paul.
The Western Conference is extremely talented and deep, so it’s unlikely that the Clippers will make it to the Western Conference Finals as Barkley predicted. However, challenging for a spot in the playoffs and perhaps even doing some damage once there seems to be in the realm of possibility. This is especially the case considering how much of an impact Beverley had Thursday night, both defensively and in setting the tone for the rest of his new teammates.
Morris Bringing Leadership To Celtics
Marcus Morris chats with Basketball Insiders for a one-on-one exclusive.
Returning just one starter from last year’s top-seeded team in the Eastern Conference, the Boston Celtics underwent wholesale changes this past offseason.
Gordon Hayward signed a super max contract. Danny Ainge pried Kyrie Irving away from the Cleveland Cavaliers in a blockbuster deal. Jayson Tatum was selected with the third overall pick in the NBA Draft.
In early July, though, there was an under-the-radar trade executed that hasn’t been mentioned much. Surprisingly, Celtics guard Avery Bradley was sent to the Detroit Pistons in exchange for Marcus Morris, a heady wing with size and versatility to add to a revamped core of players.
Bradley was a mainstay with the franchise for seven years and played a vital role as a part of Brad Stevens’ system, but Boston decided to move in a different direction. As for the man they got in return, he’s thrilled to be there.
“It makes me feel good,” Morris told Basketball Insiders of Ainge dealing one of his best former players for him. “It makes you feel wanted.
“This is my first time since I’ve been in the NBA I’ve been on a team with a bunch of guys that [are] All-Stars. With the maturity of the team being this high and having them high expectations on us, I’m excited to get the season going and see how far we can take this.”
The Detroit Pistons likely wanted to keep him, but the organization clearly felt Bradley’s skill set was too good to pass up. For Morris, he insisted there was no indication that his old team would send him away, but he hasn’t been bashful about talking up his new home.
“Had no idea that I was gonna be a Boston Celtic, but I’m ready for the challenge, you know?” Morris said. “I’m excited. Boston, being a Celtic—it’s something that growing up you don’t really see happening, but when it happens it’s an amazing thing.
“It’s like playing for the Patriots, you know what I mean? One of the most heralded teams and most heralded franchises, and Boston is one of those.”
Entering the seventh season of his career, Morris has remained a steady part of the league. During his time in Detroit, he started nearly every game for the Pistons and found a comfort zone that he believes will carry over in Boston.
“Just continue to be consistent, continue to build on my last past couple of years,” Morris said of his personal goals. “I really felt like I carved my spot in the NBA the last two years—averaging 14 a year and helping my team get to the playoffs one of those years, so I really think I’ve carved a niche in this league.”
The success has come thanks to his versatility and the NBA’s current direction pointing towards that type of game. All of a sudden, not having a defined position makes a player more valuable, something Morris is thankful for as he continues to bring a little bit of everything to the table.
“For guys like me, it’s great,” Morris said. “Coming into the league, I had this ‘tweener’ thing on my back and now it’s like [freaking] great to be a ‘tweener’ at this time. I’m actually happy that it’s switching to my position and guys that can do multiple things are being utilized more in this league.”
Putting the ball in the basket has come fairly easy for Morris, who averaged 14.1 points per game on 42.6 percent from the field over 159 games with Detroit. He’s able to stretch the floor and provide solid spacing offensively, and he envisions doing more than that for this Celtics group.
“And leadership,” Morris said. “I’m not too much of a vocal guy, but I’m a passionate guy on the court. I think that’ll rub off on guys. I love scoring. I love shooting the ball. But that’s not the only thing I do.
“I’ve been a tough defender around this league for the last past years and I’m really looking forward to hanging my hat on that again and just doing whatever it takes for my team to get to that next level.”
Stevens is aware of the impact Morris can bring in the locker room and on the floor. When he returns from a sore knee to make his debut for Boston, that’ll show through his play.
“He’s a guy that can stretch the floor at the four,” Stevens said. “He’s a guy that can guard two through four. He’s tough. He’s smart. He works the right way. We’ll be better with Marcus Morris for sure. The versatility is a very important part of what we want to be.
“Whether he is starting in a couple of weeks or whether he’s coming off the bench, at the end of the day he’s gonna be a critical, critical part of our team.”
While he’s waited to come back, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have stepped up in his absence. With Hayward likely sidelined for the rest of the season, that success will have to be sustained. Morris is a big believer in this promising duo and sees how grounded they are to make that happen.
“They’re mature guys for their age,” Morris said. “Jaylen, I think he’s 20. He’s definitely a lot more mature than I thought. Jayson, too. He’s way more mature than your average 19-year-old.
“At the end of the day, it’s just basketball. I think those guys, they’re ready for the challenge. They love the game. They always in the gym, so I think it’ll be easy for ‘em.”
Part of Morris’ role is guiding those two and the other younger pieces that Boston has as they try and establish themselves as professionals. He’s kind of a coach per se, which is somewhat fitting considering what he did this summer.
Most basketball fans are aware of “The Basketball Tournament” that takes nationwide. For those that aren’t, it’s a single-elimination competition between 64 teams in which the champion receives a $2 million prize. Morris was the head coach of Team FOE—standing for Family Over Everything.
Along with his fellow Kansas alums, including his brother Markieff and Thomas Robinson, Morris coached his team to the final game. Team FOE was in front most of the game but ultimately fell to Boeheim’s Army, a squad filled with former Syracuse Orangemen.
“I was on my way man,” Morris said of coming close. “I actually liked it. I’m a smart guy. Me and basketball stuff, I can put it together real well. I was kinda upset we lost in the fashion that we lost, but we’ll be back next year.
“I’m a smart player,” he said regarding a potential future on the sidelines. “I know the game really well. Coaching comes easy for some guys and I’m just one of those guys.”
You could hear “Coach Morris” down the line, but for now and for years to come, Marcus is focused on his first year with Boston. It’s a team that surely has the talent to be the top team in the East it’s pegged to be. Stevens is a basketball savant with great leadership.
Even without an All-Star like Hayward and a 0-2 start, the Celtics should still be a force to be reckoned with. There’s an even greater demand for them to achieve their potential, especially knowing eyes will be on them, but Morris welcomes the challenge.
“Man, it’s pressure on every team,” Morris said. “It ain’t like it’s just all on the Boston Celtics. It’s pressure on every team. What’s a game without pressure anyway?
“Pressure makes it the best thing. That’s what we need to do anyway. I enjoy the pressure. Me personally.”
Shouldering the load won’t be easy, but if it comes down to it, Morris will be swimming instead of sinking. When all is said and done, he shares the same aspirations as most players do—raising the Larry O’Brien trophy in the summer.
“I want to the win the championship,” Morris said. “You put this type of team together to get to those positions. I’m looking to be playing in June and trying to get to a championship.”
NBA AM: Dwight Howard’s Quest For Redemption Begins
Dwight Howard says he has been unfairly blamed for previous shortcomings. In Charlotte, he gets a chance to prove it.
Prior to the start of training camp for the Charlotte Hornets, newly-acquired center Dwight Howard made an appearance at a charitable event for the Boys and Girls Club at a local elementary school. At that event, Howard laid out the stakes for his first season in Charlotte.
“This [is an] opportunity for myself to really get back everything that I would say has been taken away,” said Howard, according to Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer.
In an August interview with ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Howard seemed to imply that the primary thing that had been taken from him was a major role in the offense of teams he’s played with since he left Orlando, noting that his shot attempts had decreased from double digits to about six per game in Atlanta.
“I think it’s all opportunity, the system,” Howard told Wojnarowski. “I haven’t had a system where I can be who I am since I was in Orlando.”
Earlier this week, Hornets GM Rich Cho told NBA.com that Charlotte was the right place to give Howard that opportunity because of his relationship with coach Steve Clifford, who coached Howard as an assistant at two previous stops.
“With the relationship that Cliff has with Dwight, I know ‘Cliff is going to get the best out of him like he has done with past players,” said Cho. The Charlotte GM also went into detail about how the trade for Howard fit the goals the organization set for the offseason.
“When we entered the offseason, there were a number of things we wanted to accomplish,” said Cho. “One was, we wanted to get a rim protector and some shot blocking. Two, we wanted to add some more physicality. And three, we wanted to add a lot more depth overall and improve our bench play.
“So with Dwight, I think we’ve added all those things. He’s a great rim protector and shot blocker. He’s averaged a double-double every year he’s been in the league. It adds a lot of physicality with him going to the starting lineup and moving Cody [Zeller] into a backup role. It also increases our overall depth.”
Controversy has followed Howard after every NBA stop, and his brief stint with the Hawks was no different. ESPN’s Zach Lowe said on a podcast that he was told that a former teammate of Howard celebrated when informed he had been traded to Charlotte. If Lowe’s story is true, it only shows how divided and factional Atlanta’s locker room was last season. Several of Howard’s younger Hawks teammates took to Twitter to refute Lowe’s account, and Howard was voted Best Teammate by Hawks players in the NBA Players Association’s 2017 Players Voice Awards.
— NBPA (@TheNBPA) August 18, 2017
With so many contradictory accounts, it’s understandable why Howard sees a fresh start with the Hornets as an opportunity to counter the narratives that have followed him from stop to stop.
“Throughout all the mess that has happened the last couple of years, this is a great opportunity for me to prove to myself that I know exactly who I am — to just shut people’s mouths,” Howard told Wojnarowski.
With that goal in mind, Howard’s quest for redemption got off to a rocky start in Detroit in Wednesday’s season-opening loss to the Pistons. Howard came close to the double-digit shot attempts he craves, hitting five of nine for 10 points and 15 rebounds. Only Kemba Walker (13) and Jeremy Lamb (10) shot the ball more for Charlotte. But Detroit’s Tobias Harris erupted for 27 points, 10 rebounds, and three assists to help the Pistons open the new Little Caesars Arena with a win.
“We’re going to get it right,” Howard said after the loss. “We’ve just got to stay together, stay focused and get Game 2.”
Awaiting the Hornets in that second game for tonight’s home opener are the same Atlanta Hawks that cut him loose after just one season. In addition to trading Howard, Atlanta allowed All-Star forward Paul Millsap to depart to the Denver Nuggets as a free agent. The Hawks appear to be rebuilding, but Atlanta didn’t look like a team aiming for lottery balls in Dallas Wednesday as the team won its season opener. Point guard Dennis Schroder led the team with 28 points and seven assists while rookie John Collins scored 14 with five rebounds off the bench — the highest-scoring debut by a Hawks rookie since Rumeal Robinson in 1990 — including several thunderous dunks.
In the preseason, Collins addressed the low external expectations for the young Hawks.
“It’s on us to do what we need to do to get these wins,” said Collins. “The chemistry’s great. I’m not really too worried about it.”
While chemistry could help the young Hawks exceed expectations, it will play a key role in Howard’s quest to prove that he was not the root of all the ailments of his past teams. Zeller had a breakout season for the Hornets before the Howard trade moved him to the bench. With Cho declaring that Howard addressed most of the team’s offseason goals, Charlotte should be much closer to a finished product than the retooling Hawks.
Howard is in the best possible position to succeed, with a coach that believes in him and the central offensive role he says he’s been denied in the past. Howard has stated his case, and now it’s up to him to prove it on the court.