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.
Reviewing the Nurkic Trade: Denver’s Perspective
The Denver Nuggets have been on a miraculous run this postseason, but that doesn’t mean that they’re infallible. Drew Maresca reviews the 2017 trade that sent Jusuf Nurkic from Denver to Portland.
The Denver Nuggets are fresh off of a 114-106 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, pulling within three wins of the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals. But what if I told you that the Nuggets’ roster could be even more talented by acting more deliberately in a trade from three years ago?
While Denver won on Tuesday night, they lost a nail bitter on Sunday – for which most of the blame has been pointed at a defensive breakdown by Nuggets’ center Mason Plumlee, who was procured in the aforementioned 2017 trade. What did it cost Denver, you ask? Just Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick.
Nurkic was a 2014-15 All-Rookie second team member. He played 139 games over 2.5 seasons in Denver, averaging 7.5 points and 5.9 rebounds in approximately 18 minutes per game. He showed serious promise, but Denver had numerous reasons to pursue a trade: he’d suffered a few relatively serious injuries early in his career (and he’s continued to be injury-prone in Portland), butted heads with head coach Michael Malone and – most importantly – the Nuggets stumbled on to Nikola Jokic.
The Nuggets eventually attempted a twin-tower strategy with both in the starting line-up, but that experiment was short-lived — with Jokic ultimately asking to move to the team’s second unit.
The Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Portland Trail Blazers in February 2017 (along with a first-round pick) in exchange for Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash considerations. Ironically, the first-round pick included in the deal became Justin Jackson, who was used to procure another center, Zach Collins – but more on that in a bit.
As of February 2017, Plumlee was considered the better player of the two. He was averaging a career-high 11 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists through 54 games – but it was clear that at 27, he’d already maximized his talent.
Conversely, Nurkic was only 23 at the time of the trade with significant, untapped upside. In his first few seasons with Portland, Nurkic averaged 15 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, while establishing himself as a rising star. As noted above, injuries have continued to be a problem. Nurkic suffered a compound fracture in his tibia and fibula in March 2019, forcing him to miss a majority of this current campaign. The COVID-19-related play stoppage in March gave Nurkic extra time to get his body right, and he returned to action in July inside the bubble.
And he did so with a vengeance. Nurkic demonstrated superior strength and footwork, and he flashed the dominance that Portland hoped he would develop, posting eight double-doubles in 18 contests. He averaged 17.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game and while his play dipped a bit in the playoffs – partially due to a matchup with first-team All-NBA star Anthony Davis – he still managed 14.2 points and 10.4 rebounds in the five-game series. So it’s fair to say that Nurkic is still on his way toward stardom.
But the Nuggets are in the conference finals – so all’s well that ends well, right? Not so fast. To his credit, Plumlee is exactly who Denver expected him to be. He’s averaged 7.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in three seasons with Denver since 2017 – but to be fair, Plumlee is asked to do less in Denver than he had in Portland. Still, it’s fairly obvious that they’re just not that comparable.
Plumlee is a good passer and an above-average defender that’ll compete hard and isn’t afraid to get dirty – but he has limitations. He doesn’t stretch the floor and he is a sub-par free throw shooter (53.5 percent in 2019-20). More importantly, he’s simply not a major offensive threat and his repertoire of moves is limited.
High-level takeaway: Defenses tend to game plan for opponents they view as major threats – Nurkic falls into this category. Other guys pack the stat sheet through putback attempts, open looks and single coverage alongside the guys for whom opposing defenses game plan – that’s a more appropriate description of Plumlee.
On to the wrench thrown in by Zach Collins’ involvement. Statistically, Collins is about as effective as Plumlee – he averaged 7 points and 6.3 rebounds through only 11 games in 2019-20 due to various injuries – and he possesses more upside. The 22-year-old is not as reliable as Plumlee but given his age and skill set, he’s a far better option as a support player playing off the bench. He stretches the floor (36.8 percent on three-point attempts in 2019-20), is an above-average free throw shooter (75 percent this season) and is a good defender. Looking past Nurkic for a moment, would the Nuggets prefer a 22-year-old center that stretches the floor and defends or a 30-year-old energy guy?
Regardless of your answer to that question, it’s hard to argue that Nurkic should have returned more than Plumlee, definitely so when you factor in the first-round pick Denver included. There is obviously more at play: Denver was probably considering trading Nurkic for some time before they acted – did they feel that they could increase his trade value prior to the trade deadline in 2016-17? Maybe. Further, Nurkic and his agent could have influenced the Nuggets’ decision at the 2017 deadline, threatening to stonewall Denver in negotiations.
Had Nurkic been more patient or the Nuggets acted sooner before it became abundantly clear that he was on the move, Denver’s roster could be even more stacked than it is now. Ultimately, the Nuggets have a plethora of talent and will be fine – while it appears that Nurkic found a long-term home in Portland, where he owns the paint offensively. Denver can’t be thrilled about assisting a division rival, but they’re still in an enviable position today and should be for years to come.
But despite that, this deal should go down as a cautionary tale – it’s not only the bottom feeders of the league who make missteps. Even the savviest of front offices overthink deals. Sometimes that works in their favor, and other times it does not.
NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong
Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.
It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.
Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.
Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.
1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.
A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.
Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part. Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.
Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.
Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.
Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.
Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.
Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.
The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.
The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.
To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.
For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.
To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.
Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.
On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.
Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?
Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.
Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.
In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.
For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.
Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards
Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.
We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.
The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.
With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.
The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.
Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old
Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.
He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.
Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.
Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old
Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.
He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.
Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.
Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old
Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.
He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.
One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old
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