At the beginning of January, everybody was wondering what was wrong with the Celtics. Had Doc Rivers ridden his veterans too hard? Had Boston simply gotten too old? Was the bench short a couple of players? These are the kind of questions that invariably rise when a team loses seven out of nine games.
Funny thing, those slumps. Good teams go into funks. Bad teams get hot--Memphis won five of six at one point this season. Houston, a good but not great team, won 22 in a row last season. You never know until well after a streak or slump has receded whether the stretch indicated something real.
In the Celtics' case, their slump turned out to simply be a bump in the road. Boston won its 11th straight game when it beat Minnesota on Sunday, upping its league-best record to 40-9. In other words, the Celtics have sandwiched a 38-2 season around their 2-7 slump. During their current streak, the Celtics have outscored their opponents by 15 points per game and upped their season differential to a heady +9.9 points per game. Not surprisingly, Boston has closed in on the top spot on the Hoops List.
For the second season in a row, Boston leads the NBA in defensive efficiency, standing 1.3 points per 100 possesions better than second-place Orlando. In honor of that emphasis on defense, as we zip through the Hoops List today, let's pay special attention to the best, and worst, defenders on each team according to NBAPET.
I'll be referencing positional ranking throughout today's List, so a word of explanation is in order. Since NBAPET exists as an individual player win-estimator, I go back and forth as to the best way to extract the various data in order to establish a rating that strictly measures individual defense. Here's the method I settled upon today: Individual points allowed per 100 possessions adjusted for position and usage.
Also, the playing time cut-off to receive a ranking is 30% of available minutes. Here are the number of qualifying players by position: PG-49, SG-45, SF-51, PF-46, C-39.
RANK (Last Week) Team (Power rating) [ WIN PACE / PYTHAGOREAN PACE / PRESEASON PROJECTION ]
(Statistics through Feb. 1)
1. (1) Cleveland Cavaliers (65.8) [ 65 / 67 / 44 ]
Rankings: NET: 1; OFF: 3; DEF: 3; PACE: 25
The Cavs are third in the league in defensive efficiency, so you'd expect some lofty individual rankings. Indeed, that's what you find. Delonte West ranks second in the league among shooting guards, Ben Wallace fourth among power forwards and LeBron James tenth among small forwards. The only rotation player with a low ranking is backup point guard Daniel Gibson, who clocks in at No. 42.
2. (3) Boston Celtics (65.4) [ 66 / 66 / 63 ]
Rankings: NET: 2; OFF: 5; DEF: 1; PACE: 18
Last season, Kevin Garnett dominated NBAPET's defensive ratings. This year, he's fallen off, ranking seventh among power forwards. Kendrick Perkins (fourth at center) and Paul Pierce (fifth at small forward) rank higher at their respective positions. Boston's backcourt of Ray Allen (15th) and Rajon Rondo (16th) are in the top 20 at their positions.
3. (4) Orlando Magic (61.4) [ 64 / 63 / 43 ]
Rankings: NET: 3; OFF: 4; DEF: 2; PACE: 10
The Magic have risen to second in defensive efficiency. Many feel that Dwight Howard is a favorite to win the defensive player of the year award. NBAPET has Howard at No. 13 out of 39 centers. However, Jameer Nelson is the top-ranked defensive point guard while wing players Hedo Turkoglu, Keith Bogans and Courtney Lee all rank in the top ten at their positions. What may be happening with Howard's spike in blocked shots is that he's become so adept at cleaning up the messes of his teammates that he's neglecting his primary defensive assignment. Whatever is happening in Orlando, it's working, so if Howard were to win DPOY honors, I wouldn't complain.
4. (2) Los Angeles Lakers (61.4) [ 65 / 62 / 49 ]
Rankings: NET: 4; OFF: 1; DEF: 4; PACE: 5
The Lakers slid on the defensive end after a dominant showing early in the season. However, L.A. has leveled off as the fourth-ranked defense, plenty good enough to get them a title given its top-ranked offense. Individually, Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Vladimir Radmanovic, Pau Gasol and Sasha Vujacic all rank between 12 and 19 at their positions. Andrew Bynum, who has L.A. fans waiting with bated breath in regards to his knee injury, is 33rd out of 39 centers.
5. (6) Denver Nuggets (53.6) [ 54 / 51 / 43 ]
Rankings: NET: 6; OFF: 9; DEF: 7; PACE: 4
The Nuggets are greatly improved defensively this year despite losing a perceived defensive ace in Marcus Camby. Carmelo Anthony ranks 18th of 51 small forwards, apparently deserving the credit he's gotten for an improved commitment to defense. The top-ranked Nuggets defender is backup point guard Anthony Carter (tenth) who has outshined Chauncey Billups (24th), though Billups has faced a tougher caliber of opposition.
6. (7) Portland Trail Blazers (53.4) [ 51 / 52 / 38 ]
Rankings: NET: 5; OFF: 2; DEF: 18; PACE: 30
The Blazers have climbed from 30th a few weeks ago to 18th in defensive efficiency. Give credit to three top-10 starters: Steve Blake (seventh), LaMarcus Aldridge (sixth) and Nicholas Batum (ninth). Greg Oden, drafted to be the neo-Bill Russell, is the 29th-ranked center, 10 spots behind backup Joel Przybilla.
7. (5) New Orleans Hornets (52.3) [ 52 / 50 / 45 ]
Rankings: NET: 8; OFF: 8; DEF: 11; PACE: 28
It wouldn't be at all surprising if Chris Paul had a poor defensive ranking. After all, he leads the league in steals which can often indicate a gambling defender who is constantly out of position. Paul ranks fifth among point guards. The guy is simply good at everything. The lowest ranked starter is Rasual Butler, the No. 25 shooting guard. If you can't score and can't defend, why are you playing?
8. (9) San Antonio Spurs (51.1) [ 57 / 50 / 55 ]
Rankings: NET: 7; OFF: 11; DEF: 5; PACE: 26
The Spurs are another team that has steadily improved its defensive ranking as the season has progressed. Now up to fifth in defensive efficiency, this is once again the Spurs we're all too familiar with. Tim Duncan, true to his reputation, is the top-ranked defensive power forward. I know, I know, he's really a center. He is thus flagged in NBAPET in his game-by-game defensive matchups. His primary listed position, nevertheless, is power forward, so that's where I list his ranking. He'd be the No. 1 defensive center if I listed him there, too. Tony Parker ranks 33rd among point guards and Manu Ginobili 41st at two-guard, indications that their health issues have been more of a factor on the defensive end of the floor. It's also why I don't think Parker belongs in the All-Star Game.
9. (8) Houston Rockets (49.2) [ 49 / 49 / 61 ]
Rankings: NET: 11; OFF: 16; DEF: 6; PACE: 20
It may be a result of missed cross-matchups, but Tracy McGrady is the top-ranked defensive shooting guard. Luis Scola is No. 3 at power forward and Shane Battier No. 7 at small forward. On the downside, Yao Ming is 25th at center. He gets lots of hype on Rockets broadcasts for his improved defensive presence, but I'll be darned if I can find evidence of it.
10. (10) Atlanta Hawks (46.7) [ 47 / 46 / 38 ]
Rankings: NET: 10; OFF: 10; DEF: 14; PACE: 21
Mike Bibby and Joe Johnson have teamed to carry the Hawks all season. Not surprisingly, that translates to the defensive end, where they both rank fourth at their respective positions. Al Horford, who nearly won the Rookie of the Year award last season because of his defense, ranks 28th at center, with his lack of size for the position possibly catching up to him.
11. (13) Dallas Mavericks (45.3) [ 48 / 44 / 51 ]
Rankings: NET: 12; OFF: 12; DEF: 15; PACE: 14
The Mavericks are average defensively and their individual rankings reflect that. The exception is Jason Kidd, who ranks sixth among point guards.
12. (12) Utah Jazz (44.4) [ 44 / 46 / 50 ]
Rankings: NET: 9; OFF: 7; DEF: 16; PACE: 12
The Jazz haven't been consistently solid on defense this season and apparently the issue is interior defense. Deron Williams (No. 3 at point guard) and Ron Brewer (No. 8 at shooting guard) are excelling in the backcout. However, supposed defensive specialist Andrei Kirilenko is No. 42 out of 51 small forwards.
13. (11) Phoenix Suns (44.2) [ 45 / 42 / 49 ]
Rankings: NET: 13; OFF: 6; DEF: 22; PACE: 6
Shaquille O'Neal ranks 34th out of 39 centers, which dampens reports of his widely-reported rejuvenation. On the happy side, Jason Richardson is fifth at shooting guard, spreading his performance between Charlotte and Pheonix.
14. (15) Miami Heat (42.2) [ 44 / 41 / 35 ]
Rankings: NET: 14; OFF: 20; DEF: 10; PACE: 19
Why am I so hyped about rookie Mario Chalmers? He's the second-ranked defensive point guard. It's not a matter of cross-matching--Dwyane Wade is No. 3 at shooting guard. Shawn Marion (No. 8) is also highly ranked. However, non-entity center Joel Anthony is 35th-ranked among big men.
15. (14) Philadelphia 76ers (42.2) [ 41 / 42 / 38 ]
Rankings: NET: 16; OFF: 22; DEF: 8; PACE: 16
The Sixers are underrated defensively, ranking eighth in defensive efficiency. They are led by four top-ten individual defensive rankings: Elton Brand (fifth), Andre Iguodala (seventh), Louis Williams (ninth) and Samuel Dalembert (ninth). Rookie Marreese Speights is second from the bottom among 46 power forwards.
16. (17) Detroit Pistons (40.4) [ 44 / 40 / 55 ]
Rankings: NET: 17; OFF: 21; DEF: 13; PACE: 29
This is not your daddy's Pistons. Tayshaun Prince, who nearly always scores well defensively both in terms of advanced metrics and in the court of conventional wisdom, is No. 34 at small forward. He's played a lot of power forward this year, which isn't broken out in NBAPET, so that may be undermining his numbers. However, you can't ignore the fact that Detroit has dropped from fourth to 13th in the defensive standings.
17. (16) Milwaukee Bucks (40.0) [ 38 / 41 / 31 ]
Rankings: NET: 15; OFF: 19; DEF: 12; PACE: 13
How has Scott Skiles coerced a No. 12 defensive ranking from a team that was historically bad in 2007-08? The fact that Michael Redd, now out for the season, ranks 11th at shooting guard speaks volumes about that ascension. Also, Andrew Bogut, not known as a defensive center, ranks fifth at his position.
18. (19) Chicago Bulls (36.0) [ 35 / 34 / 43 ]
Rankings: NET: 19; OFF: 23; DEF: 17; PACE: 7
It's hard to make heads or tails about the Bulls' defensive ranking. Overall, they are a below average group. However, Luol Deng is the second-ranked small forward. Meanwhile, Andres Nocioni ranks 51st--last--at the same position. However, Nocioni plays alongside Deng much of the time. The Bulls' rankings are all over the map, which kind of underscores the problems with that team. It's just a collection of talent and few players are filling specific roles.
19. (18) Indiana Pacers (36.0) [ 32 / 34 / 41 ]
Rankings: NET: 20; OFF: 18; DEF: 20; PACE: 3
There's just one player to highlight here: T.J. Ford ranks 48th of 49 point guards, not good for a player who isn't particularly efficient on offense, either.
20. (23) New York Knicks (35.9) [ 37 / 35 / 33 ]
Rankings: NET: 21; OFF: 17; DEF: 24; PACE: 2
The Knicks aren't great defensively, but they do have a couple of players faring suprisingly well. Despite playing out of position, David Lee ranks 15th at center. Even better, Quentin Richardson is the fourth-ranked shooting guard. On the flip side, Wilson Chandler stands at No. 45 among small forwards.
21. (20) Toronto Raptors (35.1) [ 31 / 33 / 42 ]
Rankings: NET: 18; OFF: 14; DEF: 21; PACE: 17
The Raptors don't have a natural center, so the rankings of their big men are hard to read. Chris Bosh ranks as the No. 1 defensive center, but he plays just as often at power forward. Jermaine O'Neal is 36th at center, which is easy to believe given the decline in his physical skills. The supposed defensive standouts for Toronto grade out well. Jamario Moon is tenth at small forward and Anthony Parker is 13th among shooting guards.
22. (22) Charlotte Bobcats (34.4) [ 33 / 34 / 38 ]
Rankings: NET: 22; OFF: 27; DEF: 9; PACE: 27
Did you know that the Bobcats ranked ninth in defensive efficiency? Well, now you do. The Bobcats were 21st on defense last season. Leading the improvement is recently-injured Gerald Wallace, who is second at small forward. Raja Bell is No. 11 at shooting guard.
23. (21) New Jersey Nets (32.0) [ 35 / 32 / 38 ]
Rankings: NET: 23; OFF: 15; DEF: 27; PACE: 23
I've criticized the defense of Devin Harris and Vince Carter all season and I see no reason to stop now. However, it's not as bad as it was. Harris is 25th at point guard and Carter 29th at shooting guard. The standout is rookie center Brook Lopez, who is No. 7 at his position.
24. (24) Minnesota Timberwolves (30.7) [ 28 / 31 / 26 ]
Rankings: NET: 25; OFF: 24; DEF: 26; PACE: 11
The Wolves continue to play well, but aren't close to overcoming their dreadful start. Defensively, only four teams are worse on the season. Kevin Love ranks last among power forwards. On the encouraging side, Al Jefferson is 19th at center, almost right smack in the middle of the standings. When you consider how strong Jefferson has played on the offensive end, that makes for a pretty good all-around player. Just think how good he'd be if he played alongside a defensively-oriented center like Samuel Dalembert.
25. (25) Golden State Warriors (27.2) [ 25 / 28 / 35 ]
Rankings: NET: 24; OFF: 13; DEF: 29; PACE: 1
The Warriors play little defense as a team so it's not surprising that their individual rankings are poor. Not terrible are Andris Biedrins (14th at center) and Stephen Jackson (16th at small forward). Measuring Jackson's defense is difficult because he'll guard just about anybody.
26. (28) Washington Wizards (20.3) [ 17 / 21 / 32 ]
Rankings: NET: 29; OFF: 26; DEF: 28; PACE: 22
DeShawn Stevenson is the tenth-ranked shooting guard, living up to his defensive reputation in a season in which his team's defense is awful and his own offense has been just as bad. That's about the only good news in regards to Washington's defense.
27. (30) Oklahoma City Thunder (19.6) [ 18 / 24 / 23 ]
Rankings: NET: 27; OFF: 29; DEF: 23; PACE: 8
Kevin Durant (No. 14) and Jeff Green (No. 7) have grown by leaps on both ends of the floor. The Thunder's recent improvement has been tied directly to better play on the defensive end.
28. (26) Memphis Grizzlies (18.7) [ 19 / 21 / 19 ]
Rankings: NET: 26; OFF: 28; DEF: 25; PACE: 24
Darrell Arthur, O.J. Mayo, Marc Gasol and Rudy Gay are all in the top 20 at their positions. However, Memphis' young point guards, Kyle Lowry and Mike Conley, rank 44th and 46th, respectively, at their position.
29. (27) Los Angeles Clippers (18.7) [ 17 / 19 / 33 ]
Rankings: NET: 28; OFF: 30; DEF: 19; PACE: 15
True to their reps: Marcus Camby is the third-ranked center. Baron Davis is No. 47 at point guard. Overall, the Clippers have been semi-respectable on defense, but points on offense have been hard to come by.
30. (29) Sacramento Kings (18.4) [ 18 / 18 / 39 ]
Rankings: NET: 30; OFF: 25; DEF: 30; PACE: 9
There is a little good news here. However, Spencer Hawes ranks second at center. Second. Of course, most of that has come against other team's second units.
NBAPET = stands for National Basketball Association Projection, Evaluation and Tracking = A database and system of metrics for analyzing professional basketball.
gRATE = a one-game metric that measures a player's offensive and defensive contribution and expresses it as a net point total. The sum of a team's gRATE figures for a game will equal its actual point differential for that game.
Adjusted winning percentage (AWP) = ((home wins x 0.6)+(road wins x 1.4)) / (((home wins x 0.6)+(road wins x 1.4)) + ((home losses x .1.4)+(road losses x 0.6)))
Opponents winning percentage (OWP) = aggregate percentage of games won for each team's opponents, based on the number of times the team has faced that opponent.
Pythagorean winning percentage (PYTH) = uses the basketball-reference formula of Games x (Points scored^14) / ((Points scored^14) + (Points allowed^14))
Power rating = (((PYTH + AWP)/2)*(OWP/.500)) x 82
WP82 = wins produced per 82 games, adjusted for playing time
WP3K = wins produced per 3,000 minutes
RANKINGS: NET = net efficiency ratio; OFF - offensive efficiency; DEF - defensive efficiency; PACE: average possessions per game
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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