For the fourth straight year, I'm selecting an Every Play Counts All-Defensive Team, using a combination of observation (in person and on TV) and advanced statistics to come up with the league's best defenders at each position. Here's the 2005-06 incarnation, 2006-07 and last year's picks here at BP. It feels like this year represents in some ways a changing of the guard, with standouts like Raja Bell and Bruce Bowen injured or losing a step defensively. It was as difficult as ever to make my picks.
As I've discussed extensively this season, defensive statistics remain very much a work in progress. The numbers I've relied on to pick this team include a defensive Wins Above Replacement Player based on a player's traditional individual statistics (defensive rebounds, blocks, steals and personal fouls) as well as his team's defense and factoring in minutes played; defensive net plus-minus, as available at 82games.com; and the PER posted by opposing players at the same position while on the court, again found at 82games.com. Together, these three numbers give a rough idea of the impact players are having on their team's defenses--especially when supplemented by scouting. Evaluating defense remains at least as much an art as science.
When the NBA's head coaches cast their All-Defensive votes, they are asked to pick two guards, two forwards and a center. Because the responsibilities for point guards and shooting guards and small forwards and power forwards are so different, I've again broken my votes down by the five positions. For the most part, I aim to keep players where they play the majority of their minutes, though I've done a little fudging to get the players I wanted represented on the first and second teams.
First Team - Rajon Rondo, Boston. At a position that is short on top-tier defenders, the arrival of young Ricky Rubio might be the only thing that keeps Rondo from being the league's best defensive point guard for a decade or so. Rondo has size and quickness, and uses them both along with a pair of hands that might be as good as any in the league. Rondo's ability to pressure the length of the court sets the tone for the Celtics' stifling defense, and he is an asset defending in the half court as well.
Second Team - Rafer Alston, Orlando. A midseason trade sent Alston from one elite defensive team to another, and while he's not the primary reason for the success of either defense, he is a contributor. Alston has developed into a very heady defensive player who is rarely caught out of position.
Chauncey Billups, Denver - It surprised me that the Nuggets have actually been much worse defensively with Billups on the floor. As usual, his counterpart numbers are solid. Billups uses his strength to his benefit on D.
Kyle Lowry, Houston - Alston's replacement with the Rockets is no slouch defensively either, and in fact Houston has defended better since adding Lowry. The former Memphis point guard is quick enough to stay with anyone in the league, though his lack of height can work against him.
Chris Paul, New Orleans - As I've written, Paul's net defensive plus-minus has made a 180 this season. Based on watching Paul--and his gaudy steals totals--I suspect last year was the fluke.
First Team - Shane Battier, Houston. Battier has actually played slightly more at small forward, but he's been primarily at shooting guard since Tracy McGrady went down at midseason and has continued to harass opposing wings. They've posted a dismal 13.3 PER against Battier at small forward, 12.7 at shooting guard. The numbers showed Battier to be a lockdown defender long before conventional wisdom caught up and he began to be recognized around the league for his D.
Second Team - Dwyane Wade, Miami. Forget everything Wade has done on offense. Blocking 1.4 shots per game from his shooting guard position might be Wade's most impressive feat this season. The only guards to top that mark, per Basketball-Reference.com, are Vince Carter and Michael Jordan. Wade has to take an occasional possession off on defense (understandable given his heavy load at the other hand), but has still been an impact defender overall for the Heat this season.
Raja Bell, Charlotte - Bell was written off as a stopper when Phoenix traded him, but he's contributed to a much-improved Bobcats defense and still has good opponent numbers.
Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers - Bryant tends to coast too much on defense to earn a spot on one of my two teams. Still, his 13.9 opponent PER is impressive. When he puts his mind to it, Bryant's as good defensively as anyone around.
Delonte West, Cleveland - West did not stand out in my breakdown of the Cavaliers' defense yesterday, but I've always liked him defensively at the off guard and his numbers are very impressive for one of the league's top defenses. Cleveland allows 6.2 fewer points per 100 possessions with West on the floor.
First Team - LeBron James, Cleveland. Even after completing yesterday's Every Play Counts column, I wasn't totally convinced that James belonged on the first team. However, his numbers are impossible to ignore. In terms of defensive value in terms of individual statistics, James is second in the entire league. The Cavaliers allow 7.2 fewer points per 100 possessions with James on the floor, and opponents post a paltry 13.2 PER against him. If there's an argument against putting James on my All-Defensive First Team, I'm not seeing it.
Second Team - Ron Artest, Houston. You could make a strong argument that Artest has been more valuable to the Rockets defensively than Battier, his partner in crime, has. Alas, he suffers from the superior competition at small forward. Adjusted plus-minus has been as positive about Artest as about Battier, though that has drawn less attention because in this case it tends to back up conventional wisdom. Even on a team filled with strong defenders, Artest has a strong -4.5 net defensive plus-minus, and opposing small forwards have gotten nothing against Houston all season long. Artest and Battier is not a combination you want to see in the playoffs if you're a Western Conference wing player.
Bruce Bowen, San Antonio - Has Bowen lost a step defensively? Yes, but as with Bell rumors of his demise are exaggerated. A lot of the problem is Bowen has become so bad on offense that the Spurs can no longer cover for him at that end, leaving Bowen playing fewer minutes. His defensive numbers are still solid, though not as spectacular as they once were.
Andre Iguodala, Philadelphia - Based on the numbers (-7.4 net defensive plus-minus, 12.4 opponent PER), Iguodala could easily have been a part of either the first or second team. His frame is ideally designed to give offensive players fits.
Gerald Wallace, Charlotte - On individual defensive stats, Wallace ranks second to James among small forwards. His athleticism manifests itself in piling up both steals and blocks.
First Team - Ben Wallace, Cleveland. The only thing that gives me pause about this pick is that Wallace has played relatively few minutes, both because of the broken leg he suffered in February that he just returned from this week and because he split time for the deep Cavaliers up front. When on the floor, Wallace was back to the kind of defensive force he was as a four-time Defensive Player of the Year in Detroit. A Cleveland defense that is always stout has been even better with Wallace on the floor, giving him a -7.3 net defensive plus-minus.
Second Team - Kevin Garnett, Boston. Last year's Every Play Counts Defensive Player of the Year has continued to excel this season, though as with Wallace injuries have limited his value. Garnett is the perfect anchor for the Celtics defense masterminded by Tom Thibodeau thanks to his ability to control the paint and step out to defend the pick-and-roll. His intensity never wanes at the defensive end of the court. Like Wallace, Garnett takes his defense from very good to elite when he is on the floor.
Andrei Kirilenko, Utah - Another top defensive forward who has been limited by injuries, Kirilenko is back to being the one-man wrecking crew he was a few years ago for the Jazz. Utah's defense improves by 8.1 points per 100 possessions with Kirilenko on the floor, making him the biggest difference-maker among all forwards.
Rashard Lewis, Orlando - Fans who watched him in Seattle would have a hard time imaging Lewis as an anchor of the league's best defensive team, but his ability to hold his own in the post (and more, given a 13.9 opponent PER) has been critical to making the Magic's undersized lineup work.
Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Milwaukee - Rare is the rookie who can step into the NBA and become an elite defender right away. Mbah a Moute has been just that at both forward positions for the Bucks, helping Scott Skiles turn the Bucks from one of the league's worst defenses into an average one overnight.
First Team and Every Play Counts Defensive Player of the Year - Dwight Howard, Orlando. While Lewis deserves credit for his play and Stan Van Gundy is a brilliant defensive architect, ultimately the fact that the Magic leads the league in Defensive Rating comes down primarily to the efforts of Howard patrolling the paint. He is a world-class shot-blocker and rebounder who has become arguably the league's most intimidating force. With his combination of size, strength, speed and quickness, Howard is almost impossible to neutralize defensively.
Second Team - Tim Duncan, San Antonio. Recurring knee problems have dropped Duncan a notch at the defensive end of the court. The Spurs have been better defensively with Duncan on the bench, though I'm willing to write that off as something of a fluke. Duncan's intelligence and positioning make up for a lot of athleticism, and his individual defensive stats remain strong. Still, this is the first time I'll have left Duncan off my First Team.
Marcus Camby, L.A. Clippers - Critics point to Camby's unwillingness to defend the pick-and-roll, and in truth Denver hasn't missed Camby defensively, much if at all. Still, only Howard surpasses Camby in terms of combining the ability to block shots and rebound.
Emeka Okafor, Charlotte - Quietly, Okafor has evolved into the anchor of a strong Bobcats defense.
Joel Przybilla, Portland - For the second straight season, injuries to Greg Oden have helped remind the rest of the league just how valuable Przybilla is defensively. Przybilla's block totals aren't off the charts, but he also doesn't play himself out of position by trying to block every shot in the paint. He's also developed into an excellent taker of charges.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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