Building The NBA’s Best Defender

I get this argument all the time. Defense is better in college than in the NBA. Everyone wants to debate it. Hardly anyone ever agrees with me. They see the floor burns. They see the intensity. They see coaches screaming, players slapping the floor, fans going ballistic. Defense is not better in college. It’s different. The very best defensive players in the world – Dwight Howard, Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo, LeBron James, Andre Iguodala, etc. – would cause complete havoc in a college game. No one would score on them. No one would come close.

There are a number of reasons why defense in the NBA has changed over the years. Different rules promoting a more wide-open game. More athletic players now rely on those attributes to get them by. Less physical contact than in the 1980s and ’90s. The charge call.

I read an interesting piece this morning on about defense. The conclusion: defense in the NBA is more about physical talent than being smart or giving a lot of effort, saying:

As a result, the default assumption is that every young player will get better defensively. But understanding how to play NBA-caliber defense is only a necessary, not a sufficient, condition to being an NBA-caliber defender. If a player lacks the prototypical size or athleticism for their position, they are never going to become good at defense. They might become like Steve Nash or Dirk Nowitzki, smart veterans who know their limitations and can make crafty defensive plays. But even with Nash’s ability to take help-side charges and Dirk’s ball-swipe move in the post, both need to play with versatile defenders so they can be hid defensively.

Individual defense comes down to two main factors: foot-speed and wingspan. Elite NBA defenders all have the same profiles: great athletes with long arms. Rajon Rondo, the first-team All-Defense point guard, is a perfect example: an athletic 6’1 guard with a 6’9 wingspan.

Can you get by just on brains and positioning? Yes, if you want to be Andre Miller. But do the elite need the physical tools? The answer is quite obvious.

The top 10 defensive players last year – according to the All-Defensive Teams – were Dwight Howard, Rajon Rondo, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Tony Allen, Chris Paul, Tyson Chandler, Andre Iguodala and Joakim Noah. Only one of those guys could be lacking when it comes to defensive tools. Yet, Paul still has a wingspan over 6-4 and when tested, his speed and quickness times were off the charts. Of course, those All-Defensive Teams are really nothing more than a fraternity. You have to earn your stripes to get in, and once you do, you’ll forever have a place at dinner.

Currently, if we go by the numbers – specifically’s defensive rating (an estimate of number of points allowed per 100 possessions) – the best defensive players are Howard, Garnett, Noah, Andrew Bogut and Omer Asik. All big men. The highest perimeter players (I’m using the last two seasons of defensive ratings) are Ronnie Brewer, Gerald Wallace, Rondo, C.J. Watson and Paul Pierce. Do they all have prototypical size for their positions? Yes (also many of them hail from the same defensive schemes, which speaks to why the stat is not always foul-proof).

[Related: Andre Iguodala’s Dynamic Defensive Drills & Workout]

The best defensive players of all time are obviously freak athletes with extremely long arms and quick feet. But are those physical attributes more important than positioning and toughness? Looking at the top of the last two seasons worth of defensive ratings, I see names like Kurt Thomas, Tim Duncan, Glen Davis and Udonis Haslem, all players acclaimed for the way they play defense. They emphasize that end, and attack it despite whatever they may lack physically. But they make up the minority in the defensive apex, hawks within crowds of sparrows. Nearly everyone else is an athlete, ferociously quick, amazingly fluid, ridiculously long.

Can any player get by with the glass half full? Of course. But to really make it as a top defensive player, you better come prepared with the tools. As wrote, John Wall and Tyreke Evans have the chance to be amazing defenders (6-9 and 6-11 wingspans respectively, plus quickness) while someone like Stephen Curry doesn’t. Going by this logic, the prediction is that Curry will never be as good as those players no matter how hard he works at it. Also:

Similarly, Kevin Love‘s poor individual defense is usually written off as a function of his age. But the 6’9 forward has a wingspan of only 6’11; in comparison, LaMarcus Aldridge has a 7’5 wingspan. There’s no scenario, barring a career-ending injury for Aldridge, where Love becomes a better defensive player in the next decade.

Teams like Boston and Chicago can make anyone look like a great defender. Surrounded by gems on that end, even a lukewarm defender like Ray Allen uses osmosis to suddenly develop into something above average. But if you find yourself stuck on a squad like Golden State, Phoenix or New York, teams that overlook the defensive end, how can you stand out? Would you rather be a hard-working, nuisance… a pit bull or a flamboyantly athletic risk-taker, someone who relies on their unique gifts?

If you’re building a defense, what do you start with first: the hard working defender or the freak athlete defender?

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