Chasing Down The Latest NBA News
With the NBA season entering the stretch run, it looks as if Dwight Howard is well on his way to capturing his third straight Defensive Player of the Year Award. If Howard ends up winning the award, it will be well deserved. His work on the glass and as the defensive anchor for the Magic has been superb for the past three seasons and he’s been as good as ever this year, especially with the downgrade in quality of Orlando’s wing defenders this season.
But just because the Magic don’t have any lockdown defenders on the wing to make Howard’s job easier doesn’t mean they don’t exist. During this golden age of talent in the NBA during which the focus for most teams has shifted from defense to offense, those players that are capable perimeter defenders deserve a lot more credit than they have gotten of late. With guards and forwards being as skilled as ever in the NBA, the wing defenders are the ones that have the toughest tasks at hand on a nightly basis.
Howard’s defensive excellence comes much more in the way of help defense and by deterring guards from attacking him in the paint. Not to belittle his accomplishments – the way he plays that role so expertly is just brilliant to watch – but wing defenders have a lot more on their plate when it comes to playing defense. They have to keep their man, who, in today’s game, is more athletic than ever before, in front of them, preventing their bigs from having to play a Howard-like role. They have to fight through off-ball screens that opposing offenses use to free up their stars. They have to pay extra attention to their man when they don’t have the ball, playing sound help defense while also stopping a backdoor cut. And, perhaps most importantly, they have to learn how to shake it off when they play great defense only to see Kobe Bryant or Carmelo Anthony make a shot over them anyway.
But still, the most first place votes for a wing player in the Defensive Player of the Year voting last season was four for LeBron James and though Gerald Wallace ended up finishing third overall, a sign that wing players were getting a tad more recognition, Dwight Howard still ran away with things with a 110 first places votes.
This season, we’ve had a few excellent wing stoppers emerge as elite level defensive players and even though Howard has stayed on his excellent pace, I think these guys, who I’d say are the top four wing defenders in the NBA, should be giving him a run for his money for the DPotY award, even if Howard ends up taking it again.
Iguodala transformation into a top level defender is not surprising. He’s always been a great defensive player for the 76ers but their team was never all that great, diminishing his contributions a bit. But now the 76ers are a strong playoff team that has competed with just about every contender in the Eastern Conference at least once this season. Iguodala’s commitment on the defensive end has spread to his teammates and Philadelphia has slid themselves into the top 10 in defensive efficiency this season. Doug Collins deserves credit for this as well, obviously, but it’s always good for a team, especially one as young as the Sixers, to have their best player and leader work so hard on the defensive end.
Iguodala’s time with Team USA this summer has contributed to his evolution as a defensive player, in my mind. With Kevin Durant, Chauncey Billups, Derrick Rose and Lamar Odom starting alongside him, there was little need for Iguodala to contribute to the team with his scoring exploits. Instead, Iguodala excepted the challenge of being Team USA’s top defensive option and though the players he was matched up against were not quite as talented as the ones he squares off against in the NBA each night, his ability to cover a wide variety of players (from big-to-small, quick-to-strong), was impressive. Winning on such a high level gave Iguodala some top of the line experience that he had previously lacked and his time with the Team USA coaching staff most definitely gave him some additional knowledge about defending (again, as well as his time with Doug Collins).
Iguodala has put together an impressive resume this season by shutting down some of the top scorers in the NBA. The guys over at DepressedFan.com took a look at his work against some of the top scorer’s in the league and here’s what they found:
To speak nothing of Iguodala’s contributions offensively with his stellar passing and effective scoring, Iguodala has turned into a great player this season. Take a look at those numbers that the stars have put up against him. No player scored about their season average, only LeBron James shot above 40% against him (and he turned it over nine times), and those nine players combined to shoot just 27% against Iguodala. Given how incredibly talented each of those individuals are, those are fantastic numbers for Iguodala to hold them to.
82games.com keeps track of Player Efficiency Rating (PER) for all players and the players they defend and to no surprise Iguodala has one of the biggest discrepancies in the entire league when it comes to his own PER and that of his man. Iguodala has a PER of 19.6 during his time at small forward this season, which categorizes him as a “borderline all-star”. His opposition’s PER? 9.1. That means Iguodala holds his opponents way below their production levels and on the season, the production level of all of the players he’s guarded combines for a mark that resembles that of a D-Leaguer barely getting minutes in the NBA. Another way to see it: Iguodala has turned whoever he is guarding, no matter who it is, into Quentin Richardson, who has a PER of 9.3 on the season.
Iguodala averages 37.2 minutes per game this season, so he rarely comes out of games. But when he does, the 76ers witness a major dropoff defensively. According to Basketball Value, the 76ers allow 4.6 more points per 100 possessions with Iguodala on the bench than with him in the game. When Iguodala is in, Philly surrenders just 102.6 points per 100 possessions, a top 10 mark in the league. When he’s out, that number climbs to 107.2 points per 100 possessions, which would be tied for 21st worst in the league if the Sixers were forced to play without Iguodala all year. On the year, Philly’s three most effective line-ups on the defensive end of the floor (with substantial minutes logged) all feature Iguodala.
According to Synergy Sports Technology, Iguodala allows just .74 points per possession on defense, while holding his man to 35% shooting on the year. He ranks as the top defensive player in the league with more than 400 possessions defended and the top wing defender in the NBA, period. His work against spot-up shooters, pick and roll ball-handlers and wing players in isolation is all categorized statistically as “excellent.” When observing the tape on Iguodala, you can see just how well compensated he is to handle quick players, strong players and crafty players. Athletically, he’s at the top of the charts in the NBA and his defensive fundamentals are starting to match up with his physical attributes.
If any player other than Howard were to win the DPotY award this season, it’d be Iguodala and he’s definitely due for a second place finish if he doesn’t take home the hardware.
It may have taken an in-flight fight with a teammate to get Tony Allen some national attention this season, but all press is good press. And it’s about time Allen gets mentioned. After being the other Allen on the Celtics last season, Tony has emerged as a fantastic player for the Grizzlies this year and is one of the best off-season additions that any team made this summer. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, especially based on the way he played in the NBA Finals, slowing down Kobe Bryant as best as he or anyone else could, but it seems to have caught most folks off guard that Tony Allen is making a difference in the Western Conference playoff picture.
Allen is a hard-nosed defender and combines pure grit with perfect movements. He’s an extremely aggressive defender, but not an overaggressive one and walking that fine line expertly has made Allen one of the best individual defenders in the entire league.
Allen started off the season as a back-up to O.J. Mayo but after some disappointing play from Mayo, he was moved to the bench to be the key scorer on the second unit, opening up a spot for Allen. But instead of getting promoted, Allen was kept on the bench in favor of Sam Young. Allen has recently gotten his chance to start with Rudy Gay’s injury keeping him in dress clothes and his play during this stretch has been outstanding.
Not only has Allen been scoring effectively – a completely unexpected contribution – but his defense has been stellar of late. In what might have been the Grizzlies best win of the season against the Oklahoma City Thunder in early February, Allen, starting for Rudy Gay, poured in 27 points while holding Kevin Durant to four-of-13 shooting when Allen was guarding him in an overtime win for Memphis.
That kind of perimeter defense is why Memphis acquired him and he’s delivered that lockdown D so far this season. According to Synergy Sports Technology, Allen has only allowed .79 points per possession this season on defense while holding his man to 35% shooting from the floor. Though he has not played as many possessions as Iguodala, his numbers are very similar and his performance for the Grizzlies.
Allen is a seemingly tireless defender that will fight tooth and nail to play his man as tight as possible and his work on defense has helped the Grizzlies transform into one of the top 10 defensive teams in the league in terms of defensive efficiency. A year after ranking as the seventh worst defense in the league by giving up 107.6 points per 100 possessions, Memphis is now allowing just 102.6 points per 100 possessions, the 10th best mark in the NBA. And, according to BasketballValue.com, the Grizzlies are a much better defensive team with Allen on the floor than with him on the bench. With Allen on the pine, Memphis allows 106.8 points per 100 possessions, which would rank them 22nd in the league this season (tied with the Clippers). With Allen in the game, they allow a stingy 102.6 points per 100 possessions, which again is a top 10 mark.
Allen’s ability to check anybody on the wing despite being just six-foot-four is amazing. His quick hands and feet make him a hassle for anybody to deal with on the wing. It’s not just that he’s a tough defender to get by and contests every shot (which Shane Battier does expertly, only in a very calculated way rather than by mettle), but Allen makes every dribble, every pivot and every swing through tough. He’s got that underdog mentality to him every play he’s asked to guard the likes of LeBron or Durant and more often than not, he gets the best of his man.
Allen hasn’t gotten enough minutes this season to justify a real shot at the DPotY award, but if you’re making a list of the top wing defenders in the NBA, which I am, there is no way you can leave Allen off of it. He works so, so hard on that end and he’s tremendous at his job. The world may only know him for hitting O.J. Mayo on a plane, but Allen’s real claim to fame is his terrific defense.
LeBron James and Ron Artest represent a sharp contract is defensive excellence. James is an athletic marvel, perhaps the greatest to ever play the game, while Artest struggles to get more than a foot off the ground nowadays – even on the fastbreak – but makes up for it with brute strength and quick and decisive actions. In making a list of the top three wing defenders in the league, it was impossible for me to cut either of these guys out without giving Allen and Iguodala their well earned props, so these guys will share the number three spot.
Despite his many struggles this season, Artest has maintained his prowess on the defensive end. He ranks first in the NBA in isolation defense, allowing his man to shoot just 28% in one-on-one situations, and his overall defensive numbers are still very solid. Laker fans may constantly be out on Artest because of his decision making on the offensive end, but there is no denying his greatness on the defensive end. Over the course of 82-games, Artest may not be as good as once was, but in big games and during the playoffs, Artest has made up for his miscues.
Artest has been particularly effective during his time with the Lakers guarding Kevin Durant, which makes him especially valuable given how big of a threat the Thunder pose to the Lakers not only this season but also in the future. Artest famously held Durant to 35% shooting from the floor in Los Angeles’ six-game series against the Thunder during the first round of the playoffs last season as well as just 29% shooting from three-point range.
On Thursday night, Artest also did a great job defending LeBron James, forcing him to miss 10 of his 17 shots. With Andrew Bynum back behind him at full strength, Artest had his first successful game against James since joining the Lakers as Bynum was much more effective helping Ron on the drive, making his job a bit easier. This is a great sign for Los Angeles should the Heat and Lakers meet in the Finals.
Artest may be passed his physical peak and his offense may cause you to question his place in the league at times, but never forget how well Artest defends. When it’s just him against his man in isolation sets, Artest is the most effective stopper in the league according to Synergy, and the way he works on and off the ball is still inspiring when he’s locked in. The job he did on Durant in the post-season last year and LeBron (and Wade in a pinch) on Thursday night are just two prime examples of his continued production on the defensive end.
James on the other hand, is probably the more impressive defender. It’s not because he does a better job locking down his man than Artest does over the course of a 48-minute contest – on the contrary, James spends the majority of games roaming off ball – but because of how much he contributes on the other end of the floor. It probably shouldn’t be that way, but in the year of 2011, superstars are expected and allowed to take plays off on the defensive end so that they can wow us with their gifts with the ball in their hands on the other end.
That being said, I have said before that when James is locked in on the defensive side of the floor, there is not a player in the league that I would trust more to get me a guaranteed stop than James. His combination of athleticism, size and smarts are uncanny and once you see him really press his man on defense, it’s nearly impossible for that player to get space for a shot and almost entirely impossible for them to get by him without a screen. James can be effective as an off-ball defender that reads the passing lane and picks up steals – which creates offense on the break – but when he wants to, he can easily be the best perimeter defender in the league.
As I noted before, James received the most first-place votes among wing players for the DPotY award last season. Skeptics of James commonly quipped that James only received votes for the award because of his fancy chase down blocks that wind up on highlight reels around the world once he’s completed him. While the chase down block is certainly the most freakishly athletic play LeBron consistently pulls of and though it is a perfect representation of his athletic dominance, it doesn’t paint the whole picture as far as LeBron’s defense is concerned.
James may be caught on the weakside checking the likes of Trevor Ariza or Ron Artest or some other offensively inept player for the majority of games, but make no mistake about it, when he’s locked in, he’s one of the toughest defenders to score on in the entire league.
Stopping a guard or forward is one of the toughest tasks given out in the NBA today. With the league quickly shifting into an offensive oriented, guard dominated league, the amount of times an offensive player like Carmelo Anthony or Kevin Durant has to put their mark on the game are almost limitless, and it’s up to guys like Iguodala, Allen, Artest and James to stop them. It’s an incredibly difficult task, but it’s one that each of these guys (excluding LeBron when he’s playing off-ball) are almost always up to.
Saying that any of these four guys are definitely more impactful than Dwight Howard on the defensive end of the floor would be wrong and I am certain that Howard will capture his third straight DPotY award this season. But with any of these four players, an argument could be made to put them at least on par with Howard’s level of defensive dominance. So when the season’s over and this award is handed out, or even if you’re just discussing the topic of “best defender in the NBA” with your friends, don’t forget about Andre Iguodala, Tony Allen, Ron Artest and LeBron James and all the other wing defenders that didn’t make this list but still face the daunting task of shutting down Kobe after they bring up Superman.