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The rise in talent at the point guard position over the past few years has been astronomical. It started with a Kobe/LeBron like battle between Deron Williams and Chris Paul and has evolved to a point where almost team in the league has an above average talent at the point guard spot. In most cases, skill has been sacrificed for unique and often time superhuman corporeal attributes. The speed of these incredible athletes is the most obvious advancement in physical abilities since the Magic Johnson/Isiah Thomas era. It’s never been tougher to guard a position than attempting to stay in front of today’s point guard crop.
We’ve seen defensive specialists at nearly every position in the NBA. Guys like Thabo Sefolosha, Shawn Marion and Dominic McGuire’s roles on their respective teams are to lock down the opposition’s best offensive player on the perimeter while players like Ekpe Udoh, Joel Anthony and Samuel Dalembert don’t have much responsibility outside shutting down the paint. But the one position with a noticeable dearth of capable defensive stoppers is point guard.
Aside from the fact that guarding these point guards is incredibly difficult, that is due in large part to the inherent responsibilities the point guard position. At shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha is allowed to act as a secondary threat on offense while Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant run the show and Sefolosha focuses on his defense. A good defensive point guard isn’t afforded that luxury because of the offensive duties the position often comes with. Most teams can’t afford to have their floor general lack the ability to make plays for others on offense. That is to say that the majority of NBA teams wouldn’t be able to succeed with a Derek Fisher-type offensive contribution from their lead guard.
Hit the jump for the rest of Mark’s piece…
Very few point guards succeed on the defensive end individually. There are a few point guards that excel within their team’s defensive scheme like Mike Conley, but for the most part they’re just as vulnerable to being torched as anyone because of the talent their opposition possesses. Virtually everyone blows by each other nowadays because of how incredibly difficult it is to keep these athletes from attacking the paint. A lot of NBA teams have been trying to stick long and athletic small forwards on point guards like Marion or Nicolas Batum in hopes of containing their dribble penetration and corralling their passing lanes. Even so, there are very few teams with defensive weapons like that, leaving their point guard position extremely vulnerable even if they have a star at the helm.
That said, there are a couple of teams that have had some great success playing two defense bulldogs at point guard this season, and it’s played a big part in their respective success defensively. Avery Bradley and Iman Shumpert had inauspicious starts to their careers – Bradley playing just five minutes per game in his rookie season and Shumpert being forced into the point guard role right away this year, which wasn’t suited for him – but they’ve carved out a nice niche of late as two of the best, if not the best, defensive players at the point guard position.
Bradley has very few discernible skills offensively. He’s not a good shooter (27% from deep on the year) , he’s a poor ball-handler (13.6% turnover rate) and not an adept creator (just a 16.8% assist rate). His lone NBA level skill is his defense and during his rookie season Doc Rivers didn’t find that enough of a reason to fit him into the line-up. But when Delonte West left in the off-season (and was replaced by a below average Keyon Dooling) and Rajon Rondo ran into a few injuries this year, Bradley finally got an extended chance to prove himself.
He did well during his trial run, unleashing his persistent and annoying full-court pressure on the league’s top notch point guards with a surprising degree of success. The full court press is rarely seen at the NBA level because of how quickly NBA athletes can get the ball up the floor but when it’s just one player putting pressure on his man, pressing can be effective. Bradley’s lightning quick lateral movements give Rivers a great change of pace look to give the opposition. Any team’s point guard already has to deal with Rondo’s ball hawking defense so to have a back-up just as energetic and displeasing to face is a nice weapon.
According to BasketballValue.com, when Bradley is off the floor, the Boston Celtics allow 101.15 points per 100 possessions. That mark is above average. When Bradley is on the floor, the Celtics allow just 95.01 points per 100 possessions. That mark is absolutely elite. The only two players with better on-court defensive ratings are Taj Gibson and Omer Asik. The only point guard in his stratosphere is Jason Kidd, who has a defensive rating of 99.01.
Of units with at least 31 minutes played this season, Bradley, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Jermaine O’Neal have the fifth best defensive rating at 80.28. For comparison’s sake, that same line-up with Rondo at point instead of Bradley, albeit in 130 more minutes, has a defensive rating of 91.41. Another top 25 unit features Rajon Rondo, Bradley, Pierce, Brandon Bass and Kevin Garnett, which is a line-up the Celtics have been going to a lot recently. In 122 minutes that group has allowed a microscopic 85.84 points per 100 possessions.
Bradley’s Synergy numbers are impressive, too. Of players with at least 350 defensive possessions this season, Avery Bradley ranks fourth in points per possession allowed at just 0.716. The only play that have allowed fewer points per possession are Kevin Garnett, Brandon Bass and Omer Asik. The only other point guard in the top 10 is Derrick Rose, who has allowed 0.742 ppp this season. Not far behind is Bradley’s backcourt mate Rajon Rondo at 0.75 ppp. Paul Pierce ranks 22nd overall and Ray Allen is 26th overall. To summarize: Of the top 26 players with at least 350 defensive possessions, six are Boston Celtics, including three of the top four and Bradley is the top defensive guard in the league. Not too shabby, Doc.
A year after playing just five minutes a game in 31 contests while shooting 34% from the field, Bradley has found his place in this league by playing excellent and rare defense on the league’s best point guards. After seeing what he can do to some of the NBA’s best ball-handlers with his one-man full-court press, I’d love to see what he was doing to his high school opponents.
As Ian touched on yesterday, New York City gives it’s draft picks an incredibly tough time until they prove themselves. Things are even worse for the Knicks, a team that has only one of their draft picks since 2000 on their roster right now (although they did trade a few of them to get Carmelo). When they drafted Iman Shumpert out of Georgia Tech his character was called into question, his game was nitpicked, and his future was doubted. The former Yellow Jacket got off to an OK start but as Toney Douglas quickly entered into a funk, Shumpert was forced into the starting point guard role in Mike D’Antoni’s offense, a role that couldn’t suit him worse. The results weren’t pretty, with a six turnover (just three assists) and 5-for-20 shooting performance against Memphis being the peak of his failures as a lead guard.
Jeremy Lin’s emergence wasn’t only extremely beneficial to his own NBA future, it also allowed Shumpert to go back to his natural role as on off ball guard with a specialization in defense. Even now that Lin is out, with Mike Woodson running the ISO-Joe offense for Carmelo, Shumpert’s offensive role is still limited, especially as a playmaker. Also encouraging is Shumpert’s 37% shooting mark from downtown in his last 20 games, showing his improvement as an off-ball threat.
Shumpert has emerged as Tyson Chandler’s best friend. Now there’s at least a fighting chance that Chandler won’t have to fend off the paint on every single possession as Shumpert acts as New York’s most capable perimeter defender. Shumpert’s overall Synergy numbers aren’t incredible, mostly because his partner on pick-and-rolls has been Amare Stoudemire a ton of times this season, an obstacle few can overcome. When you look at Shumpert’s defensive numbers in one-on-one situations you get a much better picture of his defensive capabilities.
As you can see, Shumpert ranks as the fifth best isolation defender for players that have been isolated at least 75 times this season. To see him in the company of LeBron James and Tyson Chandler is extremely impressive (same goes for Rockets rookie Chandler Parsons). Shumpert holds his man to 28% shooting in one-on-one scenarios and he forces turnovers 28% of the time, which is the highest mark in the league. On the year Shumpert ranks fifth in the NBA in steals per game and sixth in steals per 48 minutes.
And so you can get an idea of who Shumpert is locking up, here are his numbers against a few choice stars, per Synergy Sports Technology:
Kyrie Irving: 3-of-10 shooting, two turnovers
Kobe Bryant: 3-of-11 shooting, one turnover
Derrick Rose: 8-of-38 shooting, six turnovers
Undoubtedly, the most eye popping stat there is Shumpert’s tremendous success against the league’s reigning MVP, and that’s as bad as you’ll see Rose’s numbers against anyone, but I think all three of those results illustrates Shumpert’s tremendous defensive versatility. He can guard the fastest point guard in the game, a creative and shifty athlete like Irving and an all-world scorer like Bryant. Shumpert has great size and athleticism that provides an advantage on smaller point guards and his upper body strength allows him to effectively check shooting guards. Shumpert is one of the best defenders in basketball and he’s one of the biggest reasons the Knicks are still in the playoff hunt.
Defending NBA point guards is perhaps the most difficult task in basketball and there are very few that do it well. So even if there are shortcomings in Bradley and Shumpert’s total package, their ability to check today’s floor generals will keep them in the league for a long, long time.
Photo Credits: US Presswire