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NBA Player Defensive Ratings

Measuring individual defensive player contributions has been arguably the most glaring deficiency of existing NBA statistics. Sure we get tossed a few numbers on blocks and steals, and a beat report will on occasion reference the job a particular player did in shutting down an opposing scorer, but by and large a lot of the defensive kudos that get bandied about are based as much on reputation as on fact.

Ahem, we intend to change that.

Now, maybe not today, probably not even this season, but if all goes well then next year we expect to roll out if not the definitive defensive rating scheme, then the best thing that's been seen to date. Right now what we can publish is a work in progress.

Let's address some of the nuances to what we are trying to achieve here:

  • One on One Defense: measure how well a player guards his man-to-man assignment.
  • Help Defense: can the player make defensive stops away from his man.
  • On/Off Team Defense: what impact does the player have on his team's overall defense when he is on the floor.
We could consider adding in a "clutch" defense metric, perhaps something looking at defense in transition versus half-court, defense in a zone versus a man-to-man assignment, and other additional valuable pieces to the puzzle.

A big question though is what exactly do we mean by defense? Is that just defending the shot? Hardly! Denying a player the ball, forcing turnovers, limiting assists, and even rebounding must be considered.

Yes rebounding. As Dean Oliver has said, offensive rebounding is an offensive skill, defensive rebounding is a defensive skill. Moreover, part of a player's defensive responsibility is to not only grab rebounds, but to prevent his opponent from getting offensive ones.

So, stand back, enter at your own risk...here come the first pass defensive ratings!

(All stats reflect games played through March 3rd of the 2003-2004 season, and generally we require a player to have a minimum of 700 minutes of playing time on the year.)

1) Top NBA One-on-One Defenders
The NBA hasn't bothered to create a full array of individual defensive stats. That's where we come in. We are allocating defensive credits and blame for the events on the floor for all the pertinent areas - shots taken and made, assists, turnovers, free throws, and rebounds.

With regards to rebounds since the expected production is so dependent on the position, we are measuring a player's own defensive rebounds versus the offensive rebounds of his adversary and comparing that to the league norms to come up with an "offensive rebounds allowed" number. A negative "ORA" means the player has restricted his opponent to getting less offensive rebounds than would be expected -- a good thing!

Now the key problem with these ratings it can be argued is that they don't measure the caliber of the opponent who is being guarded. Indeed some of the guys with strong defensive reputations end up guarding the opposition's strongest scorer on a consistent basis which means that their personal rating is harmed while a lesser defender teammate may be reaping the benefits. Likewise, defense is never solely an individual endeavor, since having Yao Ming behind you can make a big difference in the way you play a man on the perimeter. Finally, a player's defensive prowess is being gauged as the defense at that position. Ron Artest may be a fabulous defender, but we would hardly expect him to guard Shaq, and neither would a smart coach ask Shaq to guard Steve Francis at the three-point line.

Nevertheless, even with acknowledged flaws, and without delving into the depths of how these ratings are calculated, here are the current leaders in man defense.

Notes: These stats measure the performance of the opponent the player is adjudged to be guarding. eFG = "effective field goal percentage" adjusted for 3pt shots made, ORA = offensive rebounds allowed compared to league averages.

Rk
Player
Team
Rtg
FGM
FGA
eFG
FTM
FTA
Ast
T/O
OReb
ORA
1
 Duncan
SAS
67.4
261
727
.369
115
158
98
99
164
-54
2
 Garnett
MIN
68.3
335
891
.389
194
243
140
151
163
-126
3
 Camby
DEN
69.6
231
581
.403
116
171
91
118
123
-46
4
 Dalembert
PHI
71.0
171
492
.350
105
185
59
83
158
38
5
 O'Neal
LAL
71.6
192
497
.389
69
105
67
51
119
-23
6
 Wallace
DET
72.5
333
797
.423
141
202
97
170
213
-26
7
 Cato
HOU
73.1
217
589
.380
125
183
91
86
108
-16
8
 Haywood
WAS
73.6
116
315
.370
58
84
45
51
75
18
9
 Martin
NJN
74.3
274
671
.423
146
191
112
133
115
-59
10
 Gadzuric
MIL
74.5
118
320
.373
90
121
43
65
81
5
11
 Nesterovic
SAS
74.9
210
538
.393
104
171
85
95
129
12
12
 O'Neal
IND
75.7
307
779
.399
155
211
113
97
159
-30
13
 Kirilenko
UTA
76.0
280
740
.404
170
218
127
166
126
3
14
 Ginobili
SAS
76.2
238
578
.455
113
149
124
157
44
-41
15
 Artest
IND
76.7
242
580
.454
98
135
150
158
72
-21
16
 Ratliff
ATL
77.6
214
585
.369
100
152
80
68
166
48
17
 Campbell
DET
77.9
82
211
.393
51
73
42
34
54
0
18
 Prince
DET
77.9
306
774
.425
107
139
142
108
78
-29
19
 Tinsley
IND
78.0
109
295
.402
61
75
155
79
22
-9
20
 Mutombo
NYK
78.0
206
536
.387
102
137
77
54
116
-1
21
 Ming
HOU
78.1
245
622
.397
127
199
70
60
160
-3
22
 Dampier
GSW
78.2
266
632
.423
95
158
97
72
169
-13
23
 Thomas
WAS
78.8
167
425
.404
84
112
75
66
111
7
24
 Andersen
DEN
79.3
150
365
.419
78
105
42
68
88
8
25
 Kidd
NJN
79.4
290
703
.467
115
142
314
161
28
-103

The first thing to notice is that the list is dominated by big men. This is in some ways acceptable since it is much tougher to score over a big man then a small man, but may reflect a bias in the big guys getting too much credit for the blocks they make on the instances where a player they were initially not guarding has the audacity to venture into the paint.

At a glance though the ratings seem to pass the so called "laugh test" as players with huge defensive reputations like Duncan, Ben Wallace, Artest, Kirilenko, Prince and Ming wind up in the top echelon. So far, so good. Ah, but as we alluded to at the start, we think putting an emphasis on a player's influence on the overall team defense is of vital consideration as well.

2) On Court Defensive Impact
A simple number is the team defense in terms of points allowed per 100 possessions while a player is on the floor.
Rank
Player
Team
Pts/Poss
1
 Foster
IND
94.3
2
 Horry
SAS
94.3
3
 Tinsley
IND
94.4
4
 Collins
NJN
94.4
5
 Nesterovic
SAS
95.4
6
 Turkoglu
SAS
95.4
7
 Bowen
SAS
95.6
8
 Duncan
SAS
96.1
9
 Martin
NJN
96.3
10
 Kidd
NJN
96.4

The weakness of this measure is immediately evident -- it's too much a reflection of the team, and not specific enough to the player. All ten spots are grabbed by just three teams, and looking at the top 20 instead doesn't expand the view much.

Defense is also influenced by the offense -- a team that looks to run, or aggressively goes after offensive rebounds can weaken the defense at the other end.

3) On Court versus Off Court Team Defense
In light of the problems with the raw look then, a better look would be based on the performance of the team defensively (points allowed per 100 possessions) when the player is on court versus when he is on the bench.
Rk
Player
Team
ON
OFF
Net
1
 Peeler
SAC
99.1  109.8 
-10.7
2
 Outlaw
MEM
97.9  107.7 
-9.8
3
 Garnett
MIN
100.2  109.4 
-9.2
4
 James
SEA
103.9  112.4 
-8.6
5
 Foster
IND
94.3  102.3 
-8.0
6
 Nene
DEN
101.6  109.3 
-7.7
7
 Watson
MEM
99.8  107.3 
-7.5
8
 Collins
NJN
94.4  101.8 
-7.4
9
 Ratliff
ATL
102.7  109.9 
-7.2
10
 Davis
NOH
102.9  110.1 
-7.2
11
 Lopez
UTA
102.2  109.1 
-6.9
12
 Cato
HOU
97.2  104.0 
-6.8
13
 Abdur-Rahim
ATL
103.6  110.5 
-6.8
14
 Simmons
LAC
105.6  112.4 
-6.8
15
 Jackson
HOU
98.9  105.6 
-6.7
16
 Anderson
POR
104.0  110.6 
-6.6
17
 Malone
LAL
99.5  105.8 
-6.3
18
 Hassell
MIN
99.2  105.4 
-6.2
19
 Tinsley
IND
94.4  100.4 
-6.0
20
 Curry
TOR
97.6  103.3 
-5.7

Peeler was used as a defensive stopped in Minnesota last season, and is reacquainted with the role this year in Sacto. Bo Outlaw is another unsung hero who can be a force on the defensive end (Phoenix's prospects for this season went downhill the moment he was traded).

We also catch a number of players with good defensive work ethics in the likes of Foster, Nene, Ratliff, Hassell and Curry.

A number of the players making the top twenty could be considered under-rated, but not all of them have strong overall effects for the team since their offensive shortcomings in some cases seriously detract from their defensive strengths.

4) Forcing Turnovers
On defense it might be said that the sequence of events a defender can bring about from best scenario to worst runs like this: turnover, missed shot, pass, free throws, made field goal. With a turnover, the opponent has been completely stopped, and in the cases of steals the ensuing possession has a higher than expected value for the team making the theft. Consequently there is emphasis around the league on finding players who can force turnovers.
Rk
Player
Team
T/O%
Ast
T/O
1
 Foster
IND
22.5%  59  111 
2
 Blount
CHI
21.4%  37  63 
3
 Claxton
GSW
21.3%  252  138 
4
 Barbosa
PHO
20.9%  148  90 
5
 Armstrong
NOH
19.8%  279  171 
6
 Artest
IND
19.5%  150  158 
7
 DeClercq
ORL
19.2%  36  59 
8
 James
BOS
19.1%  327  139 
9
 Madsen
MIN
19.1%  49  58 
10
 Williams
CHI
18.9%  104  98 
11
 Ginobili
SAS
18.8%  124  157 
12
 Nene
DEN
18.8%  125  147 
13
 Posey
MEM
18.5%  150  158 
14
 Tinsley
IND
18.2%  155  79 
15
 Collins
UTA
18.1%  55  76 

Several different stats could be used to evaluate which players cause turnovers for the opposition, but we elected to go with a percentage of possesions that the defender brought about the "big no-no" from his adversary.

Jeff Foster is surrounded by some notable defensive talent in Indiana and clearly makes the most of his chances to be a factor defensively himself. The leaders are a diverse group as it turns out, with big men (Madsen, Blount, DeClerq), small guards (Claxton, Barbosa, Armstrong), and swingmen troublemakers (Artest, Ginobili, Posey).

5) Overall Defensive Player Leaders
We've touched on a number of areas that are part of a good defensive player's makeup, but now comes the hard part -- constructing a comprehensive rating that attempts to account for the different components in a reasonable fashion.

Rank
Player
Team
1on1
Tm ON
Tm OFF
On/Off
Rating
1
 Garnett
MIN
68.3
100.2
109.4
-9.2
75.9
2
 Duncan
SAS
67.4
96.1
96.6
-0.5
76.8
3
 Cato
HOU
73.1
97.2
104.0
-6.8
78.9
4
 Dalembert
PHI
71.0
100.5
106.0
-5.5
79.0
5
 Martin
NJN
74.3
96.3
100.7
-4.3
80.2
6
 Wallace
DET
72.5
99.0
101.5
-2.5
80.5
7
 Camby
DEN
69.6
103.8
105.2
-1.4
80.6
8
 Nesterovic
SAS
74.9
95.4
97.5
-2.1
81.0
9
 O'Neal
IND
75.7
97.3
102.0
-4.7
81.3
10
 Tinsley
IND
78.0
94.4
100.4
-6.0
81.5
11
 O'Neal
LAL
71.6
103.2
105.1
-1.9
81.5
12
 Artest
IND
76.7
97.3
101.3
-4.1
82.2
13
 Haywood
WAS
73.6
103.5
106.4
-2.9
82.6
14
 Kidd
NJN
79.4
96.4
102.0
-5.6
83.2
15
 Ginobili
SAS
76.2
96.6
95.7
+0.9
83.3
16
 Peeler
SAC
80.9
99.1
109.8
-10.7
83.4
17
 Ratliff
ATL
77.6
102.7
109.9
-7.2
83.6
18
 Gadzuric
MIL
74.5
104.4
106.7
-2.3
83.7
19
 Foster
IND
82.7
94.3
102.3
-8.0
83.9
20
 Prince
DET
77.9
98.8
101.3
-2.5
84.0
21
 Collins
NJN
83.8
94.4
101.8
-7.4
84.9
22
 Kirilenko
UTA
76.0
105.5
107.9
-2.4
85.0
23
 Ming
HOU
78.1
100.4
100.2
+0.2
85.6
24
 Campbell
DET
77.9
100.2
99.3
+0.9
85.6
25
 Turkoglu
SAS
81.7
95.4
97.1
-1.7
85.7

Well, let the debates begin. Ben Wallace is arguably the player who would win a fan poll of strongest defensive force, but he checks in at #6 overall. Instead we are back to the ongoing MVP discussion of Duncan versus Garnett, and Kevin Garnett wins the photo finish this time, albeit a few tweaks to our algorithms can easily flip the order.

Kelvin Cato's prominence is a surprise, but playing next to the 7'5" Ming clearly has its benefits. Jamaal Tinsley claims top placement for a backcourt player.

Since despite our best efforts there does appear to be a noticable favoritism in the rankings towards shotblockers, another look, this time breaking it out by position (and yes classifying certain players is difficult and arbitrary) might be in order:

Point Guards
Rank
Player
Team
1on1
Tm ON
Tm OFF
On/Off
Rating
1
 Tinsley
IND
78.0
94.4
100.4
-6.0
81.5
2
 Kidd
NJN
79.4
96.4
102.0
-5.6
83.2
3
 Watson
MEM
83.3
99.8
107.3
-7.5
86.3
4
 Davis
NOH
84.8
102.9
110.1
-7.2
88.4
5
 Ward
NYK
83.0
102.5
104.9
-2.4
88.7
6
 Lopez
UTA
87.0
102.2
109.1
-6.9
89.7
7
 James
BOS
82.6
105.4
105.0
+0.5
90.4
8
 Fisher
LAL
85.7
102.8
105.1
-2.3
90.6
9
 Francis
HOU
87.8
99.8
102.5
-2.6
90.9
10
 Hinrich
CHI
87.0
104.0
109.1
-5.2
90.9

Tinsley and Kidd stand apart by our ratings, and since they are 1-2 in individual defense and in the "Team On" defense that feels fairly convincing. Baron Davis is also justifiably regarded highly for his opponent-stopping efforts.

Shooting Guards
Rank
Player
Team
1on1
Tm ON
Tm OFF
On/Off
Rating
1
 Ginobili
SAS
76.2
96.6
95.7
+0.9
83.3
2
 Peeler
SAC
80.9
99.1
109.8
-10.7
83.4
3
 Jones
IND
81.2
100.1
97.6
+2.5
88.3
4
 Hardaway
NYK
81.6
103.7
104.4
-0.6
88.7
5
 Miller
IND
87.2
97.3
100.3
-3.0
89.6
6
 Mobley
HOU
84.1
100.4
99.9
+0.5
89.7
7
 Kittles
NJN
85.7
97.8
97.5
+0.3
89.8
8
 Posey
MEM
83.9
103.6
105.1
-1.4
90.0
9
 Hassell
MIN
88.7
99.2
105.4
-6.2
90.1
10
 Wells
MEM
86.6
101.5
105.8
-4.2
90.2

The Shooting Guards as a class have poorer defensive ratings, which is as much a testament to the overall offensive skills of the position as a criticism of the defensive efforts. The "Two Guards" are often the best pure shooters on the court, but have the quickness and explosiveness as well, combined with some decent offensive rebounding if you're not paying attention -- all in all a tough package to defend against. One thought also goes that the shooting guards expend so much energy on offense (frequently the highest possession users on a team) that they sometimes use the defensive end to catch up.

Small Forwards
Rank
Player
Team
1on1
Tm ON
Tm OFF
On/Off
Rating
1
 Artest
IND
76.7
97.3
101.3
-4.1
82.2
2
 Prince
DET
77.9
98.8
101.3
-2.5
84.0
3
 Turkoglu
SAS
81.7
95.4
97.1
-1.7
85.7
4
 Jackson
HOU
82.5
98.9
105.6
-6.7
85.7
5
 Horry
SAS
83.6
94.3
97.2
-3.0
86.1
6
 George
LAL
81.4
102.2
106.3
-4.0
87.0
7
 Peterson
TOR
82.5
100.1
103.0
-2.9
87.4
8
 Jefferson
NJN
84.0
97.4
99.2
-1.8
87.9
9
 Miles
CLE
82.3
104.2
106.3
-2.1
88.9
10
 McKie
PHI
83.9
102.2
104.2
-2.0
89.4

We're big fans of Ron Artest's game, and while challenged by Tayshaun Prince who showed some defensive magic against the Magic in last year's playoffs, Artest is still the best at his most common position. The Spurs meanwhile have three of the top Small Forwards (Bowen is just off the table we show here), which perhaps suggests the system is to be praised as much as the individual players.

Power Forwards
Rank
Player
Team
1on1
Tm ON
Tm OFF
On/Off
Rating
1
 Garnett
MIN
68.3
100.2
109.4
-9.2
75.9
2
 Duncan
SAS
67.4
96.1
96.6
-0.5
76.8
3
 Cato
HOU
73.1
97.2
104.0
-6.8
78.9
4
 Martin
NJN
74.3
96.3
100.7
-4.3
80.2
5
 O'Neal
IND
75.7
97.3
102.0
-4.7
81.3
6
 Kirilenko
UTA
76.0
105.5
107.9
-2.4
85.0
7
 Andersen
DEN
79.3
103.2
105.0
-1.7
86.7
8
 Outlaw
MEM
86.4
97.9
107.7
-9.8
87.0
9
 Okur
DET
84.0
97.4
101.1
-3.7
87.2
10
 Rose
SAS
80.1
99.5
95.0
+4.6
88.1

Duncan's individual defense is better, and the team performance is clearly the best in the league, however Garnett's On Court/Off Court influence is so strong that he winds up in front. Kenyon Martin may not be banging up against the best of the West on a nightly basis, but he too has shown some formidable defensive props.

Centers
Rank
Player
Team
1on1
Tm ON
Tm OFF
On/Off
Rating
1
 Dalembert
PHI
71.0
100.5
106.0
-5.5
79.0
2
 Wallace
DET
72.5
99.0
101.5
-2.5
80.5
3
 Camby
DEN
69.6
103.8
105.2
-1.4
80.6
4
 Nesterovic
SAS
74.9
95.4
97.5
-2.1
81.0
5
 O'Neal
LAL
71.6
103.2
105.1
-1.9
81.5
6
 Haywood
WAS
73.6
103.5
106.4
-2.9
82.6
7
 Ratliff
ATL
77.6
102.7
109.9
-7.2
83.6
8
 Gadzuric
MIL
74.5
104.4
106.7
-2.3
83.7
9
 Foster
IND
82.7
94.3
102.3
-8.0
83.9
10
 Collins
NJN
83.8
94.4
101.8
-7.4
84.9

Lastly we come to the big Kahunas, the men in the middle, the last line of defense. Samuel Dalembert is not exactly a household name, but after missing the entire 2002-03 season, he's come back as a polished player, at least on the defensive end. Opposing centers have really struggled to put points on the board against him, and wayward players of other positions that venture into his domain have seen more than a few shots swatted in the opposite direction.

Of course, that's not likely to win over any of the legion of Ben Wallace fans, whose jaws are dropping when they see their guy comes in at #2. Then you have the Theo Ratliff contingent -- and big Theo has posted a 76.4 overall defensive rating in his short stint in Portland thus far, so if he can keep that up he will be a dark horse for the year end title.

That's the first go-round. We will continue to refine the numbers and weighting values, and we expect to have pages with all of the players on a team-by-team basis published shortly.


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