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Shane Battier (left) has worked hard to build his reputation as a foil to Kobe Bryant.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

League's best one-on-one defenders get plenty of help

Posted Nov 19 2009 2:36PM

There's been so much hype surrounding players like Bruce Bowen, Ron Artest and Shane Battier as premier one-on-one defenders. Is there any way to prove that? Are they really the best?

Let's not put too much consideration on stats such as steals, because I feel that attempting steals means gambling on your position. Iverson gets a ton of steals but I don't rate him as a great defensive player. Likewise lots of [Dwight] Howard's blocks come from weak side help, not from one-on-one defense. -- Jon Chay


There are several ways you can approach this, Jon, but there's no perfect method for evaluating how good a player is defensively because the NBA is not a one-on-one game. Even great defensive players like Battier, Bowen and Artest depend on their teammates. If they have a good support system, they can do a better job of defending their man.

One way of measuring individual defense is by looking at a team's efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions) with a player on and off the court. I used this measure to show how important Andre Iguodala is to the Sixers last week. Of the players who logged at least 1,000 minutes last season, Iguodala was the eighth-most important to his team's defensive efficiency. Here's the top 10:

On-Off Court Differential, Team Defensive Efficiency, 2008-09
Player Team Min. On Court Off Court Diff
Andrew Bogut MIL 1124 97.8 107.7 -9.9
Joel Przybilla POR 1952 99.7 109.2 -9.4
Marcus Camby LAC 1925 104.4 112.9 -8.4
Lamar Odom LAL 2316 98.5 106.6 -8.1
LeBron James CLE 3054 97.6 105.5 -7.8
Thaddeus Young PHI 2580 102.1 109.8 -7.7
Delonte West CLE 2152 96.3 103.2 -6.9
Andre Iguodala PHI 3269 103.5 110.4 -6.8
Nick Young WAS 1837 107.6 114.4 -6.8
Jamario Moon TOR 1379 102.7 109.5 -6.8
Minimum: 1,000 minutes played

Iguodala is the only one on the list who is thought of as a stopper. But when you analyze the others on this list, consider their team's overall defensive ranking, who is on the floor with them and who replaces them when they go to the bench.

Nick Young is high on the list, but the Wizards still weren't very good defensively when he was on the floor. Thaddeus Young and Iguodala obviously helped each other out. Basically, an average defender's differential would look bad if you replaced him with a defensive specialist, but it would look good if you replaced him with a mannequin.

Battier ranked 66th on the list, with a difference of just -1.8, but that's because the Rockets were an excellent defensive team overall. Plus, with Yao Ming and Ron Artest, they were able to make up for Battier's absence pretty well. Both Yao (23rd, -4.9) and Artest (29th, -4.4) proved to be more important to Houston's defense last season than Battier.

Slowing down The Big Four

Yao's more important because he takes up space in the middle and makes it easier for his teammates to do their job. To figure out who are the best one-on-one perimeter defenders, we can look at the shooting numbers of the four best offensive players in the game: Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. To start, we'll see which teams those guys shoot the worst against.

We're using stats from the three seasons before the current one (2006-09), and looking at the stars' true shooting percentage. The teams are ranked from 1-30 for how well they defend each star, with the star's own team being placed in the middle. Then we totaled up the four numbers to see which teams were best across the board.

True Shooting Percentage by Opponent, 2006-07 through 2008-09
Team Bryant Rk James Rk Wade Rk Anthony Rk TOTAL
Houston 0.525 4 0.518 3 0.515 2 0.456 1 10
Detroit 0.564 14 0.519 5 0.518 3 0.460 2 24
Atlanta 0.488 3 0.560 12 0.572 14 0.508 3 32
L.A. Lakers -- 15 0.497 1 0.573 16 0.516 4 36
Chicago 0.479 2 0.574 18 0.575 18 0.518 6 44
San Antonio 0.578 17 0.570 16 0.510 1 0.536 10 44
True Shooting Percentage = PTS/ (2*(FGA + (0.44*FTA)))

As the only team in the top five against all four players, the Rockets have clearly been able to defend these guys pretty well. And Battier, of course, has been the stopper there since he arrived in 2006. Back in August, I wrote how Ron Artest was more effective defensively against the Lakers last season, but he wasn't the one guarding Bryant on most of those possessions. Battier was.

The Pistons have Tayshaun Prince, who must be considered when discussing the best stoppers. Over the years, he has clearly had success defending James and Anthony, but it has been Richard Hamilton guarding Bryant most of the time and a mix of guys guarding Wade (who has played only five games against Detroit in the last three seasons).

The Hawks are up there mainly for their D on Bryant and Anthony. Interestingly, Joe Johnson defends Bryant pretty well, while Marvin Williams has been the guy mostly defending Anthony.

James had a true shooting percentage of just .375 in his two games against the Lakers last season, guarded mostly by Bryant. Anthony has been guarded by Luke Walton and Trevor Ariza, but Bryant has also taken on the 'Melo assignment at times.

True stopper?

Since Battier and Artest played together last season, it can cloud Artest's defensive value. To get a decent measure of Artest's "stop-ability," we can look at Anthony's, Bryant's and Wade's true shooting percentage against the Kings in the two seasons Artest was in Sacramento (James and Artest met just once in those years). Artest was able to slow down Anthony a bit (.505 TS% in five games), but not Wade (.566 in five games) and certainly not Bryant (.622 in seven games). Fortunately for Artest, he doesn't have to guard Kobe anymore.

What about Bruce?

It's unfair to use the last couple of years to evaluate the recently-retired Bowen, since his effectiveness declined in that time. But if you look at Bryant's numbers against the Spurs in the four seasons that Bowen played his most minutes (2002-03 through 2005-06), the evidence is pretty strong. Kobe had a true shooting percentage of just 0.462 in 15 regular season games against San Antonio in those years. As a reference, his career TS% is .558.

Conclusion: Believe the hype

To answer your question, Jon: Yes, there is statistical evidence that Battier and Bowen are/were very good one-on-one defensive players. Their reputations are well deserved. Artest is also a good defender, but isn't the one-on-one stopper that the other two are. In fact, Bryant may be better in that regard (at least when he's focused on that end of the floor).

If you look back at the second table above, you'll see some teams just have a guy's number. The Lakers have defended James the best, the Spurs have defended Wade the best, and the Rockets have defended Anthony the best. The Bulls, Hawks and Rockets have all defended Bryant well, too, but who's done it the best?

The missing team

The New Jersey Nets, of course.

That's all kinds of fascinating, because from the 2006-07 season to the 2008-09 season, the Nets ranked 15th, 22nd and 23rd in defensive efficiency, respectively. The back-to-back Finals teams earlier this decade were great defensively, but the Nets fell off after the departures of Kenyon Martin and Kerry Kittles.

The Lakers won five of the six games the two teams played in the last three years, but in none of the six did Bryant shoot better than 33 percent from the field.

Vince Carter was the primary defender on Bryant in those games (something to keep in mind when the Magic and Lakers meet again), but fellow ex-Nets Richard Jefferson, Jason Kidd and Antoine Wright also took their turns. As a team, the Nets did a great job of keeping Bryant out of the paint and forcing him to shoot jumpers. And when he did, they borrowed a page from Battier's book and got a hand in his face almost every time.

They've really got his number

If you go back even further, you'll find that, in his last 11 games against the Nets, Bryant has failed to shoot better 39 percent from the field. He's shooting just 32.0 percent in that stretch of games (the Lakers won six of the 11 games), which began after Bryant and the Lakers beat the Nets in the 2002 Finals.

Kobe Bryant vs. Nets, Last 11 Games
12/19/2002 L 8 29 0.276 0 1 5 5 21
1/24/2003 L 4 14 0.286 1 2 2 3 11
2/29/2004 W 4 12 0.333 2 6 1 2 11
11/27/2005 L 14 36 0.389 4 12 14 16 46
3/17/2006 L 9 24 0.375 2 8 4 4 24
11/26/2006 W 8 24 0.333 1 4 2 4 19
12/22/2006 W 4 13 0.308 2 5 11 12 21
11/25/2007 L 7 21 0.333 2 5 15 16 31
2/5/2008 W 3 13 0.231 0 2 0 0 6
11/25/2008 W 5 17 0.294 0 2 2 2 12
3/27/2009 W 5 19 0.263 3 6 1 1 14
TOTALS 6-5 6.5 20.2 0.320 1.5 4.8 5.2 5.9 19.6
The bottom of the list

Who's on the other end of the spectrum (the players who hurt their team's defense the most)? We're glad you asked...

On-Off Court Differential, Team Defensive Efficiency, 2008-09
Player Team Min. On Court Off Court Diff
C.J. Miles UTA 1623 108.4 102.1 +6.3
Andrea Bargnani TOR 2453 109.5 103.1 +6.4
Marreese Speights PHI 1262 109.3 102.6 +6.7
Derrick Rose CHI 3000 107.5 100.7 +6.8
Mike Bibby ATL 2740 106.7 99.8 +6.9
Michael Finley SAS 2336 104.9 97.9 +7.0
Deron Williams UTA 2505 107.5 99.7 +7.8
Kevin Durant OKC 2885 109.2 100.8 +8.5
O.J. Mayo MEM 3120 108.6 99.9 +8.7
Rudy Gay MEM 2945 109.3 99.4 +9.9
Minimum: 1,000 minutes played

If you were wondering why, despite all his talent, Rudy Gay didn't get a big contract extension this summer, wonder no more. By this measure, he was the worst defender in the league last season, No. 246 of 246 guys who logged at least 1,000 minutes.

Remember how the Grizzlies acquired Gay? They traded Shane Battier for his draft rights (and Stromile Swift).

The Numbers Game is a weekly notebook of the most compelling numbers that can be found in and beyond the boxscore. If you have a question for StatsCube, send it via email. For more on what StatsCube can do, Read this.

John Schuhmann is a staff writer for You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The numbers used in this story were compiled with the help of the NBA, Synergy Sports and STATS, LLC.

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