Defensive Player Ladder

Defensive Player Ladder: With NBA offense on the rise, defense still critical

Rudy Gobert holds the No. 1 spot while Bam Adebayo and Giannis Antetokounmpo climb this week's Top 5.

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

Rudy Gobert has been a steady force on defense all season for the NBA-leading Jazz.

Long live offense! It’s the cry of the land across the NBA, from the number of 20-point scorers and triple-double stat lines we get these days to most of the rules changes enacted by the Competition Committee in recent years to whatever Golden State’s remarkable Stephen Curry is up to on any given night.

But does that mean defense is dead?

Well, no. Coaches who made their bones convincing players that their time on the court trying to stop the other guys is every bit as essential as what they do with the basketball probably feel beleaguered, maybe even betrayed. But they and their teams still are going to try, even with the game’s legislation and adjudication working against them.

And this weekly Defensive Player Ladder still matters, because in an era in which scoreboards flash and chime like pinball machines, a key stop or the ability to take away just one thing from an opposing offense can swing a game.

Just so the final score is 140-138, or so it seems.

“I think it would be fine with the league,” said Ron Adams, longtime NBA defensive guru in his seventh season with Golden State. “There’s been a concerted effort through rule changes to make it easier for the offense.

“Having said that, the team that will win the championship this year — as in practically any other year — will be a team that plays really good defense. That doesn’t change.”

The basketball relationship between offense and defense has been called symbiotic, and even if it’s not quite clear which pushes and which pulls, things do tend to stay relative.

Ten seasons ago the Boston Celtics topped the league by allowing only 98.2 points per 100 possessions, while San Antonio scored at a 110.9 rate. This season, those No. 1 spots respectively belong to the Knicks at 108.0 and the Clippers at 118.4.

Compare the gaps — 12.7 vs. 10.4 — and it’s a modest 2.3 points per 100 difference.

Good luck shrugging that off, however, around some defensive-minded coaches.

“I think, sometimes, a great attribute is to be frustrated or pulling your hair out anytime the other team scores,” said Milwaukee’s Mike Budenholzer recently told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “Regardless of whether it’s a two or a three or a free throw.”

There’s a lot of stray hairs on NBA sidelines these days.

Ten years ago, teams averaged 96.3 points per game. Now? It’s up to 111.8. That’s an extra 15.5 points per team per game, an increase of 16%.

The biggest change offensively, obviously, has been in the dominance of the 3-point shot. In 2011-12, teams shot an average of 18.4 3-pointers and made 6.4. Today, those numbers are 34.6 and 12.7. In other words, added scoring from the arc accounts for more than the increase in point totals.

The culprit behind that is improved shooting. Ten seasons ago, the league average for field-goal percentage was 44.8%. It’s up to 46.5%. In that time, 3-point shooting has climbed from 34.9% overall to 36.7%.

Historically, the current accuracy rate ranks 19th all time. But keep in mind, of the top 18 spots, 15 came in seasons when teams were in single digits in their nightly 3-point attempts. Two more came before the arc was even painted on an NBA court.

And No. 17 came came 27 seasons ago. The NBA’s field-goal average was a tick higher, 46.6%, in 1994-95, when teams still were taking fewer than half as many 3-pointers (15.3) than they are now.

Officiating, the preponderance of 3-pointers and the reliance on analytics to wring out every last point from an attack of layups and 3-pointers are factors Adams cited that have tilted the board against defense. But he did find one silver lining in how focus on offense might help.

“So much of your defensive efficiency can come when your offense is scoring well,” he said. “People are feeling good, they’re bringing that energy to defense. If you’re not scoring, you’re flat, you’re thinking about that. So there’s a psychological aspect too.”

Push, pull. Chicken, egg. Can’t have one without at least an attempt at the other.


Here are the Top 5 this week on the 2020-21 Defensive Player Ladder:

(All stats through Sunday, April 18)

1. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

Last week’s Ladder: 1

The Utah big man is holding opponents to 42.8% field-goal shooting, a 6.8% drop from what they normally shoot, while defending a league-high 19.8 shots per game. He leads the NBA in plus/minus (plus-550). And as the SB Nation blog, SLC Dunk, notes: Gobert has a shot at notching his second season with 1,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 200 blocks. That’s been done 23 times by 12 players since blocks became an official stat in 1973-74. The first 10 are all Hall of Famers, leaving only Dwight Howard and Gobert, who aren’t eligible yet.


2. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

Last week’s Ladder: 2

It’s not uncommon for Kia MVP candidates on the same team to split votes or at least steal thunder. How ‘bout DPOY? Simmons’ partner Joel Embiid wound up talking out both sides of his mouth on this topic. “I should be Defensive Player of the Year,” the big man said on the Lowe Post podcast. Then of Simmons: “I do think he should win it. … I’m not fighting about it.” Worth noting is that, while Kyrie Irving scored 37 last week against Simmons and the Sixers, Irving’s team lost and he was minus-13 that night.


3. Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat

Last week’s Ladder: 4

Come for the buzzer-beating game-winning shot (the first of Bam Adebayo’s career), fine. But come away impressed by his defensive performance against Brooklyn last week. The opponents Adebayo locked horns with shot a combined 3-for-17, including Kyrie Irving’s 0-for-8 with the Heat center in front of him. It was a showcase of Adebayo’s mobility and versatility and a reason for his move up here to No. 3.


4. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Last week’s Ladder: 5

The Bucks missed Antetokounmpo during his time nursing a sore left knee. And why not? He’s good for 2.1 deflections and 1.3 loose balls recovered per game. Antetokounmpo has some all-defensive teammates such as Brook Lopez and Jrue Holiday clamping down, too, but the “Greek Freak” is the one leading his crew with a net rating of 10.5.


5. Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers

Last week’s Ladder: 3

Turner’s DPOY candidacy and the Pacers’ postseason ambitions took a hit Monday with the news that their 6-foot-11 center has a partial tear on the plantar plate in his right big toe. Turner has been leading the league all season in total blocks (199) and blocks per game (3.4). After missing six games with a sprained ankle, Turner played nearly 34 minutes Sunday at Atlanta and grabbed 11 rebounds, but shot 1-of-5 and went blockless.


The Next Five

(In no particular order)

Matisse Thybulle, Philadelphia 76ers

  • With longer minutes, he’d snag Top 5 Ladder rung.

Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

  • The big man in back who helps Simmons stay aggressive out front.

Clint Capela, Atlanta Hawks

  • Hawks yield 7.1 more points per 100 possessions when he sits (107.4 to 114.5).

Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat

  • Leads NBA in steals (2.1), plus 3.6 deflections and 1.3 loose balls recovered.

Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns

  • Helped Suns reach No. 5 defensively, after not cracking Top 10 for 20 years.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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