Defensive Player Ladder

Defensive Player Ladder: Elite defenses require more than 1 elite defender

The importance of team defense is on display in Utah and Philly, as we update the ranking of this season's Top 5 defenders.

Rudy Gobert isn’t the only elite defensive player on Utah’s top-rated defense.

It was the day of the All-Star Game, in which few ever bother to play defense but some occasionally will talk about it. So we chatted up Utah center Rudy Gobert, whose best work comes in all those other games in which defense is not at all optional.

A two-time Kia Defensive Player of the Year and a top candidate (as indicated by this Ladder) to again win the award for 2020-21, Gobert is known as “The Stifle Tower,” with the wingspan and timing to thwart opponents’ shots or alter them with the threat of his presence.

Gobert, averaging 14.2 ppg and 13.1 rpg, is the hub of the Jazz defense that ranks atop the league in net rating (8.5) and among the leaders in opponents’ field-goal percentage (44.9), opponents’ assists (22.1), defensive rebound percentage (75.4) and a few other metrics. But the eighth-year 7-footer knows he is not going it alone, as active as he is on that end of the floor.

“You cannot defend by yourself. Basketball is a team game, and for me, many times I can make my team better defensively,” Gobert said Sunday morning, before participating in his second All-Star Game. “But [it takes] communication, trying to make sure I’m not just pushing myself, but pushing my teammates to be better defensively. When I’m on the court and when I’m on the bench.”

Among the league’s more notable individual defenders and top-rated defensive teams, there’s usually more than just one guy. Philadelphia has two DPOY candidates in guard Ben Simmons and center Joel Embiid. The Lakers have LeBron James as an effective, somewhat under-the-radar defender at age 36 and — most of the time — versatile big Anthony Davis.

Last season’s DPOY winner, Giannis Antetokounmpo, stirred Milwaukee’s defensive drink — all while center Brook Lopez and Eric Bledsoe earned All-Defensive second team nods, giving the Bucks three of the 10 overall spots.

“When we look at individual awards and stuff,” Gobert said, “it doesn’t matter how good you are, if you don’t make your team better in a team game like basketball, maybe you’re not impacting enough.”

The Jazz explain how important communication is to their success.

Utah’s defensive focus begins with coach Quin Snyder and flows through Gobert. But the other Jazz players are diligent about that half of the game, too. Backup big Derrick Favors is a force in the middle defensively. Reserves Georges Niang (12.9) and Joe Ingles (10.5) have net ratings right behind Gobert (13.5).

Certainly, there are ripple effects from being on the floor with Gobert. But that can work both ways, especially when it comes to the first line of defense on the perimeter. Mike Conley on point guards and Royce O’Neale regularly matched up on the opponents’ most potent scorer enable Gobert to be so effective as a safety net and help defender.

“Mike is very quick,” Gobert said. “Smart. He’s got quick hands. He’s tough. Defense starts with toughness. You’ve got to want to do it, do the dirty work.

“Royce has been amazing the last few years, taking the challenge every single night to guard the best perimeter player. Royce is a very physical player … he’s always up for the challenge.”

Conley’s net rating (14.4) is Utah’s best. Defensive field-goal percentage for shots under five feet, in which he ranks third (56.0), has him in a land of giants behind leaders Myles Turner and Jae Crowder, and just ahead of Brook and Robin Lopez. The veteran guard who made his All-Star debut Sunday is credited with .160 defensive win shares, just ahead of Gobert’s .150.

O’Neale, while logging long minutes on scorers such as Brandon Ingram, Jerami Grant, Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler and Antetokounmpo, is holding foes into 4.4% worse shooting from 15 feet out. He’s good for 1.7 deflections nightly.

Bottom line, excelling at defense as a team requires plenty of help, beyond DPOY types who hold rungs on this Ladder.

“It’s fun to be part of a team where guys embrace that defensive mindset and take the challenge every single night,” Gobert said. “Because we know in this league, someone is coming every single night to try to go off. It’s great to break that mindset.”

(All stats through Monday, March 8)

1. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

Last week’s ranking: 1

Data is limited this week due to the season’s first half ending on Thursday. Simmons and his big buddy, Embiid, didn’t even get to feign playing defense in the All-Star Game, because of coronavirus concerns after their contact with their personal barber in Philadelphia forced them out of the event. Simmons continues to draw support here for his 1-through-4 defensive versatility and for the “hustle” stats of deflections (3.9) and loose balls recovered (1.4).

2. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

Last week’s ranking: 2

Defensively dominant big men are sort of the Mt. Everests of the NBA: people want to scale them simply because they’re there. The challenge of trying to beat Gobert at the rim has energized a few guys, eventually demoralizing a bunch. The Jazz center leads the league in shots defended (18.9) and is flat-out rejecting 2.7 of them, while causing those opponents across all games and situations to shoot 7.0% worse than they normally would.

3. Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers

Last week’s ranking: 3

By the metrics cited in Gobert’s synopsis, Turner is right there at 17.8 shots defended per game and a 6.7% improvement over what those opponents normally would shoot. Turner leads the NBA with 3.4 bpg. Then there’s this: among defenders who have faced at least 600 shots of fewer-than-5-feet — a rough estimate for rim protection — foes are scoring 55.7% of the time. That’s the lowest percentage for any individual defender in the category, right ahead of Gobert’s 57.3%. (It’s worth noting here that Antetokounmpo, who had the recent highlight block of Clipper center Ivica Zubac’s two-handed dunk attempt, is tied for fourth now at 58.3%.)

4. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

Last week’s ranking: N/A

The Sixers’ center has taken aim on winning both the Kia MVP and Kia DPOY awards this season — the way Antetokounmpo did last year — and halfway through, there’s no reason he cannot win both. Here is one measure of his defensive impact this season: Among players who are credited with having faced at least 100 shots of all distances (less than 5 ft., 5-9 ft., 10-14 ft., 15-19 ft., 20-24 ft., and 25-29 ft.), Embiid has opponents shooting less than 40% at every distance from 5 feet and farther. Respectively, that’s 34.2, 37.4, 37.6, 32.2 and 38.5, to go with his No. 17 rank of the shorties (59.1).

5. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

Last week’s ranking: 4

James still leads the NBA in defensive win shares (0.177) while contributing to the Lakers’ defensive rating (106.1) that, while ticking up a point over the past few games, remains the league’s stingiest. Individually, shooters are hitting just 35.6% of their shots from 5-to-9 feet and 34.6 from 10-to-14 when James is contesting.

* * *

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.