Defensive Player Ladder

Defensive Player Ladder: Brook Lopez on top with less than 1 month to go

Milwaukee's center holds the No. 1 spot as the stretch run of the 2022-23 season begins.

The Bucks have had 1 of the league’s best defenses this season thanks to Brook Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Tracking defense in a time of big offense feels a bit like sweating bank interest rates at a time of runaway inflation. Can anyone really keep up?

Consider: The Memphis Grizzlies sit atop the NBA’s current defensive rankings by giving up 109.4 points per 100 possessions. Just 10 years ago, that would have ranked them 29th, back when Indiana was the league’s stingiest team at 99.0.

The flip side is similar: Back in 2012-13, Charlotte was the worst defensive team in the NBA at 110.3. Post that level now and the Hornets would rank fourth.

This applies to the micro as well as the macro. Already this season, there have been 171 performances in which players scored 40 points or more. The previous high: 142 back in 1961-62, when Wilt Chamberlain accounted for 63 of them himself. Granted, in a bigger league playing more games overall, there are increased opportunities to hit the mark. So far, 52 different players have gone for 40 or more.

Certainly, the preponderance of the 3-point shot accounts for some of the scoring explosion. Teams are averaging 12.3 3-point makes now compared to 7.2 10 years ago. That’s an extra 5.1 points per game — yet average scoring has soared from 98.1 to 114.5.

Check out some of the best blocks from the 2022-23 season.

Changes in rules and rules interpretations are factors, too. But there’s even more at play, said Milwaukee Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer.

“The thing that jumps out is the quality of the players, the offensive guys,” he said. “I think scoring has been trending [up] for multiple years. … I see still great defenders, guys who make amazing plays on a nightly basis. Coaches are working and scheming. I feel like defense is as good as ever, it’s just the skill that offensive guys are putting out there.”

Boston’s Marcus Smart, the reigning Kia Defensive Player of the Year, recently talked about how much harder defense is to play than when he was a rookie eight seasons ago. “What a lot of people don’t understand, you’re already at [a] disadvantage stepping on the floor,” Smart said. “Contact used against you — everything protecting the shooter. Everyone [is] tired of low-scoring games. Wanna see dunks, 3s, points.”

Budenholzer’s roster has a fleet of solid defenders, led by forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, guard Jrue Holiday and — the leader of this month’s Defensive Ladder — center Brook Lopez. Certainly, his squad and his teachings haven’t put less emphasis on stopping foes’ attacks.

Yet when the NBA’s No. 1 offense (Sacramento) met the Bucks’ No. 2 defense Monday night, defense blinked. Final score: Milwaukee 133, Sacramento 124. Four players scored 20 points each in the second half alone.

Not that Budenholzer’s perspective on defense in 2023 has changed.

“Playing smaller lineups and spreading out, playing faster and playing out to the 3-point line is a great challenge to us [all] defensively,” he said. “But I’m impressed with other teams’ defenses, with individual defenders. I don’t think there’s a knock on defense.”

Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers said he and his peers still preach defense to their troops, even if the results look different these days.

“The teams that feel like they can just outscore you, it’s not going to happen. You still have to get stops,” Rivers said. “Each quarter the game gets tighter and things get tougher down the stretch.

“The way you make a run in a game, people think ‘You scored 12 in a row.’ But you had to get six stops in a row, too. We count our stops. ‘We got four stops, five times.’ ‘We got eight, nine stops.’ When you get those, you’re usually going to win.”

Certainly, what is considered a good defensive performance has changed. For example, a quarter in which a team gives up 30 points doesn’t leave a coach aghast the way it once did.

Said Budenholzer: “I definitely have vivid memories of going in and saying, ‘Let’s hold ‘em to 25.’ Those days are over. I don’t know what the number is. But I know there are enough timeouts where we go in and say, ‘That’s too many!’”

Here are some of the players doing their best to sprinkle some retro in today’s points-allowed category:

(All stats through Monday, March 13)

1. Brook Lopez, Milwaukee Bucks

If the NBA dubbed its individual honor for this end of the floor the Defender of the Year, Lopez would have iced it Monday night. Protecting the rim for Milwaukee is one thing but having the franchise star’s back against an altercation from Trey Lyles was real next-level stuff. Lopez came on like enforcers Dave Semenko or Marty McSorley rushing to Wayne Gretzky’s defense. But it actually is the way Lopez does his job when the clock is running that puts him here. He leads the NBA in total blocks (169) and block percentage (67.1). His return from back surgery is the key to Milwaukee’s rise from 14th defensively last season to one of the three teams below 110.0 points per 100 this season. Plus, his activity is unsurpassed: Lopez has contested 1,162 shots, 17.3 per game. The second-place guys? Evan Mobley with 749 and Nic Claxton at 11.9.

2. Jaren Jackson, Jr., Memphis Grizzlies

In the tumultuous seas of the Grizzlies lately, from Ja Morant’s hiatus and Dillon Brooks’ pile of technicals to Brandon Clarke’s season-ending torn Achilles, Jackson has been an anchor. Most of it has come on defense. He leads the NBA in blocked shots per game (3.1), defensive rating (103.7) and defensive win shares (0.155). Alongside the on-ball defender Brooks, they have Memphis atop the league’s rankings (109.4). But his fouls continue to go up — 4.1 per game since the last Ladder — which helps opponents score, while his blocks have gone down in the same period (2.5). And based on his 27.8 minutes per game, he’s still playing less than any DPOY winner except the Los Angeles Lakers’ Michael Cooper (27.5) 36 years ago. None of the others ever logged fewer than 30 minutes nightly.

3. Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers

With Mobley climbing to this rung, all three of the league’s best defenses get a representative near the top of the Ladder. He has an impressive clip file (with a couple of examples here and here). The lithe second-year big man forms a terrific tandem with Jarrett Allen (the pair contest a combined 22.4 shots per game, including 6.2 3-point attempts). And at 21 he still qualifies as precocious. “It’s super crazy to see, especially while he’s just so young,” Darius Garland told The Athletic. “He switches out one through five any time, protects the rim really well, slides his feet, contests all the shots — it’s really tough just pointing out one thing. I think he’s an All-Defensive Team player.”

The Next Seven:

(In alphabetical order)

Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat

O.G. Anunoby, Toronto Raptors

Alex Caruso, Chicago Bulls

  • It’s plays like this that earned him a Team USA invite from coach Steve Kerr.

Nic Claxton, Brooklyn Nets

  • Second in blocks, per & total. Plus how many bigs can do this?

Jaden McDaniels, Minnesota Timberwolves

P.J. Tucker, Philadelphia 76ers

  • No here for his O: Sixers 15-4 he doesn’t score, 7-0 when 0 FGA.

Derrick White, Boston Celtics

  • Celtics’ D rating: 107.9 with him, 111.9 when he sits (Smart? 112.5, 107.6).

* * *

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 Warner Bros. Discovery Sports.