The best perimeter defenders in the league don’t really get enough credit in today’s NBA. The box score has never really put a premium on pertinent defensive statistics or actions. Things like tipped passes, smart plays and the like aren’t really recorded.
The NBA has come a long way in measuring defense since its inception. Blocks and steals never used to be measured, but now we’ve got things like on/off court statistics, +/- and DRAPM to assure us of things that we already knew.
Still, our measurement systems are imperfect and do need a bit more tweaking. We do know who the better defenders are in the NBA at this point, but it is hard to tell who is really the best out of any of them because of our inability to properly measure what they do. There are so many variables involved in these measurements–the play type, the team’s defensive scheme, the player’s positioning. All of these things go into proper defensive decision making and technique. Without all of this information, its nearly impossible to discern who is exactly better than who.
With that being said, I’ve been solicited through WLOTF’s new feature, #AskSykes, to find out who will be the better perimeter defender between three stellar defenders in Iman Shumpert, Avery Bradley and Jimmy Butler. This request comes from a twitter follower and a good friend, Ryan Hebert. Here’s what Ryan asked me to examine:
@Mikey_NBA who emerges as the best guard defender among Butler, Bradley and Shumpert?
— Ryan (@HebertofNH) September 6, 2013
When looking at these three defenders, coupling their techniques, their defensive systems and their respective defensive stats factored in to my research. When boiled down to its base, this question was a really difficult one to answer. All of these guys have flaws that teams tend to expose, but all of them are more than capable defenders already in their young careers.
So when picking a single one to emerge as the best defender out of the three, we have to look at a few things from a different perspective. That criteria is as follows.
First and foremost, we must be aware of the defensive system that each player plays in. That certainly factors into what they do on the defensive end of the floor more than anything. When playing in systems, what may be perceived as a flaw or a mistake may be by design. I had to be fully aware of that and not too quick to judge these players off of one defensive play during this investigation.
Second, we have to be aware of their defense’s points per 100 and their individual points per 100. We know that when the team that a player is on points per 100 possessions is up, that individual players’ will be up as well. That isn’t an indicator of bad defense and a quick reaction could have hurt here. This is where the on/off court numbers come into play. I had to look at how each player’s team performed without him. And, still, that wasn’t a fair judge completely.
To play the numbers more, I looked at overall Synergy defending statistics, but more specifically isolations, post ups and plays against the pick and roll. These two are the more accurate defensive statistics that Synergy Sports has to offer because of the absoluteness of the play. In these situations, these defenders were set up one-on-one with a given player and whereas in another area like transition, for instance, you can’t always define who a player is guarding.
Another thing that I took a look at to come to some sort of conclusion was their opponent production. 82games.com has opponent production per-48 minutes. And to make it fair for everyone, we’ll look at the position that they play the highest percentage of their minutes against. For example, Butler plays 0% of his minutes at the point guard slot. Therefore, he likely will not guard point guards exclusively unless the Bulls are in a pinch where they need him to.
And last, but not least and maybe most importantly, I examined the defensive technique of each player. With no completely accurate defensive statistic available to me, the tendencies of each player showed a lot about each guy and what their potential as a defender was. I watched clips of each player in different defensive situations and took notes on their tendencies while taking into context their defensive systems.
Now, with the criteria available to you all, I can rank the defenders in preferred order in my own open opinion–which can also be subject to change during next season.
1. Jimmy Butler
I felt like Jimmy Butler had the best to offer out of all three of these defenders. Butler’s defensive scheme is probably the best out of all three players and that does give him an advantage–I won’t dispute that. But the way that Butler plays within that scheme is picture perfect. The numbers seem to suggest this as well.
Butler has the highest DRAPM out of the bunch with a score of .13 according to Stats for the NBA. The Bulls defense is consistently good, so his on/off numbers don’t speak much volume to the type of defender he is. The Bulls are only -.3 without Butler on the court as far as defense is concerned. That’s why DRAPM is likely a much better judge of what Butler does on the court defensively. The Bulls defensive rating is already a stingy 100.3 according to NBA.com’s stats database.
What’s more, he holds his opponents to a 12.7 PER at the small forward position. Between our three subjects at their respective position, that is the lowest total–although I wouldn’t say that it is the most impressive. I’ll indulge into that more as I go deeper into the analysis.
Now, getting into the Synergy numbers, Butler allows .76 points per possession overall. That total is the second lowest out of our three subjects. When isolated one on one, Butler allows a stingy .75 points–good for 95th highest in the league. When posting up, Butler allows .84 points which is the lowest out of our subjects. Most of his defense comes in the pick and roll where he only allows ball handler’s .68 points per possession.
Getting into why I love Butler so much and have him pegged at number one, his technique when defending is just immaculate. Especially for a player of his age and experience. Tom Thibodeau’s system seems to be the perfect fit for Butler, who is a smooth and silky defender. I would say that, from watching his clips, he has the highest defensive IQ of the bunch.
Butler never gets caught in traffic. He moves fluidly through the offensive traffic and keeps his position really well–especially when on the ball. He knows how to use the baseline extremely well. I believe this is a product of the Chicago Bulls defense. They’re known for using the sideline to down ball handlers on pick and rolls. Then they play a half zone with the rest of there defense and use length to take away skip passes.
They take away corner three balls and rotate with the best of them. But take a look at Butler using the sideline here–against LeBron James of all people.
Here, on an offensive rebound attempt, James gets the ball back. The defense is scrambling to find their assignments again and Butler finds his instantly. He goes to James as soon as he gets the ball and immediately funnels him into Joakim Noah along the sideline.
The Bulls forced the Heat to swing the ball from sideline to sideline by playing that semi-zone technique that Thibodeau has mastered. Butler fits perfectly into this with his heady nature and elite defensive IQ. I think that he’ll likely end up being the best defender out of this bunch because of Thibs system, his IQ, and his natural ability.
2. Avery Bradley
Avery Bradley comes in at the next slot for a multitude of reasons. Bradley has the second highest DRAPM at -.25. His on/off numbers don’t really do him justice. The Celtics defensive rating with him off of the court is 100.4–when he’s on the court its 100.3. Bradley is in a similar situation to Butler where the defense around him was pretty good. The system that he played in along with two rock solid defenders in Kevin Garnett and Paul PIerce. They also employed the semi-zone technique with a few extra wrinkles involved.
The Celtics weren’t as concerned as the Bulls were with icing pick and roll plays. This is because they were able to stick Avery Bradley on the opposing team’s best perimeter player and ultimately neutralize him or at least slow him down depending on who it was. Bradley played most of his minutes at the point guard position this season–especially after Rajon Rondo went down. He held opposing point guards to a PER of 12.8.
That number is pretty impressive to me. The depth and skill of today’s point guards in the NBA make it the league’s premier position. For Bradley to perform so well against them where so many cannot makes this total special to me. I’m more impressed with this than I am Jimmy Butler’s ability to provide great defense against opposing wing players.
According to Synergy Sports technology, Bradley has the lowest points per possession in overall defense between our three subjects at .73. Butler isn’t far off from Bradley, and both numbers are pretty stellar. But in comparison, Bradley is a much better isolation defender only allowing .67 points per possession compared to Jimmy Butler’s .75 figure.
Bradley is also far better in defending the pick and roll against ball handlers. He only allowed .65 points per possessions and, what’s more, 36.1% of his defensive possessions were against the pick and roll. That’s a pretty gaudy number, if you ask me. Bradley doesn’t really get caught in the post too often, so we won’t go too much in depth there. He only allows .71 points per possession in the post, but he faces guards there primarily.
The reason why Bradley is so proficient against ball handlers in the pick and roll and isolation situations is because of how pesky he is as an on-ball defender. Bradley is very violent and aggressive when pressuring the ball. This is why he has a pretty hefty foul average of 3.2 fouls per 36 minutes.
Bradley has active hands and he uses them to get into the opponent’s shot pocket consistently. The Celtics also love to use Bradley in full court press situations to disrupt the opponent’s offense. This gave Doc Rivers tremendous versatility defensively in crunch time. He was able to use Bradley to disrupt late game offense and take away the timing of offensive sets.
Bradley is a hound on the ball, he loves to take up any available space between he and the ball handler. Take a look at this screen shot.
In the shot above, he gives OJ Mayo no room to get a good shot off. He follows him around the screen and rises almost as soon as Mayo rises. This is picture perfect defense by Bradley–more often than not, that’s what he gives you in the pick and roll. He’s a pretty good close-out defender and also never lacks effort in any defensive element.
Bradley’s issue is really more of an off-ball thing. He allows 1.03 points per possession off of screens according to Synergy. Butler had no problems in this area, only surrendering .67 points per possession off of screens. Bradley rarely sees players running him through screens because he’s normally guarding point guards. Though they do use screening at times in motion offenses, you don’t see this as frequently as you see wing players running through screens.
Bradley’s issue with running through screens is that he is too indecisive when navigating the screens. He’ll fight through one screen by going over it and then he’ll run under the next screen instead of taking one path.
He also embraces the screen contact instead of trying to navigate around it. You can see that here:
Bradley needs to work on screen navigation if he wants to become a better off-ball defender. He has the ability to guard wing players on the outside because of his strength, but if they take him out of his element and run him through screens the Celtics would risk treading in dangerous water.
3. Iman Shumpert
Though Iman Shumpert comes in at third on our list, let it be known that he may be my favorite out of all three of our subjects. Shumpert’s DRAPM was -.34 last season. That’s a mark that is somewhere just above average, but Shumpert is a stellar defender. In fact, he may well he the New York Knicks best defensive player. According to on/off numbers and +/-, Shumpert is a negative defender, in a nutshell.
When he’s on the floor, the Knicks allow 105.3 points per possession. When Shumpert is off they allow 102.8 points per 100 possessions. It should be noted that the Knicks overall defensive rating was 103.5 by season’s end. Shumpert is the best perimeter defender on a team that really just wasn’t too good defensively. This is why some of his numbers should be taken with a grain of salt.
However, when looking at Shumpert’s individual statistics, they’re pretty outstanding. He played a majority of his minutes at the shooting guard position where he allowed opponents a PER of 15–the mark of an average player.
But when you look at Shumpert’s synergy numbers and take his team’s defensive system into context, he’s a much better defender than he gets credit for on the surface. He allows .87 points per possession overall and in isolation situations. He allows .85 points per possession against pick and roll ball handlers. But what is most impressive about him is how he handles himself in the post. Synergy’s numbers suggest that he’s a stellar post defender. He only allows .46 points per possession on post ups–a mark good for 2nd best in the league.
Shumpert defends the post 9.6% of the time. The reason why he has a pretty significant number of plays where he defends the post and why the rest of his numbers are a bit inflated is because of the Knicks defensive system. He normally is the subject on a lot of switching. The Knicks are a team that love to switch on pick and rolls and screens because they’re a downsized team. Carmelo Anthony consistently plays the four position and Shumpert sometimes finds himself as the small forward on the floor.
We’ll get into more about Shumpert guarding the post and switching as I delve deeper into this analysis. First, lets talk about what else he does well. He’s one of the leaders on the Knicks defense. The communication and coverages are largely dependent on him and what he does. He’s got great court awareness and is very, very active. He has a very smooth defensive game like Butler. He’s very fluid on his feet and moves very well laterally–he isn’t as quick laterally as Bradley is, though.
He’s very good at boxing out and finishing possessions defensively even though the Knicks weren’t particularly good at rebounding. He’s got a knack for sniffing balls out of the passing lane and forcing the opposition to hesitate before throwing the ball his way. He’s willing to defend positions 1 through 4 and is very good at switching within the defensive scheme.
Shumpert sometimes tends to get caught on screen contact and doesn’t finish getting through it. Because of his tendency to stick in the passing lanes, he gets greedy and tends to overhelp as well. He’ll get stuck in plays like this one:
This could be a product of their defensive system. Because of the aggressive nature of the Knicks defense, sometimes Shumpert is forced to collapse into the lane to defend against drives. Notice how Kenyon Martin stays on Kevin Garnett above the arch instead of collapsing in the lane in the play above.
The better choice for Shumpert here would’ve been to stick with Paul Pierce, but a defender’s natural reaction is to collapse and stop the drive. This was just and error by Shumpert and he payed for it by fouling Pierce.
But, going back to my previous point about Shumpert’s post play, he has really quick hands and has the length to bother some of the better post guys in the league. Take a look at these this possession against Al Horford of the Atlanta Hawks. Shumpert gets switched on to him and they try to take advantage of the matchup.
Its plays like these that make Shumpert a pretty good post defender. He’s the reason why the Knicks are able to switch as much as they do–he’s able to make versatile plays on almost every position.
Now, as you can see, all of these players have their own strengths and weaknesses. They all do things that you like and dislike in your defenders. If we could combine them all into one player, we’d likely have Andre Iguodala or LeBron James in our hands. However, we can’t.
If you’re like me, you weren’t able to choose which one you’d like to have going forward on your team. I think that either choice here would be a great one and, depending on the system, they could all have a shot at being the best perimeter defender wherever they are.