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Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is the Best Defender Nobody Cares About

We expect professional athletes to have confidence. Supreme confidence, even. Remember, over the summer, when Stephen Curry claimed he was a better offensive player than LeBron James? Well, turns out that’s probably true. At the very least, debatable. Or how about when Michael Kidd-Gilchrist said he wanted to be the best defender of all-time. No, seriously, this is something he actually said.

If you missed that quote, I can’t say I’d fault you. Kidd-Gilchrist plays for the entirely forgettable Charlotte Hornets. Sadly, the NBA media cycle isn’t going to jam — especially news coming out of Charlotte — down your throat unless it pertains to their owner. They’re just overlooked. And besides, who pays attention to defense these days anyway? Well, apparently — much like the Hornets — not enough people.

Obviously Michael Kidd-Gilchrist isn’t the best defender of all-time. He’ll only be 22 at the start of next year, after all. But to say he wasn’t one of the 10 best defenders in the league this season — media voting for the NBA’s All-Defensive teams revealed MKG received only two First Team votes and only 21 points total — is an absolute travesty.

Normally I’m not one for getting all worked up over NBA award voting. The media are busy people and it’s impossible to watch every game. I understand, I get it. Like, Pau Gasol received three votes for All-Defensive Second Team, and Gasol has the mobility of a man wearing waterlogged steel-toe boots. But yet people see that Gasol was good for blocking a shot every-now-and-again, so hey, that means he can’t be a bad defender, right? Plus, local media bias. There’s always going to be local media bias. It is what it is.

But to completely neglect a defensive linchpin like Kidd-Gilchrist? To act as if his presence, defensively, didn’t transform a pedestrian defense into an intimidating one? Man, everyone slept on MKG. Guess it’s time we wake up.

For starters, look no further than Kidd-Gilchrist’s on/off numbers on the year. With MKG on the court, Charlotte’s team defensive rating sat at a remarkable 96.3, which is nearly two full points better than the NBA’s best defensive team, the Golden State Warriors. When MKG sat, the team’s defensive rating ballooned to 104.1, which is a borderline bottom 10 defense.

Then once you start to parse through Charlotte’s season a bit, you stumble across interesting tidbits like this: from January to March, Charlotte was the league’s best defensive team according to points allowed per 100 possessions. All the more impressive? The Hornets were 6-21 in games where Kidd-Gilchrist didn’t play this season — perhaps explaining the lack of votes, he did miss 27 games — and allowed at least 100 or more points in 18 of those games without Kidd-Gilchrist

The truly astounding part, though? Kidd-Gilchrist is primarily a perimeter defender. He’s personally responsible for foiling opposing offenses and he does it from the wing! And with so few defensive metrics readily available (not to mention reliable) to the public, still, the eye test reigns supreme when talking defense.

There was a game back on March 13 which distinctly stood out to me. (I actually wrote about it here.) In that game, MKG guarded Nikola Mirotic — a highly-skilled, tough-to-cover stretch 4 — in the first half. Kidd-Gilchrist made life miserable for Mirotic: shifting himself ahead of every dribble, trailing closely behind every screen, rarely allowing enough space for an uncontested shot.

By halftime, Hornets coach Steve Clifford decided to throw MKG at the forefront of Charlotte’s defensive attack by placing him on the primary ball handler, which happened to be Aaron Brooks. To say Kidd-Gilchrist was disruptive would be an understatement as Chicago scored 10 points in the third quarter and just 31 total in the second half.

So, MKG went from successfully guarding a 6-foot-10 power forward to successfully guarding a 5-foot-10 point guard. That’s a foot in height difference between two players, and MKG’s defensive versatility enabled him to handle both players. How many players across the league are capable of something like that?

We’re living in the space-and-pace era of basketball. And it’s a great era, I might add! Free-flowing, fast-paced offense is fun to watch and entertaining as hell. But I’m a romantic when it comes to defense. And a guy like MKG is the perfect antidote for space-and-pace. He’s so long, so rangy. He’ll run shooters off three-point lines and stifle guards in pick-and-roll. There’s few like him, truly.

So when an omission as glaring as MKG not making either All-Defensive team happens, it’s not something we should just hit the snooze button on. We can’t just hope the voters will get it right next season because defense is such a reputation-based trait, and MKG’s rep clearly isn’t carrying much weight. Plus, voters (foolishly) won’t take Kidd-Gilchrist’s impact seriously unless the Hornets become good.

Maybe one day Kidd-Gilchrist will get his proper due, but it’s a shame he hasn’t already gotten it. Best defender of all-time? Ambitious, but not even close, yet. Best defender in the league today? Well, that’s much closer to the truth than anyone seems to realize.

* All stats from NBA.com/stats

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