There’s a rising tide of scrutiny surrounding defense in the NBA, and the swell of analytical attention has directly affected the draft.
High-octane offense is still the sport’s eye candy. It’s what sells tickets, lures viewers and creates marketing megastars. As such, scoring studs still garner top dollar and more airtime than most defensive specialists.
But while franchises look to build their brand, general managers and teams also aim to win titles. And to scale the NBA heights in June, strong defense is essential. If you have players who can stop (or at least slow down) offensive weapons, you possess a treasure.
Thanks to the emergence, greater accessibility and prevalence of advanced stats, front offices and coaches have a better grasp of the schemes and players who can successfully stymie opponents. Quantifying all the various aspects of defense is still a work in progress, but stats like defensive rating, on/off margins and defensive shot charts have helped separate the contenders from the matadors.
A June 2015 study by Mika Honkasalo of Nylon Calculus revealed that defense earned just 60 cents on the dollar (at the time), but a slew 2015 free agency signings and extensions indicate that defense is climbing in value. That 60 cent ratio will soon be a thing of the past.
For starters, five of the 10 players on the All-Defensive First and Second Teams signed new deals or extensions north of $80 million this past summer. That includes DeAndre Jordan (led NBA in defensive rebound percentage and Defensive Win Shares during 2014-15), Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard (led NBA in defensive rating), Anthony Davis (led NBA in block percentage) and Draymond Green (Second in Defensive Win Shares, fourth in defensive rating).
Other elite stoppers such as Marc Gasol, Khris Middleton and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist also recently inked long-term deals thanks in large part to their defense. In fact, MKG, who secured a four-year, $52 million extension Monday, has been widely considered a “bargain” even though his jump shot is still a massive project.
Defense wasn’t the only reason all of these stars earned their cash, and the impending salary-cap spike helps as well. But their superior analytics performance certainly helped fuel two-way appeal and maximize their leverage.
More than ever, executives value versatile defenders as critical assets, and therefore take a longer look at defense in the draft process. The advanced-stat inspections of NBA defense has fostered a deeper focus on the defense of young prospects.
It’s much harder to pinpoint the defensive worth of prospects due to widely varying college/international schedules and playing styles, but the point is that NBA scouts and executives are placing a higher priority on defense than ever before.
We can see the difference even in the past five years. In the 2011 draft, offensive-minded (and defensively inept) youngsters like Derrick Williams (2nd), Enes Kanter (3rd) and Jimmer Fredette (10th) were all selected before promising two-way players Klay Thompson (11th), Kawhi Leonard (15th), Iman Shumpert (17th) and Jimmy Butler (30th).
You can’t necessarily blame general managers for picking enticing bucket-getters over defenders back then. But in ensuing drafts, many executives learned from their mistakes and didn’t put themselves in position for that kind of regret.
In 2012, a pair of Kentucky freshman (Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist) went No. 1 and No. 2. Both players were raw offensively, yet they were deemed worth the selection partially because of defensive versatility. Unfortunately, several general managers let future defensive standouts Middleton and Green slip into the second round.
A couple of years later, drafters showed even more favor toward defensively-gifted prospects. Andrew Wiggins edged out Jabari Parker in the 2014 wing comparison due to superior foot speed and defensive range. Aaron Gordon (4th), Dante Exum (5th) and Marcus Smart (6th) were drafted ahead of studs like Julius Randle (7th), Nik Stauskas (8th) and Noah Vonleh (9th) because they showed greater natural defensive talent. And Elfrid Payton cracked the top 10 out of Louisiana-Lafayette by demonstrating that he could disrupt the point as effectively as he could run it.
The jury is still out on the 2015 draft, but one thing’s for sure: defensive prowess was a major factor for several top selections.
As previously mentioned, it’s impossible to base definitive conclusions about prospects purely on stats. However, NBA eyes gather as much data as possible in conjunction with film. In the 2015 race for No. 1 overall, that data shifted in favor of Karl-Anthony Towns over Jahlil Okafor as the season unfolded. Sharon Katz of ESPN Stats and Information explains:
The defensive end is where Towns separates himself from the rest of the draft class. According to College Basketball Reference’s defensive rating estimate, Towns allowed fewer points per 100 possessions on plays he individually faced than any other player in the nation…Okafor struggled to protect the rim and was a below-average defender against isolation plays (allowing 0.88 points per play). Although there is a valid argument that Okafor is a more refined offensive player that Towns, few would claim that he outperformed him defensively.
A few picks after Towns (1st) and Okafor (3rd), another Kentucky Wildcat was drafted early based on his fortress-like stoppage. The Sacramento Kings could’ve gone a couple different directions at No. 6, but they chose Willie Cauley-Stein because he flat-out stifles opponents. WCS finished his college career with the best all-time defensive rating in the SEC, and he led the NCAA in Win Shares during 2014-15.
We’re no longer in an era where defense is one big intangible other than blocks and steals. Scouts can see defensive shot charts. We can track exactly how successful defenders were in every individual matchup. We can see exactly how the team fared with and without them on the court.
Defense has become more quantifiable and valuable, so therefore NBA clubs are putting more emphasis on drafting elite defenders.
Athletic, long-armed, versatile guardians like Davis, Gordon and Towns are a preview of future drafts. Every year, executives will be increasingly hungry to pluck the defender who offers an edge in the title hunt.