Programming note: As the season nears its end, you might see an uptick in posts from Basketball Poetry. Friday was supposed to be All-Rookie and All-Defensive Teams, but I realized today I’d have to split these up because I get too excited to limit things to a reasonable word count. Lucky you!
All-Defensive Teams are significantly harder to choose than All-NBA Teams.
It’s relatively easy to winnow down the NBA’s greats to the top 18-20 players in a season. Then, you’re just choosing which ones make the final cut on the margins. But they’re all great players playing big minutes, with performances that leap out at you both on the stat sheet and through a TV screen.
Defense is trickier to observe. You know that Rudy Gobert is a giant flyswatter, but you can’t easily tell from watching a game that teams get to the rim almost 8% less frequently when he’s on the floor than when he’s off. Deterrence is hard to see and even harder to appreciate, but it is a huge part of defense.
Further, existing defensive statistics are heavily flawed. Blocks and steals are helpful, but they don’t count the number of times a guy jumps out of position chasing a turnover only to give up an easy layup. Advanced defensive metrics often depend on opponents, unreliable tracking data, finicky on-off stats, and more – a house of cards that should only be used directionally.
A year ago, Zach Kram at The Ringer had a great article explaining why defense is so hard to measure. The major takeaway: professional NBA analysts rated public defensive statistics a 3.6/10 (offensive stats were rated 7.6/10). In other words, the experts don’t trust the numbers.
It can be difficult to tell who is executing their defensive assignment appropriately on any given play. When there’s a breakdown, the guy who gets scored on is rarely the guy at fault. A casual fan and a diehard would come up with similar lists of the best players in the NBA, but they would likely have very different lists of the best defenders.
Even worse, this year’s lockdown artists generally missed a lot more games than usual, even accounting for COVID. In my opinion, Draymond Green, Alex Caruso, Bam Adebayo, and Paul George were four of the ten best defenders in the NBA this season. None will play 58 games, the required amount to qualify for the NBA’s official statistical leaderboards (although there is no hard rule to qualify for All-Defensive Teams).
If you don’t feel at least a little bit of imposter syndrome when filling out a Defensive Team, you’re probably doing it wrong.
It’s not all bad! One fun thing about watching defense this year has been the diversity of roles the best defenders occupy. Switching masters like Adebayo and Green, point-of-attack dogs like Gary Payton II, defensive quarterbacks like Marcus Smart, weakside rovers like Giannis and Robert Williams, traditional rim protectors like Rudy Gobert… coaches are getting more creative with using their best defenders in ways that maximize their individual talents on that end.
I’ve tried my best to balance the variety of factors at play to come up with the ten players most deserving of All-Defensive Team honors, so without further ado, let’s get to it.
All-Defensive First Team
G: Matisse Thybulle, 76ers
G: Marcus Smart, Celtics
F: Draymond Green, Warriors
F: Bam Adebayo, Heat
C: Rudy Gobert, Jazz
Draymond will end up playing barely half a season, but he was so much better than any other defender when he did play that he still deserves to be first-team. I won’t argue with people who say he didn’t play enough games to qualify, but I think it’s important to recognize true genius when we see it. He knows precisely what an offense will run and appears in weird places at weird times to disrupt what they want to do. No player in the league causes more frustration than Draymond.
I’ve had Smart second on my DPOY ballot in the past and have always appreciated his physicality and energy. He flops, reaches, talks trash, hip checks, and does all the little annoying things that get under opponents’ skin (I say that as a compliment!). He might be the best guard at defending the post while still being a superb point-of-attack defender.
Thybulle is the strangest defender on this list. He’s not particularly great at switching, and he can get blown by or overpowered by elite opponents. But he recovers faster than anyone I’ve ever seen, and I swear he has three arms.
Thybulle and Gary Payton are tied for the league lead in deflections per 36 minutes by a mile. Thybulle has blocked more three-point shots than anyone in the league, and opponents are terrified to shoot jumpers around him, for good reason:
You can see Cade Cunningham looking around for Thybulle, pump faking in fear, before finally shooting only to get blocked anyway. It’s like something from a Chucky movie.
Thybulle has had the toughest average matchup difficulty in the entire league. It’s impossible to pass in or around the man, and if he gets just a little better at containing drivers, he’ll be a DPOY candidate in the future.
Bam and Rudy will likely be the top two on my Defensive Player of the Year ballot, so you’ll hear a lot more about them soon. Suffice it to say they are the best in the league at what they do: Bam at switching onto anybody, and Gobert at protecting the paint. Bam’s eligibility at forward makes it easy for me to slide both onto my first team.
All-Defensive Second Team:
G: Gary Payton II, Warriors
G: Mikal Bridges, Suns
F: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
F: Jaren Jackson Jr., Grizzlies
C: Joel Embiid, 76ers
The second team is always the fun one.
Gary Payton has been the single best on-ball defender in the league this year. He barely made the team in the offseason and then forced his way into the rotation by maximizing his minimal opportunities:
Although Payton hasn’t played a ton of minutes, Kerr uses him in high-leverage situations to completely disrupt opposing ball handlers. It’s low-hanging fruit to say that he reminds me of his dad, The Glove, but I can’t help myself. He’s a joy to watch on that end of the court.
Bridges has been one of the best wing defenders in the NBA, taking on the opposing team’s best scorer every night and locking them down despite playing huge minutes. His advanced stats are weirdly mediocre, but the numbers are lying in this case. Mikal has exceptional footwork and technique on the perimeter:
Giannis has a ton of buzz to win Defensive Player of the Year, but I don’t see it. He’s not quite as quick as he used to be, and he’s gotten a little sloppier with his technique in closing out on shooters and boxing out for rebounds (part of defense!). He’s also not as elite in one-on-one post defense as you’d expect.
But these are all nitpicks, and he’s still better than 98% of NBA players at the things I mentioned above. He can cover more ground than anyone in the league and has an excellent sense of when to help and when to stay home. Giannis will almost certainly make the first team in the actual voting.
Jaren Jackson Jr. has finally delivered on the glimpses he’s shown us in the past. He’s become tremendous at switching onto quicker guards out on the perimeter, and he’s a freak at blocking shots as a help defender. He’s running out of position less often, but he still plays with great energy:
However, even with improved self-discipline, JJJ still runs into foul trouble a little too often, which knocks him down to the second team.
The last center spot came down to Joel Embiid or Jarrett Allen. I think Allen has been a teensy-tiny bit better, but he’s played in ten fewer games, so Embiid gets the nod. Like Giannis, Embiid hasn’t been quite as good as he can be. But Joel is still a destructive force, one of the best paint protectors in the league. He has a little more juice on the perimeter than you’d expect from someone the size of a water buffalo.
G: Alex Caruso, Bulls; Derrick White, Celtics; Dejounte Murray, Spurs; Patrick Beverley, Timberwolves (stop with the stupid fouls!); Jrue Holiday, Bucks; Lonzo Ball, Bulls
F: Dorian Finney-Smith, Mavs; Herb Jones, Pelicans; PJ Tucker, Heat; Jimmy Butler, Heat; Evan Mobley, Cavaliers; Jarred Vanderbilt, Timberwolves; Paul George, Clippers (never really close to contention due to injuries, but I had to list him)
C: Jarrett Allen, Cavaliers; Al Horford, Celtics (having an incredible, underappreciated year); Robert Williams, Celtics.
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