I can’t remember the last time I had so much difficulty picking All-Defensive Teams. It’s quite the paradox that in the league’s best-ever offensive season, there have been more individually impressive defenders than I can ever recall seeing.
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Every year, I’m reminded that rating defense is brutally difficult. I went into why in more detail here, but publicly available defensive metrics are generally haphazard at best and misleading at worst. The eye test is essential here, but even the trained eye can be tricked. It’s easy to mistake activity for efficacy, for example, and it’s almost impossible to see the things that don’t happen thanks to proper defensive positioning, effective help, etc.
Therefore, the listmaker’s choices say more about that person’s priorities than the merit of the individuals in question. For example, I don’t much value playing time or games played for All-Defensive teams; if they’ve played at least half the season, that’s good enough for me. My north star: which players do I want on the court for an end-of-game possession?
With that in mind, here’s my ultimate defensive fivesome.
All-Defensive First Team
G: Jrue Holiday, Milwaukee Bucks
G: O.G. Anunoby, Toronto Raptors
F: Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies
F: Jaden McDaniels, Minnesota Timberwolves
C: Brook Lopez, Milwaukee Bucks
If an NBA-obsessed supervillain told me my life depended on one guard getting a stop, I’d pick Jrue. His insane hands and uncanny strength allow him to guard any position, and he makes up for merely above-average lateral quickness with impeccable anticipation. Holiday knows which way a ballhandler will go before they do, and he’s adept at using his hands and hips to steer them into a trap. Other players have more impressive on-paper resumes, but his physicality pops when you watch him play; even as a viewer, you feel him. For what it’s worth, his peers have consistently labeled him the best perimeter defender in the NBA, too.
Anunoby, shockingly, has never made an All-Defensive team before, but that’s primarily due to injuries. Mostly healthy this year, Anunoby’s leading the league with two steals per game, and his 3.7 deflections per game are second in the league only to teammate Fred VanVleet. He’s one of the premier isolation defenders in basketball, and his size (6’7”, 220 lbs) makes him one of the most versatile, too. His defensive motor runs hot. This play from the season’s opening game has stuck with me all year: Anunoby starts in the opposite corner, sprints all the way down the court, and perfectly times his jump to devour a juicy Caris LeVert layup.
Big men Jackson and Lopez are the two leading candidates for DPOY, and I’ve talked plenty about them in the past (and will discuss them further in the near future). They’re locks.
McDaniels was an easy choice. Un-screenable, unshakeable, does a tremendous job of staying focused off-ball. Like a rottweiler/pogo stick mutt if the ballhandler smelled like steak. McDaniels boasts the best “On-Ball Defense” rating in Bball-Index’s database, and outrageous recovery speed covers up his few mistakes. His size (a springy 6’10”) even gives him some value as a rim protector; opposing players only shoot 53.5 percent against him at the rim, an elite mark for a center. Watch as he absorbs an elbow from Kawhi but is still able to gather himself and spring up for the block:
All-Defensive Second Team
G: Alex Caruso, Chicago Bulls
G: Delon Wright, Washington Wizards
F: Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
F: Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers
C: Nic Claxton, Brooklyn Nets
It’s already getting hard, and I doubt Wright or Davis make too many other lists you might see.
Caruso should be a no-brainer. A defensive wrecking ball, Caruso has quickly replicated his chemistry with Lonzo Ball from last year in his new partnership with Patrick Beverley to put opposing ballhandlers in stasis. He’s one of the league leaders in steals, deflections, charges drawn, DBPM, Def. EPM, Def. RAPTOR, etc., etc. I spoke in-depth here about how Caruso is one of the few perimeter players who can elevate an entire defensive scheme by himself, and if that can’t get you on an All-Defensive team, I’m not sure what could.
Wright is the ultimate ballhawk. His steal rate of 3.8% leads the league among players who have played at least half the season. He swerves into passing lanes without notice or fear, like a toddler driving a go-kart, but doesn’t give up anything with his on-ball defense, either. He has an NFL safety-like tendency to punch at the ball when people dribble as if he’s trying to force a fumble. It’s peculiar, and I love it.
Anthony Davis has only played 49 games as of this article, which will invalidate him in the minds of many voters. However, when healthy (I’m so sick of that phrase), Davis has been as dominant as ever. He’s averaging two blocks and a steal, alters countless other shots, and is rarely in foul trouble. He’s also posting the best rebounding season of his career (thanks to playing center much of the year), an underrated defensive element. I laugh when I see teams bring him into the pick-and-roll:
It’s cheating a little bit to put the Brow at forward instead of center, but he should be eligible for this position since he’s still listed as a forward on NBA.com. Good enough for me!
In just his second year, Mobley has become one of the most well-rounded defenders in the league. Like Bam Adebayo, Mobley is equally effective at switching onto guards as he is manning the middle, and he has similarly great timing. He’s not quite as airtight on the ball as the guys above him, but he’s already phenomenal at defending different actions within the same possession:
Mobley’s highlights aren’t always loud, but he consistently finds ways to make the right play time after time. You can see the outlines of a future DPOY contender.
It’s been wild watching Claxton evolve from scantly-used afterthought to defensive linchpin in his four years. He added significant bulk in the offseason, making him harder to dislodge without losing any quickness. Claxton might be the second-best switch big in the league after Adebayo, but he’s also on your middle or ring finger when listing top rim protectors. Nic is allowing the fifth-lowest percentage at the rim and swatting 2.5 shots per game, second in the league behind Jackson Jr. Advanced metrics adore Claxton. So do my eyes.
All-Defensive Third Team
G: Dennis Smith Jr., Charlotte Hornets
G: Derrick White, Boston Celtics
F: Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
F: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
C: Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat
Ok, so there isn’t a third team in real life. But some defenders deserved more than just a casual shout-out in the honorable mentions.
Dennis Smith Jr. has metamorphosed from a shot-hungry gunner into a point-of-attack steel butterfly. Advanced defensive metrics love him more than nearly any other guard, and since LaMelo Ball’s injury, Smith has led a Hornets defense that’s bafflingly become one of the league’s best. Smith plays an old-school kind of defense; he gets up into opposing guards’ faces and harasses them until they’re forced to give up the ball, and he’s elite at jumping passing lanes (fitting for a guy who was training to play NFL cornerback).
Derrick White is all things at all times. He’s blocking shots at the rim, bodying up bigger wings, pickpocketing ballhandlers as they try to drive, dysoning up rebounds. While I can’t point to White being the best at any one thing, he is borderline elite at every defensive skill, and he’s smart as hell, too.
Speaking of smarts, Draymond Green is still the sharpest defensive mind in basketball and the ultimate help-side defender. He saunters through the swinging doors of the saloon, toothpick hanging out of his mouth, and lesser offensive players go still — movement might catch his eye. However, his various back injuries have slowed him a bit this season, and his on-ball defense isn’t quite what it once was. That said, I have no doubt voters will pick him for at least a second-team slot, and I won’t argue too much.
Giannis might be a tad overrated defensively by the general public, but you won’t catch me saying that to his face. His blend of size, athleticism, and motor means he’s always in the thick of the action, and coach Bud has given him the green light to run around and cause havoc. I sometimes wonder if Giannis is the rare player whose defense would seem better if he were surrounded by worse defenders; the Bucks don’t have too many messes to clean up, so Giannis’ janitorial talents are often wasted.
Bam Adebayo is an unusual case. My pick for last year’s DPOY hasn’t gotten worse, but teams have gotten significantly better at avoiding him, which minimizes his impact to a degree. The Heat have been forced to use him more in drop coverage and less in switch, his best attribute. Players don’t even try to go at him anymore in isolation. In many ways, Bam has become a victim of his own success.
G: Herb Jones (you likely haven’t read one word about Jones this season due to his offensive stagnation, but he’s been elite once again roaming the perimeter), Jevon Carter, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Dillon Brooks, Josh Okogie, Lu Dort, Marcus Smart, Patrick Beverley, De’Anthony Melton, Quentin Grimes
F: Kristaps Porzingis (my toughest omission after Jones), Myles Turner, Matisse Thybulle (extraordinary off-ball), Mikal Bridges, Paul George, Isaac Okoro, Deni Avdija
C: Walker Kessler (a future mainstay on this list), Jarrett Allen, Rudy Gobert, Joel Embiid
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