DEFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS. It’s a tried and true adage, a tale as old as time, a cliche we’ve heard a million times. But as with many cliches, we hear it so much because it’s true. Only half the game of basketball is offense. Defense matters too, and in our hurry to focus on triple-doubles and 50-point games, we often lose sight of what’s happening on the other end of the court.
Anyone that says “Nobody plays defense in the NBA anymore” isn’t watching the games. Yes, offenses are better than ever, but so are defenses. Schemes have gotten more complicated than ever before and players are constantly switching and rotating, expected to move all possession long and cover multiple guys on the same possession. On offense, the worst player can stand in the corner and hope for an open shot. The worst defensive player gets hunted mercilessly. An offense is limited by a team’s strongest link, but with defense, the weakest link stands out.
Still, some individuals are so good at defense that they rise above the rest and elevate their team. Let’s recognize those players by selecting a 2019 First and Second Team All Defense and then fill out a three-man Defensive Player of the Year (DPOY) ballot.
First Team — Rudy Gobert, Utah
Gobert is the easy answer as the defending DPOY and two-time defending First Team All Defense center, but he’s also the right choice. As good as Gobert has been in past years, this may have been his best defensive season yet. Gobert posted a 5.1 defensive box plus-minus (DBPM), the best of his career. That number may not mean much to you, but DBPM is a key indicator of defensive value. Typically a +3 represents All Defense level for a center, while +5 is historically elite. Only 13 players in NBA history have posted a +5, and it’s a laundry list of the league’s all-time elite defenders, names like Hakeem, Admiral, Mutumbo, Camby, Noah, and Eaton.
Gobert saw a slightly lower block rate this year, lowest of his career in fact, but that represented his game maturing as he learns to defend better away from the post. You already know The Stifle Tower can block shots at the rim with his crazy wingspan and reach, but he’s gotten much better at playing modern big man defense on the perimeter, moving his feet and sliding laterally, switching onto smaller guys and recovering to still protect the rim. Gobert’s improvement showed up in the playoffs where he posted a ridiculous 7.2 DBPM and led all players with almost a 10% block rate. And sure those numbers came in a limited sample, but that limited sample was also against James Harden and the Houston Rockets.
Gobert was the best player on the league’s #2 defense. He’s the clear First Team All D center for a third consecutive year.
Second Team — Myles Turner, Indiana
Turner took a huge leap forward defensively this year. In three previous seasons in the NBA, Myles Turner was an average defender at best, and the numbers say he was a bit below average among centers in the regular season. The flashes were there but the consistency was not, and the block numbers and overall impact weren’t enough. That didn’t stop Indiana from giving Turner a 4-year $72-million extension that kicks in this summer, and it looks like their faith in Turner’s development will pay off.
This season Turner leapt to an elite 4.7 DBPM. He led the league with 2.7 blocks per game and was the best defender on the league’s #3 defense. Turner got a lot of defensive help in Indiana from players like Thaddeus Young and Cory Joseph (plus Victor Oladipo when healthy, of course), but he was the team’s defensive leader. Gobert and Turner stood head and shoulders above the rest of the league’s centers defensively in the 2018–19 season.
Nerlens Noel, Mitchell Robinson, and Bam Adebayo are all worth a mention here. They posted elite defensive numbers but did it mostly off the bench and in limited minutes. That’s not going to be enough to garner All Defense recognition but it bodes well for their futures.
Andre Drummond would probably be my hypothetical Third Team All D center, but it’s a sizable drop-off from the top two. He’s become a bit underrated and still anchors a perennial above-average defense. Brook Lopez could also have a case as the league’s second best defender on the #1 defense. It’s a massive step forward for a player that’s never even been league-average defensively, thanks largely to the unique role he gets in Milwaukee’s drop defense that allows him to focus on protecting the rim where he’s terrific. Anthony Davis would be the Third Team pick if he’d played enough.
Not good enough
You’re wondering about Joel Embiid, I’m sure. Embiid should not be All Defense this year and really wasn’t even good enough to make this honorable mention section. He was only a +2 in DBPM, below average among starting centers and worst of his career. He also had his worst defensive rating (104) and block rate of his career, and Philadelphia’s defense plummeted to league average, just #15. Embiid is an outstanding post defender, but he gets lost in space when pulled away from the basket, and he didn’t seem to have as much defensive energy this season as he took on a bigger offensive role. That could be a losing formula long-term for Philly.
First Team — Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee
Much like another outstanding defensive forward you’ll read about shortly in Draymond Green, Giannis is the defensive system. He’s the reason for everything Milwaukee does on both offense and defense, and he’s the reason Brook Lopez is such a perfect fit. Milwaukee pressures the ball with their guards and funnels everything to Lopez at the rim, but they do all that in large part because they have Antetokounmpo playing free safety, with the length and reaction speed to play a one-man half-court zone that covers practically everything.
There have been 60 NBA seasons all time with a DBPM of 5 or higher and at least 1000 minutes played. All but three of them were from a center, the only outliers being Bo Outlaw in 2000, Andrei Kirilenko in 2005, and Giannis this season. Put another way, Giannis Antetokounmpo just had one of the three best statistical defensive seasons by a non-center in NBA history. And sure, he played a little center (as did Bo and AK-47) but that +5 shows just how impactful Giannis was on defense.
One thing Giannis does defensively that’s underrated is that he rarely ever fouls. Antetokounmpo committed just 67 defensive fouls, fewer than one per game and less defensive than offensive fouls in his case. Rudy Gobert had almost twice as many fouls while other elite defenders like Turner and Embiid had over 100 in fewer minutes. What that means for Giannis is that he is able to constantly bother opponents with his length without giving away free points at the line. Add in almost three stocks per game and the fact that each live-ball turnover immediately turns Greek Freak into a one-man freight train in transition and that’s practically five or six free points a game Giannis adds.
Giannis Antetokounmpo was by far the best defender on the league’s #1 defense. He was the best defensive non-center in the NBA this season, and no one else was even close.
First Team — Draymond Green, Golden State
No, this is not just a reputation pick. Draymond wasn’t quite as good in the regular season as his usual elite level — but he’s so good usually that even a small drop still leaves him on the All Defense First Team. Green did not have a great regular season, but it was mostly his offense that took a dive. He still posted a very strong 3.4 DBPM, third worst of his career but behind only the Greek Freak among non-centers.
The Warriors aren’t going to win many regular season recognitions and don’t deserve to after coasting all year. They finished #13 on defense, basically league average. But it was Draymond who kept them there, with the help of the wonky group of centers, and he elevated his defense late in the season and into the playoffs. Green has a career 5.1 DBPM in the playoffs and is right on track at 5.0 heading into the Finals, placing him among the greats defensively at any position and as good as any non-center in league history. He’s still the Defensive Player of the Postseason. He’ll have to settle for First Team All D in the regular season.
The Perfect 2019 All-NBA Teams
Do LeBron or Russ make the team? Gobert or KAT? And which guards and forwards sneak onto Third Team?
Second Team — Thaddeus Young, Indiana
I really hope Young makes All Defense. He deserves it, and it would be a fitting award for an underrated player who had a career year at age 30. Young’s never really been recognized for anything since being Second Team All Rookie 12 years ago, but it’s time. He had the best defensive season of his career, a switchable defender that could also help protect the rim. He got plenty of help in Indiana, but his outstanding defense was also key in playing next to Domantas Sabonis, allowing Sabonis to flourish on the offensive end and giving Indiana a temporary solution to the problem of playing Sabonis and Myles Turner together. Now Young is a free agent, and coming off this year, he’s about to get paid.
Second Team — P.J. Tucker, Houston
Houston finished slightly below average on defense at #17, but the fact that they hung in there at all was almost entirely on the shoulders of P.J. Tucker. Clint Capela took a significant step back defensively this year, and Chris Paul didn’t get back to his usual self until late in the season. Harden was better than you think on defense, but it was still Tucker’s load to carry, and you already know everything he does for this team from all their playoff games. He was the Rockets’ only above average defender and held the team together on that end.
Paul Millsap was good as always. Not quite as good as he’s been in the past, but a worthy pick if chosen. Robert Covington was so good he’d have been my First Team pick if he played more minutes. Jonathan Isaac is probably too young to get many votes, but he’s already excellent on defense and is going to end up on this team sooner than later.
Royce O’Neale, Moe Harkless, Kyle Anderson, and Jaren Jackson Jr. are forwards that played too few minutes to be worthy of All Defense but who contributed very well on that end and make their teams better.
Not good enough
Some of the usual names you’d expect here didn’t make the cut this season. I suspect Paul George will make All Defense this year, maybe even First Team, but he shouldn’t. PG was fine and OKC finished #4 defensively, but the entire team is built around defense with guys like Noel, Grant, Diallo, and Ferguson almost exclusively focusing on defense with Adams and Russ above average too. George’s personal metrics place him as just an average defender.
That’s what Kawhi Leonard was this year too. He had by far the worst DBPM of his career (and does again in the playoffs, a worrying sign) with his ever increasing offensive load. Like PG, Kawhi played for a top-5 defense but got plenty of help from Gasol, Siakam, Danny Green, Ibaka, and Lowry. OKC and Toronto were great defenses because of team defense more than individual play. Jimmy Butler was not good on defense this year.
First Team — Marcus Smart, Boston
If you don’t think Marcus Smart is the best defensive guard in basketball, I honestly don’t know what game you’re watching. Smart is Draymond Green as a guard. He is the heart and soul of the Celtics and helped Boston remain a top-7 defense despite the moving parts and no one else on the team really posting above average defensive metrics (Al Horford was in the mix at least).
Smart’s core strength allows him to switch onto and guard almost any player in the league at any position, and his incredible defensive IQ helps him make reads almost no one else in the league is making. Just watch Smart on defense for an entire game and your jaw will drop. He’s switching between two and three guys on a single possession, and his hustle and IQ help him get to 50/50 balls and propelled him toward his 3.1% steal rate, leading the league.
Smart is a defensive savant, and his absence was really felt as Boston gave up 119 points a game in four consecutive losses to close out their season. And yes Smart played 32 minutes those final two games. He had a 105 defensive rating in them versus 116 for the Celtics without him as their season ended with four losses to the Bucks. Any questions?
First Team — Patrick Beverley, LA Clippers
Patrick Beverley is a one-man wrecking ball on defense. He didn’t get much help from his Clippers teammates, and L.A. finished bottom-10 in defense, but Beverley did his part. His “Mr. 94 Feet” nickname is apt; Beverley is an absolute pest, picking guys up full court at times and just generally annoying them like a wasp buzzing in their ears all game long. Never was that more apparent than in the Clippers’ Round 1 series against the Warriors in which Beverley spent most of the series guarding Kevin Durant and somehow posted an elite +4.9 DBPM. This is a regular season award, but jeez, give him First Team just for that alone.
Second Team — Danny Green, Toronto
Green is a defensive stalwart at guard, and it remains baffling that the Raptors managed to get San Antonio to throw him into an already lopsided Kawhi Leonard trade. Green is the best transition defender in the league and added veteran savvy, length, and defensive IQ to help push Toronto’s defense to its top-5 status. Toronto was +14 per 100 possessions with Green on the court, and there were +18 with Green on versus off, both marks leading the team.
Second Team — Eric Bledsoe, Milwaukee
Bledsoe gets the final spot by a hair over Cory Joseph since Indiana already has two representatives and the Bucks were the #1 defense in the league and had only one rep — until now. Bledsoe had his best defensive season since leaving the Clippers and was good enough to get a midseason extension. We are experiencing Bledsoe’s defensive value by omission against Toronto. Bledsoe’s shot and offense has disappeared and he’s been benched in favor of George Hill and Malcolm Brogdon, and it’s no coincidence that Kyle Lowry has had such a good offensive series without Bledsoe out there to bother him all game.
I mentioned Cory Joseph above. He’s a worthy All Defense choice and had the highest DBPM of any of the guys I strongly considered. Derrick White is a solid pick too but didn’t play enough minutes for me to put him onto the team. It’s not fair for opponents that White will be the Spurs’ second best defender next season once Dejounte Murray returns.
Delon Wright is a really nice defender, and Toronto has missed him at times in the playoffs after sending him out in the deal for Marc Gasol. Bruce Brown was excellent in defense as a rookie for the Pistons. Lonzo Ball is a good defender, and honestly, he’s just good. If he can stay healthy, he’s going to be a very good player. I’m sorry you had to find out this way.
Not good enough
Russell Westbrook’s 3.9 DBPM paints him as a super elite defender in the realm of Michael Jordan among guards, but that number is super inflated by the metric ton of rebounds he puts up. Rebounds count as defense since they end a possession, but that’s a system thing in OKC. Westbrook can lock in on defense but he also gets caught with his pants down mentally far too often, and he piles up steals but does so by taking gambles and leaving his team exposed far too often.
Ben Simmons is the other guard with an elite DBPM, but he too misses the cut. Philly was better with Simmons off the court than on this year, and the team has three supposed elite defenders in Simmons, Butler, and Embiid and still was league average on defense. Something doesn’t add up. We saw for a few playoff games how elite Simmons can be defensively, and he could make All Defense five or ten times if he figures things out consistently. Not yet.