NBA / Oct 20, 2011 / 12:30 pm

Building The NBA’s Best Defender

Dwight Howard (photo. Mannion)

I get this argument all the time. Defense is better in college than in the NBA. Everyone wants to debate it. Hardly anyone ever agrees with me. They see the floor burns. They see the intensity. They see coaches screaming, players slapping the floor, fans going ballistic. Defense is not better in college. It’s different. The very best defensive players in the world – Dwight Howard, Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo, LeBron James, Andre Iguodala, etc. – would cause complete havoc in a college game. No one would score on them. No one would come close.

There are a number of reasons why defense in the NBA has changed over the years. Different rules promoting a more wide-open game. More athletic players now rely on those attributes to get them by. Less physical contact than in the 1980s and ’90s. The charge call.

I read an interesting piece this morning on SBNation.com about defense. The conclusion: defense in the NBA is more about physical talent than being smart or giving a lot of effort, saying:

As a result, the default assumption is that every young player will get better defensively. But understanding how to play NBA-caliber defense is only a necessary, not a sufficient, condition to being an NBA-caliber defender. If a player lacks the prototypical size or athleticism for their position, they are never going to become good at defense. They might become like Steve Nash or Dirk Nowitzki, smart veterans who know their limitations and can make crafty defensive plays. But even with Nash’s ability to take help-side charges and Dirk’s ball-swipe move in the post, both need to play with versatile defenders so they can be hid defensively.

Individual defense comes down to two main factors: foot-speed and wingspan. Elite NBA defenders all have the same profiles: great athletes with long arms. Rajon Rondo, the first-team All-Defense point guard, is a perfect example: an athletic 6’1 guard with a 6’9 wingspan.

Can you get by just on brains and positioning? Yes, if you want to be Andre Miller. But do the elite need the physical tools? The answer is quite obvious.

The top 10 defensive players last year – according to the All-Defensive Teams – were Dwight Howard, Rajon Rondo, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Tony Allen, Chris Paul, Tyson Chandler, Andre Iguodala and Joakim Noah. Only one of those guys could be lacking when it comes to defensive tools. Yet, Paul still has a wingspan over 6-4 and when tested, his speed and quickness times were off the charts. Of course, those All-Defensive Teams are really nothing more than a fraternity. You have to earn your stripes to get in, and once you do, you’ll forever have a place at dinner.

Currently, if we go by the numbers – specifically basketball-reference.com’s defensive rating (an estimate of number of points allowed per 100 possessions) – the best defensive players are Howard, Garnett, Noah, Andrew Bogut and Omer Asik. All big men. The highest perimeter players (I’m using the last two seasons of defensive ratings) are Ronnie Brewer, Gerald Wallace, Rondo, C.J. Watson and Paul Pierce. Do they all have prototypical size for their positions? Yes (also many of them hail from the same defensive schemes, which speaks to why the stat is not always foul-proof).

[Related: Andre Iguodala’s Dynamic Defensive Drills & Workout]

The best defensive players of all time are obviously freak athletes with extremely long arms and quick feet. But are those physical attributes more important than positioning and toughness? Looking at the top of the last two seasons worth of defensive ratings, I see names like Kurt Thomas, Tim Duncan, Glen Davis and Udonis Haslem, all players acclaimed for the way they play defense. They emphasize that end, and attack it despite whatever they may lack physically. But they make up the minority in the defensive apex, hawks within crowds of sparrows. Nearly everyone else is an athlete, ferociously quick, amazingly fluid, ridiculously long.

Can any player get by with the glass half full? Of course. But to really make it as a top defensive player, you better come prepared with the tools. As SBNation.com wrote, John Wall and Tyreke Evans have the chance to be amazing defenders (6-9 and 6-11 wingspans respectively, plus quickness) while someone like Stephen Curry doesn’t. Going by this logic, the prediction is that Curry will never be as good as those players no matter how hard he works at it. Also:

Similarly, Kevin Love‘s poor individual defense is usually written off as a function of his age. But the 6’9 forward has a wingspan of only 6’11; in comparison, LaMarcus Aldridge has a 7’5 wingspan. There’s no scenario, barring a career-ending injury for Aldridge, where Love becomes a better defensive player in the next decade.

Teams like Boston and Chicago can make anyone look like a great defender. Surrounded by gems on that end, even a lukewarm defender like Ray Allen uses osmosis to suddenly develop into something above average. But if you find yourself stuck on a squad like Golden State, Phoenix or New York, teams that overlook the defensive end, how can you stand out? Would you rather be a hard-working, nuisance… a pit bull or a flamboyantly athletic risk-taker, someone who relies on their unique gifts?

If you’re building a defense, what do you start with first: the hard working defender or the freak athlete defender?

Follow Sean on Twitter at @SEANesweeney.

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  • king

    If i gotta pick one person to construct a defense around its a prime Garnett. A Freak athlete, has great instincts and a never ending motor. Also to be a great defender along with the tools you need to be ultra competitive.

    think about the great defensive players . from Russell, TD , GP, Jordan etc…all are extremely competitive as well as gifted

  • EvanZ

    I need to get some arm extensions.

  • mike

    Hard work pays off. You might not be on top 10 for a chase down block like lbj but your team will win … just look at brian cardinal from the mavs, he’s as athletic as al roker but how many charges did he draw in the playoffs? How many times did he simply just keep his defender in front of him & force a bad shot? Players like that won’t get the fame tho … but they’ll always be on a roster, & a winning roster at that.

  • Orange

    -_- no shane Battier?

  • http://www.geturweightup.com Chicagorilla

    Man this article just seems way off base. By your accounts then Gerald Green and James White will be elite defenders in the Michael Cooper mold.

    The NBA is a much more terrible defense league than the NCAA and the #1 reason is because of the rules. It has nothing to do with the actual players, most of them would probably play defense if the rules allowed them too.
    In college you have very good individual defenders, along with very good defensive schemes, and you put them against average athletes. Thats why college players look so much better on defense.

    Guys like Aaron Afflalo, Tony Allen, Kurt Thomas, Rondo, Westbrook, Brewer (both of them), Shane Battier, and Artest are all guys who take pride in defense and refuse to allow the rules to handicap them. I think because of that, the officials allow them to get away with just a tad bit more than the average defender. They established themselves as elite defenders who will bring it every night. As opposed to elite athletes who will bring it from time to time.
    Looking at that list, maybe the Brewers, Rondo, and Westbrook are great athletes, but Artest, Battier, Afflalo and Thomas are not nor have ever been great athletes with long limbs. They just care alot more about defense.

    One major factor being left out is the prescence of a shot blocker or good defensive big man behind you. Guys like
    Kobe Bryant, DWade, Lebron, Chris Paul, Rondo, JWall, and Paul Pierce have all had Shaq, Vajayjay, Haslem,Joel Anthony,Ty Chandler, Okafor, KG, Javel McGee, playing great defense behind them which allows them to pressure ball handlers more than anyone else because the ball handler doesn’t or cant attack the basket because of the big men.

    Never was this more apparent than this years playoffs when Wade and Lebron got up tight on DRose and even when he blew past them he was met by Haslem, Joell and the other defenders. With no teammates to help him out he was stuck.
    It was the exact same formula that the Lakers used on Allen Iverson in 2001. Kobe was getting murked by AI on the perimeter but AI would have to pull up because he didn’t want no part of Shaq. If he dumped it off (Which AI would rarely do) Mutombo might drop the pass of fumble it then pass it back out.

    Another example is when the Lakers tried doing that to Chris Paul this past playoffs. Chris being as smart as he is and having decent big men around him, was able to destroy the Lakers because he still managed to get the assist to Okafor or Landry. Had David West been there that series might have gone another way. But the Lakers previaled eventually because CP3 didn’t have the teammates to help him out.

    Dwight Howard has 4 str8 DPOY awards but he doesn’t deserve them one bit. WHo is he guarding? He rarely has to play man to man defense against someone who can actually score. Don’t get me wrong, he does shut down the paint as far as help defense goes. But until he has to do what Hakeem, David, Patrick, or Shaq did. And guard some of the nastiest scorers in the game, I can’t call him the best defensive player. IMO, I’d take a great defensive guard over him.

  • Promoman

    The hard-working guy is typically the best defender since defense is about effort anyway more than athleticism.

  • beiber newz

    Iman Shumpert WILL standout on the Knicks. They made a sneaky SMART pick in the draft to get him. He is already probably the Knicks’ best defender (Tony Douglas is the reason i say probably but he is relegated to guarding elite pg not the longer wing players). Shumpert, I’m salivating to his aggressive D at the NBA level. He is an exciting player to watch offensively (even though he had poor %s but so do a good handful of the top guards). I love me some L. Fields but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Iman take his spot in the starting 5, especially during playoff time when NY goes up against Ray Allen or Joe Johnson or similar offensively talented wing players of the east.

  • http://dimemag.com Sean Sweeney


    You my man and all, but if you would seriously take a great swingman defender over Dwight you are trippin. He’s the best defensive player in the league and it’s not even close, not even a question. Put Dwight on Chicago and they instantly have the potential to be one of the 10 best defenses ever. You’re basically saying you would take Iggy or Brewer or someone like that over Dwight. No way.

  • http://www.geturweightup.com Chicagorilla


    I’m looking at Jordan and Pippen. two great defenders. I’d take them over having one defensive center.
    And in today’s NBA which is dominated by guards. If you give me two wing defenders who can shut shit down the way Jordan and Pippen did. I’d take that anyday over Dwight.

    As for putting him on the Bulls. You’d be adding him to a great defensive coach with a great scheme that is dependant on the big man being a great defender. So yes, i would love to see Dwight on the Bulls with the current team and system. We’d have another 6 chips easy.

  • First & Foremost

    I don’t feel you can fault Dwight for other players not being polished on the offensive end. The next best All-around Center would be Bogut, can we all agree on that? After Dwight played Chicago, him Richardson and a few others got a bite to eat and it turned out that deep dish pizza was poisinous. The next night vs. the Bucks, Dwight being absent due to the bubbleguts, Bogut goes off. In the very next meeting between those teams, Bogut had like 6 points 4 rebounds, or something whimpy like that.

    Last year, Orlando had the 4th best defense in points allowed. Dwight with no backup, had the likes of Nelson, Arenas, Anderson, Bass, Vince, Lewis, Hedo, Reddick, Duhon, all suiting up with him at some point last season. The only way to beat this guy is to be a jump shooting team, basically something that is out of his control. He wasn’t the one putting a hand in Joe Johnson’s face. He was the one erasing Etan Thomas’ point blank dunk.

    You ALWAYS take the post defender because it changes the dynamic of the game. That one perimeter defender only affects his man. A defensive big affects all 5 of the offensive players.

    To the original question,freak athletes can do but need to be taught how to. A hard worker can be taught how to but may never actually do. You can teach Tyrus to take a charge or time a jump to block the shot right before it would have been goal tending. Tyler Hansbrough can only be taught how to take a charge and defensive positioning. One can contest a floater, while the other can block it.

    Just like a receiver, if you had to choose between a freak and a route runner. 9 times out of 9, teams go with the freak under the assumption you can teach him how to run routes.

  • http://www.geturweightup.com Chicagorilla


    in that sense i personally would still take the guy who knows his shit on defense. The Bulls had Tyrus Thomas to start his career and the guy is a freak athlete who can time blocks like few can. But this past season we picked up Kurt Thomas at the end of his career. The guy was a beast on the block defensively. Seriously, I have been watching Kurt for a long time, since he was in NY and MIA. The guy is like a trump stump on the block. You can’t budge him unless you’re Shaq. He also has that Karl Malone quick hand shit where he strips people on the way up and never gets out of position on defense. The guy was actually giving Blake Griffin fits until Blake figured out Kurt couldn’t go on the perimeter.

    In the perfect world, you take the freak and teach him….ala Scottie Pippen.
    But this NBA is not like that. the best defenders are guys who were taught defense growing up before pro ball. Afflalo and Ron Brewer are probably the two best wing defenders. but they aren’t on the same team.
    Wade is one of the best defenders in the NBA, and add that to Lebron actually trying on defense and you have two guys who could shut down your perimeter.

    Back when Pip and Jordan played. They locked down the perimeter and the Bulls would allow the big man to get his. REason why is because big man scoring in the post without the perimeter getting involved is like teams who Run the ball but have no passing game. Jordan and Pippen would not only frustrate your wings but they would make it difficult on the entry passes to your big and your big better make a quick move before they come to double. I’ll take the two wing defenders before i take the big man with the way the NBA is so perimeter oriented now. If this was any time before maybe 2005 then i might agree on taking the big man.

  • http://www.geturweightup.com Chicagorilla

    Scottie Pippen covering the entire court. Blocking your big man on one play. Next time down he’s ripping up your PG.
    A defensive center ain’t doing that. Not on the regular.

  • Seven Duece

    Scottie was an all time defensive freak (it’s still an injustice that he got the DPOY), same goes for Garnett. But let’s be honest, defense on that level is not the norm by far. All things being equal, I’ll take a shot blocking big right now, because league rules have aided perimeter scorers.

  • SwissArmyKnife5

    Pip is pound for pound the best defender ever. I’m hearing alot about defense, but nobody is bringing up Tony Allen dude is hands down the best perimeter defender in the NBA.

  • http://www.wtf.com Chicagorilla


    Fair enough,
    Lets take Tony Allen and put him against Javel McGee.

    Would you like Tony to stop a perimeter scorer from getting into the lane or would you take the chance of McGee blocking the shot. Consider that big men get called for the same ticky tact fouls trying to block shots as the guys defendeing the perimeter.
    Me, I’ll take the guy on the perimeter. Because he can stop the scorers on the wing while also preventing the ball from entering the post with ease.

    McGee, will block/change shots of the driving players but what will he do about the guys raining down jumpers from the perimeter? Since there aren’t very many big men who are scorers then why would i need to have elite defenders at that position. Looking at the top scorers in the NBA, Durant, Bron, Kobe, Rose, Wade…looks like i better get someone to check them first.