Defense In The NBA: Where Position Determines Value

Jan 24, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Jahlil Okafor (8) blocks the shot of Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (4) during the first quarter at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 24, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Jahlil Okafor (8) blocks the shot of Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (4) during the first quarter at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports /

Analyzing how position is a huge factor in measuring a player’s value on the defensive side of the ball in today’s ever-changing NBA

An NBA player’s “value” is a tricky thing to measure.

Statistics like Win Shares, PER (Player Efficiency Rating) and plus/minus stats among others exist as attempts to rank a player in relation to his peers in more definitive ways than through surface stats like points and assists.

Looking at a player’s impact at such a micro level is often very effective, as it tends to isolate a player’s efficacy from contextual enhancements and limitations.

For example, Philadelphia 76er Jahlil Okafor at first glance had a pretty good rookie season. He averaged 17.5 points and seven rebounds per game. He has cool hair! He has the same last name as a pretty good NBA player! He even got into a fight just, like DeMarcus Cousins! He’s the next DeMarcus Cousins!

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However, looking past that one legitimate statistical observation and the other five insane ones, it is widely agreed upon around NBA media that Okafor’s defense made his overall impact negative; despite his highly touted offensive abilities.

Though, other players who make positive offensive impacts while being subpar defensively are seen as much more valuable than Okafor, so why is that?

Jahlil Okafor And Damian Lillard: Similar In Ability, Not In Value

A large proponent in how NBA teams play offense today is through high screen and switch actions, in order to create and exploit mismatches.

When being forced to show or hedge on a screen and roll action, players mostly stay instead of trying to go back afterwards. Therefore, for many seconds of many plays, big men are guarding guards, and guards are trying to deny the ball in front of big men with help defenders ready to alleviate the mismatch.

It is very rare and generally unexpected that a guard will be able to defend the big by himself, but it is getting increasingly more and more important for the big man to be able to hold his own in front of the playmaking guard.

Otherwise, once the playmaker gets past the big, there isn’t a true second line of defense in the paint. Then, the playmaker is free to finish, or pass out of the collapsing scrambling defense to an open shooter.

Big men are supposed to be the anchors of your defense. In today’s NBA, they’re often responsible for both providing timely rim protection against penetration while also being able to prevent guards from blowing past them to an open rim.

Having a big man who isn’t able to defend in both capacities competently is either putting too much of an onus on other players to do so, or is putting his team’s defense at constant risk. Furthermore, I would argue that guard defense is somewhat overrated.

Most NBA point guards are practically unguardable one-on one. The goal is more often to limit their paint penetration and to lower their efficiency than it is to take them out of the game completely.

Point guard is the most talented and deepest position in the NBA, and their role’s as lead playmaker from the most open areas of the floor at the top of the key only emphasize their strengths.

Offensive ability is often considered a matter of skill and defensive ability is often considered one of tools. Skills can be taught; tools cannot

Having a lead guard who can score at an elite level is expected nowadays, not preferred. In today’s NBA, not having a point guard who can get you a lot of buckets will put you at a daily disadvantage.

Conversely, they are not expected to be the lynchpin of your defense. It is almost impossible for an NBA point guard to constantly stay in front of the fastest players in the world, while also fighting over every single screen to prevent any switches. To do so while producing on offense would probably be a minor miracle.

In fact, modern NBA offenses are mostly built on the idea that guards are human and that they will physically have to concede to some unfavorable switches. To counter the prospect of getting torched by a guard on every single possession, teams have been responding in recent years by playing smaller and quicker bigs who at least somewhat negate these mismatches, and who are able to occasionally stay in front of smaller and quicker players.

Having an agile big man who can do all this defensive work while contributing marginally offensively is basically expected for a functioning modern NBA team. Considering how much scoring is done by guards, and how key big man defense is, teams would much rather have an agile defensive big than an offensively talented one who is lackluster at defense.

What Modern NBA Teams Have Proven To Look For And What Players Like Jahlil Okafor Haven’t Shown

Offensive ability is often considered a matter of skill and defensive ability is often considered one of tools. Skills can be taught; tools cannot. Therefore, a defensive specialist big man is much more sought after than an offensive specialist big man.

Having a defensive big means you have a player who can already play, and whose limitations will not negatively affect your team that much if your other pieces produce as expected. On the contrary, having an offensive big means you have a player who might not be able to stay on the floor, who may never be able to develop to fix these weaknesses, whose weaknesses may very well negatively impact your team and whose actual talents may be redundant on any actually good team.

Mandatory Credit: Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports /

On a successful NBA team, the scoring mostly comes from the point guard, an elite wing scorer and floor spacing role players. The Golden State Warriors, the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Kevin Durant era and the Portland Trail Blazers are three examples of this.

The best defense generally comes from the three bigger positions. Most modern NBA teams do not use a big man as an offensive fulcrum. If they do, the big man is also very capable at defense, and is also not coincidentally often a superstar.

Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins are considered two of the best players in the world for a reason. In fact, even with the San Antonio Spurs having Lamarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard as two highly capable scorers, a declining Tony Parker puts them at a disadvantage most nights, as seen in last year’s playoffs.

On a typical very good modern NBA team, not only is a player like Jahlil Okafor redundant in production and incongruent in style, his lack of defense is also a huge problem. Big men are expected to guard opposing guards almost as much as their own guards are.

As discussed, not being able to do so puts your team at a massive disadvantage. Point guards are simply expected to make their counterparts work while outproducing them. As long as Damian Lillard scores more than his counterpart, while playing basic NBA level defense, he has done his job.

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While two players like Lillard and Okafor may have similar ability, their jobs and corresponding value for these jobs are very different. In the past, the two jobs may have had similar requirements, but now they have changed and some players like Okafor have not yet adapted. If he does not or is unable to do so, teams will be more than willing and able to replace him with someone who can and will.