January 20, 2019

There’s a dirty little secret in the NBA.

We’re not talking about backroom deals, steroids, or Honey Nut Cheerios.

What we’re talking about lies in plain sight, for all to see:

Bad Defense.

That’s right, I said it. In case you hadn’t noticed, the league is filled with team after team that doesn’t hedge, can’t stop middle penetration, and wouldn’t know how to close out if their contract depended on it.

It’s not to say the coaches don’t talk about it.

Stress it.

Heck, they may even practice it from time to time (see; Mike D’Antoni insert Simers link). But the fact remains that some teams are bad at playing defense. Team defense, individual defense, rotational defense – you name it, they can’t do it.

So what exactly is this secret we’re talking about? The answer lies with who benefits from playing all these awful defenses. We set out to answer that very question.

We started out by looking at the last 2 full seasons and first half of this one. We identified the bottom 8 defensive teams each year, then compared the overall league average in certain categories to what the league averaged against just those 8 teams. This number told us what the average expected boost each player was expected to get by playing these bad defenses.

Next, we pulled the stats from the top 15 scorers in the league this year to see if the boost they’re getting from playing these awful defenses exceeds the average jump.

We also did the same exact thing against the top 8 defensive clubs over the last 3 seasons, to get a sense of how consistent these scorers are and a good predictor of their performance in the playoffs.

Some things to note:

Points per game is less valuable, since many of these games are blow outs and the primary scorers play less minutes. For this reason, we used a per minute formula to mitigate for everything from less playing time to pace. We also ignored defensive stats like steals and blocks, since opponent defenses don’t affect them.

To create our tables, we only put players on them who exceeded the expected boost.

Let’s start with the most important stat, points per minute. This is how these guys get paid, and it’s worth noting whether they’re cashing those paychecks by circling the Kings and the Bobcats on their calendars.

League average boost vs BAD D: 3.33%
League average boost vs GOOD D: -5%

[table id=16 /]

Jrue Holiday leads this category, and it’s not surprising since he’s a decent player on a not great team. By averaging almost 10% more points per minute, Holiday has been inflating his numbers pretty severely. Combine that with his -10% against the top 8 defenses, and this represents the 2nd largest margin of any of the top 15 scorers we analyzed.

Kyrie Irving is right behind him. While he’s improving every game, he’s still not the kind of guard you’d want to rely on in the playoffs, as his scoring against the top 8 defenses goes down 6.25%. Clearly, he has made his name against players and teams who are not up to the task.

Steph Curry completes the triumvirate of young, non traditional scoring point guards. It is not surprising he is so close to the top, since his game is all about slipping underneath defenses to get free on the perimeter – something bad defenses are notorious for giving up.

Dwyane Wade and Brook Lopez are the last two who appear in both bad defense and good defense categories. This does put into question how well Dwyane Wade rises to the challenge of a good defense, but it also makes sense – when defenses rotate to stop LeBron, they’re good enough to continue their rotations over to Wade and make life difficult for him. However, the drop off is pretty severe, giving teams like Chicago and Indiana hope that he won’t come through when the Heat need him. Brook Lopez, on the other hand, is the only center in this group and hasn’t been able to prove himself as a dominant scorer just yet. He still drifts outside too often for that flat footed 18 footer, and is awkward enough that he is limited against good defense. [More After The Breakdown]

League average boost vs BAD D: 0%
League average boost vs GOOD D: 0%

[table id=18 /]

It’s very interesting to note there was no deviation of free throw attempts against good or bad defenses. One factor that plays a part is the inconsistency of NBA referees and playing at home or on the road.

Not surprisingly, the vast majority of players attack the rim a lot harder against bad defenses, earning more trips to the free throw line. Paul Pierce, with his veteran savvy, abuses the bad defenses like no other, boosting his scoring numbers most from the line. Against the good defenses, Pierce sinks below the average decline as well, but his margin isn’t as high as Jrue Holiday’s, who gets 14% more FTA’s versus bad D, and gets 14% less FTA’s against the good D.

Carmelo Anthony shows surprising restraint in this category, getting to the line 10% less against BAD defense, 5% less against good defense. It is clear that Carmelo does the most damage against the mediocre teams in the league.

League average boost vs BAD D: 8%
League average boost vs GOOD D: -14.81%

[table id=19 /]

This category has the biggest gap between boost and decline, since good defenses continue to rotate well after stopping the focal point of the offense. Bad defenses do just the opposite. Pay closer attention to the section versus good defenses, since this is what separates the men from the boys – who can make their teammates better versus the best defense?

It makes sense that a low post scorer like LaMarcus Aldridge gets the biggest boost from assists against bad defenses. As he draws defenders down low, he can take advantage of the Carlos Boozers and Jamal Crawfords of the league to get open shots his teammates can knock down. It is of note that Brook Lopez, the only other traditional low post threat, does not exceed the league average boost. The Nets should benefit more from his presence down low than he is providing.

Durant, LeBron, Melo, Russ, and Harden all show higher assist rates versus bad defenses as well, indicating that their aggressiveness helps get their teammates open shots. Since the majority of their games originate on the perimeter, it’s clear that bad defense is bad defense, no matter where they attack from.

Against the good defenses, LeBron and LA barely exceed the expected decline in assists, but Paul Pierce drops off significantly, as he is relied upon to score more in difficult situations.

League average boost vs BAD D: -5.88%
League average boost vs GOOD D: -5.56%

[table id=20 /]

Naturally, bad defenses force less turnovers, but don’t be surprised that good defenses force less turnovers as well. It makes sense considering good defenses don’t gamble for steals and give up position so easily. Plus, teams will play much more conservatively against good defenses and not attempt as many riskier plays.

An unexpected result was almost every player exceed the average for turnovers per minute. One reason Lopez and Aldridge lead this list is that bad defenses allow them good position more often. This in turn causes them to be more aggressive in setting up teammates, hence more passes to get tipped and stolen. Melo, Durant, and Parker are all high usage rate players that attack the rim, no doubt getting deep penetration even more against bad teams, leading them to throw away more passes trying to set up open teammates.

Higher turnovers from the primary scorers against great defense is perfectly understandable, as they have to do more for their teams to score – and that includes forcing the play at times. However, James Harden and Paul Pierce turn the ball over way too much versus good defense, limiting their team’s ability to play up the competition. Kevin Durant also needs to lower his percentage if he wants to take OKC back to the Finals.

League average boost vs BAD D: -1.48%
League average boost vs GOOD D: -5%

[table id=21 /]

To make this category easier to follow, we simply subtracted the True Shooting numbers from the overall average.

This is where the top defenses make their money – it’s not in forcing turnovers or blocking shots – it’s forcing misses. Thanks to our friend Ian Levy at Hickory-High.com, we understand that lowering the TS% five percentage points is like shaving off 8.5 points per 100 possessions. In other words, the difference between winning and losing.

In predictable fashion, just about every player improved their shooting against bad defenses. Dwyane Wade improved the most, taking advantage of defenses that simply can’t handle two elite level scorers at once.

LaMarcus Aldridge should shoot much better than his .4% improvement over his average, indicating he settles for jumpers a little too much. Brook Lopez, on the other hand, improves almost 4% points, giving the Nets a big advantage and a big reason why they’ve beaten up on sub .500 teams.

What is fascinating is that Kobe Bryant actually shoots worse against bad defenses. One reason is that Kobe gets less resistance and shoots more jumpers versus bad defenses. Because the Lakers have fallen behind so often in games this year, Kobe has also had to resort to hero ball to try and get the Lakers back into games, resulting in tough perimeter shots.

While just about every top scorer was able to hold their own against top defenders, staying within the expected TS% drop off, both Jrue Holiday and Dwyane Wade struggled the most. The Sixers are hurt the most since they don’t have a top defense to fall back on. With the Heat, there are enough weapons, but more fuel to fire up the Bulls and Pacers as they prepare for the playoffs.

So who gets crowned best scorer in all of this? Clearly, Kevin Durant and LeBron James stand out. Against the top defenses, KD’s TS% actually improves, while LeBron doesn’t suffer that much and balances it by ⅓ more offensive rebounds. For consistency sake, Kevin Durant gets the honor, since his game changes so little from game to game – a coach’s dream.

On the flip side, Jrue Holiday and Dwyane Wade benefit the most by playing lesser defenses while suffering the most by playing tougher defenses.

So there’s the dirty little secret exposed for all to see. Some players are comfortable within the margins. Others display their greatness in the face of the best defenses in the league. While others have shown us these gaudy numbers are just smoke and mirrors, earned by feasting on the dregs of the poorly coached defenses of the NBA.

Thanks to: Arun, NerdNumbers, AllThatAmar, HickoryHigh for their help and insight.


Coach Nick

Coach Nick is the founder of BballBreakdown, coached the Triangle Offense at the high school level, and counts Tex Winter and Pete Newell as mentors. For more of our conversation, follow him @BBALLBREAKDOWN.

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  • the ordering is messed up at least at this one:
    pts/min  % diff vs TOP defense
    If you click on it, it will not put them in numerical order but alphabetical order.

    I like how you give explanations for the statistics!
    I like your analysis a lot better though.

    Do you believe that if the discrepancy (overall) of teams would be smaller then the NBA would consider expanding? 😀
    Not that there is a chance in the future to fill up that many rosters.

    Coach: can you try to give an explanation why the coaches seem to be that bad compared to the past.

  • Great stats, Coach Nick!  A bar chart would make these stats even clearer.  The big bars for Holiday and Wade would really jump out.

    I’ve been watching all your videos for over a year now; they’re really interesting and fun to watch.  Many thanks and keep ’em coming!

  • Why do you say top TWENTY FOUR defensive teams? Is this an arbitrary number?
    I think you mean twenty teams.
    Nonetheless, it’s possible you haven’t taken into account that those bad defensive teams play each other, so including their numbers in the baseline average is imperative.

  • i don’t see a problem with his methodology.
    and there’s nothing wrong with %. It doesn’t account for usage but we know who the primary offense is for most players on bad teams. And nick did mention it in the video.

    Are you nitpicking just to nit or did you watch the video?

  • Did you take into consideration shot attempts?? D Wade seems to take less shots against better defenses because Lebron wants the ball so much :/ I really don’t no but great article….mostly

  • I’m glad that this is coming from someone who knows what they’re talking about. I stopped watching the NBA the night the Bulls did the 3 peat re-peat. It just couldn’t possibly get any better for a Bulls fan.

    I’ve started taking notice of the NBA since getting 2K14 and it is plain to see that the league has changed. People are just getting to the basket way too easily.

    There is too much flashy dribbling. I guess guys would rather be like Iverson than Stockton….

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