Defense wins games, championships, everything.
There's a strong correlation by any study between defensive points per possession allowed and wins, and it doesn't take a genius to understand why that old adage is true. But defense in the NBA is complex. It's about guys playing together, communicating, using the skills and advantages they have while compensating for each other's weaknesses. It takes good systems, coaching, discipline and effort.
Here's a look at the most important defensive player for every team headed into the 2016-17 season. Not the best defender, but the most important. Sometimes the best defender can be covered for by other elements, sometimes a subpar defender's performance has more of an impact when he plays well than a good defender's play. This list is about what each player means to their respective team's hopes on defense. Some are Defensive Player of the Year candidates, some are historically bad defenders hoping to turn it around. Like I said, it's complex, but it's also fascinating.
The Hawks lost Al Horford and added Dwight Howard. You don't add Dwight Howard for offense. You add him for defense. The Hawks have been a great defensive team the last two years, but the hope is that Howard's rim protection, intimidation and most importantly rebounding will make them an even better unit. Howard's the most important defensive player not because of his degree of ability above his teammates. (I'd argue Millsap is actually both a better and more useful defensive player because of his versatility at this point.) Howard is the most important because if he struggles defensively, the Hawks made a colossal mistake in free agency and one that could drive the team underwater in the big picture.
I know. This sounds crazy. Marcus Smart. Avery Bradley. Jae Crowder. Al Horford. Any of these names should be the guy. But here's the thing. The Celtics have redundancy in talent at those other spots. The things that Bradley can do defensively, Smart can do, and the things Smart can do, Bradley can. There are certainly things Bradley is better at (sliding in-between screens, general instincts) but they're offset by Smart's berserk strength and athleticism.
Meanwhile, Horford is great defensively, but in large part, he's basically a copycat on that end of Amir Johnson. Able to run out to the arc vs. stretch fours, body larger players in the post, struggle to rebound and switch onto guards.
Olynyk, on the other hand, is a plus that comes out of nowhere. He made massive strides last season in containment. He allows the guards time to get over the screen to recover. Watch him on this play as Avery Bradley reacts to then devour the play.
Olynyk isn't an elite shot blocker, and he's not going to attack you on the edge. But what he does is give the Celtics a shooter big who can contain on drives. That's crazy valuable in their scheme, and it puts them on a whole new level. It is not a coincidence that the Celtics defense was five points better with him on the floor last year.
There aren't a lot of good options here. It could be Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, but he's still unknown. Brook Lopez is fine, as he's improved from a bad defender to a passable one. But Lin is going to be on the floor a lot this season and was a good defender last season in Charlotte. The Nets are going to be bad on defense a lot this year. They need to be not-as-bad when Lin's on the floor.
The Hornets' scheme the last three seasons has been reliant on MKG. Steve Clifford has made due without a rim protector by leaving his wings on an island no matter what and bringing help from the corners to close down. Now Clifford has a real rim protector in Roy Hibbert, though it remains to be seen what he has left in the tank.
But that just means the Hornets can do more with MKG in switching and focusing on the perimeter. His versatility remains pivotal for what the Hornets are going to do.
Rondo was great defensively for just one season. Long ago, in the before times, I mean. But it's been years since he invested himself on that end of the floor. However, the Bulls are going to have to grind out wins given their limited perimeter abilities.
They don't have the firepower to sustain shootouts. If Rondo continues his porous defense, they won't have enough coverage elsewhere to sustain. He's still athletic, he's still smart, he's still gifted with good instincts. Rondo has to care enough defensively to help set a tone. Without him, the whole thing could fall apart defensively.
Sometimes it's just simple. James is in the conversation for "most versatile defender, ever" along with Scottie Pippen and a handful of others. James is a trump card defensively. No matter what holes there are in a lineup, he can fill them and make the unit top tier.
James helped bust the Warriors' death lineup in the Finals, he guards point guards and power forwards, takes on elite scorers and plays free safety to disrupt plays off-ball. He's a menacing presence physically and smart enough to counter nearly any tactic. Oh, and he's an incomparable leader at this point.
James is the Cavaliers' most important defender because he is, in effect, omnipresent for Cleveland.
Did you know Bogut was actually playing really well in the Finals before he got hurt, after which the Warriors blew their 3-1 lead? Bogut remains a physical intimidator down low, a quality rebounder, and sneaky good at reaching in to create steals on drives.
More than that, though, Bogut is pivotal for Dallas specifically. The past two years, the Mavs' defensive fate has been tied to two things: the ability of the center to cover for the smaller, slower, older guards' inability to cover on the perimeter, and the ability of the center to rotate effectively when teams put Dirk Nowitzki in a pick and roll. Tyson Chandler wasn't able to do it anymore, and now he's in Phoenix. Zaza Pachulia fell off, and now he's the Warriors' new requisite starting center on a small contract.
Bogut has to do a lot for this Mavericks team. If he has a really strong, Tyson-Chandler-in-2012 season, the Mavericks will be better than people think. If he's a step slower and hampered by injuries, Dallas will again be nothing more than a Western Conference pest.
Lot of options here, and these two really are equally important. Arthur has been the team's best defender the past three years. If you put him in combination with any Denver big, from Jusuf Nurkic to Nikola Jokic to Kenneth Faried to J.J. Hickson, the defensive numbers improve. He's a vocal communicator, something the Nuggets struggle with on account of both personality and language barriers, and is able to contain in the pick and roll. Not a great rebounder or shot blocker, but makes up for it with overall situational awareness.
Chandler is vital because of his ability to play stretch four. Denver has been lit up the last few years when Chandler has missed time with injuries due to their inability to guard stretch fours on the perimeter. Chandler being able to take that duty, as well as his versatility in switching in any situation, makes him a Swiss Army Knife the Nuggets will rely on this season. The Nuggets need both of these guys healthy to have a chance at a top 15 defense.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is hugely valuable, but Drummond continues to be the core of what they do defensively. Drummond has off nights, and when he does, the Pistons struggle defensively. When he's at his best, he blots out the sun. Drummond isn't the best rim protector in the league, but he is the most imposing, and that may actually matter more in intimidating guards to stay out of the paint.
He's also just a rebounding monster. His ability to swallow up loose shots is straight out of Hungry Hungry Hippos. Drummond averaged 14.8 rebounds per game last season, 23 per 100 possessions. Opponent possessions END when Drummond is in the game. That makes it easier on all the other Detroit defenders. He's their alpha and omega defensively.
Well, his defensive ability enables the most dangerous lineup in all of basketball to come out and play, for starters. Green's ability to play up and down and guard any position 1 through 5, disrupting post entry passes, pressuring guards, snatching rebounds over bigger players, is downright impressive and extremely key for what the Warriors do.
But what gets lost is how good he is on an individual level. Green has the sneakiest hands in the league, and there's a reason so many drives against the Warriors wind up with the ball poked out of bounds. He also adapts extremely well. In the course of a series, we've seen him figure out how to keep the ball out of Anthony Davis' hands, frustrate James Harden, bother LeBron James (for four games at least) and generally disrupt everything else.
There are a lot of good defenders on the Warriors. But Green is what unlocks all of them. They aren't nearly the super-team that they are without him.
Ariza has been a very good defender his entire career ... until last year. His effort waned and the Rockets' defense went down the tubes as a result. James Harden is a huge liability, and his effort sets a bad tone for the rest of the squad. But Ariza has to be the tide that keeps the boats off the rocks. He's able to play 2-3-4, and still a very smart defender. Hopefully this year he gets back into that mindset, because when he's locked in, he's a really valuable, and underrated, defender.
In 2015, when the Rockets made the Western Conference finals, Houston was 1.9 points better defensively with Ariza on the floor. In 2016, Houston was five points worse with Ariza on-court.
There's a lot we don't know about the Pacers' defensive scheme, but we do know that Turner is going to be the only real rim protector on the court a lot of the time. The Pacers are investing a lot in the youngster, and it's a big role for a guy that green.
Turner's athleticism enables him to recover quickly when he gets beat, but he has to take a step forward in anticipating rotations this season. Teams are likely to find more ways to target him. Sometimes a rim protector has to lift the rest of the team defensively. In Turner's case, he's got good defenders at the other four positions most of the time, he needs to manage the things a rim protector has to.
DeAndre Jordan has finally started living up to his defensive reputation in the past two years, and is the Clippers' best overall defender (on account of Chris Paul being limited by impact due to position). However, Griffin's play on that end is much more important. You know what you're getting from DeAndre. With Griffin, it comes and goes. It's not so much an effort issue with Griffin as it is that he either has an advantage in the matchup and is comfortable, or not.
Griffin needs to be the kind of defender they can switch constantly with, who can attack guards with his athleticism and quickness without fouling and who can muscle up a bit better down low. Griffin's not a kid anymore, and he needs to take on a bigger role defensively to help get the Clippers where they want to go.
Not going to lie, this is mostly "Name the Laker that's still good defensively." Timofey Mozgov will provide some rim protection, but there's only so much he can do, given his lack of mobility and the perimeter issues.
The Lakers are going to be bad defensively. They will be less bad when Deng is on the floor. That's about it.
The Grindfather still has a role on this contender-hopeful, and it's a key one. The Grizzlies just play better when he's on the floor, and it's in large part due to that defense he's so keen on reminding everyone about. With Chandler Parsons in the fold, Allen's role actually becomes more important, as he'll take the tougher wing challenge on most nights.
Allen is a shark that circles the water for the right moment, and then when he attacks, it's relentless and frightening. For all the criticism of him about his lack of a jumpshot, Allen still impacts the game in a huge way. The Grizzlies are stacked with good defenders, but Allen's ability to individually neutralize a matchup makes it easier on those other defenders.
It'll be interesting to see with a newly stacked roster if he continues to wreaking absolutely havoc as a "First-Team, All-Defense' guy.
I sat there for 20 minutes trying to think of who is Miami's most important defender. Hassan Whiteside seems like an easy choice, but Whiteside really only started playing impactful, smart defense late in the season, and we need more in order to trust he won't go chasing pumpfakes constantly with a new contract and without Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to keep him locked in.
Meanwhile, Winslow can play 3 or 4, has tenacity and focus, is super athletic and is likely going to be a top-flight defender in 3-4 seasons. For now, he needs to make a major leap because there are questionable defenders up and down this roster all of a sudden. You trust Erik Spoelstra to figure this out, but Winslow will have to play a key component in this.
Whiteside could easily wind up actually being the most impactful defender.
The Bucks were a disaster defensively last year, and the problems were widespread. Adding Matthew Dellavedova is a plus. Greg Monroe is not helpful. Jabari Parker is still developing. Khris Middleton was a huge issue in transition. John Henson is helpful but not super impactful.
Much of this comes down to Antetokounmpo's crazy untapped potential. There's no one he can't guard, and nothing he can't do defensively. There's so much talk about what he's going to do offensively this season, but if the Bucks want to return to the playoffs, the biggest area they need The Greek Freak to thrive is on the defensive end.
One on one, Antetokounmpo's length and size gives everyone trouble. Even LeBron James. He can absorb James' shoulder and still recover to challenge.
Almost went with Ricky Rubio or Andrew Wiggins, but it's Towns. He's just so good in every area, and if he improves on the rookie mistakes he had last year, the Wolves are going to be terrifying. He's somehow an intimidating force down low and a guy who can disrupt things in the pick and roll on the perimeter. He's just crazy good.
Welcome to Year 4 of "Surely this is the year Anthony Davis' crazy ability actually translates to good defensive play for the Pelicans." You'll find your gear where you left it last season.
Davis is still a freak, and he has plays where he just shuts down every attempt by the opponent to do anything inside. But he still struggles with anticipating rotations as opposed to just reacting to them, and the numbers are just flat-out not good enough. The Pelicans gave up a crazy 107.3 points per 100 possessions with Davis on the floor last year, roughly the same as when he was on the bench. It's not enough for him to get blocks and rebounds. The Brow has to help the Pelicans actually become a good defense this year.
There's better perimeter defensive talent with Solomon Hill and E'Twaun Moore. It's put up or shut up time for Davis' defensive talent.
It's this easy: If Noah returns to even 80 percent of what he was in 2014, the Knicks will be within striking distance of the playoffs. If he's what he's been since then, the Knicks will be another pushover on defense. He's got to cover for Kristaps Porzingis' inexperience and the slow lateral speed of Derrick Rose and Carmelo Anthony.
He's got to bring the fire he's always been known for, and it's got to come with real, tangible impact play. The Knicks need a healthy Joakim Noah more than they need a healthy, productive Derrick Rose.
Here's the deal. No player will be more interesting and compelling to watch this year than Westbrook. He'll be shouldering an incredible offensive load on his shoulders, and doing his best to reign hellfire down on everyone that stands in his way.
He also needs to try, a little, on the defensive end.
Point blank, when Westbrook is invested on the defensive end, the Thunder can still be really good to great. When he's disinterested or saving himself for offense, the Thunder are pliable and can be bent back like saplings in a hurricane. The Thunder need Westbrook's offense, sure. More than that, though, they need him to bring it on the defensive end, and lock down guys. He's got good defenders next to him in Victor Oladipo, Andre Roberson and Steven Adams.
Stay in games with defense, win them with Westbrook. That needs to be the approach for OKC, and that starts with Westbrook taking regular-season defense seriously for the first time in years. Durant is no longer there to bail him out on nights where he doesn't show up on defense.
Can Ibaka get back to where he was three years ago? That's the question. Ibaka has moments, games, quarters, stretches where he's still a guy who sticks a huge metal pipe into a team's offensive gears and just starts messing with the mechanics. He's also had games where he looked disinterested and a step slow since injuries started to really nag him.
The Magic need Ibaka to be great. Not good. Not really good. Great. Their best hope this season is to grind out games in the 80's and low 90's, and they need Ibaka's rim protection and perimeter smothering with help defense to get there. He goes from being the X-Factor for a contender to the defensive anchor for a team hoping to make great strides.
There's a lot on Ibaka this year. Is it time for a bounce-back season from Iblocka?
Joel Embiid felt too obvious, and too unknown, Ben Simmons is out indefinitely, and Dario Saric is, too, unknown. So we're back to Noel, who was a historic defender for a guy his age his rookie season, then fell back to Earth big time last year when he was at power forward.
Maturity issues plague Noel. If he can move past those, with Philly or elsewhere, he has the tools to keep games within range for an improved Sixers offense to steal. Really, he's their only defensive playmaker outside of Gerald Henderson. There's also no telling if he'll be with the Sixers in two months.
The Suns will be awful defensively, even with Tyson Chandler back and adding a good veteran perimeter forward in Jared Dudley. There's just too much inexperience and not enough guys in their prime. Bledsoe, however, remains an absolute demon on that end of the floor. His attack mode is as ferocious as any guard in the league, and he'll rack up tons of steals.
If he can stay healthy, he'll be one of the few Suns whose defense can swing them some games.
He's able to handle matchups with bigger players. This is a bad entry pass from Klay Thompson, but Bledsoe bodies Draymond Green in the post, reaches up and picks it off like a cornerback in the endzone:
In the pick and roll, his instincts are crazy good in knowing when to attack and recover. He anticipates passes as well as any guard in the league:
The Blazers sunk $70 million into Turner last summer, and he's going to play a huge role on a team that doesn't have many plus defenders. He did some good things at times in Boston, but then was comparatively a weakness, and saw his role diminished in the playoffs because of it. If he can be a plus defender for Portland, it's going to make it easier to keep him on the floor as a third playmaker, and that makes them more dangerous.
The Blazers don't have a great rim protector, and while Damian Lillard was better last year than he was the year before, he's never going to be a top-tier defender for a multitude of reasons. Turner, though, can really help on that end if he gets into the right situation.
When Cousins is engaged defensively, he's a monster. He's so mobile, quick and strong, that he wrestles possessions into the dirt. When he's unengaged he's lazy, lackadaisical and unfocused.
Cousins can be great defensively, or he can be a disappointing headache. At this point, it seems more likely he'll slump through losses, eventually be traded, and then "suddenly" show all the things we've been missing from him in Sacramento. It seems like fate at this point.
Pau Gasol is a step down from Tim Duncan defensively. That's just a fact. Even at Duncan's age, he was better than Gasol, and way more mobile. The idea of Gasol and Tony Parker being put in defensive coverage should keep the Spurs up at night.
Aldridge can help with that. He played great defense last year, better than I thought he was capable of, especially in switching out on guards. The game San Antonio won vs. the Warriors was impacted by Aldridge switching out on Stephen Curry. If Aldridge keeps that up again, along with Kawhi Leonard's suffocation blanket effect, the Spurs will have an elite defensive unit again, with Danny Green adding the bonus touches. (Green is the Spurs' most underrated defender.)
If Aldridge stays sharp, and takes a step forward, the Spurs will be great again. It's a pretty safe bet.
Sullinger showed more in Boston last year defensively than he ever has before. He trapped, he hedged, he showed good mobility and quick hands. But he was still a liability in the playoffs and couldn't get on the floor by the end of the Celtics' first-round loss to Atlanta.
He showed good things in the preseason opener for Toronto. If Sullinger can do enough in containing the pick and roll to stay on the floor, it gives the Raptors a real boost. They've been good, but inconsistent, defensively the past two years. Sullinger needs to not be a liability for them to keep things even keel.
Hayward gets the toughest perimeter assignment night in and night out, and the little shreds of points he rips away at opponents' efficiency possession by possession go a long way in making the Jazz so fearsome defensively. Yes, Rudy Gobert is the best rim protector in the league and a Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
But Hayward is what takes them to another level. The Jazz are good all over defensively. Hayward's ability to really limit top-tier offensive wings makes him more central to their level of success than Gobert ... but Gobert's awesome as well.
Gortat has been under-appreciated in Washington the past three years. I watched a lot of Wizards video last year to try and figure out what their problems were defensively, and very little of it was Gortat. He's still great in containing pick and rolls, still able to defend the rim, still able to disrupt plays. He's sound while giving great effort, and teams were able to attack the Wizards easily by pulling him out to the perimeter on pick and rolls to get him away from the paint, then moving it inside.
Gortat faces competition from Ian Mahinmi, and could be a trade target. But if the Wizards are going to get back to being a good defensive team, in reality, it starts with Gortat.