The new advanced metrics that show who should be on the NBA’s All-Defense teams in 2021-22

Defense wins championships.

You’ll hear it time and time again, particularly with the NBA just three weeks away from the start of the 2022 playoffs.

And while the cliché does hold somewhat true — every NBA champion since 2000 has ranked 11th or better in defensive efficiency — we still struggle to measure what makes a good defense. Points per game allowed has given way to points per 100 possessions (the pace-adjusted measure we use to rank teams by defensive efficiency), but we still rely heavily on basic measures like blocks and steals to identify elite individual NBA defenders.

However, a decade into the NBA’s player-tracking revolution, that’s slowly changing. Both Second Spectrum and the league itself have introduced an ensemble of important new defensive metrics.

The league’s internal effort is making rapid progress by combining player tracking data with sophisticated algorithms that codify the principles of NBA defense (e.g. denying passing lanes or staying between the offensive player and the basket) and calculate a variety of measures using AI and machine-learning techniques to extract meaningful defensive insights and stats, including identifying offense-defense player-matchup responsibilities throughout every possession.

Using these new metrics gives us a clearer picture of which players should make up the NBA’s All-Defensive teams, some of whom might come as a surprise to the average NBA fan.


Marcus Smart

The Boston Celtics have the top-ranked defense in the league this season in part because Smart is one of the most skilled and versatile perimeter defenders in the game. Coach Ime Udoka’s defensive schemes rely heavily on switches, a strategy made possible in part by Smart’s extensive defensive portfolio. Even though he’s just 6-foot-3, Smart’s unique blend of strength, will and skill enables him to go toe-to-toe with almost any offensive player in the league.

The NBA has developed complex algorithms to estimate who is guarding whom at any given moment of every single possession of every single game, which helps us appreciate players like Smart in ways that go far beyond his 1.7 steals per game.

For example, back on March 3 when the Celtics beat the Memphis Grizzlies despite not having Jaylen Brown, Smart defended Ja Morant on 27 partial possessions. In those trips down the floor, Morant — who ranks seventh in the NBA averaging 27.6 points — managed to take just three shots.

No guard in the league wants to see Smart marking him, but what makes Smart so special is that he’s effective against bigger players too. He switches defensive assignments on 30.2 possessions per game, which ranks fourth among all guards in the league. Among guards, Smart is 19th in total time guarding forwards and 16th in total time guarding centers.

Only two players in the league have switched more often than Smart, and according to NBA numbers, Boston allows just 1.05 points per possession when Smart is involved in a switch, the best such number for any guard in the league.

Fred VanVleet

For decades NBA fans have been able to quickly find out which players lead the league in turnovers. This season, that honor belongs to Russell Westbrook, who has coughed up the ball 240 times.

But aside from steals, the NBA hasn’t always tracked turnovers from the individual defensive side of things. Now it does.

The NBA stats department has begun keeping track of forced turnovers, which helps flag the defenders who cause the blunders that ruin possessions. This metric encompasses a lot more than just the traditional steals, which are convenient to tally but often don’t paint the whole picture. Consider the example of VanVleet, whose defensive performances would go unappreciated without these newer and more comprehensive metrics.

According to the NBA’s internal models, VanVleet is forcing a league-leading 3.0 turnovers per game this season, significantly higher than his 1.6 steals-per-game average. In fact, VanVleet is on pace to lead the league in forced turnovers for the third straight season.

For decades, we have leaned on steals as the best way to approximate this effect, but VanVleet’s numbers this season show why that can be misleading. According to NBA estimates, of his 173 forced turnovers this season, only 34 were credited as a VanVleet steal — 75 were credited as a steal by a different Raptor, and 64 were non-steal turnovers (out of bounds, violations, offensive fouls, etc.).

At 6-foot-1, VanVleet spends 30% of his time guarding the opposing ball handler, eighth most in the NBA. Despite his relatively slight size, he has an uncanny ability to blow up plays at the point of attack. He ranks second in the league in passes deflected at 3.9 per game, and a bunch of those tipped passes end up in the hands of a Raptors teammate who then gets credit for the steal.

VanVleet’s unique ability to cause screwups helps explain why Toronto ranks first in the league in opponent turnover percentage, and second in the league in points scored off turnovers (19.2 points per 100 possessions).

It’s been three years since VanVleet’s defense on Stephen Curry in the 2019 NBA Finals helped the Raptors win their first title, and he has only gotten better since. Pound-for-pound it’s hard to find a more impactful defender in the NBA than VanVleet, but he has yet to make an All-Defensive team. That could change this year.

Matisse Thybulle

Unlike VanVleet, Thybulle already enjoys an elite defensive reputation, and for good reason. At 6-foot-5 with a 6-11 wingspan, Thybulle is built like Scottie Pippen, and in a league increasingly obsessed with 3-point shooting, his signature ability to defend long-range shots is more valuable than ever.

No player in the league has blocked more 3-pointers this season, and it’s not close. Earlier this season, Thybulle became the first player to block two Stephen Curry 3-point attempts in one game.

But even when Thybulle doesn’t get a block, his impact is still felt. Thybulle’s matchups are shooting just 23.7% from 3, the lowest such mark in the NBA among players who defend at least three 3-pointers per game. According to league estimates, his matchups shoot 12.1% worse than usual when he is defending them.

Overall, Thybulle’s assignments are shooting 40.3% overall this season, lowest among guards and second lowest among all players. In other words, Thybulle turns every jump-shooter he guards into Russell Westbrook.

He gives the Sixers one of the most reliable perimeter defensive weapons in the league, and for that reason he should definitely be an All-Defensive team selection again this year.

Patrick Beverley

Last season Minnesota ranked 28th in team defense, but suddenly the Timberwolves look like a different animal. What changed? Patrick Beverley showed up. Beverley has provided Minnesota with a much-needed personality transplant, especially on defense, where the Wolves rank 10th in the NBA this season.

According to Second Spectrum, Beverley has held opponents to an effective field goal percentage of 37.4% as closest defender when contesting the shot, the lowest percentage allowed in the NBA this season (min. 300 FGA defended). He also ranks in the top five in points allowed when closing out on jump-shooters (min. 250 closeouts).

According to NBA numbers, Beverley’s matchups are shooting just 26% from 3-point range this season. Only Thybulle is inducing long-range bricks at a higher rate.


Mikal Bridges

The Suns are the best team in the NBA, and their second-ranked defense has helped them forge the best record in the Association. And while Phoenix’s roster is full of talented and willing defenders, Bridges is on another level.

The numbers suggest that the 25-year-old wing is the hardest-working edge defender in the league.

Bridges travels an average of 1.31 miles on defense this season, the highest such mark in the NBA. But that’s just the beginning. In a pick-and-roll league, no defender has defended more ball handlers in these key actions than Bridges, who has done it 1,541 times already. And when you look at whom he is defending, it’s even clearer that coach Monty Williams trusts Bridges at the point of attack as much as any coach trusts any single defender in the league.

Bridges ranks in the top five in the league in half-court matchups against 2022 All-Stars, which might sound trivial, but it’s not. That ability to defend superstar creators means that Devin Booker and Chris Paul don’t have to, which has helped the Suns dominate clutch time in late-game situations for the past two years and frees up the duo to focus more on conducting the league’s second-ranked offense.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

Any conversation about the best defenders in the league is incomplete without Antetokounmpo, who won Defensive Player of the Year honors for the 2019-20 season. He’s a Swiss army knife who can morph from a great perimeter defender to an elite interior defender at a moment’s notice. He can seemingly guard everyone in the NBA anywhere on the playing surface. When he’s playing alongside Brook Lopez, he provides his team elite rim protection and rebounding numbers from a non-center.

According to Second Spectrum, he has held opponents to 52% shooting at the rim, the seventh-lowest percentage allowed among players to defend 200 shots. He also ranks third in the NBA in defensive rebounds per game, a basic measure of effectiveness in ending the opposing team’s possession.

Herbert Jones

Despite being a second-round pick on a team headed for the play-in tournament, New Orleans Pelicans rookie Herbert Jones might become the first rookie to make an All-Defensive team since a guy named Tim Duncan did it in 1997-98. That’s incredible company, and here are some stats that explain why Jones might do it.

  • Ranks in the top 10 in defensive matchups vs. 2022 All-Stars this season.
  • Only player with 100 steals and 50 blocks this season.
  • Has recorded 210 deflections this season, fourth most in the NBA.
  • First rookie with 100 steals and 50 blocks in a season since Ben Simmons in 2017-18.


Jaren Jackson Jr.

For years, we have used blocked shots as a way to identify the NBA’s best interior defenders. This season no player has blocked more shots than Jaren Jackson Jr., who has 159 rejections, 30 more than anyone else. But Jackson’s impact on interior scoring goes a lot further than just the shots he actually blocks.

The fourth-year forward ranks in the top five in field goal percentage allowed at the rim — and that still doesn’t tell the full story. Player tracking data allows us to estimate the shot quality of every single shot attempt in the league, and it’s these figures that truly highlight Jackson’s impact in the paint.

Like Thybulle does on the edges, Jackson helps his team by greatly reducing the other team’s ability to score in the paint. This season opponents have shot 8.9% below expectation in the lane when Jackson is the closest defender; that is the largest difference among 46 players to defend 350 shots in the paint and a huge reason the Grizzlies are a top-10 defense.

Robert Williams III

If there’s one player who is as effective as Jackson at forcing missed shots it’s Boston’s springy center. Williams’ emergence as a truly elite defender has propelled the Celtics into the stratosphere, and there’s one stat that proves his status as an elite defender: 164 players have defended 500 shots as the closest defender this season; Williams is the only one who has held opponents to under 40% shooting.

That figure is especially remarkable considering Williams defends the paint — the spot on the court where overall field goal percentage is typically highest. Williams, however, has allowed the second-lowest field goal percentage at the rim since Jan. 1 (min. 100 FGA defended).

But make no mistake, Williams is more than just a rim protector. His emergence as one of the most versatile bigs in the league has enabled Ime Udoka to devise the team’s switch-everything defensive philosophy. Williams is one of two players in the NBA to match up on defense at least 800 times each against guards, forwards and centers (P.J. Washington is the other one).

The Time Lord can hold his own against virtually any offensive player in the NBA, which is one of the biggest reasons the Celtics have gone from mediocre to legitimate championship contenders.

Rudy Gobert

Gobert is a three-time Defensive Player of the Year winner, so it’s not as if we need new metrics to appreciate his greatness on that end. Still, the more advanced stats the league is tracking shine a light on just how good he is. Nobody in the NBA combines volume shot defending with elite results as much as Utah’s star rim protector.

Gobert not only leads the NBA in shots defended per game at 18.5, but among the 166 players who have defended at least 500 shots this season, he ranks second in efficiency, allowing just a measly 0.92 points per attempt.

Gobert’s impact on defense is a huge part of Utah’s success. With him on the floor this season, the Jazz allow just 103.7 points per 100 possessions, better than any single team in the league right now, but when he’s on the bench Utah gives up 111.7 points per 100, which is well below the NBA average.

Bam Adebayo

Miami has been an elite defense all season long, and Adebayo is a big part of that. Like Williams he’s athletic enough that he can guard every square inch of the scoring area from the 3-point line to the restricted area. As a result, coach Erik Spoelstra has Adebayo switching at unprecedented levels.

According to Second Spectrum, he has switched 11.9 times per game when defending on-ball screens, by far the most in the NBA this season and on pace to be the most in a season since player tracking began in 2013-14.

Few, if any, bigs end up dancing with guards on the edges as much as Adebayo, and Miami’s center ends up winning most of those battles. When his perimeter assignments try to shoot over him, they fail most of the time. He’s defending 4.6 3s a game, and his matchups are shooting just 29.2% from 3, the second-lowest mark among centers. His matchups are shooting 6.5% worse than their overall average from 3 when being defended by Adebayo, which is the highest differential among all centers.

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