Ranking the NBA's defensive big men

USA TODAY Sports

With most teams using a big man almost exclusively for defensive purposes, a player's ability to affect the game on that end has gained even more value. The best of these bigs can also contribute in reduced roles on offense by being efficient instead of prolific. Let's try to find the best of the bunch.

Not long ago, I decided to take a look at the best 3-and-D role players in the league and rank them. After finishing that project, I thought it would be interesting to zoom in on the big man equivalent of the 3-and-D wing: the low usage, high efficiency defensive big man. Most teams right now have a forward or center who devotes most of his energy to the defensive end. When they score, they do it efficiently, but they won't get as many shots as their more offensively gifted teammates. That's my case study here.

I started out by looking for players who had a below 20% usage percentage, boasted a true shooting percentage of over 50% and were on the court for at least 15 minutes a game. To weed out perimeter players I included in my filter a total rebound percentage of above 15%. This is what came back. It seems like a good place to start. I made my cut off point 1,000 minutes played for the season and eliminated Al Farouq Aminu, as he usually plays at the wing. I had 27 names so to make it an even 30 I added Kendrick Perkins, JaVale McGee and Robin Lopez, as they seemed to fit the label.

Ranking them by offensive ability

The four aspects I thought best represented the offensive side of this type of player were offensive rebounding, team offensive rating differential with the player on the court versus off the court, true shooting percentage and free throw attempts per 48 minutes. True shooting percentage would tell me who scored efficiently while offensive rebound percentage would allow me to see who gave his team extra possessions. Offensive rating differential would tell me who hurt his team on offense when on the court. And I included free throw attempts to highlight the interior scorers that also have the increasingly rare skill of getting to the line. I awarded 15 points to the first ranked, 14,5 to the second ranked and so on until the last one ranked received 0,5 points. Here are the results: (Click to enlarge)

Offense_1 Offense_2

Totals

Offense_totals

Observations

  • Tiago Splitter ranked sixth, excelling in terms of efficiency and free throws drawn and struggling a bit in the rebounding part.
  • Kendrick Perkins ranks a terrible 29th out of 30, as his contributions on offense are virtually nonexistent.

Ranking them by defensive ability

The part on offense is necessary to really paint an accurate picture of the type of player I'm intending to rank, but it's not nearly as important as the defensive portion.

Defense is always tricky to measure so I wanted to cast as wide a net as possible. I used a number of metrics to rank these players in an attempt to figure out who excels in what areas and ultimately who is the most complete defensive player.

Individual defensive rebound percentage and team rebound percentage on/off court differential

The idea was to see who were the best individual rebounders of the bunch in a way that didn't exclude the team part of it. The player's defensive rebound percentage number will tell us who pulls down a big share of the available rebounds while the differential will show if the player's individual rebounding is in fact integral to the team's success on the glass. (Click to enlarge)

Rebounding

Opponent field goal percentage and team defensive rating differential

To get a peak at how much a particular player impacts team defense, I settled for opponent field goal percentage on/off differential and team defensive rating on/off differential. The lower the numbers, the greater the impact the player made on team defense. (Click to enlarge)

Team_defense

On/off differential on opponent percentage of attempts and field goal percentage within five feet

You've probably seen these stats used in this article focusing on "bark vs. bite," i.e. who deters penetration and who forces misses, or in Kirk Goldsberry's article on the "Dwight Effect."

The idea here is the same: figure out who helps his team deter shots close to the rim when he is on the court and who makes opponents miss. (Click to enlarge)

Rim_protection

Steals and blocks per 48 minutes and points per possession allowed

We all know that getting big block or steal numbers doesn't equate to playing good defense, but disrupting the opponent's offense does have value. I used MySynergySports to track points per possessions allowed, which helped me identify who excelled on plays they were directly involved with. (Click to enlarge)

Individual_defense Totals

Totals_defense

Observations
  • Larry Sanders looks like a beast, according to these metrics. He ran away with it and it's easy to understand why the Bucks decided to lock him up. He has the potential to be the defensive anchor of a championship team, by the look of things.
  • The always underrated Amir Johnson ranked second while Kosta Koufos, who will back up fifth ranked and reigning Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol next season, ranked ninth. The Grizzlies are going to be scary on defense.
  • Andre Drummond is the truth.  Obviously, this is not a particularly strict study and its predictive qualities are questionable, but if Drummond just stays as good as he was last season, he should be one of the best young bigs in the league.
  • Tiago Splitter ranks sixth and all the players above him will make more money than him next season. Tiago was an integral part of the Spurs' defensive renaissance and should earn the money he will make if he keeps up his production.

Combining the results

Now that I had both the offensive and defensive parts of the equation, I only needed to combine them and have a ranking of low usage, high efficiency defensive big men. Let's see who reigns supreme. (Click to enlarge)

Totals

  • Amir Johnson is your top defensive role playing big. When the Raptors signed Johnson to a big contract, the move was derided by many. It turns out it's probably the best signing of the Colangelo era in Toronto. Johnson was very good in pretty much every category and his defense could help put a contender over the top.
  • Drummond and Sanders seem poised to fight over the mantle of best young defensive big. They will likely both go scoreless if they go against each other in those Central Division match ups.
  • J.J. Hickson, a popular choice among a group of Spurs fans as a free agent signing, ranks really low. Hickson is known to put up empty numbers and his low BBIQ makes it hard for him to contribute on defense.
  • Tiago, once again, is among the elite. If Tim Kness holds, the Spurs should be among the best defensive teams in the league next season.
  • It will be extremely interesting to see how Javale McGee does without a safety net this next season. The productive Koufos was traded to make room for him but at least by these metrics he doesn't really seem to be a better player. The talent is obviously there, so if he can improve on the little things, he could definitely make the top ten next season.

Disclaimer

Like I mentioned in the 3-and-D article, this is not an academic study. I simply chose the stats I thought represented the type of player I was trying to rank but there are obviously aspects I failed to cover. The points system is also a bit too simplistic.

This is only meant to rank players in terms of value as a high efficiency defensive big man. Carl Landry, for example, creates offense for himself and has a mid-range jumper. Those are valuable tools that I just didn't consider here.

Stats courtesy of The NBA Geek, MySynergySports, Basketball-Reference and NBA.com/Stats

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