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Sunday, February 15, 2009
Your Nightmare Defender: All-Star Sunday Edition


Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

For all the progress that's been made in recent years coming up with ways to approximate a player's value -- PER, NBAPET ratings, win shares, plus-minus stats, Roland Ratings, the list goes on -- defense continues to be an elusive measure.  Smart people are on the case, and some good metrics are starting to emerge, but identifying a "great defender" is a little like what Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said about obscenity -- "I know it when I see it."  It's still largely an anecdotal exercise.

While we're busy tweaking thse emerging defensive measurements, one way to find the great defenders is to ask the people being defended.

Covering All-Star weekend offers great opportunities and challenges.  On one hand, you've got dozens of NBA players gathered in one central location.  They're available to you -- and several hundred other members of the media from around the world -- for a few minutes at a time.   With a few exceptions, you generally have enough time and space to ask one focused question.  The earlier in the weekend you can do that, the better, because by midday Saturday, players adjust their settings to autopilot.

Here is the question we posed:

Your basketball life is on the line and it comes down to a single possession.  You're in isolation.  Who's the last guy you want to see defending you?   And how do you beat him?

On Friday, we posted responses from some of the top rookies and sophomores.  Yesterday, we shared an interesting discovery from a few retired guards.  Today, we move on to members of the All-Star team.  

Like all surveys, this one presents a few red flags. For instance, one school of thought says that basketball is such a mental game that you never want to publicly praise an opponent for his defense, because you might see him in that very situation on the court. 

Both Tim Duncan and Pau Gasol were polite and shared basic thoughts about what makes a great defender, but when pressed to name someone in specific, both guys spoke in generalities.  Duncan added that it's not about the other guy, it's about you.  "If your life is on the line, it doesn't matter.  You believe in yourself and you go through with it."  The message seemed clear:  That information is private, valuable, and should be guarded accordingly. 

The question seemed borderline offensive to both Chauncey Billups and Rodney Stuckey.  To Billups and his successor in Detroit, the idea that they should be intimidated or daunted by someone on the other side of the ball was incomprehensible.  Whereas Duncan and Gasol clearly understood the question, but evaded it, Billups and Stuckey couldn't fathom it.   Stuckey told me, "I don't care.  The best defender is always going to be on me anyway, and I'm going to score on him."  Billups said, "If it's the last second, it doesn't matter.  It could be you, it could be him, it could be anybody.  It's the last possession."  You can almost imagine this would be Tiger Woods' reply if you asked him if there was a particular hole on the circuit that he wouldn't want to tackle with his life on the line. 

Initially, I was disappointed by their lack of cooperation, but going through all the answers later on, I realized that Duncan, Gasol, Billups, and Stuckey were being every bit as revealing as the more forthcoming players.   They just look at the game a little differently.  

Here is a compendium of responses:

Joe Johnson
My coach, Mike Woodson.  He and I tend to have little one-on-one battles every now and then. He's always fouling.  He swears he isn't, that he's playing great defense.  I don't know if that's how they played defense back in the day.  He's out there mugging me.   I have to get aggressive with him.  I don't like to get too physical with him, because he's an old man.  I try to take it light on him. 

Danny Granger
Kobe Bryant.  When he puts his mind to anything -- whether it's offense or defense -- he's going to do a pretty good job.  How do I beat him?  My thing is that I'm a little bit taller than him, so I have to shoot over him.  He's pretty athletic, but that's what I have to do.  

Ray Allen
Ron Artest.  He doesn't really care if he fouls you or not.  He's going to make sure you feel him.  He's going to do something like clamp down on you physically.  Whatever it is, he's going to force you away from the basket and make the referee make a call.  The best way to beat him is just keep moving.

Brandon Roy
My older brother, Edward Roy.  It's mental with him.  He's been beating me since I was a little kid.  And if he was guarding me late in a game, it would add a different kind of pressure, it would be more like, "Beat Big Brother."  I'd probably make the shot today.  I've finally matched up physically -- now I'm as strong as he is, and I can outquick him. 

Rashard Lewis
Ron Artest.  He gets into you.  He's so aggressive on the defensive end and they let him get away with a couple of fouls.  He really has to hit you in order for them to call a foul on him.  You have to be aggressive, strong, and physical to beat him.  You have to take the contact, then try to go through the contact. 

Devin Harris
Bill Russell -- great timing.  Best center who ever lived.  To beat him it would have to be a step-back jumper, because he's a great shot blocker -- the greatest.  I know he's going to meet me at the glass one way or the other.  

Jameer Nelson
It's someone who doesn't get enough credit for his defense -- Kobe Bryant.  He showed a lot of aggressiveness in the Olympics playing D.  He plays really physical, real strong.  I'd try to use my quickness to beat him.  He'll try to use strength, and I'll try to use quickness. 

Mo Williams
Trey Johnson. We played together in high school and he's a great defender.  

Dirk Nowitzki
There are a lot of good defenders in this league, but Shawn Marion.  He's quick, he's strong, he's long enough to put real pressure on you.