Don't have an account?
Join the Best Live Fantasy Chat Community!

Lost password? [X]

Receive free daily analysis:


Already have an account? Log in here.


Forgot Password


2019-2020 NBA Defense Deep Dive: December Edition

As the NBA season intensifies, the story lines about best teams and best players start to heat up. While there is nothing more exciting than watching offensive highlights of thunderous dunks and deep three pointers ripping through the net, I personally love to bury myself in the defensive side of basketball. Some may toss out phrases like “Defense is the best offense” and go off about intriguing players who are showing exciting defensive growth and potential. Let me start by saying that I disagree there because it’s damn hard to get that orange ball into the hoop and nobody wants to watch great defense if there is absolutely no scoring.

However, defense is the edge that allows good teams to become great. (And we love greatness). The last ten NBA championship teams had top rated defenses relative to the rest of the league (Toronto: 5th, Golden State: 11th/2nd/1st, Cleveland: 10th, San Antonio: 4th, Miami: 9th/4th, Dallas: 8th, Los Angeles: 3rd). Similarly, the more we dig into defense, the more we begin to separate ourselves from the other basketball nerds who only care about offense, slowly shifting towards championship-level geeks.

I will be going over some of the more intriguing details that have happened through 2 months of basketball. Rather than just focusing on individual statistics like blocks, I will be piecing together many stats to form narratives. One of my favorite defensive stats is defensive rating, the number of points scored per 100 possessions/attempts (The lower the defensive rating the better, with 100.0 being average). The other stat that I’ll be frequently referencing is Opponent Field Goal Percentage, how often opponents score on a team or player. I’ll also cover two main categories of defenses: perimeter and paint defense. By the end, I’ll be able to share my first and second all-defense teams through a quarter of the season.

Editor's Note: Our friends at Monkey Knife Fight have the best, most fun, fastest growing DFS props game! It's super simple to play and to win real money. Just choose your NBA, NHL or PGA game, and make your picks! Get a 100% instant deposit bonus up to $50 using promo code: BALLER. That's $50 for free - don't miss out! Play Now!


Team Defensive Rating

Let’s start by looking at team defensive ratings to find out which teams in the league are the most formidable ball-stoppers. In the early part of November, I tracked the top 10 teams by defensive rating.

Even with a small sample size, you can see some of the candidates like the Lakers, Jazz, and Magic. This led me to really favor players like Anthony Davis, Rudy Gobert, and Jonathan Isaac, the defensive stalwarts for those three teams mentioned. But after another month of data, when we revisit team defensive rating, new faces start to emerge.

The Milwaukee Bucks shot to the top from their previous 8th place standing, and they had an impressive 100.3 defensive rating through 14 games in November. In other words, on average, teams were only able to score a point on an offensive trip.  Other risers in defensive rating risers were the Denver Nuggets and the Los Angeles Clippers (thanks in part to the return of one Paul George). On the other side of the coin, the biggest fallers were Orlando and Utah (11th). Consistency is beloved, and the mainstays in the top ten were the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers, Toronto Raptors, and Miami Heat. These numbers are a good start to qualifying which teams are for real. The next challenge is distinguishing which teams are a product of well-schemed, team defense and which teams are carried by FREAKish defensive talent.


Paint Defense

To be a great defense, a team or player must stop scoring from the paint, the area closest to the basket. This is the area where opponents have the highest probability of scoring, and usually size and timing are key to stopping layups or dunks in the paint. But strong paint defense can also be a product of scheme for teams like Utah or Portland who purposely funnel opponents towards the inside where they will be met by hulking centers with outstretched arms.

Here is an important distinction. It is more important to look at opponent field goal percentage here instead of looking at raw blocks. Preventing scoring in the paint can be successful without necessarily recording a block. Offenses might have to change their shot trajectory or may even opt to take a midrange shot rather than risk getting their shots blocked. While below you will find the top 20 players by block frequency (qualified by at least 20 minutes per game), this does not definitively mark their status as best paint defenders.

We also will add to the discussion, the top teams in terms of disallowing paint scoring, and individual players who have a lower opponent field goal percentage within 6 feet of the basket (indicated by DFG%)

Most of the consistent teams/players on the above graphics have huge centers like Gobert or Brook Lopez. Logically, these players form the base of an impenetrable center of defense. However, this only stops a small (although important) part of the opponent’s scoring…

Perimeter/Man Defense

Today’s basketball has changed so much where the massive centers are not enough to hold down a team’s defense because offenses have become so elite at shooting three pointers. My dad, who hasn’t followed the NBA ever, always laughs when he sees shooters pull up to fire off a three from way above the arc. But then I get to laugh back when the shot goes in.

Unless the center leaves the paint to defend the shooter, the offense gets a fairly wide-open shot, or the members of the defense have to shift over to cover for the paint defender, which, in turn, leads to an open shot elsewhere. That’s why it is imperative in today’s league to have agile defenders who can hop out and pressure shooters while maintaining the ability to defend larger players who want to rush into the paint. Versatility is just as important as size. Below you will find a similar graphic to earlier, except time it focuses on the players who have the lowest opponent field goal percentage from 3-Point range.

Most of the players listed are long-limbed guards or wings whose primary responsibility is to stop the pesky shooters. But a notable player is Bam Adebayo, the only player on the list above that frequently is the largest player on the floor. He is a defensive gem because he can guard the paint and also quickly switch out and defend a long-range shot. Many individuals become virtually unplayable because they are unable to do both as a big.

Another major component of perimeter defense is being able to pressure the ball. If a defender has quick hands and doesn’t let the ball handler dictate control or flow, the offense is majorly handicapped.  Pressure on the ball-handler often manifests in steals. Below you will find the most frequent steals-producers.

Lineup Data

While we can now formulate a general idea of the best defensive players and teams, I want to look at one last category of data to identify dynamics of team defense. In basketball you can only trot out five players onto the court at once, so it doesn’t matter if you have a roster lined from top to bottom with elite defenders. Five-man lineup data accounts for the defensive rating of a subset of players rather than an entire team. Even though sample size becomes more limited, it is valuable to see which players are contributing to a strong defensive rating.

Here are some of the highlights:
Philadelphia has an 88.7 defensive rating in 102 minutes together with its starting lineup, and even in minutes without Joel Embiid or Josh Richardson, they still manage to maintain a sub 100.0 rating.
Milwaukee’s starters have an impressive 88.8 rating in 139 minutes played together.
Houston has a 92.0 rating in 170 minutes together when they play James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Danuel House, PJ Tucker, and Clint Capela.
Miami with Jimmy Butler and Adebayo have a 92.5 rating in 195 minutes together.
Utah with Royce O’Neale as a starter have a 97.6 rating in 254 minutes together.
My favorite one is Denver, who has 97.8 rating with its starters in an astounding 385 minutes together (the most in the league). But when the second unit comes on with no starters, they also have a 98.5 rating in 59 minutes together!

With this information, I feel ready to talk about which players deserve an all-defense team vote this year. To qualify my decisions, I chose players imagining they are guarding the elite offense players for a position (i.e. James Harden, LeBron James, Anthony Davis). I left players as the position they play, not the position they are listed as. Finally, it was really hard to leave off some of the centers and I struggled to find a fourth forward that really stood out.

First Team All Defense
Guard: Ben Simmons
Guard: Kawhi Leonard
Forward: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Forward: Jonathan Isaac
Center: Anthony Davis

Second Team All Defense
Guard: Jimmy Butler
Guard: Marcus Smart
Forward: Pascal Siakam
Forward: PJ Tucker
Center: Bam Adebayo


Defenders to Watch

I could go on about obvious snubs like Andre Drummond, who is putting up great blocks, steals, and rebounds, but can’t have a top 20 defense, OR 2-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, who has a slipping team defense and rising number of shots in the paint against his team since 2017. But I’d rather quickly shout players that stood out in a positive way but couldn’t make their way on a list of ten. Brook Lopez, Daniel Theis, and Royce O’Neale are awesome at their respective roles as defenders. Toronto has such great defenders on its roster in Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, but they have also had really strong defensive contribution from Norman Powell and Fred Vanvleet. I was unable to single out a Denver player for my list even though I was trying to reward overall team defensive rating, but they might have more good defenders on their 15-man roster than any team in the league currently. Watch out for the Nuggets!

Hope this was cool – looking forward to doing some more defensive digging throughout the season.

More Fantasy Basketball Analysis

Today’s Most Viewed Players

More Recent Articles


The King's Keeper Corner: NFL Postseason Impacts on Player Outlooks

With a break in the postseason NFL action, it is time to reflect on what we have seen in the playoffs so far and how certain performances will affect fantasy football outlooks in keeper and dynasty formats. How players respond and what they deliver at the most intense and critical times of the season can... Read More

Introducing Value Over Starter Football Metrics

When it comes to fantasy sports, we're always looking for the highest possible Return On Investment or ROI. This concept is easy to understand: in both Daily Fantasy and re-draft/fantasy leagues, ROI would come down to how many points a player returns relative to his salary, or the price you paid (given his ADP on... Read More

Biggest Breakouts of 2019: Quarterback

2019 was a very interesting season of fantasy football, to say the least. It's safe to say no one was banking on the season that we saw from Lamar Jackson but he wasn't the only one to stand out. At the quarterback position, we saw some really exciting players start to shine and some older... Read More

Goodbye Runners, Hello Pass-Catching RBs: 2019 Season Trends

As the 2019 summer kept going we all had two things in our minds with regard to September's fantasy drafts and both of them were related to running backs: Where in the world are Ezekiel Elliott and Melvin Gordon and when will they be back? It made sense back then (and it still does now,... Read More

Where Does 2019 Rank Historically Among ADP Movers?

I have worked on a season-review series of articles in which I have analyzed the biggest winners and losers in terms of ADP entering draft season compared to the end of the year final results. It was plenty of fun looking back at the gambles most of us took which ultimately paid off, but also... Read More

Biggest Busts of 2019: Tight End

2019 was not the record-breaking season for tight ends 2018 was. San Francisco’s George Kittle (most receiving yards for a TE in a season) and Philadelphia’s Zach Ertz (most receptions for a TE in a season) did not break the records they set last season, although both were fine for fantasy players. Kansas City’s Travis... Read More

Rushing Quarterbacks Are Becoming Necessary

The 2019 fantasy season is over. We are all thinking about what to do come 2020 draft day. So let me ask you something. What if I offer you the chance of drafting a quarterback who is a lock to finish the season with 270 fantasy points? Would you take him and make him your... Read More

Biggest Breakouts Of 2019: Wide Receivers

As we enter the initial phase of offseason activities you have recently completed a painstaking process of creating and managing rosters, with the goal of winning fantasy championships in 2019. Now, many of you have already shifted your focus toward planning your drafts in Best Ball and redraft leagues, while others are contemplating how you... Read More

Tight End ADP Winners and Losers: 2019 Season Review

I've always believed that it is easier to lose a fantasy championship than to win it on draft day. It makes sense, as sure-fire players are expected to reward their owners with a lower risk-factor than the other way around and thus they're always drafter earlier. If they put up a season-long dud, though, you'll... Read More

Running Back ADP Winners and Losers: 2019 Season Review

I've always believed that it is easier to lose a fantasy championship than to win it on draft day. It makes sense, a sure-fire player is expected to reward his owners with a lower risk-factor than the other way around and thus they're always drafter earlier. If they end up as a season-long dud, though,... Read More

Biggest Surprises of 2019: Tight End

The 2019 NFL season was anything but predictable. I mean, the Tennessee Titans made the AFC title game! Andrew Luck retired right before the season! [Insert one of many, many other things here, because all lists need three items but I couldn't decide between all the possible third options.] One position where things at the... Read More

Wide Receiver Risers and Fallers: 2019 Season Review

We continue our series covering the biggest risers and fallers of 2019 with the wide receiver position. I'll look at both 2018 and 2019 statistical outcomes from every player, contrast their performances, calculate differences in each category and come up with the most prominent names going forward. This past season, receivers didn't dominate in fantasy,... Read More

Wide Receiver ADP Winners and Losers: 2019 Season Review

I've always believed that it is easier to lose a fantasy championship than to win it on draft day. It makes sense, as sure-fire players are expected to reward his owners with a lower risk-factor than the other way around and thus they're always drafter earlier. If they put up a season-long dud, though, you'll... Read More

XFL Fantasy Football Rankings (Preseason)

As of this writing, there is exactly one month until XFL regular-season action begins. On February 8, the latest upstart professional league will kickoff (again) with spring football. It goes without saying that we hope it goes better than the first time, back in 2001, and lasts longer than the AAF. Before you settle in... Read More

Biggest Busts of 2019: Quarterback

The 2019 NFL season is over, and it's time to look back on what happened. 2019 was a year where some quarterbacks -- Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen -- leaped up to the top of the fantasy charts, while other guys faded from where they were expected to perform. Today, I want to talk about three... Read More