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Who Rules the Top Defenses?

Posted by Neil Paine on March 27, 2009

If you're familiar with any of the advanced stats we use on this site, it should be pretty clear that LeBron James is having the best statistical season of any NBA player right now. I mean, frankly, there really isn't a box score-based metric out there that doesn't rank James as the #1 player in the league this season. Plus, many people (myself included) have suggested that LeBron is having the NBA's best statistical campaign at least since the league started tracking turnovers in 1978. Simply put, if you put your faith in the numbers, LeBron's gotta be the league's top dog this year.

Not everyone believes this, of course, despite the numerical evidence. For instance, some people think Dwyane Wade is the best player in the league -- which you could at least try to make a case for, I suppose, given that he's basically been carrying Miami on his back to the 5th seed in the East. But a lot of people still believe Kobe Bryant is the NBA's best player, too, even though the numbers don't really validate this claim at first glance.

The idea is that Kobe (.463 eFG% on jumpers) is a better shooter than LeBron (.423) or Wade (.448), and can also get to the basket as well as they can when he wants to, but within the framework of the triangle he's not going to do as many bull-rushes to the rim as LBJ and Flash, so his efficiency is lower. Going along with this line of thinking is the idea that Kobe is better against the "good defenses" than Wade or James, because good defenses can ostensibly pack it in and take away the drive, forcing the perimeter facilitator to shoot. In other words, guys like D-Wade and LeBron have been padding their stats against weak defenses, but when it comes to crunch time, Kobe is still the man you want with the ball.

Well, let's test that hypothesis. We can compare each player's stats only against the top defensive competition -- let's say, above-average defensive teams, the Top 10, and the Top 5. Then we'll see if James & Wade are really just feasting on the weak, and if Kobe truly is more capable against strong defenses.

Above-Average Teams: Boston, Orlando, Cleveland, San Antonio, Houston, L.A. Lakers, Charlotte, New Orleans, Utah, Denver, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Miami, Detroit, Milwaukee, Dallas
Top 10 Teams: Boston, Orlando, Cleveland, San Antonio, Houston, L.A. Lakers, Charlotte, New Orleans, Utah, Denver
Top-5 Teams: Boston, Orlando, Cleveland, San Antonio, Houston

Name Vs. G MPG ORtg %Pos Floor% T/Min %Pass %Shoot %Fouled %TO
LeBron James All NBA 71 38.1 121.2 34.1 0.566 1.94 58 27 11 4
Dwyane Wade All NBA 70 38.5 114.4 36.4 0.546 2.04 57 28 11 4
Kobe Bryant All NBA 70 36.3 115.4 31.6 0.536 1.63 49 36 10 4
LeBron James >Avg 37 38.5 117.2 35.2 0.550 1.89 56 29 11 4
Dwyane Wade >Avg 36 38.8 109.9 37.2 0.524 1.95 56 29 10 5
Kobe Bryant >Avg 32 38.0 113.7 32.0 0.529 1.59 48 37 10 5
LeBron James Top 10 19 37.2 110.1 37.1 0.521 1.93 56 29 9 5
Dwyane Wade Top 10 23 39.2 110.7 38.0 0.527 1.94 53 31 11 5
Kobe Bryant Top 10 22 39.0 114.5 33.5 0.535 1.62 47 37 11 4
LeBron James Top 5 8 36.9 107.0 38.8 0.499 1.73 48 36 10 6
Dwyane Wade Top 5 13 39.4 108.7 38.5 0.516 2.09 57 30 10 4
Kobe Bryant Top 5 12 39.6 109.3 33.1 0.512 1.67 52 35 9 5
Name Vs. G MPG P/36 2P% 3P% FT% TS% qAst %FGA AsR ToR PPR FTr 3Ptd OR%
LeBron James All NBA 71 38.1 26.9 53.5 33.3 77.0 58.7 40.7% 32.5% 38.1 12.4 4.95 47.3 23.6 4.6
Dwyane Wade All NBA 70 38.5 27.8 52.3 30.2 76.4 56.9 41.3% 34.0% 40.8 13.2 4.12 43.6 15.8 3.5
Kobe Bryant All NBA 70 36.3 27.3 49.8 34.0 86.5 56.1 54.3% 33.5% 23.9 11.7 1.75 32.4 18.8 3.6
LeBron James >Avg 37 38.5 26.5 51.7 34.3 74.9 57.0 41.2% 33.8% 37.8 12.8 3.89 43.3 22.6 5.0
Dwyane Wade >Avg 36 38.8 26.6 51.0 28.5 77.2 55.1 41.1% 35.0% 39.6 13.4 3.15 38.2 16.2 4.0
Kobe Bryant >Avg 32 38.0 26.5 48.4 38.8 85.6 55.5 50.6% 33.7% 24.5 12.3 1.10 30.2 16.3 3.7
LeBron James Top 10 19 37.2 25.6 51.1 29.1 74.1 54.2 40.5% 35.4% 38.6 15.2 2.07 34.6 19.7 6.2
Dwyane Wade Top 10 23 39.2 28.1 51.2 30.7 76.7 55.6 42.4% 36.1% 38.1 12.8 2.70 38.1 16.3 4.2
Kobe Bryant Top 10 22 39.0 27.6 47.8 41.0 83.8 55.5 48.3% 34.8% 25.7 10.6 1.94 32.2 15.0 4.2
LeBron James Top 5 8 36.9 27.5 47.6 35.9 77.0 53.9 38.0% 39.1% 34.3 14.0 -0.34 33.5 21.4 4.1
Dwyane Wade Top 5 13 39.4 27.6 50.4 28.3 77.9 54.0 43.3% 36.4% 43.3 11.7 5.01 32.8 16.7 3.8
Kobe Bryant Top 5 12 39.6 24.9 47.4 41.9 78.8 53.6 44.9% 33.9% 26.1 12.8 1.82 23.8 15.5 3.6

Keeping in mind that we're dealing with some small sample sizes, it's true that as the competition gets stiffer, LeBron's efficiency takes far more of a hit than either Wade or Bryant (he also seems compelled to take more and more shots against tougher defenses, whereas the other 2 basically take the same role no matter the opponent); his ORtg against the entire league is 121, and vs. top-5 Ds it's 107. Plus his FTA/FGA dips dramatically and his shooting %s go down, supporting our idea that top-flight defenses clog his driving lanes and force him to become more of a jump-shooter, a role he's not as effective in.

But what of our earlier hypothesis about Bryant? His offensive efficiency drops from 115 vs. everybody to 109 against top defensive units (though he's taking on nowhere near as big a role in the offense as either James or Wade), and our theory about jumpers holds up: Kobe's FTA/FGA also slides against tough defenses, but because he's a better shooter his efficiency doesn't drop as much as James'. So it does appear that Kobe's efficiency is more immune to the effects of strong defensive clubs than LeBron -- although when you take into account his huge offensive workload, LBJ is still a more effective offensive player than Kobe, even with his drop-off vs. Top-5 Ds.

But it seems like the real winner here is D-Wade, who somehow combines both Kobe's efficiency and LeBron's usage when going up against Top-5 defenses. Against elite Ds, Wade shoots more efficiently, scores more frequently, turns the ball over less, and passes better than either James or Bryant. If we're using performance against the top defensive teams as a measuring stick for true offensive greatness, here's more ammunition for those who argue that Dwyane Wade -- and not Kobe Bryant -- should be the main guy vying with LeBron for "best player" honors this season.

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27 Responses to “Who Rules the Top Defenses?”

  1. Djin Says:

    Hooray 4 Wade!!

  2. steve norris Says:

    3 pointer with 3 seconds left who you want with the ball? bryant all day.

  3. Brank Manderfort Says:

    Hey, at least now you have something to point to when people inevitably accuse you of Kobe-hating in the future.

  4. AYC Says:

    Not surprised at all. They all played together on the Olympic team, and D-Wade was clearly the best player on that team. This is the same guy who carried a bunch of no-D-playing has beens to the title in 06; why doesn't he the credit for that?

    Meanwhile, Kobe is still getting props for titles he won 7 years ago; newsflash, Kobe wasn't the best player on those teams. Kobe is one of the great second-fiddles of all time, like Pippen, Drexler and McHale; stop comparing him to guys like MJ and Lebron, when he isn't at that level.

  5. ag1 Says:

    This is stupid. All of the evidence and the Cavaliers' record shows and proves that Lebron, the so called "best player in the league" shrinks against great defensive teams.
    By all accounts, Bryant is the best player against these same teams and the Lakers' record also proves it.
    I mean, does it really hurt to give credit where it's due, or are you just delusional Neil?

  6. Neil Paine Says:

    Um, what about "against elite Ds, Wade shoots more efficiently, scores more frequently, turns the ball over less, and passes better than either James or Bryant" do you not understand? If I'm going to give somebody credit for their performance against great defensive teams, I'm giving it to Wade.

  7. Anon Says:

    "This is stupid. All of the evidence and the Cavaliers’ record shows and proves that Lebron, the so called “best player in the league” shrinks against great defensive teams.
    By all accounts, Bryant is the best player against these same teams and the Lakers’ record also proves it.
    I mean, does it really hurt to give credit where it’s due, or are you just delusional Neil?"

    That's funny. Because when I read this piece Neil gives ALL the credit in the world to Kobe for ability to maintain close to his usual numbers against top D teams. But it seems that you don't understand that while this might be the case, Kobe is STILL behind LeBron and Wade in efficiency. This makes perfect sense as well, because Kobe's game revolves around shooting the the midrange jumper more often than LeBron and Wade, which are the LEAST effective shots in basketball (behind layups/dunks, close shots, and the 3-pointer). The top defenses in the league might clog up the paint against these three players, but even with less "polished" jumpers LeBron and Wade are still able to get their points more efficiently than #24.

    I think it's about time Neil requires people to hand in their Kobe Fan Club membership card before they are allowed to make any posts on this blog :)

  8. Anon Says:

    Just another thought about this blog post. I always found this argument (made by proponents for Kobe's MVP candidacy to be a little interesting:
    "The idea is that Kobe (.463 eFG% on jumpers) is a better shooter than LeBron (.423) or Wade (.448), and can also get to the basket as well as they can when he wants to, but WITHIN THE FRAMEWORK OF THE TRIANGLE HE’S NOT GOING TO DO AS MANY BULL-RUSHES TO THE RIM as LBJ and Flash, so his efficiency is lower."

    I don't want to burden you with any unnecessary busywork, Neil. But is it possible for you to compute some data on how the Lakers' FTr has compared to the league average since the 05-06 season? Perhaps it can shed some insight on how much the Triangle Offense affects one's ability to get to the rim at a reasonable clip (if it even affects it at all). Thanks.

  9. ag1 Says:

    "That’s funny. Because when I read this piece Neil gives ALL the credit in the world to Kobe for ability to maintain close to his usual numbers against top D teams. But it seems that you don’t understand that while this might be the case, Kobe is STILL behind LeBron and Wade in efficiency. This makes perfect sense as well, because Kobe’s game revolves around shooting the the midrange jumper more often than LeBron and Wade, which are the LEAST effective shots in basketball (behind layups/dunks, close shots, and the 3-pointer). The top defenses in the league might clog up the paint against these three players, but even with less “polished” jumpers LeBron and Wade are still able to get their points more efficiently than #24."

    .........
    "So it does appear that Kobe’s efficiency is more immune to the effects of strong defensive clubs than LeBron — although when you take into account his huge offensive workload, LBJ is still a more effective offensive player than Kobe, even with his drop-off vs. Top-5 Ds."

  10. Neil Paine Says:

    Let's make this simple: The greater the % of your team's possessions you use, the harder it is to maintain a high efficiency because the defense is more and more focused on stopping you as an individual. Generally speaking, for every 1% you increase your possession %, you lose 1 point off of your offensive rating. Against Top-5 defensive teams, Kobe Bryant has an offensive rating of 109.3 on 33.1% of L.A.'s possessions; LeBron James has an offensive rating of 107.0 on 38.8% of Cleveland's possessions. Given the aforementioned relationship between usage and efficiency, we can posit that if Bryant was forced to use James' % of possessions, his ORtg would fall to around 104.0, which is lower than James' 107.0. Conversely, if James had the luxury of taking only 33.1% of the possessions when on the court, we can assume that his ORtg would increase to around 112-113, which is higher than Bryant's 109.3. Therefore, we can say "LBJ is still a more effective offensive player than Kobe, even with his drop-off vs. Top-5 Ds." See how that works?

  11. ag1 Says:

    Lebron James still has a higher possession % on the season, so there's no sense to your "prediction". And considering how ball dominant a player like Lebron is, and the system he works around (primarily a pick & roll offense centered around him), it doesn't make sense that his ortg and efficiency would go UP if his posession decreases. I know it may be far-fetched, but actually watching basketball may help someone be able to judge it with some credibility. Then again, I'd like to see another study which shows the correlation between ortg and %poss of players such as Kobe, Paul, Lebron, Wade, etc.

  12. Anon Says:

    "Lebron James still has a higher possession % on the season, so there’s no sense to your “prediction”. And considering how ball dominant a player like Lebron is, and the system he works around (primarily a pick & roll offense centered around him), it doesn’t make sense that his ortg and efficiency would go UP if his posession decreases. I know it may be far-fetched, but actually watching basketball may help someone be able to judge it with some credibility. Then again, I’d like to see another study which shows the correlation between ortg and %poss of players such as Kobe, Paul, Lebron, Wade, etc."

    Neil isn't just pulling these numbers from the sky and making random formulas from them, Ag1. Many credible and respected statisticians have spent YEARS studying this very important aspect of the game. I suggest doing a search on the topic.
    And...despite the current stereotype that is often attached to stat heads, these guys watch and follow basketball games (and all of its intricacies) than most NBA fans even have access on the Dish Network. The guys on the BBall-Reference Blog are no exception.

  13. ag1 Says:

    "And…despite the current stereotype that is often attached to stat heads, these guys watch and follow basketball games (and all of its intricacies) than most NBA fans even have access on the Dish Network. The guys on the BBall-Reference Blog are no exception."
    Some of the idiocy that some sports statisticians come up with (and I'm not pointing the finger at Neil at all), makes me seriously question this notion.

  14. Eddy Says:

    It makes perfect sense that LBJ's efficiency & ORtg would go up if his possession % decreases. It sounds weird, but the less volume of shots a player takes, the more efficient he becomes offensively. By taking less shot attempts, you're eliminating chances of missing them. Sorry if my explanation is crap ..

    Ultimately, that's why people marvel at the season LeBron is having .. because he's able to maintain a high rate of efficiency, despite the fact his usage % is so high (2nd in the NBA).

  15. Tsunami Says:

    This is a very interesting piece - one that all of the Kobe fans will surely cite when tauting their superstar. I think this piece should go hand in hand with an Elias article I read on ESPN.com that basically showed that unlike Wade and Kobe, when LeBron's shot is not falling, his rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks actually INCREASE - which once again proves what everyone in Cleveland already knows - LeBron can beat you in many more ways than just scoring. Nice article, Neil.

  16. Anon Says:

    "Some of the idiocy that some sports statisticians come up with (and I’m not pointing the finger at Neil at all), makes me seriously question this notion."

    I'm sorry, but is it the "idiocy" of sports statisticians that's the problem, or your own personal bias for Kobe? And weren't you the one who said that Neil wasn't giving "credit where it's due" in your earlier post...do I really need to explain the irony of what you're doing here with regards to Wade and James? :/

    It's one thing if you don't understand the reasoning behind the statistics that is presented here (or any other of the metrics that is used for basketball) and no one is claiming that they're infallible or without flaws...the statisticians themselves would be the first to tell you that, actually. But please, before you degenerate sport statisticians any further it would help to learn how they even ARRIVE to these numbers before launching your criticisms. It will go a long way towards having an intelligent (and civil) discussion about these topics.

  17. Jon Says:

    No mention of Chris Paul? He's right there with LeBron and Wade in APM (at the worst defensive APM position, likely meaning his offense is really shining) and his rates top Magic Johnson's best season. Maybe he's not the go-to scorer that LeBron/Wade/Kobe are, but if it's a 3-horse race for best offensive player, I'd say it's LeBron/Wade/Paul, not LeBron/Wade/Kobe.

  18. Neil Paine Says:

    I was just trying to limit it to the 3 guys most people consider the best scorers in the league, but yes, I agree that Paul is a more productive overall offensive player than Kobe.

    Of course, I'm going to get crucified for saying that by Mr. Bryant's loyal band of internet supporters, who appear to have some kind of batsignal-type apparatus that alerts them anytime someone writes that Kobe isn't the best player in the league... "Quick! To the computers! We have to protect Kobe's reputation on blogs and message boards everywhere!"

    (Just kidding, Kobe fans... Maybe.)

  19. Eddy Says:

    Hah, Neil.

    I agree, though. When we're talking about the 3 BEST offensive players in the NBA, it should be LeBron/Wade/CP3.

  20. Duff Soviet Union Says:

    If you judged a player by the intelligence of his fans Kobe Bryant would be sub-replacement level.

  21. Regenerator Says:

    I know this is a mostly 2008 season-specific discussion, and I am no big supporter of Kobe (researching this website has really opened my eyes as to how overrated he truly is), but there are a couple of arguments in favor of Kobe that are difficult to dispute. Yes, there are a million complex metrics and statistical measurements which one can use, but sometimes you can get bogged down in the complexity of number-seeking and forget about the glaringly obvious, which can be even more telling.

    Since there seems to be a lot of general Kobe-bashing in this thread ("Kobe is one of the great second-fiddles of all time", etc), I'll go ahead and come out with this non-2008 related fact - Kobe Bryant scored 81 points in a modern-era basketball game, something considered unthinkable before it happened. He also scored 62 points in 3 quarters (sat out the entire 4th) against my Mavs in the same year - could have easily been another 80-pointer, or at least in the 70's, but the game was already won.

    Does anyone think any other player in the NBA, now, or perhaps ever, is capable of those feats? I know Wilt did his thing, but I'm referring strictly to the modern-era, where no one is going to average 50 points a game.

    One could make an argument that the talent required to accomplish a feat of that magnitude overrides any number of miscellaneous metrics. Just thought I'd throw that out there, not that I'm even saying I myself wholly believe it. But it should be considered.

    I do think Lebron is a better player. But a better scorer? Perhaps its simply a matter of "best consistent scorer" vs. "most explosive scorer".

  22. Anon Says:

    Examining Kobe's drop in ORtg against good teams vs Wade's doesn't tell you about their skills relative to each other, rather only their skills relative to themselves. In other words, you can't observe the effect of system based on opponent. For instance, Kobe's ORtg could still suffer as he is the "bailout" option and thus takes lower efficiency shots, whereas Wade gets to pick and choose what he gets. The data may show the opposite, but I think the more interesting comparison would be to compare their efficiency on mid-shot-clock and late-shot-clock possessions, especially against good teams.

  23. Anon2 Says:

    ^^^ I don't think there's a significant effect at all. For one, the triangle offense -- which is a pretty efficient offense overall -- is designed for Kobe to get a TON of touches on his sweet spots of the floor (mostly the low-post and high-post elbow areas, and sometimes at the top of the key), and he's able to catch the ball in those areas and create his offense. Those areas are also among the highest efficiency areas of the floor in basketball anyway, so he's not getting "cheated" out of having good% shot opportunities when he gets the ball.

    And for another, you're exaggerating the occurrence of the "bailout" situations you describe (especially the late-shot clock situations) They don't happen that much in basketball games anyway, and you would be dealing with small sample sizes.

  24. Anon2 Says:

    As a follow-up, I find it pretty funny that someone would suggest that Tex Winter's tried, proven, and incredibly successful triangle offense somehow PREVENTS players from maximizing their game. The man isn't called a genius for nuthin', and he SHOULD be in the Hall of Fame by now. He truly doesn't get enough credit for designing the offenses that almost perfectly blends the all-time great talents in Jordan, Pippen, O'Neal, and Bryant (along with all-star caliber talent in Dennis Rodman, Eddie Jones, Pau Gasol, etc.)with good role players into a highly efficient and aesthetically-pleasing brand of basketball that is always among the best offenses in the NBA every season and gives opposing defenses fits.

  25. Andrew Says:

    this analysis is a joke. written by some book-bot numbers guys that probably don't believe in anything not explained by numbers, like say, momentum for example. kobe and shaq's stats are really skewed because they played the new jersey nets twice in the Finals when the crappy Nets were somehow a top-5 defensive team. they also played the phoenix suns twice in the playoffs between 2000-2002 when they somehow were also a top-5 defensive team.

    oh yeah, and kobe played with shaq for 3 championships seasons when shaq was the most dominant 40/20 type of guy, so kobe rarely got doubled during those years. a good defense are the recent boston teams. or that 2004 detroit team. kobe got handcuffed in all three series against these teams. but start including the new jerseys and jason kidd-led phoenix's of the world into the analysis and now the numbers start lying. everyone knows who the best defensive teams are in kobe's day - spurs, detroit (when they are good), boston (when they are good) and maybe a couple others. with mj, it was detroit, new york and some others (maybe miami, shaq/penny-led orlando, utah). these are the best defensive teams. forget what the numbers say and do some stats with these teams. forget everyone else.

  26. ZAP Says:

    Hi Neil,

    I was wondering if you can come up with a comparison between Kobe and MJ's finals performances? I was just comparing the statsof Jordan the last 3 peat and Kobe's in his last 3 finals runs. They seem pretty close. I wonder how they fared when adjusted for PER, wins shares, etc, and some other advanced metric you are using. Thanks!

  27. huevonkiller Says:

    As a follow up to this incomplete analysis:

    LeBron had a 117 offensive rating against the Magic in the playoffs (#1 defense), at 40+ percentage of his team's possessions, for over 44 minutes a game in the 6 game series.

    That should vault him ahead of these people easily.