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Which Players Have Played For the Best Defenses?

Posted by Neil Paine on August 23, 2010

By popular demand, here's a sequel to the post I wrote on Friday, which focused on the NBA players who played for the best offenses over the course of their careers. This time I'll be looking at the players who were a part of the best defenses in their careers, but the methodology remains the same:

  1. Estimate defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions) for every team since 1951 in the regular-season and playoffs.
  2. Adjust playoff defensive ratings up/down based on regular-season offensive strength of postseason foes.
  3. Compare defensive efficiencies to the league average (to account for the fact that the avg. was, for instance, 85 pts/100 poss in 1951 and 108 in 2010)
  4. Find career averages (weighted by MP with each team) for every player since the NBA started tracking minutes in 1952.

Make sense? Good. Here are the all-time players who had a presence on the best defensive teams (minimum 15,000 career MP):

Rk Player MP TmDef Rk Player MP TmDef Rk Player MP TmDef
1 K.C. Jones 20000 -6.74 35 Bryon Russell 22886 -3.08 69 Eddie Jones 35544 -2.53
2 Tom Heinsohn 22477 -6.39 36 Charles Smith 17994 -3.06 70 Alonzo Mourning 28572 -2.50
3 Sam Jones 28939 -6.29 37 Vinnie Johnson 26979 -3.03 71 Bill Laimbeer 37691 -2.48
4 Bill Russell 48223 -6.08 38 Paul Pressey 21928 -2.97 72 P.J. Brown 36705 -2.47
5 Tom Sanders 25213 -5.99 39 Dave Cowens 33333 -2.96 73 Greg Anthony 17447 -2.46
6 Manu Ginobili 19038 -5.72 40 Don Nelson 24894 -2.96 74 Lonnie Shelton 20141 -2.45
7 Tim Duncan 42317 -5.60 41 Jo Jo White 33369 -2.96 75 Clifford Ray 21675 -2.43
8 Tony Parker 26858 -5.48 42 Richard Hamilton 31076 -2.94 76 Hedo Turkoglu 23734 -2.42
9 Frank Ramsey 17726 -5.04 43 Scottie Pippen 49174 -2.91 77 Chauncey Billups 34535 -2.42
10 Bruce Bowen 28246 -4.96 44 Michael Jordan 48484 -2.91 78 Udonis Haslem 17828 -2.42
11 David Robinson 38492 -4.77 45 Don Chaney 19241 -2.89 79 Jerry Sloan 27638 -2.42
12 Dennis Rodman 33628 -4.60 46 Derek Fisher 32436 -2.89 80 Wilt Chamberlain 55418 -2.41
13 John Havlicek 53331 -4.45 47 Rick Mahorn 28208 -2.88 81 Willie Anderson 17114 -2.41
14 Larry Siegfried 15458 -4.36 48 Wes Unseld 40721 -2.87 82 Nate Thurmond 38756 -2.40
15 John Starks 26549 -4.29 49 Ron Harper 34199 -2.87 83 Kobe Bryant 45177 -2.39
16 Tayshaun Prince 23899 -4.28 50 Phil Chenier 21204 -2.85 84 Darryl Dawkins 19969 -2.32
17 Kevin Grevey 16871 -3.88 51 Aaron McKie 21294 -2.81 85 Tom Boerwinkle 15172 -2.32
18 Sean Elliott 27338 -3.69 52 Elvin Hayes 54160 -2.80 86 Bob Love 27181 -2.29
19 Chris Childs 15570 -3.65 53 Rasho Nesterovic 19085 -2.77 87 Anthony Mason 33697 -2.28
20 Steve Kerr 18204 -3.50 54 Kirk Hinrich 18715 -2.76 88 Rafer Alston 20886 -2.27
21 Charlie Ward 15647 -3.49 55 Rasheed Wallace 41786 -2.75 89 Larry Bird 41329 -2.26
22 Mike Riordan 17538 -3.42 56 Eric Snow 25602 -2.75 90 Bob Cousy 34285 -2.25
23 LeBron James 25197 -3.36 57 Chris Dudley 17146 -2.71 91 Charles Oakley 45388 -2.25
24 Yao Ming 16715 -3.25 58 Clifford Robinson 46447 -2.71 92 Bob Dandridge 33384 -2.23
25 Ben Wallace 34391 -3.24 59 Kenyon Martin 22787 -2.64 93 Jermaine O'Neal 26745 -2.22
26 Jason Collins 15308 -3.21 60 Mark Eaton 27464 -2.64 94 Shaquille O'Neal 49253 -2.22
27 Gus Williams 28860 -3.21 61 Patrick Ewing 45801 -2.62 95 Rod Strickland 35231 -2.21
28 John Salley 19218 -3.18 62 Bill Bradley 25960 -2.61 96 Kevin Garnett 45450 -2.16
29 Karl Malone 62759 -3.15 63 Dwyane Wade 20414 -2.61 97 Kevin Porter 20078 -2.16
30 Robert Horry 33889 -3.15 64 Joe Dumars 39236 -2.61 98 Brian Grant 22973 -2.16
31 John Stockton 54162 -3.14 65 Greg Ballard 23381 -2.60 99 Paul Silas 39608 -2.16
32 Avery Johnson 29422 -3.10 66 Walt Frazier 34918 -2.57 100 Doc Rivers 25960 -2.14
33 Richard Jefferson 25970 -3.10 67 Isiah Thomas 39732 -2.55
34 Sidney Moncrief 26376 -3.08 68 Dennis Johnson 42948 -2.54

On Friday, we saw that being a part of the Steve Nash-era Suns or the Showtime Lakers of the 80s went a long way toward securing a place on the "played for the best offenses" list... Well, today it becomes clear that playing for the Bill Russell/Red Auerbach Celtics and the Tim Duncan/Gregg Popovich Spurs is the key to appearing on the "best defenses" ranking. Each of the top 5 players on this list were a part of the Celtics' first dynasty, and 5 of the next 6 players on the list belonged to the Spurs of recent vintage (the one who didn't? Frank Ramsey ... of the 50s/60s Celts).

As a side note, ever wonder how the Auberbach Celtics were able to dominate the league so thoroughly in its first two decades? A look at some of their top players on this list provides a clue:

Player Minutes TmOff TmDef
K.C. Jones 20000 -0.81 -6.74
Tom Heinsohn 22477 -0.66 -6.39
Sam Jones 28939 -0.62 -6.29
Bill Russell 48223 -0.51 -6.08
Tom Sanders 25213 -0.87 -5.99
Frank Ramsey 17726 -0.02 -5.04
John Havlicek 53331 -0.76 -4.45
Larry Siegfried 15458 -0.92 -4.36

Remember, negative scores are good for a defense (meaning the team suppressed efficiency below the league average), but they also indicate a bad offense. And even by the standards of the low-efficiency 1950s & '60s, the Auerbach/Russell Celtics were a subpar offensive squad, as I noted here with regard to the '64 Celts:

"Despite winning all of those championships, the Celtics were not a strong offensive team during the early 1960s. After finishing last in the league in FG% in 1961 and 1963 with Cousy at the helm, Boston was at it again in '64, ending the year ranked 9th out of 9 teams. The Celtics' 2nd-ranked 113.0 PPG was merely an illusion of pace -- Boston easily took the most FGAs of any team in basketball, 654 more than Philadelphia, the next-closest team. The offense ran through John Havlicek and Sam Jones, each of whom averaged over 19 PPG, but Bill Russell was conserving himself for defense and rebounding (he took only 13.6% of the shots when on the floor), and the rest of the team shot well below average."

If you're going to have a weak offense -- like Boston did -- and still rattle off 11 titles in 13 years -- like Boston did -- you need to have one of the best defenses of all time... and the Russell-era Celtics most certainly did. According to the z-scores we set up here, those Boston teams boasted the #3, #5, #6, #13, #22, and #23 ranked defenses in NBA history, giving them more appearances in the all-time top 25 than any other team. The greatest dynasty in NBA history was also the best multi-year defensive team in NBA history, and our top 100 list bears this out.

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37 Responses to “Which Players Have Played For the Best Defenses?”

  1. Joseph Says:

    I love the work you do. I'd like to see how many of these players have championships on their resumes compared to the offensive list, if you can easily put it up. If not, I'll try finding out on my own.

  2. AHL Says:

    Hedo? HEDO?!?!

  3. Jason J Says:

    Interesting how much further up the list Worm is than any other Pistons or Bulls.

  4. AYC Says:

    Surprised Hakeem doesn't even make the top 100

  5. Neil Paine Says:

    Re: #2 - I know it seems strange, but check out the teams he's been on:

    Year Age Team Type G MP Defense
    2001 21 SAC RS 74 1245 -2.24
    2001 21 SAC PO 8 141 -1.84
    2002 22 SAC RS 80 1970 -3.59
    2002 22 SAC PO 16 443 -5.80
    2003 23 SAC RS 67 1175 -4.68
    2003 23 SAC PO 10 174 -1.07
    2004 24 SAS RS 80 2073 -9.22
    2004 24 SAS PO 10 271 -4.74
    2005 25 ORL RS 67 1757 0.73
    2006 26 ORL RS 78 2615 0.21
    2007 27 ORL RS 73 2268 -2.60
    2007 27 ORL PO 4 156 -2.52
    2008 28 ORL RS 82 3026 -0.82
    2008 28 ORL PO 10 399 0.51
    2009 29 ORL RS 77 2815 -5.14
    2009 29 ORL PO 24 934 -5.62
    2010 30 TOR RS 74 2272 3.39
  6. Neil Paine Says:

    Btw, here's Hakeem, who ranked 203rd all-time, playing for an average defense of -1.11:

    Year Age Team Type G MP Defense
    1985 22 HOU RS 82 2914 -1.16
    1985 22 HOU PO 5 187 -10.82
    1986 23 HOU RS 68 2467 -0.86
    1986 23 HOU PO 20 766 -5.71
    1987 24 HOU RS 75 2760 -3.45
    1987 24 HOU PO 10 389 -3.11
    1988 25 HOU RS 79 2825 -2.27
    1988 25 HOU PO 4 162 0.15
    1989 26 HOU RS 82 3024 -2.34
    1989 26 HOU PO 4 162 -5.72
    1990 27 HOU RS 82 3124 -3.67
    1990 27 HOU PO 4 161 -1.49
    1991 28 HOU RS 56 2062 -2.17
    1991 28 HOU PO 3 129 -4.67
    1992 29 HOU RS 70 2636 1.55
    1993 30 HOU RS 82 3242 -1.37
    1993 30 HOU PO 12 518 -1.91
    1994 31 HOU RS 80 3277 -3.24
    1994 31 HOU PO 23 989 -5.21
    1995 32 HOU RS 72 2853 1.49
    1995 32 HOU PO 22 929 -3.43
    1996 33 HOU RS 72 2797 0.57
    1996 33 HOU PO 8 329 -5.34
    1997 34 HOU RS 78 2852 -0.77
    1997 34 HOU PO 16 629 0.26
    1998 35 HOU RS 47 1633 5.72
    1998 35 HOU PO 5 190 -11.35
    1999 36 HOU RS 50 1784 2.63
    1999 36 HOU PO 4 123 -0.53
    2000 37 HOU RS 44 1049 4.16
    2001 38 HOU RS 58 1545 1.82
    2002 39 TOR RS 61 1378 -1.09
    2002 39 TOR PO 5 86 -8.29
  7. Jason J Says:

    Rick Addleman is a sound defensive coach (surprised there aren't more Blazers present actually). Apparently Rudy T less so.

  8. Neil Paine Says:

    Right, Turkoglu was very fortunate to come up with some strong defensive Kings teams (who incidentally provide anecdotal evidence for my finding that pace has no effect on defensive rating), then went to one of the greatest defenses in NBA history with San Antonio, and finally bounced to the Dwight Howard-era Magic as D12 was coming into his own as the league's top defensive force.

  9. P Middy Says:

    That's because Adleman has the will of the warrior. Rudy has the will of the housewife, or maybe schoolmarm.

  10. AYC Says:

    Guess Rudy was lucky that he had the best defensive player of the modern era on his team.... It appears Hakeem's teams played significantly better D in the playoffs

  11. Bob Says:

    Seeing lebron in the top 25 leads me to the theory that Lebron can function as a quasi-big man in terms of anchoring a team defense. Although his man defense leaves a lot to be desired, his size and the threat of his shot blocking ability allow him to have the defensive impact of a big, although not to the extent of a Tim Duncan or D12.

  12. irish Says:

    no Dwight Howard but Hedo Turkoglu, Manu, and Rafer Alston of all people make this. as Rajon Rondo knows best, its great to play with hall of fame players

  13. Jimbo Says:

    Irish - be careful what you say - Manu is pretty much a lock for the hall of fame...

  14. BSK Says:

    How many guys appeared on both lists? Is there a quick way to figure that?

  15. Neil Paine Says:

    Guys on both lists:

    * Steve Kerr (30th offense, 20th defense)
    * Scottie Pippen (11th offense, 43rd defense)
    * Robert Horry (56th offense, 30th defense)
    * Michael Jordan (43rd offense, 44th defense)
    * Larry Bird (13th offense, 89th defense)
    * Bryon Russell (73rd offense, 35th defense)
    * Derek Fisher (81st offense, 46th defense)
    * Kobe Bryant (57th offense, 83rd defense)
    * Shaquille O'Neal (50th offense, 94th defense)
    * Dennis Johnson (91st offense, 68th defense)
    * Bobby Dandridge (94th offense, 92nd defense)

    Not a bad list of guys you'd like to go to war with, huh?

  16. Joseph Says:

    Any chance of seeing how many champions from each list easily, Neil?

  17. verticalleap Says:

    K.C. Jones was enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame & he is topping the list, can anyone update the list ,it will be a great help.

  18. Ryan. Says:

    #8:

    "(who incidentally provide anecdotal evidence for my finding that pace has no effect on defensive rating)"

    Doesn't Dean Oliver come to this premise (offensively, and defensively) in Basketball on Paper? I swear he did.

  19. Ryan. Says:

    Hmmm... Now I'm second guessing myself. I'll check tonight when I finish work.

  20. BSK Says:

    Looking at the players on both lists, would it be fair to say the Jordan-era Bulls and Shaq/Kobe-era Lakers were on the top of some list? Not sure what list that would be (best teams ever? best offense/defense combo?), but it seems like it is noteworthy that 3 players from those Bulls teams and 4 from those Lakers teams are on both lists.

  21. Neil Paine Says:

    Re: #16 - It's not quite as easy as it was to find the guys on both lists, but I'll try to put that search together as well.

    # 18 - I'm sure it is in there at some point, and if not there, Hollinger's old books for sure. I'm not claiming to have made this discovery just now (far from it, I called it "one of the cornerstones of APBRmetrics", so it's an idea that's been around for 20 or more years). I just ran the same tests on this data and re-affirmed the same conclusion. Definitely a case of standing on the shoulders of giants here.

    # 20 - Here's a combined offense + defense table:

    http://www.basketball-reference.com/blog/?p=6205#comment-17931

    Jordan's Bulls dominate the list, but there are also some Kobe-era Lakers in the mix as well.

  22. Joseph Says:

    Thanks, Neil, you're awesome.

  23. Jason J Says:

    #21 Not mention Kareem's Bucks!

    The inclusion of that 1994 Seattle meltdown is sad to this day. How different would our perception of Payton and Kemp be if they had made the finals that year (they were the team that took out the Rockets the year before, so there's a possibility if they hadn't collapsed to the Nuggets in round 1 that they could have made it all the way).

  24. AYC Says:

    Wow, look at how high the 09 Cavs were; all the haters who think Miami won't be that great are going to be disappointed... Kareem has 4 teams in the top 12....

  25. BSK Says:

    I only see the '02 and '09 Lakers on the list. Obviously, "only" is a relative term there, but I figured there would be more from the Shaq/Kobe run seeing as how so many of those guys are on both lists. Then again, Horry also earned some of his ranking with SA (particularly on defense) and Fisher has been there for all 5 with Kobe. I guess that makes sense.

    I guess that leads to an interesting question (which may have been answered elsewhere) but, which incarnation of the Lakers has been better: the Shaq-led era or the Kobe-led era?

  26. Jason J Says:

    I don't know what the regular season numbers say, but that 2001 Lakers team had one of the most ridiculous playoff runs I've ever seen.

  27. Neil Paine Says:

    The regular season numbers were shockingly non-dominant... Of course, that only set them up to be the Finalist That Improved the Most During the Playoffs:

    http://www.basketball-reference.com/blog/?p=6237

  28. Jason J Says:

    "shockingly non-dominant" is my new favorite expression to describe any underachiever of any kind.

  29. loe Says:

    Neil got a topic for you to research. Don't know if it's really feasible. When discussing the great centers and big men to ever play the game one thing gets left out when people discuss who's better. The amount of double teams each player has seen. I use to think Wilt was double teamed all the time but when actually watching alot of video of him i seen some double teams but nothing remotely comparable to what Shaq saw his first 13 years of his career. My theory is that Shaq has seen more double teams per game , or per possession than any player(Jordan posssible exception) that has ever played the game. But let's just limit this to centers and power forwards. Remember when a couple years back People was asking Shaq who was the best bigman and he said he was cuz he's the only one that gets double teamed, and i thought that was funny but true and sensible. Is there any way you can find this out for me?

  30. Nick Says:

    "I guess that leads to an interesting question (which may have been answered elsewhere) but, which incarnation of the Lakers has been better: the Shaq-led era or the Kobe-led era?"

    Better compared to the league or better compared to each other? Compared to the league, the Kobe-led era is better. But there were probably 4 teams during the Shaq-era run that were better than any team was last year or the year before(varying by year, the Spurs, Kings, Mavs and Lakers).

  31. Greyberger Says:

    @29, I don't doubt that somebody somewhere has been collecting double team stats over the past few years. When you can feasibly record every minute of every game with league pass and home electronics, there's all sorts of inside-the-possession information that the dedicated fan could record. Somebody out there might have career dribbles numbers for Monta Ellis and a theory for what they mean.

    The problem with these stats, once you find someone who claims to have them, is that they're probably not reliable, probably not free, and probably don't go back far enough to look at the entirety of Tim Duncan's career, let alone Shaq's.

    If someone told me Shaq drew a double team on x percentage of his plays in '94-'95, I would say take show me your tape collection.

  32. Neil Paine Says:

    Right. If Synergy Sports existed 15 years ago, we could research things that weren't tracked in the basic box score or the on/off +/- stats, and we could put together "double team leaderboards", etc. But the thing is, Synergy in its current incarnation didn't even exist 6 years ago, much less during the primes of Ewing, Shaq, Hakeem, Robinson, or even the 1st half of Duncan's career. We can only work with the data that's out there, and unfortunately, basketball is only now obsessively tracking the kinds of things we have going back to the 1980s at Baseball-Reference.

  33. Loe Says:

    @31 and 32- Yeah i figured it was highly unfeasible. Maybe i can get my hands on footage of the top big men and history or just a sample portion and count them or maybe get a team of guys assign them to one guy and come up with those stats. Just something i'm really curious about, My theory is Shaq saw the most double teams per touch, hakeem , then kareem then wilt. That's my theory. The world will probably never know.

  34. AYC Says:

    The double-team isn't some modern invention. Most of the footage of Wilt that's easily available shows him playing the Celtics. They often played him one-on-one because a) they had Russell, and b) they had a defensive philosophy of letting big scorers go off while containing their teammates. I wouldn't assume that all teams played him that way; most other teams didn't have the personnel to play that way.

  35. Loe Says:

    @34 ' I know the double team isn't a modern invention but when watching footage from wilt's era i barely see any double teams. Alot of people don't know but they had defensive three seconds all over the court after you cross time line, this with the faster pace made double teaming tactically harder. No zones back then and you couldn't double team on the in bound pass.

  36. Loe Says:

    @AYC- I think what get's lost in the sauce is the different trends and philosophies that coaches have a different times during the history of the game. Just as the three pointer was looked at as mostly a bailout shot during the eighties instead of a major weapon like the 90's theirs been different defensive philosophies. Like in the eighties it was mostly man to man or the 1-2-2 zone but the late eighties(bad, boys) and nineties was a focus on help defense. After watching alot of tape of wilt , russell, Oscar, west, it's obviuos that double teaming wasn't something they like to do philosophically during that era.

  37. Bill Says:

    @3 -- Not really. Rodman kept leaving teams just as they started to decline, and thus, kept missing the defensive regression inherent to a team getting old.