August 28, 2009
OK, we know the first decade of the 21st century doesn't really end until 2011. We think. But we also know there have been 10 full NBA seasons played since the phrase "Y2K" was on all of our lips (1999-2000), and here at Ball Don't Lie we've decided to use this as an offseason excuse to rank some of the best and not-so-brightest of the 10 campaigns in question. The result? Why, top 10 lists!
Defense ... now there's something you can argue about.
It's hard to qualify with stats. Some of the best defensive stat-hoarders can also be the worst defenders. Some of the best defenders give you absolutely no stats at all. And even a spirited attempt at chasing down your man, or helping on others, can result in a selfish, defensively crippling play. I love this game.
We've read up on individual defensive stats, how well a defender's man plays against him, and how well his team does with him defensively on or off the court. And with that knowledge in hand, we rank. But we also rank based on what we've seen, how well these men do in a team concept, and just how well they defend even if their man does somehow spin in a 20-footer with two hands in his face. Sometimes the best defense ... doesn't work. Once again, I love this game.
Hinrich fell off noticeably in 2007-08, though he did bounce back by a goodly sum last season. It does little to jettison him from this list, as the Bulls combo guard moves his feet quite well and uses a lanky-ish frame (for someone his size) to pester all manner of point and shooting guards, alongside the occasional small forward. Not the flashiest guy, he won't be stripping you at the top of the key, but he will force you into giving up the ball or giving into a low-possession shot.
Toward the end of his career, Snow was a little overrated when it came to defense, but that does little to do away with the recollections of just how great he was in his prime. Snow may have been aided because he was able to work his magic during the peak of the NBA's hand-check-y-est era, but he could have shut point men down under any circumstances. A fine help defender, as well.
By now, Kidd's actually a defensive liability, something few realized during his last few years with the Nets until he was traded to the Mavericks and had the national spotlight shine on his declining side-to-side movement.
This doesn't mean that, especially in his first few seasons with New Jersey, Kidd wasn't an absolute game-changer defensively. His addition (among others, we should point out) completely turned the Nets around in 2001-02 - they jumped from 24th to 17th in offense, which is what everyone talked about, but flew from 23rd to 1st overall defensively with Kidd at the lead. For comparison's sake, that's like last season's Knicks (23rd overall in defensive efficiency) jumping to the top of the list in 2009-10. No wonder they tried to sign Kidd this summer.
A shut-down guy who managed to do his best work years after most players hit their prime. Bowen did his damage in his early-to-mid 30s on Heat and Spurs teams after bouncing around the league a bit. He never was much of a rebounder or shot-blocker, and steals were not his bag, but he would shut opposing wings down, constantly. Also, he'll kick the crap out of you.
A low ranking on this list might surprise some, but Artest does tend to get by on reputation a good chunk of the time. He gambles for steals, or ignores any chance at help defense as he obsesses over his man, and overplays to the point of hurting his team. He can be the rare selfish defender. He can also be the best defender in the league, mixing a desperate doggedness to dominate with long arms, a sturdy frame (to say the least) and quick feet.
The ageless big man would change games defensively, but because the core of this list is so sound, we're forced to nit-pick and point out that he wasn't exactly an all-leaguer at pick-and-roll defense. That's assuming anyone would want to roll anywhere near Dikembe, who managed to carve out quite a career as a strong-side shot-blocker, sort of the anti-Marcus Camby(notes) (who, as you'll notice, is not on this list).
Somehow, while pouring in over 20 a game, Duncan nearly managed to rule just as well as Ben Wallace(notes) did. He covered huge bits of floor while his guards recovered after the "screen" part of the screen-and-roll, blocked shots on the ball (he's been especially adept at giving a small guard a small step to drive with his strong hand, then recovering quickly enough to swat the shot with his left hand), and secured rebound after rebound. And he never fouled. Never sent teams to the line for cheap points. That's so huge.
As well-regarded as he is, Duncan is still underrated defensively. You could argue for him to be higher on this list, as well. It would be a tough argument to counter.
3. Ben Wallace
Wallace's on/off-court stats are still among the league's best, the fact of the matter is that teams are still way, way better defensively with him around. I think it's a bit of a mirage, at least these days, as he still gambles way too much on chasing down guards or running around away from the rim.
Somehow, though, it still gets the job done. And during his prime, Wallace was just a stud. Blocked your shot, sure, but he changed and altered five times as many, while still (and this is so, so huge) picking up the rebound after forcing some poor soul into an attempt that was bound to go in barely a third of the time.
If you watch this guy, on any given possession, you'll understand. Just take your eye off the ball and watch Battier work — the guy acts as if he's in his own reality show, as if the cameras were on him for the entire 24-second turn, even if his man never gets the ball, while appearing deathly allergic to letting people down. Battier just does everything right. It may not mean he'll get the rebound, block or steal — and his guy might still nail the shot — but I've never seen someone pitch as many perfect games defensively.
KG stands alone because he pitches nearly as many perfect games, while combining Tim Duncan's length and frame with a guard's ability to move his feet. Garnett has become a bit more showy about things after getting traded to the Boston Celtics, but his time spent toiling for those awful Minnesota teams prior to that -- and his years spent dominating on some solid-to-great Timberwolves teams prior to that -- were the work of a defensive genius. He just guarded everyone, every play, every feint, every drive, everything. And then he'd get the rebound. Pity that nobody seemed to be paying attention.
Questions? Comments? Furious and righteous anger at a world, not to mention top 10 list, gone wrong? Swing by later today at about 3 p.m. Eastern for a BDL mini-chat regarding this very list.