Commentary

PER Diem: April 15, 2009

It's time to honor the top defenders this season. Here are Hollinger's All-Defense teams

Updated: April 16, 2009, 6:55 PM ET
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com

Dwight Howard/LeBron JamesFernando Medina/NBAE/Getty ImagesDwight Howard can play some serious D. Check him out defending the ball against LeBron.

(Correction: The values used below were not adjusted plus-minus numbers but regular ones, which explains why they were so highly correlated among teammates. Still valuable info, just different info than what I said you were getting.)

We're at the close of another NBA season, and I've already made most of my award picks in the round of ESPN.com voting that we had earlier this week.

But that still leaves one order of business to deal with: the All-Defense team.

In the past few years, I have found my votes to be very different from the coaches' in a few cases. I think there are two reasons for that: (1) The coaches' voting tends to be more focused on high-profile stars, and (2) there seems to be a significant lag time between accomplishment and recognition -- for one obvious example, Boston's Rajon Rondo wasn't an All-Defense pick either of the past two years but made my team both times. I expect he'll finally crack the list of coaches' choices this season.

I've used personal observation to inform most of these picks -- I've seen every team play between eight and 12 times start to finish on the tube and have caught nearly all of them in person as well.

Aiding me, however, are a few statistical barometers. First is team success -- it only follows that the best defensive players should largely come from the best defensive teams. The East's power trio of Cleveland, Boston and Orlando is neck and neck for the league lead in defensive efficiency, and each club is well-represented here.

Secondary helpers are two categories -- defensive on-court versus off-court differential (tip of the hat to 82games.com) and defensive adjusted plus-minus (thanks to basketballvalue.com). Both are good indicators over long periods of time, but both can be "noisy" in the short term -- stat-speak for a number that can deviate widely from its true value. As in, a player who might normally be worth +2.0 points per 48 minutes might show up as +6.0 one season and -2.0 the next.

Thus, we need my subjective element as well.

With that out of the way, let's get to the picks -- I've included each player's defensive adjusted plus-minus in parentheses. As usual, we'll start in the backcourt and work our way up:

Point Guards

Honorable mention: Kirk Hinrich (-6.09) re-established himself as one of the league's better defenders in the backcourt after missing some time with an injury, though you wish he wouldn't leave his feet quite so much. I've never thought quite as highly of Andre Miller (-4.40) or Raymond Felton (-2.36), but each defended both backcourt spots more than adequately and their strong adjusted plus-minus numbers warrant a shout-out here, too.

Alston
Alston

Third team: Rafer Alston, Rockets-Magic (+1.06)
Alston played on two teams this season and both finished in the top four in defensive efficiency. While he's not an A-list athlete, he has good size and smarts, and moves his feet and competes, all of which makes him effective both against the tiny speedsters and the power point guards -- something few can say.

His adjusted plus-minus number is poor, but this can be an unreliable stat for players who are traded at midseason -- his minutes in Houston were highly correlated with Tracy McGrady's, and I'm guessing that's where his poor showing comes from.

Paul
Paul

Second team: Chris Paul, Hornets (-3.87)
CP's on-court versus off-court numbers were a lot stronger than last season, which I suspect was a flukish outlier anyway. Additionally, he led the league in steals, and I was impressed with how solid he was against bigger opponents posting him up despite all the inches he gave up. Paul's lack of reach makes him a suboptimal close-out defender, which the Spurs exposed in the playoffs last year, but his jets and competitiveness make him elite.

Rondo
Rondo

First team: Rajon Rondo, Celtics (+0.07)
Though his stats won't blow you away like they did the past two seasons, I don't think there's any real doubt anymore that Rondo is the best defensive point guard in the game. You wish he wouldn't try to gamble for steals from behind quite so often, but the combination of his quickness and long arms, and Boston's impeccable defensive schemes, makes him a nightmare opponent for opposing point guards.


Shooting Guards

Honorable mention: I'm not ready to put Delonte West (-6.26) in with the elites yet, but his adjusted plus-minus numbers were outstanding this season. The Cavs really missed him when he was injured. He's clearly putting a lot more effort into the proceedings than he did as a younger player, when his primary tactic was letting the player drive past him and then trying to block the shot from behind. He's since graduated to higher-percentage maneuvers.

I thought Raja Bell (-1.58) lost half a step, but he's still tough as nails and was a big reason the Bobcats made such big strides on defense this season -- they were a surprising No. 7 in defensive efficiency. Bruce Bowen (-3.52) certainly lost a step, in addition to his starting job, but he still could make things hell for opposing scorers in short bursts. Boston's Tony Allen (-4.36) is a train wreck on offense, but really brings it on D -- I thought the Celtics missed him more than they let on in the second half of the season.

I had a hard time leaving Kobe Bryant (+2.44) out of the top three -- he's been a regular on my teams the past couple years -- but we had a strong crew at the 2 this season and his adjusted plus-minus was much weaker than past seasons.

Wade
Wade

Third team: Dwyane Wade, Miami (-3.56)
Wade still takes some low-percentage gambles, but not nearly as many as he did the past two seasons, when he'd run himself out of nearly every play. And by being more solid in the half court he's put himself in position to reject shots at a prodigious rate for a 6-4 guard -- the dude is 16th in blocks with 1.3 a game, in addition to ranking second in steals. His adjusted plus-minus numbers are strong, too.

Kidd
Kidd

Second team: Jason Kidd, Mavericks (-4.93)
He's a point guard on offense, but on D he's pretty much a shooting guard. Kidd has been much more effective guarding this position for the past several years, and the Mavs acknowledged this reality by pairing him most often with Jason Terry and J.J. Barea and allowing Kidd to defend the 2s.

Because of his size and competitiveness, he's still really good at this, as witnessed by his outstanding plus-minus numbers (the same numbers, basically, that Mark Cuban has used to defend the Kidd-for-Harris trade). Give Dallas credit for realizing Kidd's strengths and weaknesses and putting him in position to succeed on D.

Artest
Artest

First team: Ron Artest, Rockets (-4.53)
Artest effectively became the 2 when Tracy McGrady checked out, and save for his trash-talking Kobe Bryant into a fourth-quarter explosion he was as good as he's been in years. Artest has always had amazing physical skills at the defensive end but seemed caught up in being an offensive player the past couple seasons; this season his nightly effort has been more consistent on D, and it's shown in his being the primary defensive cog on the league's No. 4 defensive team.


Small Forwards

Honorable mention: Always a spectacular athlete, Gerald Wallace (-5.75) toned down the gambling and had a crazy good adjusted plus-minus, though I think part of that may have stemmed from the awfulness backing him up.

It kills me to leave Paul Pierce (+1.07) out of the top three -- he has basically become overrated and underrated at the same time, with his offense getting far too much credit and his resurgent D far too little -- but I can't put him ahead of the other three guys on this list.

Tayshaun Prince (+4.87) has been a fixture on this team in past years, but his adjusted plus-minus was terrible and it sure seemed as though guys had an easier time scoring on him than in the past.

Battier
Battier

Third team: Shane Battier, Rockets (-2.39)
Battier's adjusted plus-minus wasn't off-the-charts terrific the way it's been the past couple seasons, which is likely just a result of the inherent noisiness of the stat. But the more valid reason to move him down to third team this year is that he simply hasn't played the minutes of the two guys ahead of him -- thanks to foot problems, he's seen nearly 1,000 fewer minutes than he did a season ago when I put him on the first team.

Iguodala
Iguodala

Second team: Andre Iguodala, Sixers (-7.93)
Iggy might be the most underrated defender in the league -- few star players, even the ones on this list, defend the opponent's top scorer every night, but Iguodala does. His adjusted plus-minus this season was ridiculous at minus-7.93 points per 48 minutes, third in the NBA and first among perimeter players. And while that may overstate his impact (all of Philly's starters had big numbers, and all of its subs had terrible ones, indicating some multicollinearity problems), there's no question that he's the most important defender on one of the league's better defensive teams.

James
James

First team: LeBron James, Cavaliers (-7.60)
James' defense has improved as much as any player's in the league over the past two seasons. He's always been impossible to post up against, but now he is a lockdown one-on-one guy, too. And he's using his ridiculous athleticism to run down opposing layups and turn them into spectacular blocks. Most of all, he shrinks the court as much as any player in the league with his size and quickness -- he has learned how to use this to his advantage and become a dominating help defender too.


Power Forwards

Honorable mention: The biggest problem at this position, as you'll see, is finding guys who were upright the whole season. The four best defenders at this position all played fewer than 2,100 minutes. Kenyon Martin (-1.40) is a good example -- he was the Nuggets' best defender but played only 65 games and checked out of several of those early due to injuries. He'd be in the top three if he'd played all 82, because his intensity and ability to guard multiple positions were at least as important to the Nuggies' D as the more heralded contributions of Mr. Big Shot.

Chuck Hayes (+0.91) is an absolute beast when he plays, but hardly sees the court because he can't score. Ben Wallace (-6.88) re-emerged as a defensive force as well, but injuries and scoring woes kept his minutes down too.

Boris Diaw's (-2.56) adjusted plus-minus stats have been so good for so long that I'm wondering if it's a mistake to leave him out of the top three; he doesn't do anything that jumps off the chart visually, but he can guard multiple positions and he's stronger than he looks. Ditto for Lamar Odom (-7.01), who has developed into a pure 4 who can defend the post or switch onto guards with equal skill.

Josh Smith's (-0.32) defensive consistency was far better this season and he's really become an off-the-ball force with his shot-blocking, plus another year of weightlifting has made him more capable of guarding 4s on the block; Smith was the only Atlanta starter with a negative adjusted plus-minus.

Mbah a Moute
Mbah a Moute

Third team: Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Bucks (-4.51)
It's rare for a rookie to crack this list, much less move into the upper tier of the league's frontcourt defenders, but Mbah a Moute was that good. The 6-9 forward from UCLA guarded 2s, 3s and 4s, and with his quickness, long arms and surprisingly developed knowledge, he proved adept no matter the assignment.

An unheralded second-round pick, he's likely to be a regular on this team for years to come.

Garnett
Garnett

Second team: Kevin Garnett, Boston (-6.78)
Despite the late-season injury that basically wiped out the last quarter of his season, I can't in good conscience put KG any lower.

He was such a driving force behind the Celtics' insane 27-2 start, and even in his absence he was an important factor in creating the chemistry and toughness that permit this team to punch so far above its apparent weight on D.

Camby
Camby

First team: Marcus Camby, L.A. Clippers (-8.25)
Sure, the Clippers sucked and most of their guys didn't compete every night, or even most nights. But Camby, who played some PF next to Chris Kaman and Zach Randolph, was ridiculous, and we'd be remiss not to give him credit for such a spectacular performance. He ranked second in the league in adjusted plus-minus and his effort stood out particularly on a Clippers team where so many players were so obviously mailing it in. I'd dock him for missing time except the other guys I would've put ahead of him didn't play any more often -- so this year, he's the pick.


Centers

Honorable mention: The leader in adjusted plus-minus this season was Portland's Joel Przybilla (-8.86), who seemingly blocks as many shots at the rim as anyone in the league and no longer goaltends two for every one he rejects. It's tough leaving him off the top three, but ultimately I have to for three reasons: (1) He didn't play a lot of minutes; (2) the Blazers as a whole weren't a particularly good defensive team, which would be an unlikely outcome if he were a truly dominant defensive center; and (3) look at the other three guys on this list and tell me which one you'd bump down.

It's always tougher at center, unfortunately, which is why two other favorites of mine -- Charlotte's Emeka Okafor (-3.94) and Indiana's Jeff Foster (-5.21) -- also didn't crack the list despite very strong campaigns and outstanding plus-minus numbers. Nor did Yao Ming (-6.92) -- though he's a liability in some matchups, the Rockets use him very effectively as a deterrent in the rim area and his adjusted plus-minus was monstrous.

Duncan
Duncan

Third team: Tim Duncan, San Antonio (+3.94)
Although he's normally a no-brainer for first or, at worst, second-team status, Duncan's knees diminished his effectiveness over the final quarter of the season and San Antonio as a whole wasn't quite as dominating a defensive outfit as it's been in previous seasons. Duncan is still the most effective on-the-floor shot-blocker in the league, getting many of his rejections on tiptoes and never leaving the boards exposed to go for a block, and his length and savvy remain the linchpin of San Antonio's D.

By the way, the adjusted plus-minus numbers for all of San Antonio's starters were terrible after being quite strong in previous seasons, and I'm pretty sure that's just a particularly violent swing of this stat's inherent noisiness.

Varejao
Varejao

Second team: Anderson Varejao, Cavaliers (+0.19)
Varejao virtually defines the term "nuisance." His flopping gets all the attention, but he has value in a lot of areas -- he's quick enough to defend guards on switches, he can block shots and control the boards, and of course he's constantly hustling.

At 6-11 his length is a factor too, and he's become a good post defender even when he's not taking a dive. And while his plus-minus numbers weren't that great, there's probably a good reason for that -- he was splitting minutes with Ben Wallace and LeBron James, who weren't exactly chopped liver either.

Howard
Howard

First team and Defensive POY: Dwight Howard, Orlando (-1.16)
It's hardly a state secret, but Howard has become the league's most dominant defensive player, helping the Magic to a league-best mark in defensive efficiency (depending on Wednesday night's results) despite the apparent lack of much quality support. He led the league in both boards and blocks and opponents rarely even considered posting up against him. All of that outweighs his somewhat pedestrian adjusted plus-minus numbers in my eyes.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.