LeBron James headlined the 2011-12 NBA All-Defensive First Team with 53 points and rightly so. His ability to defend each position seamlessly and, most importantly, effectively is what makes James such an elite defender. James’ combination of defensive acumen, strength and speed are incredibly rare to find in one athlete and there shouldn’t be any complaints about James’ inclusion on the team.
Finishing second on the team with 47 points was Oklahoma City Thunder forward Serge Ibaka, ahead of similar defensive stalwarts Tony Allen, 2011-12 Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler and Dwight Howard. Impressive company. Ibaka averages 4.8 blocks per 36 minutes which is absolutely mind boggling. Ibaka’s innate ability to protect every conceivable angle of the floor — which gives Kevin Durant, Thabo Sefolosha and Russell Westbrook leeway on the perimeter to gamble. The threat of dribble penetration isn’t that severe if, you know, Ibaka is patrolling the paint.
Ibaka’s shot blocking can be a detriment, however. Savvier offensive players, such as Dirk Nowitzki, are able to take advantage of his athleticism by simply exhibiting patience.
That being said, Ibaka is a terrific defender and his help defense is demoralizing. But not recognizing Tim Duncan as one of the elite defenders in the league is an absolute injustice especially since, you know, he is a better defender than Ibaka. I’ll explain.
Although Ibaka’s shot blocking is an extremely valuable asset — Oklahoma City’s field goal percentage defense is third in the entire league, as a result — it isn’t the most important factor in evaluating a defender. Fundamental defense requires the ability, as a big man, to defend post-ups, isolations and the pick-and-roll, the most extensively utilized possession type, with tremendous proficiency. Ibaka struggles in the afformentioned facets. Tim Duncan, however, does not.
Nearly all of Duncan’s 405 defensive possessions during the regular season consisted of post-ups, isolations, spot-ups and the pick-and-roll. In each specific category Duncan ranked in the top 60 in the entire league on a points per possession basis. His overall PPP (0.71) is 24th, a number that bests Tyson Chandler’s defensive PPP.
Delving deeper, you’ll notice that Duncan’s defense is essentially flawless. 18.3% of his possessions came against the pick-and-roll roll man; Duncan limited the roll man to 0.82 PPP, good for 39th. His only defensive “deficiency”, at least technically, came against post-ups, which represented 44.4% of his possessions. If Duncan wasn’t so technically gifted, his 0.73 PPP against post-ups (59th) would be noteworthy considering the general ability of most big man to run the pick-and-roll moderately effectively. For Duncan? It constitutes a deficiency. Against the most efficient possession type, spot-ups, Duncan ranked 14th with an impressive 0.66 PPP.
Ibaka struggles tremendously against post-ups, allowing 0.87 PPP (172nd). Not exactly a good thing when they consist of 28.2% of his possessions. Ibaka’s unparalleled athleticism, in this instance, is his downfall.
His defensive PPP, as a result, is a tad inflated because of the amount of ground he is expected to cover in the Thunder’s defensive scheme. He’s done so admirably but constantly running out towards perimeter shooters is something the offense will gladly take. Duncan doesn’t have that athleticism so he doesn’t have to worry about frantically running around, atoning for perimeter mistakes.
Ibaka’s PPP can be attributed to amount of spot-ups he is expected to cover, though. Of course, occasional defensive miscues on the perimeter doesn’t help his case. Yet, defensive miscues aside, Ibaka’s help defense remains his biggest asset. The fact that he can cover multiple parts of the floor, rather than dominating one section of the floor, is remarkable.
Even so, Duncan’s balance is still more valuable than Ibaka’s help defense. Duncan doesn’t make many mistakes. Duncan isn’t nearly as flashy but he’s always situated in the proper spots conducive to effective help defense.
Perhaps it’s more remarkable that Duncan didn’t get recognized for his defensive contributions rather than the fact that he is still pouring out elite defensive seasons at 36-years-old.
Either way, Duncan got shammed.