About a month ago, Milwaukee Bucks head coach Jim Boylan and I chatted about the evolution of NBA defenses over the last five years. I started listing the best examples of such defenses before Boylan interrupted me with a chuckle: “All the good ones,” he said. “All the good defenses play like that.”
Boylan just spent four blowout losses watching an extreme example of that evolution, as an ultra-aggressive Miami defense dismantled Milwaukee in four straight games, holding the Bucks’ offense to 91.5 points per 100 possessions — a number that would have ranked dead last in the league for the season. The Bucks entered the series with an obvious dilemma: Their best offensive wing players — Monta Ellis, J.J. Redick, Mike Dunleavy Jr. — had zero shot of effectively defending either LeBron James or Dwyane Wade. But Milwaukee’s best defensive wings, Marquis Daniels and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, can’t shoot at all, and wing players who can’t shoot are increasingly becoming a giant liability against smart NBA defenses. That’s especially true in the playoffs, where teams can devote all their scouting resources to a single opponent and pick at weaknesses until that opponent breaks.
And so Miami did what the Bucks knew they would do: They totally ignored Daniels and Mbah a Moute, who makes nearly $5 million per season, and had the defenders “guarding” those players crash the paint, overplay the strong side of the floor, and clog up everything Milwaukee wanted to do. The league’s decision a decade ago to do away with illegal defense and replace it with a defensive three-second rule has enabled these sorts of zone-style hybrid defenses; Tom Thibodeau’s teams in Boston and then Chicago were the first to successfully exploit the rule changes, but almost every team has adopted at least some of that philosophy.
And so Mbah a Moute and Daniels were borderline unplayable, except Milwaukee, at least in its collective mind, had no choice but to play them. The same thing has happened in the Brooklyn-Chicago series, where Thibodeau’s Bulls have left Gerald Wallace alone on the perimeter to clog the lane on Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, and Brook Lopez. The same strategy, and the same heightened playoff focus, explains why Lionel Hollins cuts Tony Allen’s minutes every postseason like clockwork.
As the league changes, certain skills become more and less valuable, and the teams who sniff out those value shifts first reap the benefits. The NBA today is much different than it was even five years ago. Teams shoot many more 3-pointers, they cram the paint on defense, and they use schemes that often require players to be able to guard multiple positions. Being a wing in a Thibodeau-style pack-the-paint scheme requires smarts, effort, and crazy athleticism — the ability to move from the 3-point line to underneath the basket and then back out to the 3-point line within the same 15-second half-court sequence.
If I were running an NBA team — ha! — I’d be scouring the world for role players who can do all of the following three things:
• Defend shooting guards.
• Defend small forwards.
• Shoot 3-pointers proficiently.
This is the perfect role player, a sort of New Age Shane Battier. (The old-age Shane Battier actually fits the bill, for the most part.) I’d strongly consider using my second-round “flier” draft pick on someone who might someday fit this description, even over a droolworthy project big man.1 There has long been the notion that wing shooters, or even “3-and-D” guys, are easy to find — that they’re just sort of laying around, waiting for the Spurs to discover the next Bruce Bowen or Danny Green (another candidate). But in talking with GMs and personnel types at all levels, there is something close to broad agreement that players who have checked off all three boxes are relatively rare, that their development is unpredictable, and that the ones who have proven themselves probably don’t earn enough money. “They are very, very hard to find,” says Bob Myers, the Warriors’ GM. “And they are probably undervalued.”
Context is obviously important here, and in general when evaluating personnel decisions. If my team had zero intriguing big men already on the roster, the equation would probably change.
On the one hand, this is obvious: Defense and shooting are fundamental basketball skills. They have always been important. But they are becoming more important as the league changes, and on the flip side, the absence of those skills has become more damaging; a player like Mbah a Moute, a multi-positional defensive genius who can’t shoot, may not deserve $5 million per season — even if Mbah a Moute has a nifty post game and some passing skills he can break out in a pinch. And players such as Green or Thabo Sefolosha may be worth much more than their current contracts.
Sefolosha emerged as sort of a dividing line in nominating New Age Battiers during talks with executives around the league. He can clearly guard both wing positions credibly, and he has shot better than 40 percent from 3-point range in each of the last two seasons. The folks who don’t think Sefolosha quite belongs argue that he has shot that well only because he limits his 3-point tries to the very best attempts — wide-open looks that emerge because his defender is far way, monitoring the activities of two of the very best offensive players in the entire world. What would Sefolosha shoot from 3-point range, the skeptics wonder, if he played for the Bobcats?
But I’m granting Sefolosha membership into the New Age Battier crowd. He got friskier this season, upping his 3-point attempts from 2.8 per 36 minutes to 4.2, not too far from “gunner” territory. The personnel folks who agree on Sefolosha’s membership also agree he is worth more to the Thunder, and to any NBA team, than his current contract, which pays him $3.6 million this season and $3.9 million next season.
But he’s only more valuable than that if he really can hit all three of the above benchmarks, and if players who can do so are rare. Let’s go through the best candidates for New Age Battier status. Remember: We’re not looking for stars here, or for players earning star-level salaries. Superstar wing players can do just about everything; that’s why they’re superstars, and that’s why they earn giant salaries. We’re looking for a very specific style of role player teams need to find at an affordable price and fill in around those creating stars. Affordability will be even more important as the harder luxury tax kicks in and teams pursue a salary model featuring three highly paid stars and a bunch of cheap supplementary guys.
There are all different sorts of role players. There are Green and Allen and Mbah a Moute and Jason Maxiell and Nick Collison and Kendrick Perkins and Kyle Korver and Kirk Hinrich. And every team has different needs, different salary realities, and different player development styles.2 But the notion here is that one type of role player might be more valuable than the others, and that teams who can snag that player on the cheap get a much-needed edge.
A question posed to me by a few different people recently: Is it easier to teach a defense-first player a serviceable jumper, or an ace shooter to be a serviceable defender? Nobody really knows the answer; there are a lot of non-shooters who turned themselves into decent shooters, including Serge Ibaka and Anderson Varejao, but J.J. Redick and Kyle Korver stand as long-range gunners who turned themselves into playable defenders via hard work, good coaching, and a sophisticated understanding of rotations.
One personnel guy told me that Leonard, right now — and without any off-the-bounce creativity added to his game — is already an $8 million to $10 million player on the open market given the increasing value of his skill set. Others were skeptical. Leonard can handle the defensive assignments fine, and he shot 37.5 percent from 3-point range for the second straight season — above league average. The only knocks on his résumé are his relative inexperience and his inability to hit 3s from anywhere but the corner; only 53 of his 174 3-point attempts came away from the corners, and he shot just 24.5 percent on those triples. But he can nail the corner 3, and he’ll likely improve from above the arc as he gets older. He’s in.
A cautionary tale about the difficulty of finding these players at the right stage of their career and developing them. Afflalo was clearly headed for New Age Battier territory until he chased a larger role in Denver’s offense, then found himself thrust into one on a lousy Orlando team — and struggled a bit in each context. His defense suffered as he took on a larger scoring burden in both cities, and the increased attention from opposing defenses — plus the higher degree of difficulty of his own shots — resulted in a 30 percent mark from long range this season, his worst since his rookie year.
Finding this type of role player at the right time is tricky, personnel gurus say. It is sometimes best to find them after they’ve faced difficulty in trying to be something more, and are ready to accept their true NBA identities. Bowen was Bowen in part because he understood his role and never worked outside of it. Context is everything in the NBA. A New Age Battier can only be a New Age Battier if someone else is around to create all those 3-point looks on offense by running pick-and-rolls, posting up, and generally kicking ass. The Spurs have those players around Leonard; the Magic do not have them around Afflalo.
But Afflalo clearly has the skill set to be this kind of very valuable complementary player, and he’s worth his contract — about $7.75 million per season — on the right team.
Perhaps the most undervalued player in the league, Barnes bounces from team to team on minimum-level deals because GMs and coaches view him as something of a hothead. But Barnes clearly fits the bill. He’s an average 3-point shooter whose averageness extends beyond the corners, and he is defending both positions nicely right now for a Clippers team that demands such versatility in the name of hiding Jamal Crawford’s horrid defense wherever it might be convenient at any given moment. Barnes is worth much more than his contract, and perhaps even more — to a contender, at least — than
It’s unclear if he belongs anymore. Butler has a hard time defending quicker shooting guards now, and the Clippers rarely ask him to do so outside of switches. And Butler remembers being an All-Star, and knows that it is the prerogative of such players to take difficult, inefficient shots — off-the-dribble 18-footers, dribble drives, post-up tries, etc. But he is shooting nearly 39 percent from deep, and at that rate, his $8 million deal isn’t too bad.
The jury’s out for Henderson, a free agent this summer. But if Henderson signs a deal that pays him something like $7 million or $8 million per season and elicits some Twitter guffaws, know that it will be because some GM considers him a safe bet to emerge as a solid New Age Battier. Defending bigger small forwards might be an issue, though Henderson has done it, and this was really his first season shooting 3s in anything like a high volume.
The questions come on defense. There’s no question Dudley has the size to guard both wing positions, and he has emerged as a borderline elite 3-point shooter with an off-the-dribble game he can break out when defenders are rushing out at him — almost the only kind of off-the-bounce game this type of player needs. The Suns have been stingier defensively with Dudley on the court in each of the last two seasons, per NBA.com, but personnel folks worry about his foot speed against quicker wings. He also has a tendency to ball-watch, which makes him vulnerable to back cuts away from the ball. Dudley’s in the middle of his career now, so dramatic improvement is unlikely. But if he got better on defense, his value would vault far above his current $4.25 million deal.
By far the most popular nominee among NBA people considering young players seeking membership into this group. Butler shockingly shot 38 percent from 3-point range this season, and he was even better from above the arc,3 though on fewer attempts than from the corners. He’s got the size and speed to defend both wing positions, and he has learned under the NBA’s best defensive coach. He’s a bargain on his rookie deal, and it will be interesting to see how much individual scoring ability he showcases before that deal is up — and how the league views him at that point. Butler still has to prove his 3-point shooting can sustain over the long haul, but the early signs are very good.
The Denver–Golden State series has provided a refreshing reminder that height sort of matters in basketball. It’s a fundamental thing that can go overlooked at times in the obsession over small-ball, X’s-and-O’s, and outside shooting. Jarrett Jack has made it rain in this series mostly by just shooting jumpers over little Ty Lawson, looking like an older sibling holding a toy above his head and out of a younger sibling’s reach.
One of the most perfectly paid players in the NBA. Matthews is a consistent 38 to 40 percent 3-point shooter, and he can make contested looks in high-pressure spots. He historically hasn’t been quite as efficient when asked to create on his own, and the gap in salary between Matthews (about $7 million per season) and Nicolas Batum (about $11 million) is illustrative. The Blazers see Batum as a guy who can defend, hit 3s, and create offense for others, and though injuries cut Batum’s scoring output over the last couple months of the season, he made huge strides as a secondary distributor and pick-and-roll passer. Matthews doesn’t quite have that in his game, and his salary is nearing the upper edge of how the NBA likely values New Age Battiers — especially since he’s not as long as someone like Leonard.
But Matthews is tough and strong, and he and Batum often swap wing assignments, with Matthews defending bulkier small forwards who carry post-up games. That’s valuable.
The league is skeptical, and rightly so. Brewer is rail thin, and so he can’t reliably defend the biggest wing guys with bullying post-up games. And though he’s transformed himself from a total non-shooter into something more, he’s barely league-average on 3s from the corner, and he shot a woeful 19.6 percent on 3s from anywhere else. Even worse news: He’s surprisingly trigger-happy, having jacked 102 such non-corner 3s this season despite a years-long sample size telling him he should probably put a lot of those shots in his pocket.
Brewer earned $3.2 million this season and will be a free agent this summer. His next contract will be fascinating; Brewer surely believes he’s earned a big raise, but his value is a divisive topic.
Green’s not a lockdown defender, but he’s solid, and he has played small forward when Leonard rests. Green earns about $3.9 million per year over the next two seasons, and even if he lacks any room for improvement — hardly certain — he’s easily worth this contract. He’s shot better than 43 percent from deep — that’s Kyle Korver/Ray Allen territory — over the last two seasons, and they’re not all wide-open looks from the corners.
Pondexter had a Sefolosha-style season, in that he shot nearly twice as many 3s per 36 minutes while maintaining and/or improving his accuracy numbers. Pondexter shot 39.5 percent from deep, by far a career high, and he is at least creeping up toward the league average on non-corner 3s, per NBA.com. (He shot an excellent 45.6 percent on 90 corner 3s, and 31.7 percent on just 60 non-corner triples.)
Pondexter has emerged as a solid defender, though he faces some size issues against taller small forwards.4 The Grizzlies have actually spotted Pondexter some time guarding Chris Paul in their first-round series against the Clips, and Pondexter has also done quite well denying Crawford the ball.
It’s actually an early termination clause, for you cap gurus.
Pondexter’s rookie contract pays him $2.23 million next season, after which he becomes a free agent. If he can duplicate this kind of shooting next season, he’ll be worth more than that. Put it this way: Would you rather have Pondexter or Mbah a Moute for $5 million? What about Tony Allen, also a free agent this summer? Almost no NBA fans had heard of Pondexter even a year ago, but he’s made both of those discussions interesting.
And that might be the entire group, and at least half of those guys come with limitations that may or may not disqualify them, depending on the judge. Let’s take a quick look at some other guys who probably don’t quite make it at this very moment:
Promising Young Guys
• Chandler Parsons: Should be a no-brainer addition very soon, upon gaining a little more polish and sounder judgment as a defender.
• Gordon Hayward: Ditto, though has a longer way to go on defense than Parsons; the help-and-recover complexities don’t come quite as naturally to him as they do for Parsons, and playing in Utah hasn’t helped. The Jazz have hopes that Hayward can become something close to a primary ball hander, and he did show flashes of an improved pick-and-roll game late in the season.
• Iman Shumpert: He’s a bit undersized against bully small forwards, but he’s gone toe-to-toe with Paul Pierce in New York’s first-round series against Boston, and he’s gradually regaining his stability on defense after his ACL tear last season. Shump is a hog for steals, and he shot a completely unexpected 40 percent from deep this season — including 39 percent on non-corner 3s. If he can sustain a percentage in the high 30s, he’s in.
• Harrison Barnes: Klay Thompson isn’t quite big or rangy enough to defend someone of the LeBron James/Carmelo Anthony model, but Barnes is, and the product of Golden State’s Furious Tanking Win (FTW!) of 2011 has gone berserk from long range as a small-ball power forward in the playoffs after hitting a respectable 36 percent deep in the regular season. The early returns are enticing, even if Barnes tends to jack a couple of bad midrange shots — “get mine” shots — every game.
More Intriguing But Unknown Young Guys
• Maurice Harkless: A solid cutter/slasher who should develop the defensive chops, but shot just 27 percent from 3-point range while shooting too much on a bad and injury-ravaged Orlando team.
• Jae Crowder: His minutes went up and down all season, and he came into the league without a clear position, but he was a popular nominee among NBA folks. Crowder shot 32.8 percent from deep, which may or may not be promising, and spent time defending shooting guards, small forwards, and even power forwards.
• Wesley Johnson: It’s more that Johnson was proven a long-limbed bust before Lindsey Hunter and a tanking Phoenix team gave him free reign to jack triples and perhaps clarify his NBA destiny. Johnson still shot just 32 percent from deep amid all that freedom; his chances of membership here look slim.
• Kyle Singler: Singler shot 35 percent from deep and provided some valuable spacing for the shooting-challenged Pistons while logging time at both wing positions. Has to prove he can hold his own defensively.
• Khris Middleton: Detroit is high on Middleton’s potential to become precisely this sort of player, but he attempted just 45 3s and didn’t receive consistent minutes (or really any meaningful minutes at all) until the last month of the season.
• Alan Anderson: Anderson is 30, but he hadn’t ever played real minutes in the NBA before this season, and wasn’t in the league from 2007 through 2011. He spent much of the past season gunning for points in Toronto, and would have to find more balance and stability on both ends to sniff membership.
• Jeff Taylor: Toggled between both wing positions in Charlotte this season, and eventually saw his minutes dwindle. Taylor did shoot an encouraging 34 percent from deep this season, and entered the league with a reputation as a solid defender.
• Trevor Ariza: When Ariza shot 48 percent from 3-point range for the Lakers in the 2009 playoffs, it looked as if we’d be able to name this club for him. The Rockets certainly showed that kind of confidence in signing Ariza to a five-year, $34 million deal right after those playoffs. But Ariza’s shooting percentages fell apart, and then hit bottom in New Orleans, as he tried to show he could be a top scoring option and began launching tough off-the-dribble jumpers as part of that would-be display.
His 2010-11 campaign for the Hornets stands as one of the worst high-volume shooting seasons in league history; Ariza barely missed joining the reverse of the revered 50-40-90 club by nearly shooting below 40 percent from the floor, 30 percent from deep, and 70 percent from the line. He became an albatross, and the NBA world largely mocked Washington’s decision to take him (and Emeka Okafor) off of New Orleans’s hands in exchange for Rashard Lewis’s non-guaranteed deal.
But Ariza played his best ball since those 2009 playoffs during the second half of this season. He finished with a career-best 36 percent mark from deep — above league average! — and shot a stunning 43 percent from long range when on the floor with John Wall, per NBA.com. Context is everything, and with a big-time shot creator running the point, Ariza looked like his peak-value self again. Can he play this way next season, too?
• Martell Webster: Another Wiz reclamation project, Webster signed a one-year deal for a tiny slice of the midlevel exception and proceeded to blow away his career shooting numbers. He remains shaky and occasionally inattentive on defense, particularly off the ball, and he has to prove that last season’s shooting numbers don’t represent a total outlier. But he’s worth monitoring in free agency, and the Wiz will make a hard push to bring him back.
• Marvin Williams: Williams felt a bit lost in a crowded Utah wing rotation. He shot about as often as he did during his rookie season, and his 3-point percentage fell to a “blah” 32.5 percent. He faces quickness issues defending some 2-guards, but if Williams can find his long-range stroke again, he’s an interesting piece on a good team — and a very well-paid one, having earned $8.29 million in 2012-13 and holding a $7.5 million option for next season.5
You could nominate a few other guys, including Boston’s Courtney Lee and Jeff Green, but the fit gets shakier and shakier. Lee can’t defend most small forwards, and Green has historically been more of a small forward/power forward hybrid. But Green has defended some shooting guards as part of a big Boston starting lineup featuring Green and Pierce at the wing spots.
• C.J. Miles: Appears to have the raw materials, but Miles goes through too many phases of egregious shot selection and irresponsible defense.
• Dorell Wright: He’ll get a hard look this offseason from teams seeking this sort of player, but Wright may lean too far toward the “stretch power forward” designation to merit inclusion here. His defensive effort also comes and goes.
Aged, Played, or Shot Their Way Out
• DeShawn Stevenson, Jason Kidd, Francisco Garcia, John Salmons (Go Kings!), Metta World Peace.
And that’s really it.6 It’s easy to identify guys who meet one or even two of the stated criteria, but nailing all three is rare. Teams who can find those players on the cheap, both by drafting them and understanding the value of a seemingly unremarkable free agent, can really help themselves. And teams that avoid overpaying a player who ranks as a total minus in one of the listed criteria will retain valuable financial flexibility. That comes in handy when some combination of luck and opportunism gives a team a chance to sign the kind of role player that really matters.
Butler is actually an example of how perception lingers a bit behind reality in the NBA. The Nets are still treating Butler as if he’s a non-shooter, in part because erring on the side of clogging the paint is just smarter NBA defense — unless the shooter in question is an elite long-range guy. Shooters on the weak side will always be open to some extent; better ones just make those shots a bit more often, and eventually, defenses will shift one extra step closer to them.