Andre Iguodala might just be the best defensive player in the league. That's not an overstatement. There are guys in the league who can lock players down for 15-20 minutes a night, if they're motivated. No one does it like Iguodala does for 35 minutes per game. If you need to put your finger on one reason why the Sixers have the league's best defense*, the list begins and ends with Andre Iguodala. But if the question you're asking is why the Sixers defense is so much better this season than it was last year? Well, if that's the question, then the discussion needs to begin with Jrue Holiday.
Since coming into the league, Jrue has had the potential to be a great defender. He's got the size, the quickness and the mindset to lock people down. Over his first two seasons, he's put guys like Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook in shackles, while allowing guys like Jose Calderon and Mike Bibby to go off. After some games, you'd shake your head and say, "Wow. The Sixers have two of the best perimeter defenders in the league on their team." Other nights, you'd scratch your head and say, "How can he look that good against Rose and let Chauncey score 30 on him?" The inconsistency killed you. The lock-down ability, and production, in isolation was as buoyant as the lackluster pick-and-roll effort was maddening.
This year, to this point, he's put it all together and it's making it nearly impossible to score against the Sixers. It's tough to quantify a single defender's production, but there are a couple of sites which make the attempt. 82games.com lists opponent PER (PER is basically a formula which distills overall production down to one number. It's flawed in certain ways, but it's widely-used thanks to its creator, John Hollinger's high-profile position at ESPN. Opponent's PER is the production of the player being guarded). Another available metric is points-per-play from Synergy Sports (this stat is what it says. How many points does the player being guarded score on a player, per play. Synergy also breaks it down by type of play, and allows you to watch video of each play). Let's take a look at these available metrics for Jrue, comparing last season to this season:
- Opponent PER 2010-2011: 19.0 (15.0 is supposed to be average)
- Opponent PER 2011-2012: 11.4 (not including yesterday's game in which Brandon Jennings shot 3/11 vs. Jrue)
- Points-per-play-allowed 2010-2011: 0.9 (241st in the league)
- Points-per-play-allowed 2011-2012: 0.66 (28th in the league)
- Points-per-play-allowed on pick-and-roll plays 2010-2011: 0.84 (124th in the league)
- Points-per-play-allowed on pick-and-roll plays 2011-2012: 0.59 (5th in the league)
Another method we have for gauging a player's defensive abilities is to compare how well the team defends with him on the floor vs. when he's on the bench. BasketballValue.com tracks these stats extensively. Let's take a look at the difference there:
- 2010-2011: With Jrue on the floor, the Sixers allowed 105.47 points per 100 possessions. With Jrue on the bench, they allowed 102.21 points-per-100-possessions. They were actually better by 3.26 points/100 poss. when Jrue was on the bench.
- 2011-2012: With Jrue on the floor, the Sixers have allowed 90.72 points-per-100-possessions. With Jrue on the bench, they have allowed 96.17 points-per-100-possessions. So far this year, they're allowing 5.45 fewer points/100 poss. with Jrue on the floor.
If you're interested in advanced stats, these numbers should probably shock and encourage you. If you aren't, there's an easier way to grasp the difference Jrue has made. Watch a game or two with one thing in mind. Watch how Jrue defends the opposing point guard. Watch how hard his man has to work to move the ball from point A to point B with his dribble. Watch how Jrue always keeps himself between his man and the basket. Watch how many times Jrue tips the ball, or kicks bounce passes out of bounds, or completely blows up the other team's play by jumping his man and pressuring the ball on the perimeter. He's been doing that off and on his entire career, but this year, it's a nightly thing. Even if his offense isn't clicking, he's working on the defensive end and he's making it so hard for the other team to run their offense, it makes everyone else's job that much easier.
Jrue isn't the only one responsible for this jump in defensive efficiency. Thad Young has a huge hand in it as well, especially on the pick-and-roll, and the coaching staff deserves a ton of credit for figuring out a system that accentuates their talent level on the perimeter while hiding their deficiencies down low, and the lynch pin will always be having Iguodala effectively negating the opposing team's best wing, but Jrue's development on the defensive end has been the catalyst for the year-over-year improvement, and whether or not they remain the best defensive team in the league will, in large part, depend on whether he can keep this level of production going when the schedule gets harder (the schedule has been very favorable to this point, but it will get harder this week).
When talking about the best offensive team, or the best defensive team, I always talk in terms of points-per-100-possessions instead of points-per-game. Points-per-game can be a wildly misleading statistic, because pace of play is not taken into account. A team can significantly slow down the pace of the game to keep the score down, but allow their opponents to convert at a high rate on the offensive end, which isn't good defense, it's just shortening the game. The Sixers are currently #1 in defensive efficiency rating (92.2 points-per-100-possessions as of Sunday night), and #2 in points-allowed-per-game (85.6 points-per-game allowed). If you have any questions about any of the stats used in this post, please don't hesitate to ask here, or on DepressedFan.com.