Dirk, The Daring Defender?

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, on his webpage blogmaverick.com, advocates 2 Mavericks for the All Defensive team: Dirk Nowitzki and Josh Howard. The first nominee is a curious one that will raise a few eyebrows. Over the last few years, Dirk’s defense has been thought as mediocre at best. Last year the Mavericks were awful defensively; ranked 26th in defensive efficiency. Mark gives no evidence for Dirk’s change, but offers the following:

This year, Dirk has become better than just a good defender. Dirk has become a very good defender, on his way to being one of the best defensive PFs in the league. If that comment makes you laugh, you arent watching enough games and paying attention to Dirk on the defensive end.

Go down the list of PFs in the NBA….. After Garnett and Duncan, who is a better defender?

Hmmm… Mark Cuban says that if I don’t think Nowitzki is a great defender, I haven’t watched enough Mavs games. While he may be right, I can counter by saying that Mark hasn’t seen every game the Bulls, Pistons, Clippers, etc. have played. So how can he say Dirk is better than the PFs on those teams? With this kind of logic, everyone can claim their team has the best defenders in the league. Instead, we need a more objective way of looking at defense.

This year the Mavericks are ranked 6th defensively, so maybe Dirk’s improved defense has made Dallas a defensive minded team? Since 59% of the time Dirk is the Dallas PF, looking at how opposing PFs fare against the Mavs might give us insight into Nowitzki’s defense. So far this year, opposing PFs have had a 15.3 PER and effective shooting percentage (eFG%) of .477. Both of those numbers are about average, so it really doesn’t prove that Dirk has anchored the Mavs D.

Thanks to 82games.com, we can measure three more ways in which Dirk affects his team defensively. The first is defensive +/-, which has its drawbacks depending on the strength of the team & the bench. Basically they’re comparing the points scored per 100 possessions when the player is on versus off the court. The way 82games.com records this stat, lower numbers are better. Defensively Dallas has been -4.6 points worse when Dirk is on the bench (which means they’re 4.6 points better with Dirk on the floor). The last two stats are oPER & oeFG%, which represent the opposing PFs stats when Nowitzki is on the court. In this respect, power forwards have shot .499 and have an overall PER of 16.3. Again neither are impressive enough to write home about.

If you’re like me & you’re scoring at home, putting all that above into a spreadsheet looks like this:

Name...........	TmRank	eFG	PER	+/-	oeFG	oPER
Dirk Nowitzki.. 6 0.477 15.3 -4.6 0.499 16.3

On their own these numbers are meaningless. What if PERs for power forwards are generally higher? What if PFs generally have better defensive +/-? To find out how good defensively Dirk is, we can put him next to the best defensive PF in the league: Tim Duncan.

Name...........	TmRank	eFG	PER	+/-	oeFG	oPER
Dirk Nowitzki.. 6 0.477 15.3 -4.6 0.499 16.3
Tim Duncan..... 1 0.431 15.1 -6.7 0.403 14.4

Now we have the beginnings of a mini-study. Armed with some statistics, I agree with the one-time Dairy Queen server. We should go down the list of the PFs in the league, and see who is a better defender. Spending hours of my free time that I could have otherwise spent interacting with other human beings, I went through 82games.com for all the stats of the following PFs.

Name...........	TmRank	eFG	 PER 	+/-	oeFG	oPER
Dirk Nowitzki.. 6 .477 15.3 -4.6 .499 16.3
Tim Duncan..... 1 .431 15.1 -6.7 .403 14.4
Kevin Garnett.. 19 .502 17.0 -2.0 .498 16.8
Rasheed Wallace 3 .449 14.6 -5.8 .442 16.1
Elton Brand.... 9 .467 15.3 -4.5 .453 14.3
Shawn Marion... 17 .479 17.4 1.2 .508 20.6
Pau Gasol...... 5 .470 17.0 0.4 .467 17.1
Carlos Boozer.. 30 .473 16.8 2.5 .465 17.3
Dwight Howard.. 13 .440 15.1 1.2 .455 17
Chris Bosh..... 20 .470 16.7 -6.2 .477 17.6
Tyson Chandler. 2 .447 14.7 -0.8 .463 18.7
Kurt Thomas.... 27 .520 19.0 5.9 .511 19.7

Ahhhh I love the smell of spreadsheets in the morning. Looking at this list, it’s obvious that Duncan is the best of the group. Why do I say that? He has the best +/-, the best oeFG, and the second best oPER. Since that seems like a good way to see who is statistically the best, let’s rank the stat of each player against the others.

Name...........	R1	R2	R3	R4	R5	OVR
Tim Duncan..... 1 3 1 1 2 1
Rasheed Wallace 4 1 3 2 3 2
Elton Brand.... 5 5 5 3 1 3
Dwight Howard.. 2 3 9 4 6 4
Tyson Chandler. 3 2 7 5 10 5
Dirk Nowitzki.. 9 5 4 10 4 6
Chris Bosh..... 6 7 2 8 9 6
Pau Gasol...... 6 9 8 7 7 8
Kevin Garnett.. 11 9 6 9 5 9
Carlos Boozer.. 8 8 11 6 8 10
Shawn Marion... 10 11 9 11 12 11
Kurt Thomas.... 12 12 12 12 11 12

R1 is team PF eFG% ranked. R5 is oPER ranked. Tim Duncan is the best in team PF eFG%, and Elton Brand is the best in oPER. The last column OVR is how they rank overall in all the stats.

Other than Garnett’s low ranking, the list isn’t very surprising. If someone told me the 5 best defensive PFs in the league were Duncan, Rasheed, Brand, Howard, & Chandler, I’d believe it. Given a ballot for All Defensive Team, I would choose the top two on my list. Duncan is a no-brainer, but IMHO ‘Sheed, who has never won any defensive honors, is highly underrated in his defensive ability. During last year’s Finals, Sonics analyst Kevin Pelton said of Wallace:

What is clearly most impressive about the Pistons post-Wallace trade is their defense. Detroit was a very good, if overrated team, prior to adding Wallace. With him in the fold, they’ve been nothing short of magnificent.

Nowitzki’s 6th overall ranking shows that he’s upgraded his game under his own basket. He doesn’t fare well in both opposing shooting percentage categories, but he does well in all the others. Despite the evidence that’s he’s an above average defender, I’d still be hesitant voting for him in any kind of all-defensive team.

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Mike Kurylo

Mike Kurylo is the founder and editor of KnickerBlogger.net. His book on the 2012 Knicks, "We’ll Always Have Linsanity," is on sale now. Follow him on twitter (@KnickerBlogger).

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