The Best Bigs at Defending Guards & 5 Takeaways

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One of my guilty pleasures—as I’ve made long road trips (14 hour drives – thanks COVID) to visit family over the past holiday season— has been listening to the Ringer’s basketball podcast. In one episode, they talked about the importance of having versatile centers like Anthony Davis and how the league is trending that way (think Giannis & KD). As a Thunder fan, Al Horford and Steven Adams is anything but that and I consistently have random painful flashbacks of watching Steven Adams get torn up on switches off pick and rolls in the playoffs versus Dame, James Harden, Steph Curry, etc. Bigs these days have to be able to defend quicker guards, especially in the playoffs where teams seek these mismatches. Thus, I decided to examine:

Which NBA bigs are the best at defending guards for the 2020-2021 season?

Methodology: I examined Matchup stats by position from NBA.com. I examined bigs (1st & 2nd on their team’s respective depth charts as centers, which is why players like Anthony Davis is excluded) that only played more than 100 possession on guards for the season. I looked at three different factors initially, eventually involving a fourth factor that took into account team defense. These four factors are:

  • Points allowed per possession: how many points does the big, on average, give up to the guard each time the guard has a possession.  
  • Team points allowed per possession: how many points does the big, on average, give up to the opposing team each time the guard has a possession.
  • FG% allowed: the shooting efficiency of the guard when the guard decides to attack the big
  • Team DEF rating


To read this graph, the less points allowed & team points allowed per possession are desirable. Thus, the more bottom left that a player is in the graph the better. The color schemes signify your field goal allowed percentage. Green signifies field goal allowed percentages of ~29% whereas the red signifies field goal allowed percentages of ~53%. Examine the legend in the plot for more details.

Separately, I created an average weighted ranking system of the bigs based on the four factors and how they rank in comparison to one another. Each factor was given an equal weight (25%). The smaller the average weighted rank, the better (Clint Capela looks to be the best center at defending guards while Lamarcus Aldridge looks to be the worst). So your top 5 centers at defending guards reads:

  1. Clint Capela
  2. Mitchell Robinson
  3. Bam Adebayo
  4. Steven Adams
  5. Jakob Poeltl

Top 5 worst centers reads:

  1. Lamarcus Aldridge
  2. Khem Birch
  3. Brook Lopez
  4. Enes Kanter
  5. Mason Plumlee

5 Personal Takeaways:

  1. Chris Boucher barely didn’t make the cut of the top 5 but his stats are impressive from a pure volume standpoint. Outside of Jeff Green, he has the most possessions defending a guard in the league this year and spends 31% of his time on defense guarding guards. When you listen to the Ringer podcast or others, people talk about Chris Boucher like this 3&D ability came out of nowhere and puts him as a steady top 5 candidate for most improved; however, what’s crazy is that he put up these same defensive numbers last year. In fact, he was better last year at defending the threes (gave up 27% on three point shooting vs 37% this year). One slight improvement is his tendency to foul guards. If we take the ratio of shooting fouls per possessions, he fouled at a clip of 10% last year. This year, that number has shrunk to 6%.
  2. Steven Adams’ numbers look wild and shocking to me. The main reason why I launched this study is because I was so fed up at how guards were scoring on him with ease. Eric Gordon was lighting him up in the bubble playoffs. However he has drastically improved this season. I’m assuming a large reason is the scheming. Billy Donovan almost switched every pick and roll last year (regular season + playoffs). When I see him play with the Pelicans (saw only 2 games so take this with a grain of salt), Steven always plays under on screens and hardly ever gets switched on to guards. That said, check out the transformation.

Here’s Steven’s OKC numbers:

  • Allowed 0.93 points per possession to a guard
  • Allowed 2.16 points to the team when defending a guard
  • Guards shot 45% from the field when attacking Steven Adams

Here’s Steven’s NOP numbers:

  • Allowing 0.66 points per possession to a guard
  • Allowing 1.81 points to the team when defending a guard
  • Guards are shooting only 37% from the field when attacking Steven Adams

3. Jakob Poeltl is also going through some massive transformation, and it will be interesting how the Spurs may use him in playoff crunch time scenarios when defending a lead over Lamarcus Aldridge if they opt to not go with a small-ball defending lineup. Here’s a fun look at this: if we filter out the top 5 defensive lineups for the Spurs that have 20 minutes (or more) of play, we get this:

And here’s a look at Jakob’s improvements this year compared to last:

  • Points allowed per possession: 0.76 (this season) vs 1.06 (last season)
  • Team points allowed per possession: 1.88 (this season) vs 2.14 (last season)

FG% allowed: 30% (this season) vs 43% (last season)

4. Brook Lopez has gotten significantly worse at defending guards this year compared to last, and that could explain some of the Bucks’ slide in defense this year. The Bucks had the best defensive rating last season at 102.5.This year, they’re 13th in the league at 109.6. Here’s a look at Brook Lopez’s stats from this year to last:

  • Points allowed per possession: 1.31 (this season) vs 1.11 (last season)
  • Team points allowed per possession: 2.40 (this season) vs 1.96 (last season)
  • FG% allowed: 47% (this season) vs 44% (last season)
  • 3 PT% allowed: 48% this season) vs 43% (last season)

This is all taken into consideration that he’s on guards at the same rate for both seasons: guarding guards 14% of the time. I don’t want to pinpoint the Bucks’ slide on defense on Brook especially since I don’t watch many Bucks games to supplement that hypothesis but the two do seem strongly correlated.  

5. Christian Wood should be recognized not only for his massive improvements on offense but on defense as well. He’s a darkhorse candidate for me to win DPoY. Most DPoYs are given out to the bigs on defenses nowadays and the Houston Rockets has the second best defensive rating in the league (WHAT?!). He’s also 7th on my list of the best bigs defending guards. His time on a guard is a healthy 21%. What I love about him is that he doesn’t foul. He’s only committed 2 shooting fouls on a guard all season. He also forces a guard to commit a turnover 11% of the time and the Rockets are 7th in the league in creating turnovers.

This was a fun dive! I know the way we collect and analyze defense isn’t as great as it could be, but hopefully this creates a rudimentary model or a new way to look at bigs on defense. I’m sure better models can be made with Second Spectrum and such. That said, it was great getting to write another post for you all and nothing but love for you all for the upcoming Valentines Day.

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