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Are Beal, Hachimura and Bryant really the NBA’s worst defenders at their positions?

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The Wizards are the NBA’s worst team on defense, but that doesn’t mean that their starters are also the worst players at their positions.

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Washington Wizards
Is Thomas Bryant really the NBA’s worst defensive center?
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

A Bleacher Report article purports to “expose” the NBA’s worst defenders at each position. In a seemingly fitting development for a team that’s dead last in defense and has been flirting with all-time worst status on that end of the floor, three of the five positions were filled by Wizards.

The offending five:

  • PG: Trae Young
  • SG: Bradley Beal
  • SF: Justin Jackson
  • PF: Rui Hachimura
  • C: Thomas Bryant

Do Washington’s defenders deserve the dishonor? Before I answer, let’s take a quick dive on the other two. Young is a worthy contender for worst defensive PG. He’s small and slender, and the Hawks are much worse defensively when he’s on the floor. While Young is a fair pick, my analysis suggests Collin Sexton and Isaiah Thomas were strong competition. My pick: Thomas.

Jackson is indeed a bad defender. The big question is where to classify him because, according to Basketball-Reference, Jackson plays the majority of his minutes at PF. Slot him there, and he’s in contention for worst at that spot. For worst defensive SF, candidates include James Ennis, Alfonzo McKinnie, Kevin Knox, and Solomon Hill. My pick: Knox.

Let’s get to the Wizards. The case for Beal being the league’s worst defensive SG basically boils down to the horrific on/off number. When Beal’s been on the floor this season, the Wizards have been 10.0 points per 100 possessions worse on the defensive end. While Beal’s effort has been lackluster, is the precipitous drop in defensive effectiveness because of Beal? My analysis says probably not — at least not to the extent attributed to him by a “worst defender in the league” designation.

Beal’s defensive effort has been part of the problem, but the Wizards have had a confounding factor most of the season: Isaiah Thomas. I’ve been watching and analyzing the NBA for 40 years, and I’ve never seen a defender as ineffective and indifferent as Thomas. Washington sent Thomas packing at the trade deadline and their defense immediately looked better. That’s true of Beal’s on/off number as well. Just a few weeks ago, it was more than 12 points per 100 possessions worse when he was out there.

In the defense part of my metric, Player Production Average (PPA), which does not rely as heavily on team on/off data as other stat tools, Beal rates solidly below average this season, but not among the worst SGs. That crown should go to Landry Shamet, J.J. Redick, Eric Gordon or Austin Rivers. My pick: Shamet.

The easiest way to deal with Hachimura’s selection as worst defensive PF would be to assert that Jackson is actually a PF. But I’m not going to do that. My first gripe is the inclusion of a rookie at all. Hachimura has struggled at times defensively, especially early in the season. That’s normal for first-year players, though. When he was sidelined due to injury he reportedly devoured film and his defensive awareness seems much improved since his return.

The on/off numbers are bad (Washington has been 7.5 points per 100 possessions worse defensively when he’s out there), but are skewed by the Thomas factor. Washington was effectively playing four on five defensively when Thomas was out there, and that’s a lot to ask of anyone — especially a rookie with little basketball experience.

Even including rookies, I don’t think Hachimura “merits” worst defender status. Like Beal, he rates solidly below average in the defense part of PPA, but not catastrophic. Better choices in my analysis would include Anthony Tolliver, Markieff Morris, Eric Paschall, and maybe Kevin Love. My pick: Tolliver.

Bryant, now in his third season, hasn’t made as much defensive progress as the Wizards might have hoped. He still struggles with recognition and making quick and assertive rotations. He doesn’t box out well, which hurts team defensive rebounding, and he isn’t a strong rim protector. Like Beal and Hachimura, the team has been worse defensively (by 8.9 points per 100 possessions) when he’s on the floor.

Has that deficit been caused by Bryant, however? Like Beal and Hachimura, probably not. Last season, the Wizards were about the same defensively when Bryant was on the floor. And this season, when Bryant has been on the floor without Thomas, the Wizards defense has been about 12 points per 100 possessions better — bad, but normal bad, not history-making.

(With Beal and Hachimura, the with/without Thomas improvement is about six points per 100 possessions.)

In the defensive part of PPA, Bryant rates solidly below average, but not at the bottom. So, if it’s not Bryant, who is the NBA’s worst defensive center? The top candidates in my analysis would include Karl-Anthony Towns, Skal Labissiere, Damian Jones, Jahlil Okafor, Taj Gibson (yes, he’s really been that bad this season), Anzejs Pasecniks and Frank Kaminsky. My pick: Damian Jones.

In most cases, when the defensive part of PPA differs significantly from the on/off data, the on/off data moves in the direction of the PPA score as the sample size increases. If that happens in this case, the Wizards’ team defense should improve over the last couple months of the season and the on/off numbers for Beal, Bryant and Hachimura should moderate.

Player Production Average

Below are scores from my Player Production Average (PPA) metric. PPA is pace neutral, accounts for defense, includes a degree of difficulty factor, and a position/role adjustment. PPA credits players for doing things that help a team win and debits them for things that hurt — each in proper proportion.

In PPA, 100 is average, higher is better and replacement level is 45.

The position/role adjustment is designed to reflect how roles and on-court positioning affects individual abilities to produce certain stats. For now, I’m incorporating four positions/roles: point guards, wings, forwards and big men. I expect this adjustment to evolve as I continue to research it and analyze results.

Wizards PPA

PLAYER GMS MPG PPA
PLAYER GMS MPG PPA
Bradley Beal 46 35.5 156
Thomas Bryant 29 25.4 124
Shabazz Napier 4 19.5 107
Troy Brown 50 25.8 104
Isaac Bonga 48 17.7 102
Dāvis Bertāns 44 29.3 99
Johnathan Williams 11 12.3 98
Ish Smith 53 26.4 97
Gary Payton 23 17.7 96
Rui Hachimura 30 28.8 91
Ian Mahinmi 33 22.0 89
Garrison Mathews 16 12.6 87
Moritz Wagner 26 20.3 81
Jordan McRae 29 22.6 79
Isaiah Thomas 40 23.1 61
C.J. Miles 10 16.1 54
Chris Chiozza 10 12.3 49
Justin Robinson 9 5.4 42
Anžejs Pasečņiks 20 18.5 41
Admiral Schofield 26 11.2 24
Jerome Robinson 3 18.3 9