Why Can't Coaches Get NBA All-Defensive Vote Right?

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 19: Chris Paul #3 of the Los Angeles Clippers and Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers on court during the game at Staples Center on December 19, 2011 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

The NBA All-Defensive team includes head-scratching choices year after year, and this season is no exception. Why do the coaches do such a dubious job selecting the best defenders in the league?

The NBA All-Defensive teams were announced on Wednesday. The teams are voted on by the 30 NBA coaches (who are not allowed to vote for their own players) and the result of the vote begs the question: do NBA coaches actually watch the games?

OK, so maybe that's a tad harsh, and in point of fact the All-Defensive teams for this season actually feature fewer egregiously bad selections than usual. But beating their own poor standard is hardly worth crowing about.

As it happens, of the 10 players selected to either the first or second All-Defensive team, fully eight of them are at least defensible choices (pun intended), which is much better than most seasons. But the other two inclusions, along with some of the other players who received votes, are real head-scratchers.

Now, admittedly, good defense is in the eye of the beholder. There are no universally accepted metrics for what constitutes good defense, and different people will value players very differently as defenders. That makes the vote very subjective, and it's almost pointless to complain about it. But not completely pointless, so here goes.

The coaches (or more accurately, the unpaid interns who happened to be nearby when the league office called for the umpteenth time telling them that their ballot had to be turned in right away) can fall into several potential traps when voting for the All-Defensive team.


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The Stats trap. There are three common statistics that occur on the defensive end of the basketball court: defensive rebounds, blocked shots and steals. Because two of those three stats favor big men, the Defensive Player of the Year is almost always a shot-blocking, rebounding center (think Dwight Howard, Marcus Camby, Ben Wallace and this year's DPOY Tyson Chandler). But in voting for the All-Defensive team, coaches have to cast first team and second team votes for two guards, two forwards and one center -- that means they have to name at least four perimeter-based players who aren't getting a lot of blocked shots or rebounds.

Invariably, players who are at or near the top of the league in steals end up getting a lot of votes, because, hey, it's a list based on a defensive category. Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers led the league in steals this season, and lo and behold, he was named to the All-Defensive first team. The problem is that steals are a poor measure of an NBA defender. A typical NBA game has about 100 possessions -- if Paul averages a little over three steals per 48 minutes as he did this season, that's all well and good, but what's he doing the other 97 possessions? Those steals represent 3 percent of the job on defense, so simply voting for the guy who leads the league makes little sense. Steals can be a great indicator of solid defense -- or they can be an indicator of a player who takes unnecessary gambles and gets burned a lot.

Paul is a great, great player, he's a very good defender, and he does have an uncanny knack for finding the ball, which definitely has value. But he's extremely undersized at 6', which frequently puts him at a disadvantage defensively, and he's not one of the two best perimeter defenders on the Clippers (a poor defensive team) let alone in the league. (Both Eric Bledsoe and Chauncey Billups are better defenders than Paul, though both were hurt a significant portion of the season.)

The Highlights Trap. The next common trap is to vote for a player based on a handful of spectacular defensive plays. As with steals, with a hundred defensive possessions in a game and a season's worth of games, it makes little sense to evaluate defensive performance based on a relative handful of plays, but it happens nonetheless. First team selections LeBron James and Serge Ibaka are actually justifiable choices -- they're both difference makers on the defensive end. But with his patented chase-down blocks, LeBron would be on the team even if he ignored defense completely the rest of the game (which frankly he has been known to do during the regular season). And when a player has multiple 10-block games as Ibaka did this season, he's going to get All-Defensive votes. Again, happily, he mostly earned those votes, even if he's arguably not the best defensive big on his own team (his post defense pales in comparison to Kendrick Perkins).

Kobe Bryant, on the second team, on the other hand, is a poor choice. This is a demotion for Bryant of course, who has been selected first team All-Defensive nine times in his career and six years in a row. But it's been years since Bryant was deserving of this honor, if in fact he ever was. Bryant plays terrific defense in the Olympics. He plays terrific defense for several key possessions every season, and he may even play solid defense for an entire game from time to time, depending on the importance of the game and the visibility of the opponent. But the vast, vast, vast majority of the time, Bryant's defense consists of him waiting to play offense. It's not his fault -- it's by design. NBA basketball is a grueling sport, and Mike Brown (or Phil Jackson before him) wants Bryant fresh for the league-leading 23 field goal attempts per game he takes. The Lakers strategy on defense for years has been to place Bryant on the opponent's worst perimeter player and let him roam and rest. Kobe Bryant can't be expending a lot of energy on the defensive end, and most of the time he does not. But every once in a while he digs in, and people tend to notice when he does, and then he gets All-Defensive votes based on a few highlight plays.

The Reputation trap. Once a player gets a reputation as a great defender, given the subjectivity of the process and the fact that coaches all have better things to do than to put a lot of thought into their All-Defensive team ballots, that player will just continue to get votes year in and year out. Sometimes that reputation is well-earned and results in an excellent choice, as with Tony Allen making the first team this season. Eventually, it makes for bad choices, and Bryant is Exhibit A there once again.

The Team Defense trap. Coaches know which teams are tough to score against, and they tend to reward players from those teams, which is a reasonable impulse. So among this years selections we see Boston's Rajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett and Chicago's Luol Deng on the second team, which makes sense as the Celtics and Bulls are among the best defensive teams in the NBA.

Unfortunately, the coaches don't always get it right. Looking down the list, we see that one coach voted for Carlos Boozer of the Bulls for the second team, while Joakim Noah was the third leading vote getter among centers. The problem there is that Boozer is a TERRIBLE defender and was usually taken out of games in the fourth quarter in favor of Taj Gibson, a fabulous defender (there should be some form of punishment forthcoming for the coach who voted for Boozer). Meanwhile, Chicago was actually a significantly better defensive team with Noah on the bench this season by points per possession, because his replacement, Omer Asik, is a defensive dynamo and a better defender than Noah. Neither Gibson nor Asik received a single vote. Likewise with the Celtics, while Avery Bradley did get two votes (one for first team and one for second) his defensive impact for the Celtics was actually much greater than Rondo's (the Celtics actually gave up 2.1 more points per 100 possessions this season when Rondo was on the floor, probably because he was often replaced by Bradley, while the defense improved by 4.4 points per 100 possessions with Bradley in the game).

The Athlete trap. Looking further down the list of "also receiving votes" we come across Russell Westbrook of the Thunder, a monster athlete and daring defender who gets in passing lanes and can create exciting plays off his defense. But how can anyone who has watched the Thunder vote for Westbrook ahead of Thabo Sefolosha for the All-Defensive team? Westbrook somehow accumulated nine points in the voting, while Sefolosha managed just five, yet it is Sefolosha who defends the opposition's best perimeter player game in and game out. The numbers bear out the impression that Sefolosha is the better perimeter defender as well -- when he's on the floor, OKC's defense improves by a whopping 9.7 points per 100 possessions. The defense is unchanged with Westbrook in or out of the game.

***

As stated above, defense is extremely subjective. In particular, distinguishing the better defenders on the perimeter is difficult, as there are few common metrics to help in the process, while a statistic like steals can actually be counter-intuitive. Still, should it be this difficult? Many teams have a designated defensive stopper, a player they are going to stick on the opponent's best scorer: players like Allen of the Grizzlies or Sefolosha of the Thunder. Grant Hill of the Suns and Shawn Marion of the Mavericks will guard players from point guard through power forward depending on the opponent. Surely the coaches notice the players that are giving their stars fits.

But too often when it comes time to fill in the ballot, the coaches (or the unpaid interns, as the case may be) are all too content to fall into traps.

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