In Support of Anthony Davis' Defense

Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

This past Friday, Kevin Pelton picked his Western Conference All-Star reserves. For one of his wild cards, he selected DeMarcus Cousins over Anthony Davis, but that fact doesn't bother me as much as his rationale:

Ultimately, I lean toward Cousins for a couple of reasons. First, he has had more of an impact on his team's play this season (plus-5.9 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com/Stats) than Davis (plus-1.7). Second, while I've been critical of Cousins as the anchor of a poor defense, the Kings (28th) have actually passed the Pelicans (29th) in terms of defensive rating. Davis has yet to translate his elite NCAA defense to the NBA, and advanced stats that credit him for a high block rate overstate his value.

In essence, Cousins gets a nod for the Kings passing the Pelicans in defensive rating (why?); meanwhile, Davis gets slammed, so much so, that his overall defense, since it isn't as effective as his once elite NCAA level, is sub-par? And, for good measure, his block rate is meaningless?

We've read plenty of shoddy analysis from mainstream media before, but this has to rank right up there among a lot of other mindless dribble.

The Numbers Have Davis' Back

The Pelicans have a defensive rating of approximately 110, the worst in the NBA. However, Davis owns a team-best DRtg of 103. Similarly, DeMarcus Cousins also owns a +7 improvement in his individual rating as compared to the King's overall defensive rating.

So both teams are significantly better on the defensive end when Davis and Cousins are on the floor, but we can take this a step further by measuring the apparent impact of each young big man.

Thanks to the SportsVU data, we now have access to data that describes how well players perform around the rim -- an area where teams take the most attempts and have the highest conversion rates. Anthony Davis holds opponents to a 45.8 FG%, a mark that surpasses Tim Duncan, Dwight Howard and Andre Drummond.

On the other hand, DeMarcus Cousins' opponents shoot a healthy 53.6 FG% around the rim. That's worse than a host of well-known inferior interior defenders such as Chris Bosh, Andrea Bargnani and Blake Griffin.

Just to make sure we're not missing anything, lets have a look at what synergy sports has to say on the matter. Currently, Davis allows .78 PPP, good for 22nd in the league. He is strong in every facet -- ranking in the top 30 in isolations, PnR men, spot-ups and post-ups.

Yep, nothing disappointing in the least.

The Matter of Opportunity

Some will argue that while the numbers are nice, there should be more of them:

The statistics also hint that Davis is sticking too close to his man (priorities) and isn’t providing a ton of help to his teammates. Per Seth Partnow’s work at whereoffensehappens.com where he takes a look at SportVu data, Anthony Davis holds opponents at the rim to a respectably low field goal percentage of 45.7% (rank 28 of 118). He however contests only 6.12 shots per 36 minutes (rank 101 of 118) — this is more than two shots less than the average amongst power forwards and centers. He contests just 27.4% of opponent field goal attempts within 5 feet of the rim; the average is 36.3%. In other words, Davis is great at bothering shots but he’s not bothering shots all that often.

Cameron Purn over at Hickory-High.com, did a comparison between Cousins and Davis and the above paragraph was one of the few strikes against Davis. Immediately upon reading this, a recent tweet popped into my head:

And, not surprisingly, David and Will had the same notion come to them promptly after reading the above excerpt:

It's been well documented in articles and among fans that Monty Williams defensive schemes have been subject to countless of breakdowns. To a keen eye, they are complicated strategies that require perfect execution.

For instance, much has been made of the hard-hedging our big men are called to do in the majority of opponent pick-and-roll situations. The reason for it is simple enough: to avoid switching match-ups and thus ending up with less than desirable assignments. If it is properly executed, pressure can be maintained on the ball handler at all times, forcing him to dribble around the hedger, all the while his passing lanes are obscured, and ultimately, the offense has wasted time failing to gain an advantage on the floor.

It can be a good defense and it's an obvious choice for a team full of quick athletes like the Pelicans, but so far, it has failed miserably more times than not. For our purposes though, this discussion is irrelevant today as we want to simply highlight what the defense is doing and, in particular, how it moves big men like Davis well away from the rim.

Go look at Hickory-High's article again. Specifically, several of the pictures. Where is Davis? A long way away from the sacred paint area...

Following the pictures, there are several You-tube clips that show Davis in a variety of situations where he is out of position time and time again. No doubt it's a problem, but again, it's the fault of Monty's schemes. You can see the confusion on Davis' face as he is unsure of his responsibilities.

As we've said in the past, Emeka Okafor has gone on record stating the difficulty of carrying out all the concepts and strategies Monty expects out of his defenses. Anthony Davis is living proof of that right now, but it doesn't mean he is failing per se. Former NBA head coach Stan Van Gundyelaborated on this succinctly:

In a panel on basketball analytics, the former Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy praised the paper but also strongly argued that judging singular defensive players, isolating individuals at the expense of a team’s specific system, was counterproductive. Van Gundy used his former player J. J. Redick as an example. Van Gundy maintained that while Redick was not physically strong or quick, he always did the right thing within the context of the Magic’s team defense. So even though his man might score against him in isolation situations at a high percentage, Redick would not miss a defensive rotation, which would put his teammates out of place in the process.

Conclusion

When I considered Anthony Davis worthy of an All-Star bid a week ago, I had assumed his current production was obvious so I thought better to compare his 2013-14 campaign to some truly elite seasons of years past of other great players. However, I was mistaken to assume others would follow suit. Individually, Davis' defense has been more than solid, but because of how team-orientated the Pelican's defense is, it can be made to look lacking.

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