NBA players are often judged by their stats, mostly their offensive numbers; however, the truly good players execute on both ends of the floor. Others are glory boys more interested in padding their stats or are just not interested in playing defense. Often times these players hurt their teams more than they help.
Until recently there were few stats to measure defense; now there is RPM which stands for Real Plus Minus, a measurement of how a team executes when a player is on the floor. RPM combines both offense (ORPM) and defense (DRPM) as part of the formula.
This list is focusing on starting players (or guys getting lots of minutes); in fact, most of the players are well known and show up on the leader boards for offense. Does their offense make up for their lack of defense? For most we find it does not. Call it want you want, a “No Look Defense”, lack of speed or footwork, or just plain laziness; regardless, these are the players the others hope to see as the last person between them and the basket (translation: two points).
The hardest person to exclude was Kevin Martin, just missing the cut. Martin gets an honorable mention for years of shoot-first, phantom-defense second play. A classic one-way player who hurts his team when his shot isn’t falling, Martin sees eyes light up when players realize he is guarding them.
We have point guards, shooting guards, forwards and even centers on the list. They are all here and none of them are playing defense anytime soon. Here are the 15 worst defenders in the NBA.
15. Andrea Bargnani, Center/Forward (New York Knicks)
When the Knicks traded for Bargnani, the idea was to pair him up with defensive juggernaut Tyson Chandler. I hope that was the plan because now that Chandler is gone, Bargnani offers spurts of offense and zero defense. Bargnani next to Amare Stoudemire is not exactly an intimidating twin towers pairing. The Knicks have a RPM worse than -7 with him on the floor and a positive 1.3 when he’s off. That says it all, not to mention the eye test – he doesn’t rebound, doesn’t block and rarely stays in front of his man. Lucky for the Knicks they didn’t expect him to have to start. Unlucky for the Knicks, they tend to have a lot of injuries and are forced to roll Bargnani onto the court.
14. Steve Nash, Guard (Los Angeles Lakers)
Here’s an example of a player that doesn’t hurt his team when on the court, but could do so much more if he was a good defender. Obviously, the two-time MVP has mad offensive skills, there is no debating this. There is also no debating his defense which has never been great. With Nash it has never been lack of hustle or knowledge of where to be; instead, the lack of size and speed to guard other point guards has been his Achilles heel. Add in the injuries Nash has suffered and you see an ex-MVP get worse and worse each season. To Nash’s credit he has stuck with “run and gun” offenses in Dallas, Phoenix and now Los Angeles (before this season) because if he had ever been asked to lock down his man, who knows if he would have ever won MVP even once.
13. Brandon Jennings, Guard (Detroit Pistons)
During the first month of Jennings‘ rookie year he dropped 55 points in one game. Immediately there were a lot of elevated expectations where maybe there should have been some caution. Jennings’ defense in Milwaukee was mind-boggling because at times he was effective, especially with steals. The problem with Brandon has been consistency on the defensive end and that has carried over to Detroit. The lefty point guard has the skills to play defense, pass and run an offense, but often times appears more focused on taking the shot than what’s best for the team. After Josh Smith was excused the “flashes” of Jennings’ complete game came back and then he got injured. If Jennings wants to shake his “No D” rep he will need to be more consistent and put in as much effort into guarding as he does shooting.
12. James Harden, Guard (Houston Rockets)
Harden is one of the best scorers in the game, good enough to carry a team many nights and put himself in the running as MVP, an award he will never win because he refuses to play defense. You know the clips where a player starts above the arc and blows by a defender on his way to a two-handed dunk? That guy left standing there is James Harden. It’s always James Harden. Give Harden credit though, he’s never been known as a defender and continues to show little interest in this part of the game. He is what he is, an awful defender.
11. Eric Gordon, Forward (New Orleans Pelicans)
The Pelicans are very lucky they have defensive genius Anthony Davis as their center because few others on the team play defense. Gordon leads a team of players looking to get points and float around on defense. That continues to keep this team looking up at the elite teams. Gordon’s defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) has been higher than his offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions) every season of his career. If it wasn’t for his big contract it’s possible he would be looking for work or stuck deep on a team’s bench. Instead the Pelicans are “stuck” with Gordon with hopes those career numbers will flip (Spoiler Alert: They Will Not).
10. Rodney Stuckey, Guard (Detroit Pistons)
Remember when Rodney Stuckey was going to be the future guard for Detroit, replacing the production they got from Chauncey Billups? Yeah, you don’t hear much about that anymore. Stuckey’s DRPM is below a 3. That is terrible, bottom-of-the-league-bad defense. Lucky for Stuckey he can shoot so he should be able find a role player position for at least a couple more years. The bizarre thing about Stuckey is that at one point he was a highly regarded defensive player. What happened? I’m guessing it was getting stuck on too many bad Pistons teams. They have been awful. Maybe Stan Van Gundy will turn Stuckey around because if things don’t change he isn’t going to see meaningful minutes for the rest of his NBA career.
9. Damian Lillard, Guard (Portland Trailblazers)
Lillard is ranked near the bottom of the league on DRPM, I think everyone can agree that “bottom” of anything is not good. The biggest issue he has is transition defense, often lost when other teams push the ball. He also gets posted up on a lot and you can count on teams calling plays to screen Lillard. The good news is that Damian has a great offensive skill set and appears to have the tools to play good defense. Maybe he just needs to find the right coach or taste the playoffs before he’s properly motivated. Lillard is a guy on the cusp of being great, but won’t reach there if he’s always the guy lost on the defensive end.
8. Carmelo Anthony, Forward (New York Knicks)
Full disclosure, I have watched a lot games with Anthony and he can be a very good defender. The issue is that he isn’t consistent and it appears he’s either playing defense or not playing defense. There is no in between with him. Of course, this is a much bigger issue when you are part of the current Knicks team, an entire squad made of players who either don’t play defense, don’t play it consistently or are too young to know better. Anthony could be the leader, but I’m not so sure he wants to be part of a rebuild and that is seen through his lack of effort on the defensive end. When Anthony doesn’t “D” up it really doesn’t matter if he scores 30 points because the player he’s guarding is probably going to get his points as well.
7. Greg Monroe, Forward (Detroit Pistons)
Okay, I’m going to stop the madness and impose a rule that only three Pistons can be part of this list. So along with Jennings and Stuckey I give you Monroe, another player that looks like a ghost when he should be protecting the rim. Monroe is young and has shown signs of greatness on the offensive end, now he needs to use his big body to clog up the lane on defense. Again, Stan Van Gundy has his work cut out for him with Monroe and really needs to start with footwork, or being able to stay in front of his opponent. It’s quite possible the ultimate cancer, Josh Smith, was ruining team chemistry. For Monroe’s sake I hope this is true as he’s a young big guy who could have a promising career ahead of him if he can figure out how to defend.
6. Gordon Hayward, Forward (Utah Jazz)
There was a lot of buzz around Hayward as a prospect to watch and in some ways that’s still true, but it’s fading. With a -1.60 DRPM (placing him near the bottom of the league), Hayward has yet to show he can stop anyone on the defensive side. Again, even if a player averages 18 points a game it doesn’t mean much if he’s giving up just as much. Especially if that player is expected to sign for a large contract, as is the case with Hayward and the Utah Jazz. Fans of Hayward believe patience will be virtue and they will be rewarded (he does appear to be working on his defense), but so far the results have been minimal. The Jazz may want to keep the checkbook closed if Hayward is unable to improve upon his defense.
5. Tyreke Evans, Guard (New Orleans Pelicans)
Evans‘ DRPM hangs around -3.5 which is really bad. Now consider that his four-year contract for $44 million just started. Ouch! Last season per 100 possessions the team was 6 points better when Evans wasn’t on the court. That’s not something his agent is putting on his resume. Evans has never played well on the defensive end and appears to be a lost cause in this area. This was a horrible signing for the Pelicans who are now stuck with a shoot-first guard who has struggled at times on the offensive end as well. You don’t hear this often, but the Sacramento Kings made the right decision with Evans. Unless you are a top 10 offensive player (Evans is not) you need to play defense to help your team win in the NBA.
4. Thaddeus Young, Forward (Minnesota Timberwolves)
On Young’s behalf, I’m calling a mulligan here. Young started his career with the Philadelphia 76ers and now plays for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Facts are facts though, and the 76ers were better on defense when Young was sitting on the bench versus playing meaningful minutes on the court. It hasn’t gotten much better in Minnesota. Young has been presented as one of the core “youth” projects, first in Philly and now Minny, but no one can develop next to D-League teammates and other rookies who have no clue. Unfortunately it may not change and this will turn into a sad story, unless of course Young gets a big check. That always turns a frown upside down!
3. Amare Stoudemire, Forward (New York Knicks)
Before the injuries in Phoenix, Stoudemire was not a very good defender, and with the Knicks (and after several more injuries) you could make the case that a piece of plywood could defend the lane better. For the past couple years watching Stoudemire makes fans cringe and then scream. How can someone with his skill set never be in position? Again, I’m just going to assume past injuries have reduced Stoudemire to nothing on the defensive side. I was at a game at MSG when a fan was heckling Stoudemire, yelling that he could grab more rebounds. This guy was a foot shorter and shaped like an apple. Obviously nothing came of it and I’m pretty sure Stoudemire would have shown him up, but it may have been closer than many would expect.
2. Monta Ellis, Guard (Dallas Mavericks)
Believe it or not Ellis has actually gotten better on defense, yet he still ranks this high. Ellis has always been a bad defender, but now he’s playing for a solid team (Dallas Mavericks) with good chemistry and other guys that can play some defense. When Ellis was with Golden State and Milwaukee he was branded as a chucker, part of this deserved and part due to being paired with fellow chucker (and non-defensive player), Brandon Jennings. Ellis’s offensive game has translated to brief stints of defensive greatness, but they are far and few between. Blink and you will miss one. Blink twice and you’ve missed his entire career of defensive highlights.
1. Kyrie Irving, Guard (Cleveland Cavaliers)
So here’s where some of the advanced metrics can trick you, especially when it comes to defense. If you look only at the numbers it appears Irving has improved his defense immensely the past year; however, if you look closer you realize that’s because of the teammates (specifically LeBron James) who have been on the court at the same time as Irving. For his career Kyrie has been a “minus” player, very good on offense, but giving up more on defense. Irving needs to work harder, a lot harder, if he’s going to assist James with winning a Championship or he will be gone. Mario Chalmers didn’t grab many star-laden headlines, but he played solid team defense, an asset that led to 4 finals appearances and 2 championships. Defense wins titles, almost always. At this point Irving is holding James back. Cleveland (and James) will not be patient.