One cold hard truth the Nuggets were going to have to reckon with sooner or later was the fact that last season their perimeter defense was among the worst – if not the worst – in the league. Although their 103.4 team defensive efficiency rating was a lower-middling 19th in the league, a deeper dig into the numbers confirms what any Nuggets fan who has been paying attention already knows: All season long, opponents drained 3-pointers at will.
The opponent shot location statistics at HoopData.com reveal that Denver put together a respectable interior defense. The Nuggets were 8th best in the league in defending at-rim shots, as their opponents made 61.6 percent of their attempts. Holding steady in 8th place at short range, Denver held its opponents to a percentage of 36.2. Mid-range defense found them faring even better, 5th best with opponents shooting 35.6 percent. But 15 feet out from the basket is where the good news abruptly ends.
In both long range 2-point and in 3-point shooting, the Nuggets were dead last in the league, allowing a long-two field goal percentage of 41.4 and an effective field goal percentage of 57.5 from beyond the arc. None of this should come as a surprise to anyone who watched even a handful of Nuggets games, but there’s some value to verifying what we think we saw with numbers that back up our observations of games.
Likewise, there’s also value to disproving, or at least calling into question things we think we knew to be realities, but may in fact have missed the mark. In shifting from team to individual statistics, things get a lot dicier. Defense is, after all, a team effort, and one individual’s numbers can be made to look a lot worse if his teammates, say, fail to rotate, switch or recover properly within the defensive system. So to that extent what follows shouldn’t be considered indisputable, but it does raise some interesting questions and, perhaps, indicate some hope on the horizon of Denver’s perimeter defense in the form of Iguodala.
Ever since joining the Nuggets, Afflalo has been considered by many to be one of their better defensive players. His well-deserved reputation as one of the team’s hardest workers and most committed players contributed to this image, as did some genuinely impressive individual defensive performances against some of the league’s elite guards. I count myself among those who has deemed Triple-A a good-great and at times lock down defender. So I was surprised when reading Ryan Feldman’s trade analysis at Truehoop (follow him on twitter at @TheHoopsReport), where he wrote:
Last season, 113 players defended at least 50 plays and Afflalo was the worst among them in terms of points per play allowed. Harrington ranked 54th. Iguodala ranked 10th, holding opponents to 37 percent shooting.
“The worst? Come on, that can’t be right,” was my gut level response. But although stats can be deceptive, and require well-reasoned interpretation to be utilized correctly, facts are facts. And I decided to hunt down a few more.
According to 82games.com, Afflalo spent roughly 73 percent of his minutes at shooting guard, and Iguodala spent around 95 percent of his at small forward in the 2011-12 season. Limiting the scope to those respective positions, here are the own, opponent and net differential PER numbers for each player:
For our current purposes we can mostly skip over the offensive numbers (though it’s certainly a worthy point of discussion that although Afflalo scored more points more efficiently he came out with the lower PER), and zoom straight in on the striking discrepancy between their opponent PERs. With a PER of 15 being average, Afflalo opponent PER of 13.7 means (inasmuch as we can directly attribute credit or blame to an individual defender) that he held his assignments to just below league average performances. Which is respectable, but considering that Ty Lawson’s opponent PER was 15.5 and Al Harrington’s was… wait for it… 13.7, matching Afflalo, even as he is widely considered to be the far inferior defender. Iguodala’s 9.2, on the other hand, is flat out elite. The opponent PER, by comparison, of top All-NBA Defensive First Team vote-getter LeBron James was 10.6.
In fairness it should be noted that Andre Iguodala had a stellar defensive season which was an outlier from his career arc. According to Basketball-Reference.com, his defensive rating for the season was 98 with a postseason rating of 99, in contrast with his career ratings of 105 and 104, respectively. Still, the latter are more impressive than Afflalo’s less than illustrious career 110 regular season and 113 playoff defensive ratings.
If the hope is that replacing Afflalo with Iguodala will improve Denver’s perimeter defense, than the last set of data to present here is perhaps the most encouraging of all. In defending all shots overall, Iguodala allowed 0.8 points per possession while Afflalo allowed 0.98. More interestingly, the three specific shot types which they both defended most often are ones that often result in perimeter shooting. And these numbers from MySynergySports.com reveal a sharp contrast:
You can see that in the two situations both players defend the most, spot-up shooters and pick-and-roll ball handlers, there is the most marked difference in their defensive effectiveness, with Iguodala allowing an average of 0.27 fewer points per possession.
This little excursion into these comparisons is not comprehensive, and even if it were it would still face the aforementioned limits of individual defensive statistics. But it certainly appears to be the case that practically no matter how you slice it, Andre Iguodala is a far superior perimeter defender than Arron Afflalo. At this point many of you may be saying, “Well, duh!”, but this does go against what would seem to be the conventional wisdom in the world of Nuggets fandom. For my part, I would not have expected the wide discrepancies seen above.
So for all the frustration we went through last season watching Denver give up so many easy 3-pointers, there is legitimate reason to have hope for a greatly improved Nuggets perimeter defense next season.