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Who are KG and Pierce (Part 2)? Info you won't find on ESPN on defensive mastery

(Part 1 of this post is found here . Here we continue to talk about what Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce bring to the Nets. This part focuses on KG's defense, which is better right now than even what you have been told that it was).

Part 2: Defensive Anchor

There are a lot of ways that someone can be an excellent defensive player. Some are really good one-on-one defenders. Some are really good at defending the pick-and-roll. Some are really good team defenders. Some are really good communicators.

And then there's KG, who is all of the above.

People remember that KG won the Defensive Player of the Year in 2008. But did you know that he's finished in the top-3 of the DPoY vote 5 times in his career, including a 2nd place finish as recently as 2011 at age 35? In fact, Garnett is the only player in NBA history with both 9 First-Team All Defense selections and also five top-3 DPoY finishes.So his pedigree as a dominant defensive player over his career is very well established. But what about him now...what can he do in his mid/late 30s?

Well, here are a few links to some of his crazy defensive feats since he turned 35 years old. I'll give you cliff note highlights for each link, but I really suggest you check out the entire articles if you have the time.

1. 1-on-1 defense mastery, from spring of 2012: "Below are 10 such match-ups that I looked into which include the top-3 (and five of the top 8) scoring centers (one of them twice) in the NBA and two of the top-3 (and four of the top-7) scoring power forwards. I chose situations in which I remember Garnett as the primary defender for those players (i.e. I didn't include Blake Griffin, because I know for a good chunk of the game KG was on DeAndre Jordan). And in each case I went back through the play-by-play log to see how the player scored when he was on the court with KG, and compared that to how he was scoring in the 5 games preceding the Celtics match-up. Here is what I found:


On court with KG 5 previous (per 36)
Min Pts TS% Pts TS%
Nowitzki 1/11 30.2 14 55.4 20.1 53.9
Howard 1/23 12.4 3 19.6 21.3 55.6
Howard 1/26 21.4 5 37 21.3 55.6
Hibbert 1/27 16.3 6 30 18.4 57
Bynum 3/11 32.9 18 57.1 20 70.3
Smith 3/19 26.7 6 27.3 22 54.3
Gooden 3/22 19.4 6 33.8 21.2 63
Jefferson 3/28 21.9 8 40.9 22.3 59
Love 3/30 26.6 8 38.8 29.3 62.8
Bosh 4/1 25.7 4 20 19.6 58.3
Total (per 36) 12.0 37.9% 21.8 59.3%


On the whole, with Garnett as their primary defender their scoring volume is cut in HALF with a more than 20% drop in scoring efficiency compared to what they were doing coming into the game. That's unheard of! The only ones with anywhere near normal production were Andrew Bynum and Nowiztki, and even they were down a bit in either shooting efficiency or volume. But the rest?

Over 2 games, KG held Dwight Howard to eight total points on less than 28% true shooting percentage in almost 34 minutes as his primary defender!

Love had been averaging more than 33 points on 63% TS in the five games leading up to running into the buzz saw and getting shut down!

Poor Big Al, Bosh, and Josh Smith scored 18 points TOTAL on 29% true shooting in more than 74 minutes. That's a combined 8.7 points/36!"

2. Postseason defensive dominance: Playoffs, 2012: "I've been hearing for awhile about how Garnett is leading the NBA in postseason +/-. Doc has mentioned it a couple of times, it's been noted a couple of times in passing on Sportscenter. But it wasn't until after Game 3 on Friday that I really looked into it. Here is the post that I saw that caught my eye, from a poster named bs_and_cs on another message board:

The Heat shot 38% with KG on the floor, 85% with KG on the bench....yes you read that right, 85%.

Later that night I saw that corroborated on TV, when NBA TV reported the same numbers (except the Heat actually shot ONLY 84% when KG was on the bench).

Then, last night, it happened again. I was watching NBA TV in the aftermath of the overtime win, and they reported that the Heat had shot about 35% in Game 4 when KG was in the game, but 75% with him on the bench.

So then, I started doing the math...through the two wins, the Celtics were holding the Heat in the mid-upper 30% range with Garnett in the game...but were allowing the Heat to score at roughly an 80% clip with Garnett on the bench. To put it mildly, that seemed like a big difference.

So, I went on over to basketballvalue.com and checked out the results through 17 playoffs games...

  • The Celtics' defense is allowing 89.72 points/100 possessions when Garnett is on the court (the #1 mark in the NBA)
  • The Celtics' defense is allowing 122.44 points/100 possessions when Garnett is off the court (the absolute worst mark in the NBA)

In short, the Celtics' defense is 32.7 points better with Garnett on the floor this postseason than with him off through 17 games and almost 650 minutes on-court. Not only that, but if you follow that link you'll see that it's Garnett and only Garnett that keys the defense. Sometimes with net on/off team ratings you run into a case where there's just a dominant unit and everyone on that unit has great and similar ratings. Not here. After Garnett, the next best Celtics are:

Avery Bradley (defense 11.1 points better in about 250 minutes before injury)
Marquis Daniels (4.4 points better in 80 minutes)
Mickeal Pietrus (2.37 points better in 323 minutes)

And NO OTHER ROTATION PLAYER IS ABOVE ZERO.

Now, let me put this in context because I know there are some that don't love the +/- approach. The playoffs, by definition, are going to be a smaller sample size than the regular season and sample size is very important with +/- analysis. There aren't any other strong help defensive bigs on the Celtics, which could perhaps make Garnett's influence on the defense larger. And Garnett, as great as he's been on defense, couldn't do it alone if the perimeter players weren't playing their part as well.

But that said.

By the time you reach the conference finals, you're starting to pile up a large enough sample size that it's worth at least paying attention to. The issue that you run into with small sample size is that the noise and variance can be too big. But when one player's marks are so, SO much of an outlier like Garnett's are, the noise doesn't make as much of a difference. Garnett's mark through 17 games is so off the chart that...ok, let's try to get a feel for just how ridiculous Garnett's defensive marks are.

  • Basketball-reference has +/- data back to 2007, and before that I used to peruse 82games.com regularly for seasons back to 2002. In that decade of seasons, I've never heard of ANYONE having an on/off defensive +/- through at least the Conference Finals as large as Garnett's (the only one even close that I can think of is Ben Wallace in '04, whose on/off was up around 28 I believe).
  • I've never heard of ANYONE being the difference between a team having the #1 rated defense and the dead-last rated defense in the playoffs.
  • And I've never heard of ANYONE having an on/off defensive +/- so completely, absurdly larger than his other teammates.

Garnett is having a strong playoffs on offense, as a leader, and as a competitor. But what he's doing on defense would put him in the midst of one of the greatest postseason defensive runs that the NBA has ever seen. "

3. Still the biggest defensive impact in the league, Spring 2013: "I already mentioned that the two main adjusted +/- (APM) sites stopped posting this year. Recognizing the void, the good folks over on the APBRmetrics board (for those unfamiliar, it's where NBA stat-heads go to hang out) decided to calculate and post the RAPM values for every player in the NBA up through the All Star break. The person that calculated these values said that this was still a work in progress so we shouldn't take it as gospel just yet. That said, this is the first adjusted +/- data that we've seen since Engelmann took down his 2013 data earlier this year. So without further ado, here are the top-10 big minutes defenders in the NBA in the 2012-13 season through the All Star Break according to defensive RAPM in this calculation:

#10 Omer Asik (+3.7)
#9 Gerald Wallace (+3.9)
#8 Larry Sanders (+4.4)
#7 Josh Smith (+4.5)
#6 Tony Allen (+4.6)
#5 Amir Johnson (+4.8)
#4 Nene Hilario (+5)
#3 Andre Iguodala (+5.8)
#2 Tim Duncan (+6.1)

And, you guessed it...

#1 Kevin Garnett (+8.1)

As a quick note of context, this data is for up through the All Star Break, which means that Bradley had only been fully healthy for about a month. Thus, the early part of the season when KG was pretty much a 1-man show on defense is heavily weighted in here.

The actual ranking of all 400+ players in the NBA for this study is found here. And as the person that calculated the stat pointed out, the absolute values of the stat could change as he modifies the calculation. So I would hold off on arguing that Garnett tops LeBron James for most impact in the NBA, as that ranking suggests. In fact, the author says it better, "(W)hen you see KG and Amir (Johnson) ridiculously high on D you should assume the number is too high, but that they're pretty excellent." So take the overall rankings with a grain of salt. However, even if the absolute number changes for defense, the relative ranking should stay about the same. In other words, KG's defense might not measure out as more impactful than LeBron's offense once the smoke clears...but he still grades out as the most impactful defender in the NBA...by a lot...yet again."

So, there you have it. With Pierce and Garnett the Nets have just added all of the things that you previously thought that they had and perhaps more, which includes a whole lot of (very quantifiable) clutch play in addition to a crap-ton of ridiculous defense wrapped in a 37-year old body. We're not talking guys that used to be great and are now merely hanging on...we're talking two of the best in the NBA at what they do, right now. And hopefully those numbers help you to wrap your mind more precisely about what I mean when I say that.

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