Is Chris Paul Bad at Defense?

There have been whispers throughout the year that Paul isn’t as good a defender as his 3 steals a night would have you believe. Last night, Sacramento’s Beno Udrih pulled two wicked crossovers on CP3 that left him totally out of position. CP sagged off of Derek Fisher on Friday, setting up D-Fish’s dagger triple from the corner. Deron Williams didn’t shoot well in his last matchup with Paul, but historically, that matchup hasn’t been flattering for Chris. So it’s time for a new investigation, this time to answer the question: is Chris Paul bad at defense?

Let’s talk about a little bit about defense in general. Any individual player’s D is comprised of two components- individual defense, and team (or help) defense. A player can be a superlative one on one defender, but might lack the court awareness to switch off his man and challenge another teammate’s assignment when needed. Similarly, a player might struggle to stay in front of his own assignment, but might do a terrific job clogging the paint and contesting others’ shots. It is clear that we need to measure both aspects of Chris Paul’s defense to come to a conclusion.

Chris Paul leads the NBA with 2.73 thefts a game. How bad can his defense really be?

To resolve the problem of “team” defense we can take a look at the “adjusted defensive +/-” statistic. Defensive +/- is basically looking at how many points a team allows with Player X on the court versus how many points that team allows without Player X on the court. It’s an extraordinarily simple method of getting an overall view of the “little things” that go into playing defense, but that box-scores don’t capture.

But this “pure” +/- stat has many obvious flaws. A bad defender may get overrated because he plays at the same time as very good defenders. A starter who is a very bad defender may have an even worse backup, thus making his +/- look good. Suffice it to say that the point of “adjusted +/- ” is to run regressions, accounting for these variations (which are way too complicated to get in to). Once you’ve performed the necessary adjustments, you can look at a lineup of player X and 4 other “average” players versus that same lineup with another average player replacing player X.

Sparing you the ugly math, here’s a table showing the top point guards in adjusted defensive +/ (how many points given up when they’re on the court minus how many points given up when they’re not on the court). A negative number is a good thing (less points are given up when they play) and a positive number is a bad thing (vice versa).

Player

On-Court DRtg

Off-Court DRtg

NET

Beno Udrih

108.56

110.58

-2.02

Rafer Alston

100.23

102.10

-1.87

Jason Kidd

106.40

108.25

-1.85

Jameer Nelson

105.29

105.91

-0.62

Rajon Rondo

98.47

98.56

-0.09

Steve Blake

107.63

107.56

0.07

Steve Nash

107.66

106.75

0.91

Tony Parker

101.83

100.86

0.97

T.J. Ford

107.60

106.41

1.19

Baron Davis

109.12

107.76

1.36

Derek Fisher

105.74

104.23

1.51

Devin Harris

107.83

105.99

1.84

Chauncey Billups

103.32

101.31

2.01

Mike Bibby

111.59

107.24

4.35

Deron Williams

106.85

101.01

5.84

Chris Paul

106.37

99.94

6.43

Andre Miller

107.47

98.47

9.00

Yeah, it looks pretty bad for Chris Paul. Out of all the guys I included in this, Paul is the second worst “team” defender. This is highly contradictory to what I expected- I thought that since Paul gets in the passing lanes so much, he would impact help defense way more than anything else. It’s interesting to see Deron Williams and Chris Paul so low on this list. If both guys are the “future” of the point guard position, some real work needs to be done defensively.

But as I alluded to earlier, overall team defense doesn’t tell the whole story. The Hornets do switch on screens many times during the course of a game. What if Chris Paul just isn’t suited to guarding bigger positions like forwards and 2 guards, but actually capable of guarding the 1? What if it’s Byron Scott’s fault for putting him in those switch situations too often? We’ve established that overall team defense suffers mightily with Paul on the floor, but how is he as an individual defender? That segues into the second part of this investigation.

We can establish this with fairly reasonable accuracy by looking at how opposing point guards fared. The adjusted +/- statistics, if you remember, use no box score stats (everything is derived purely from points scored). In the individual case, it doesn’t make sense not to use box score stats. In this following table, I’m including three things: first, the opposing point guard’s PER in games against the specific player (PER is the quintessential box-score stat sum). Keep in mind that league average PER is 15, so allowing below 15 is good, and giving up above 15 is bad.

Second is our good ol’ eFG% (for those that don’t read the blog often, that’s just a better version of field goal percentage, taking into account threes). The third thing I’m including, called iFG%, is the percentage of field goals a defender allows to be attempted 5 feet or closer to the hoop. I feel this is a good measure of how well a defender keeps his man in front of him, a huge part of individual defense.

Player

eFG%

iFG%

PER

Chauncey Billups

46%

27%

13.9

Deron Williams

47%

27%

14.5

Tony Parker

48%

22%

14.7

Beno Udrih

48%

24%

15.3

Andre Miller

50%

24%

15.5

Rafer Alston

47%

23%

15.8

Jason Kidd

49%

20%

16.8

Derek Fisher

49%

23%

17.1

Steve Blake

49%

27%

17.3

T.J. Ford

46%

24%

17.6

Steve Nash

51%

23%

17.7

Rajon Rondo

48%

23%

17.9

Chris Paul

52%

26%

18.3

Jameer Nelson

49%

21%

18.4

Devin Harris

49%

27%

18.4

Baron Davis

50%

25%

18.9

Mike Bibby

49%

34%

19.4

This chart provides no reassurance. In fact, it just ends up proving what the first chart hinted at. No player on this list allows a higher eFG% to opposing point guards than Paul. Allowing penetration (high iFG%) doesn’t seem to correlate too well to opposing PER, something which surprises me. But looking at the PER list, only Bibby (injured, switched teams), Harris (switched teams), Nelson (injured), and Davis (no surprise here) D up worse than Paul. Deron Williams, meanwhile, may not be a good team defender, but is second only to Chauncey Billups in individual terms. CP3 totally destroys his nearest competition offensively, but he has larger than expected defensive issues.

This chart also shows that Rajon Rondo’s defensive prowess may be somewhat overstated. He gives up 48% eFG which is decent according to the chart, but still gives up a high PER. But back to Paul- CP gives up a higher eFG% than Steve Nash (!!) and Baron Davis. This is probably a reflection of how much he sags off point guards to get into the passing lanes. On the instances he’s too far (see the Fisher shot Friday), the point guard gets a clean look at a jumper. Do that too often, and eFG% is bound to go up. So, ironically, his high steals total may be an indication of too much gambling on defense.

Remember that story of how Byron Scott tells every player the one new skill they should develop over the offseason? Well, he shouldn’t have much trouble thinking of one for Chris Paul. I went into this post/research hoping to prove all the haters wrong. Instead, I’m sorry to say that what they claim is true. Chris Paul has been pretty darn awful at defense.

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25 Responses

  1. As a Lakers fan, I must commend you for writing this article. Takes a lot of guts to talk about the deficiencies of your own MVP candidate in the middle of an MVP race. I still think Kobe is better, but it will be interesting to see a similar breakdown like this for both him and Kevin Garnett. Thanks again.

  2. Haha, well I went in trying to prove the exact opposite actually. Halfway through, I realized it wasn’t going to be possible, but I guess it’s important to acknowledge the negatives of any player along with all their positives. Otherwise you just come off as a homer.

    Anyway, what I neglected to mention more emphatically here is that Paul’s offensive contributions go above and beyond cancelling out his defensive deficiencies. I still back him as my candidate for MVP. From what I’ve seen of Kobe and Garnett’s defensive numbers, they’re both among the best in the league for their positions. If CP can take his game to that level, things would be off the chain.

  3. He blasphemizes with his math!

  4. Bummer. Well, the good news is that at 23, CP still has something to improve upon. Meaning he should be even better in years to come. But with Kobe being a perennial all-defense team member, along with his offensive numbers, topped off by the respective shifting fates of these two teams, it is looking harder and harder to deny Kobe the shiny MVP trophy.

  5. Most of the categories you created backing your statement can be easily traced back to the team’s defense!now KG and KB, they are of course amongst the elite in defense in their position,
    but they also have the physical advantage of strength and height something chris paul doesn’t .He is relatively short comparing to the point guards of the league and so he is scored on more in the 5 feet and closer distance from the hoop!His almost 3 steels i think that, compensate for a large part of that!As for your reference to the matches against the kings and generally some late matches in the season i believe hornets are showing some signs of fatigue
    which was expected and frankly i thought it would come way earlier!

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  7. Actually, given the steals numbers he puts up, this doesn’t suprise me all that much. I guarantee you if you asked Chris Paul what he needs to improve on the most, he would say defense. It would be good to see these numbers compared to Isiah Thomas in his 3rd year, since everyone likes to compare them.

    If you think about it though, I’m ok with his defense being a bit weak at this stage of his career. CP is relied upon as a scorer much more than the majority of the other PG on your list. (except perhaps Baron Davis, and his individual D is consequently worse according to your method)

  8. @ mW, Mikey

    This whole thing saddened me a bit. But I have to agree with both of you, if there’s one guy who can put his mind to something and get it done, it’s Chris Paul. I would be very surprised- stunned, even- if CP doesn’t get out of the bottom dwellers in the rankings some time soon.

    @papfankon

    I see what you’re saying about Chris Paul being undersized/not as strong as his competition. We still have to compare him to everybody at his position, not just the ones that are similar physically to him. Plus, some very small/thin guys like Tony Parker and Rafer Alston are playing a lot better defense while giving up a lot of size and strength.

    As far as being traced back to team defense… they really can’t be. The point of adjusted +/- is to account for the effect of teammates, and opponent’s PER is an individiual statistics. Hope this helps!

  9. Great research, but this is one instance where I believe stats can’t paint us an accurate picture. While I do agree that CP’s defense is probably overrated because of his high steals totals, I don’t think he’s bad on D.

    As you mentioned in the post, the Hornets switch on screens an awful lot, meaning Chris is often left defending someone other than the opposing point guard. Therefore, it would seem unfair to use the eFG% of opposing points as a measure of Paul’s defense. Also, there are many times when Chris doesn’t even have the assignment of guarding the opposing point, like when he D’s up on Monta and not Baron in Golden State, or when he decides to shut down someone like Ben Gordon in the fourth quarter.

    Great post, though. I love that we can discuss such things with an open mind. Homer fans are the worst.

  10. You make some excellent points. My logic was that fighting past screens is something a good defender *has* to be able to do. If you watch a Bowen or a Billups, it’s very difficult to screen them off their man. The ability to get past a screen should be an inherent virtue of a good defender- what’s the point of great footwork, and quick hands if the player isn’t even there to execute those?

    I’m not so sure it’s Byron’s decision to switch on the screens, because from a coaching standpoint it makes no sense. You might be able to gamble with a strong PG like Davis or Billups, but Paul has no chance against a SF. So that brings up another interesting question: we know the Hornets switch the screens a lot, but is that a defensive philosophy, or simply a product of defensive ability?

    Also, my feeling was that those Paul on non-PG matchups didn’t occur often enough to significantly affect the eFG% figures. But I totally didn’t remember the Ben Gordon thing till you said it, and so I’m sure I forgot some more. But wouldn’t all the 1-guards on that list (except Williams, Billups, and Nelson maybe) have guarded Ellis (and similar situations)?

    I totally agree with you that the stats can’t be trusted too much in this case. Defensive stats easily have the most work to be done. Unlike a sport like baseball though, there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight. Until somebody somewhere decides to document every touch, every assignment, every switch, and every pass on every play by every team in every game in every season, this problem will exist. That’s a lot of every’s, and I question if it will ever be done.

  11. @Ron and atthehive

    Those situations like the Ben Gordon are few and far between. That was just a rare case where he got matched with an undersized 2 guard who likes to take jumpshots instead of drive against the smaller player. Deron williams, Baron Davis, Chauncey Billups would do the same. The biggest indicator in this, more than PER and efg% atthehive, I think is the iFG% as you wrote. How many times does the player allow penetration? That is the question at stake and from the numbers perspective Chris Paul is 26% only ahead of the 27% ers. The sagging off thing exists but the driving is what he needs to fix first. It looks like everybody gets a first step on him very easy even though he’s so quick on offense.

  12. Is Chris Paul Bad at Defense?

    Hell no.

    In terms of a statistical standpoint and evaluation, taking into account points in the paint and eFG% makes sense, but it doesn’t necessarily undermine the actual defense being played by CP3. For example, in so far as the fact that perceptually no one did ever question Chris Paul’s defensive abilities, it necessarily means he is not a sub-par defender.

    But let’s go to the actual arguments:

    1) The team +/- stat you cited, in my opinion, is a pretty ridiculous stat to use to determine a player’s defensive proficiency. As you yourself stated, the obvious flaw is playing with worser or better defenders, but even adjusted it makes little or no sense. You would have to take in every combination of players on the Hornets and subtract them. But then, you would have to take every combination of the other team and cross-apply that to every combination of the Hornets team. Ummmm…simplifying: okay, so, against Detroit for example, you may have seen that Chris Paul + starters give up 16 points in 6 minutes, and Chris Paul + backups limit them to 8 in the next 6 minutes. But wait, the starters played Chauncy, Rip, Tayshaun, ‘Sheed, and Maxiell, whereas the backups played Lindsay Hunter. It’s obvious which side has more offense coming out. So the “adjusted team defense” stat can be disregarded.

    2) Cross-apply the point that Chris Paul plays defense on the harder squad. Obviously, Steve Nash will always have a high eFG% against anyone, including Chris Paul. Tony Parker would similarly maintain his iFG% here, too. Before you say the Calderon, Udrih, Miller, etc. play these same point guards, Chris plays a little less than 40 minutes a game. That’s plenty opportunities for an opposing player’s stats to go up, especially against All-Star point guards.

    All the Hornets weird defensive match-ups have been mentioned already, so I think Chris Paul is a top-notch defender. The fact is he plays better players on defensive matchups (so don’t bring up Calderon or any other East guards, ‘cuz Chris matches up with Nash/Parker/Kidd four times more than they do), plays a ton more minutes, and the stats themselves are flawed in terms of different D matchups. And to his credit, he does lead the league in steals.

    CP3MVP still.

  13. Look, you’re not understanding what adjusted +/- is. It’s NOT looking at how well a player performed against his opposition. It’s looking at an individual’s contributions while he is on the floor versus while he is off the floor. In other words, we are looking at the net contribution lost or gained when he leaves.

    What does that mean? Whatever squad a player plays against, his NET contributions should change in the exact same way. Just because Paul plays against starters and Pargo plays against backups doesn’t mean that adjusted +/- will rate Pargo better. Regardless of the talent Paul is playing against, he has certain characteristics he brings as a defender. When he leaves, these characteristics leave. This will be true no matter who he plays against.

    Let me give you an example: let’s say against the starters Paul’s team plays defense rated a 6 on a 10 points scale (where 10 is good, 1 is bad). When Paul leaves the court, let’s say his team plays 8 defense. Now when Paul plays against the backups, let’s say his team plays 7 defense with him on the floor (since backups are worse). His team would STILL play only 9 defense with him not on the floor against the backups. The “pure” defense is better, but the NET defense is the same. That’s the whole point of adjusted +/-.

    Sorry, I might have gone into the math a bit more, but everyone would have just stopped reading at that point. Trust me, it’s ugly.

  14. I’ll step in and say something about the adjusted +/- here also. It’s been in use by medical researches and scientists for many years now. You have to think of it as holding all external factors constant, and letting only one sample vary within a closed frame. In this case, the thing varying is the player we try to measure. The “External factors” would be the teammates.

  15. @ Junsier,

    You’re talking pure +/- not adjusted +/- . Pure +/- is one of the stupidest stats out there, adjusted is not.

  16. Fantastic article. One of the things that supports your argument is that the Mavs defense has improved with Jason Kidd, even though we lost Devin Harris (who Hollinger and others state as one of the best defensive point guards in the league).

    Who would have thought that one of the benefits of getting Jason Kidd to help the offense is that the Mavs defense would improve?

  17. I’m always baffled by how much Jazz fans relish any criticism of Chris Paul. But that’s the difference between a true MVP candidate and a poser. The latter cares about the former, while the former just takes care of business. Same goes for their fans.

  18. Wow, so how long does measuring adjusted +/- take? Because you honestly have to combine every permutation of Hornets and opposing teams players. yeah, that’ll still be ugly.

    But regardless, I refuse to admit Chris is a bad defender. In games he never slacks off on D other than the two plays you mentioned. The fact that he plays around 40 minutes a game and has to continuously match up with guards like D-Will, Nash, Ellis, Kidd, Parker, etc.. makes any comparisons to East guards adjusted +/- null.

    Perception > Actual Math ;)

  19. Why do you keep bringing up comparisons to East point guards? That makes no sense- I told you, it’s all adjusted. Without adjustments, +/- makes no sense as CP3 pointed out.

    The point is stats can tell us things that our perception can miss. Human observation can only notice so much, and it tends to be biased towards things. Throwing out the stats in favor of “perception” doesn’t make sense.

  20. But how exactly do you calculate “adjusted”? Wouldn’t that be pretty much impossible, throwing in all those other factors I pointed out? Whatever, you can do the math.

    According to which, Chris allows the average (26%) of iFG%, but gives up 52% eFG%, which is the worst of the guards you listed. Okay, so if the crazy adjusted stuff works, Chris allows for around a 2-3% higher FG% than the other top guards in the league. While it does mean he isn’t the greatest defender, I still don’t agree with your statement “Chris Paul has been pretty darn awful at defense”. Because he only allows for 2.5% more eFG% over top guards in the league, and he does average 2.7 steals a game.

    Perhaps he does gamble occasionally with the steal and that accounts for that slight increase in eFG%, but that alone does not make Chris a “bad” defender at all.

  21. 2.5 difference in eFG% happens also to be the difference between the New Orleans Hornets and the Minnesota Timberwolves. It’s huge.

  22. You didn’t really have to do all these calculations to figure out he is a bad defender. All you had to do is watch last nights game as J.Kidd vs. CP3 = A.I.

  23. atthehive your first ste of stats I think is a bad metric. The reason it is bad is because what you might be measuring is not defense with your metric but “pace of game.”

    so guard A when he is in adds 10 points to his own team and 10 points to his opponent’s game he speeds up the tempo when he is in, you’ll grade him as as terrible as a -10.

    Guard B when he is in subtracts 10 points to his own team and 10 points to his opponent’s he slows it down and will get a +10 by your calculation but both guard A and guard B are exactly equal defensively.

    now the difficulty is separating offense from defense. your second set of stats are better for that.

    but i’m not sure we should separate defense from offense in basketball, because they are so intertwined.

    which is why we will keep on having these debates about how good of a defensive player cp3 is

  24. the hornets slow games to a crawl when paul is off the court, with both teams averaging 10% fewer possessions, of course there are going to be fewer points scored

    the entire hornets team allows an abnormally high iFG%, perhaps paul doubles and his man sometimes gets a lucky 3 (a .333 3pt% will get you a 50% eFG)

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