The league’s best defensive team is usually rewarded with apt representation in the league’s annual awards and honors.
In the past fifteen years, the top defensive team in the league hasn’t had a player rewarded with a selection to an NBA All-Defensive Team on just two occasions. The 2006 Grizzlies didn’t have a single player in the top-10 for blocks nor steals, and the 2015 Jazz didn’t make the playoffs. While Shane Battier or Rudy Gobert may have been snubbed in these seasons, these are some plausible excuses for their exclusions.
This year, the Indiana Pacers allowed a league-best 104.7 points per game this year. They won 48 games and made the playoffs as the 5th seed in the Eastern Conference despite being dragged down by an offense that lacked Victor Oladipo for the majority of the season. They even had Myles Turner at center leading the league in blocks. Surely the Pacers would be given some recognition for their stout defense. Right?
The All-Defensive Teams were announced earlier this week and the Indiana Pacers were notably omitted.
Myles Turner didn’t exactly love the news.
But It’s All Good Real 1’s Know What’s Up
— Myles Turner (@Original_Turner) May 22, 2019
Is Turner right to be upset? Should he have represented the Indiana Pacers on an NBA All-Defensive Team? Let’s take a look.
Turner’s claim to fame is obviously his rim-protection.
Turner led the league with 199 total blocks, but his shot-blocking efficiency was unheard of in a league with less blocking all-around due to the increased volume of perimeter shooting.
Since the turn of the century, there have only been six single-season shot-blocking performances with a block percentage of at least 8.0%. If we limit the data to single-season performances with at least 2000 minutes played, only two seasons are ahead of Myles Turner’s 2019 campaign: Hassan Whiteside in 2016 and Theo Ratliff in 2004. In addition, Turner’s performance actually beats out Ratliff’s once you account for the fact that the league average amount of blocks per 100 possessions was 5.6 in 2004 versus just 4.9 in 2019.
Of course, there’s more to defense than just getting blocks. After all, because Turner is averaging around 2.7 blocks per game, you could say that he’s stopping around 3 possessions per game with his shot-blocking. That’s great, but what about the rest of those possessions? We need to examine how Turner is performing at the defensive end from a broader perspective.
One easy way to do this is to take a look at our Expected Effective Field Goal Percentage metric. We can use the available data to see how efficiently NBA players shot the ball while guarded by Myles Turner this season.
The expectation curve represents the eFG% a league average player would allow. How is the expected eFG% allowed (DXeFG%) calculated? It’s based on shot selection. Guards have a lower DXeFG% because they guard other guards who tend to shoot more jump-shots, while big men have a higher DxeFG% because they guard other big men who tend to shoot more shots inside the paint.
For instance, the graph above shows that CJ McCollum was a slightly below average defender while Collin Sexton was an extremely below average defender. On the other hand, Myles Turner is significantly below the expectation curve, which demonstrates that he was a very above average defender (more than Joel Embiid and Rudy Gobert, the two centers who made the All-Defensive Teams over Turner). Among players who guarded against at least 1000 shots, only Jusuf Nurkic beat out Turner in terms of defensive shooting efficiency.
If we analyze data for specific play types, Turner’s immense defensive value becomes even more clear.
On plays where he defended the roll man on pick and rolls (which is obviously a big part of a big man’s role), Turners allowed just 0.87 points per possession. That’s less than Nurkic, Embiid, and Gobert. Turner even faced more of these plays than Embiid and Nurkic, yet he still maintained his efficiency with the increased volume.
Another important type of play for big men to defend is the traditional post-up. Great shot-blocking doesn’t always translate to great post-up defense. For example, Zach Collins of the Portland Trail Blazers has always had great shot-blocking instincts, but his build makes him a threat to be bullied down low by bigger players. Fortunately, this isn’t a problem for Myles Turner.
Turner faced post-ups at a relatively high frequency of 12.8%, yet he still only allowed 0.84 points per possession. On the other hand, Gobert allowed 0.89 PPP on a frequency of just 8.0%, and Embiid allowed 0.91 PPP on a frequency of 4.3%. Turner’s defensive post-up frequency was higher than both Gobert’s and Embiid’s combined, but he still performed better on these plays.
Myles Turner is only 23-years-old, yet he was arguably the best defensive big man in the league this season. If he continues to improve his game on offense, the Indiana Pacers will be a legitimate threat in the Eastern Conference as Victor Oladipo begins to enter his prime and Domantas Sabonis unlocks his own potential. The national recognition will come soon enough.