StrategyJanuary 15, 2009


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Not All Defenses Are Created Equal

By Phil Londen

One of the most agonizing choices a fantasy basketball manager faces is deciding which player to start on any given night. Often, it comes down to choosing between two relatively even players to fill one remaining roster spot. Managers make their decisions about who to start based on a variety of different factors, but one of the most important factors to consider is a player’s opponent.

Certain opponents are known for being kind to fantasy teams; this season, the Knicks, Warriors and Pacers are the obvious standouts. Other teams are known for stifling opposing teams’ fantasy production (and actual production for that matter). The Celtics, Spurs and Pistons are commonly cited in this regard. However, other top defensive teams in the league this season may come as a surprise.

To neutralize the distorting effects of pace on statistics, defensive efficiency is used instead of simply comparing points allowed per game. D-Rating gives us the ability to compare teams based on points allowed per 100 possessions, thus leveling the playing field. Teams from different seasons can be compared by examining the difference above the league average (for example, this season the average D-Rating is 107.0).

RankNameD-RatingDifferential
1Cleveland Cavaliers99.3-7.7
2Boston Celtics100.2-6.8
3Orlando Magic100.9-6.1
4Houston Rockets103.8-3.2
5Los Angeles Lakers104.1-2.9
6San Antonio Spurs104.3-2.7
7Milwaukee Bucks105.0-2.0
8Detroit Pistons105.1-1.9
9Utah Jazz105.2-1.8
10Philadelphia 76ers105.5-1.5

Upon first review, the Cavaliers, Celtics and Magic are defensively on another level this season, even when compared to only the most efficient defenses. In particular, Cleveland’s defense is truly elite and they are on pace to finish the season among the best defenses of all time. Lebron James has really led by example on the defensive end and the rest of the team has fallen in line with incredibly successful results. Defensively, they have leap-frogged the struggling Celtics, a fact that was driven home emphatically during the two teams’ last meeting. Finally, Orlando is quietly dismantling teams as the oft-overlooked defensive juggernaut in the East.

Outside of the Big Three in the East, the Rockets, Lakers and Spurs are also proving to be tough defensive teams this season. The Rockets continue to play hard-nosed defense despite struggling through multiple injuries to their star players. The Lakers have made impressive defensive strides this season, a point which has not been lost on NBA commentators and the crazed Laker nation. The Spurs have noticeably dipped from their once-perennial status as an elite defensive team in the league but can still shut down almost anyone on any given night. These three Western Conference powerhouses constitute the defensive second tier in the NBA.

Finally, a surprise when it comes to the top defenses. In recent years, the Milwaukee Bucks have not been known for excelling at anything (except for playing awful, uninspired basketball). However, this season the Bucks brought in Scott Skiles, a coach who is known for his caustic coaching style and hard-nosed defense, to turn them around. This Bucks squad, which is fairly similar to last season in terms of players, has gone from the league’s worst defense to the seventh best. Even more remarkable, it occurred in a season marked by a number of other great defenses. That fact is a testament to Skiles as a coach (say what you will about his communications skills).

Another surprise this season is the Detroit Pistons in the eighth spot. Similar to the Spurs, the Pistons have spent a lot of time among the league’s elite defenses since the start of the new millennium. The firing of Flip Saunders as coach and the swapping of Allen Iverson for Chauncey Billups signals a changing of the guard in Detroit. The full ramifications of this shift have not fully played themselves out yet; the Pistons at the end of this season or the start of next season could be drastically different from the current model. In terms of defense, the Detroit situation warrants close scrutiny as they could climb back up the defensive ranks or fall off completely depending on roster moves.

If you find yourself on the fence about which player to start, be sure to consider the defense of the opposing team. If you have two marginal fantasy players and only one roster spot available, all things being equal start the player playing the Knicks, not the player playing the Cavaliers.

 
Phil Londen is one of a growing number of fantasy experts who write for the Cafe. You can catch up with Phil in the Cafe's forums where he posts under the name of plonden.
 
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