Dominant defensive players: man-on-man or help defense duties?

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Dominant defensive players: man-on-man or help defense duties? 

Post#1 » by Max123 » Wed Apr 7, 2021 10:14 am

My question is regarding the use of dominant defensive versatile bigs who on one hand are great in 1 on 1 situations but on the other hand you love them as help defenders as well (think maybe early 2000s Garnett or Draymond Green). How should one, as a coach, go about deciding whether or not to assign them on the opponents’ dominant wing player (think early 2000s McGrady or Kawhi Leonard) or to put them on the opposing big so as to have them in a help role?

How do you weigh the tactical advantages of each approach? I am guessing a somewhat important factor is the abundance, or lack thereof, of other perimeter threats; the more there are than perhaps less helpful it is to commit your best help defender to stay with the opponents best offensive player.

All input is appreciated, both qualitative and quantitative, and thank you in advance.

Edit: As I am still rather new to RealGm I would also appreciate feedback on whether it is ok to post this question under the ”Player Comparison” forum or if I should opt for the ”General board” instead. I personally just find the answers more in-depth here so I posted this here despite it being more theoretical than a straight up player comparison.


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Re: Dominant defensive players: man-on-man or help defense duties? 

Post#2 » by Max123 » Wed Apr 7, 2021 5:23 pm

To add to my own question, partly in hopes of this thread actually getting some traction, I think we all witnessed this ”dilemma” in last year’s playoffs with the Lakers-Nuggets matchup. Many people question somewhat Davis’ defensive prowess after him being used a lot of the time in the helpers’ role against the Nuggets rather than Vogel putting him on Jokic. The thing is that while AD might be the Lakers’ best shot defensively against Jokic one-on-one in a vacuum, there is value in having him off-ball while having McGee guard Jokic who is a considerably less valuable help defender than Davis. Any thoughts on this matter?


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Re: Dominant defensive players: man-on-man or help defense duties? 

Post#3 » by Im Your Father » Thu Apr 8, 2021 12:38 am

This is a great Q and I wish I were enough of an Xs and Os guy to give a good answer.

What I’ll add is that from what I recall of watching f the 2000 Blazers vs Lakers WCF, Scottie Pippen didn’t spend a ton of time on Kobe and instead was largely focused on helping on Shaq.

Kobe wasn’t quite the superstar he’s become the next season, but he was still an All Star top 10ish type.

This strategy, along with Sabonis’ size and savvy was *relatively* successful (insofar as anyone was successful against prime Shaq).
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Re: Dominant defensive players: man-on-man or help defense duties? 

Post#4 » by Colbinii » Thu Apr 8, 2021 1:02 am

Help defense started to become signifcantly more valuable in the late 80s and early 90s as spacing was slowly integrated into team strategy and as the "dump it down low" strategy started to become outdated as the premiere offensive strategy.

RE Davis vs Jokin 2020: Davis actually couldn't contain Jokic. He tried but Jokic had his way with him just as all all-time great offensive players have their way with even the best defenders of their generation.
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Re: Dominant defensive players: man-on-man or help defense duties? 

Post#5 » by penbeast0 » Thu Apr 8, 2021 1:28 am

Great question for the PC board btw. I would say for great rim protectors, putting them in a position where they can rim protect is a key. So, even if you are facing Dirk, you might be better off using Oberto or Rose or someone on Dirk even though they are a lesser man defender so you can have Duncan cover the opposing big who plays closer to the rim while helping on his teammates. That would be my baseline assumption as a coach though I'd like to see it play out before I wrote it in concrete.
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Re: Dominant defensive players: man-on-man or help defense duties? 

Post#6 » by kendogg » Thu Apr 8, 2021 5:26 am

Great defenders tend to be both good man defenders and team defenders. Rebounding is certainly another important facet of defense. There are some that are so good at one thing that they shine regardless. AD is a good and versatile man defender, but he's a great team defender, and great rebounder. But in regards to the Jokic matchup, Jokic is a bit beefier and stronger than AD so he can bully him in the post. Defending post players is not a specialty of AD, in fact he prefers PF because he's more of a finesse player than a banger and has openly stated to the press he doesn't like playing center. AD plays a good amount of center grudgingly but a lot of teams play small ball with a forward at center anyways. And AD is certainly not suited to matchup against a guard full-time, as a big guy he's just not quick enough laterally (KG and Dray aren't either). The Lakers have purposely signed centers that can play defense for the matchups like Jokic and Embiid where AD is not as strong. You saw it last year in the playoffs when they faced small ball teams, Howard and McGee barely played.

Overall in today's era, there is a lot more switching and defensive rotations, due to the spacing provided by having 4-5 3PT shooters on the floor. So AD is quite valuable in both his help defense as well as his versatility in man defense. Rim protectors are traditionally noted to be the most impactful defenders, but rim protection encompasses man defense, team defense and rebounding as well. The paint is the easiest place in the league to score even in this 3PT era, so having a rim protector is still the most impactful, especially considering that with the current rules in regards to allowing carrying, gather steps, banning handchecking, etc they've made it easier than ever for perimeter players to score in the paint and even dominant lockdown defenders will struggle against an offensive superstar without any help defense. But defense is hard to quantify, because unlike offense, where the strongest player stands out, on defense, it is often the weakest player that gets targeted and stands out. Defensive highlights are fun but don't really tell us anything about how good a defender is over the course of an entire game, and the best defensive advanced stats we have are still highly team dependent due to the nature of how defenses work (it's never 1 man's job to play defense its 5 man's job and every defender on the court is relevant to the success of a given play not just the closest one).

So given this, you could certainly argue that team defense is more important than man defense than it ever has been, but yet every team employs multiple lockdown defenders to slow down the opposing teams best players. Rarely does the same player guard the opposing star the entire game as it is more effective to swap in fresher legs to keep the pressure on throughout the game. The job of the man defender isn't to defend a star by themselves though but rather to cut off driving lanes and force them into other defenders or to pull up and take a contested shot, and this is true in any era. Other than handchecking, the defensive rules haven't really changed much over the eras. Nearly all of the rule changes have centered around making it easier for the offense to score (except for the paint changes in Wilt's era, though Kareem and others would have forced the same changes). Which is why FG% has risen throughout the eras. That and young players today are recruited so much earlier and trained by professionals so their skills are much more developed by the time they get to the league.

To wrap this up, I think rim protectors are still the most impactful overall defenders on the court, and that help defense is more impactful than man defense but a great defensive player is a combination of many different skills. However, it is often the weakest link on the court that is abused on defense. With the increase in switches also comes the increase in players strategically forcing a switch onto the weak link. I think Gobert is the best defender in the league (he's a better help defender than most fans think) but AD and Giannis and perhaps others are right on his heels.
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Re: Dominant defensive players: man-on-man or help defense duties? 

Post#7 » by Max123 » Thu Apr 8, 2021 10:55 am

kendogg wrote:Great defenders tend to be both good man defenders and team defenders. Rebounding is certainly another important facet of defense. There are some that are so good at one thing that they shine regardless. AD is a good and versatile man defender, but he's a great team defender, and great rebounder. But in regards to the Jokic matchup, Jokic is a bit beefier and stronger than AD so he can bully him in the post. Defending post players is not a specialty of AD, in fact he prefers PF because he's more of a finesse player than a banger and has openly stated to the press he doesn't like playing center. AD plays a good amount of center grudgingly but a lot of teams play small ball with a forward at center anyways. And AD is certainly not suited to matchup against a guard full-time, as a big guy he's just not quick enough laterally (KG and Dray aren't either). The Lakers have purposely signed centers that can play defense for the matchups like Jokic and Embiid where AD is not as strong. You saw it last year in the playoffs when they faced small ball teams, Howard and McGee barely played.

Overall in today's era, there is a lot more switching and defensive rotations, due to the spacing provided by having 4-5 3PT shooters on the floor. So AD is quite valuable in both his help defense as well as his versatility in man defense. Rim protectors are traditionally noted to be the most impactful defenders, but rim protection encompasses man defense, team defense and rebounding as well. The paint is the easiest place in the league to score even in this 3PT era, so having a rim protector is still the most impactful, especially considering that with the current rules in regards to allowing carrying, gather steps, banning handchecking, etc they've made it easier than ever for perimeter players to score in the paint and even dominant lockdown defenders will struggle against an offensive superstar without any help defense. But defense is hard to quantify, because unlike offense, where the strongest player stands out, on defense, it is often the weakest player that gets targeted and stands out. Defensive highlights are fun but don't really tell us anything about how good a defender is over the course of an entire game, and the best defensive advanced stats we have are still highly team dependent due to the nature of how defenses work (it's never 1 man's job to play defense its 5 man's job and every defender on the court is relevant to the success of a given play not just the closest one).

So given this, you could certainly argue that team defense is more important than man defense than it ever has been, but yet every team employs multiple lockdown defenders to slow down the opposing teams best players. Rarely does the same player guard the opposing star the entire game as it is more effective to swap in fresher legs to keep the pressure on throughout the game. The job of the man defender isn't to defend a star by themselves though but rather to cut off driving lanes and force them into other defenders or to pull up and take a contested shot, and this is true in any era. Other than handchecking, the defensive rules haven't really changed much over the eras. Nearly all of the rule changes have centered around making it easier for the offense to score (except for the paint changes in Wilt's era, though Kareem and others would have forced the same changes). Which is why FG% has risen throughout the eras. That and young players today are recruited so much earlier and trained by professionals so their skills are much more developed by the time they get to the league.

To wrap this up, I think rim protectors are still the most impactful overall defenders on the court, and that help defense is more impactful than man defense but a great defensive player is a combination of many different skills. However, it is often the weakest link on the court that is abused on defense. With the increase in switches also comes the increase in players strategically forcing a switch onto the weak link. I think Gobert is the best defender in the league (he's a better help defender than most fans think) but AD and Giannis and perhaps others are right on his heels.

Thanks a lot for this comment, lots of great stuff here. To be clear though, I wasn’t asking whether man-defense or help defense is generally more valuable but rather what should you do when you have a player who is great at both. I think you answered this too but there was a bit overlap so I just wanted to make it clear.


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Re: Dominant defensive players: man-on-man or help defense duties? 

Post#8 » by Doctor MJ » Thu Apr 8, 2021 3:52 pm

Max123 wrote:My question is regarding the use of dominant defensive versatile bigs who on one hand are great in 1 on 1 situations but on the other hand you love them as help defenders as well (think maybe early 2000s Garnett or Draymond Green). How should one, as a coach, go about deciding whether or not to assign them on the opponents’ dominant wing player (think early 2000s McGrady or Kawhi Leonard) or to put them on the opposing big so as to have them in a help role?

How do you weigh the tactical advantages of each approach? I am guessing a somewhat important factor is the abundance, or lack thereof, of other perimeter threats; the more there are than perhaps less helpful it is to commit your best help defender to stay with the opponents best offensive player.

All input is appreciated, both qualitative and quantitative, and thank you in advance.

Edit: As I am still rather new to RealGm I would also appreciate feedback on whether it is ok to post this question under the ”Player Comparison” forum or if I should opt for the ”General board” instead. I personally just find the answers more in-depth here so I posted this here despite it being more theoretical than a straight up player comparison.


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In general, I'd say help defense rules for bigs. A few things to consider:

1. The best thing you can do in man defense is to steal the ball, hence in a lesser basketball league the most valuable defender really will tend to be the guards (as befits the name "guard"). Once competence gets up beyond a certain level, this impact tends to drop off.

2. If the offensive team has a super dominant big man than in theory the most important role is someone who can match up with that big man. The issue with that is that we saw that it's literally impossible to stop someone like Shaq one on one with legit defense. Your options are simply a) flop or b) help defense.

3. Team defense is best played as a team, as such the most valuable type of defender is the interior big man who can do both man & help defense well but also can read the offense and tell his teammates what to do.

This is another way of saying that the answer to "What makes the best defender in the modern league?" simply "Kevin Garnett". There's no one in the league right now playing defense as well as I'd expect prime Garnett to be able to.
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