In sports, box-scores and highlight reels become the most credible archives. Great performances in basketball history are the ones that feature several dozens of points, triple-double stat lines, buzzer-beaters and soaring, electrifying dunks. We remember games by signature performances and magical upsets. And yet, for the discerning sports fan, there is yet another, albeit subtle aspect that is every bit as interesting and memorable as stuffed stat sheets. There is a part of basketball that slips through the cracks of the dominant narrative of the NBA; basketball that is played with grit, hard-work and determination. This basketball is concerned about defense, not steals or blocks but simple, mano-a-mano defense, about charges taken, and rotations, passing and player positioning. This is a basketball with different heroes, leaders whom history might not remember, but whose teammates (often victorious) will never forget.
In a feature for the New York Times, Moneyball author Michael Lewis called Heat forward Shane Battier a ‘No-Stats All-Star’ for possessing an ability to make his team win that transcended box-scores. Here are the five best NBA players who do the dirty work without it showing up in the stats columns. For players who often are limited in athleticism, leaping ability and height seem a lot more mortal than the guys who make the regular All-Star rosters.
5. Joel Anthony is the awkward, bumbling undersized center who makes it to the funniest NBA videos on YouTube. His scoring average for last season was 3.4 points per game. The season before that, he became just the eighth player in NBA history to log more fouls than points with at least 1400 minutes of court time. And yet, the Heat saw fit to offer Anthony a five-year, eighteen million dollar deal in the 2010 off season.
Joel Anthony has a problem. The way his hands are wired, he finds it astonishingly hard to catch a basketball. On court, his demeanor always belies his grit and determination. And yet, on certain plays, all he can do is stare at his hands in bewilderment. It’s not for want of effort; the Heat support staff – assistant coaches, trainers – all attest to Anthony being the hardest worker in the gym. Joel Anthony struggles to catch and hold the basketball. So he decides to do everything else better than everybody else.
Joel Anthony is the best glue guy for the Heat system. He’s the guy who Spoelstra relies on to do the dirty work, take charges, help on defense, hold down opposing big men in the post, and switch to the guard on pick-and-roll defense. Anthony does a thousand little things that make basketball easy for his teammates, which is why, despite being among the NBA worst players on offense, he holds an 113 Offensive Rating to go with his stellar 100 Defensive Rating for the 2012 season. Yes, he’s an offensive liability against very good teams, making it difficult to play him big minutes deep into the playoffs. But he’s also the guy who helps on defense constantly, takes charges (0.25 charges per game) and hustles for the loose ball. Joel Anthony cannot catch a basketball and learnt basketball from a book. And yet, somehow, his teams win (0.122 WS/48) and his teammates play better with him on the court.
4. Taj Gibson can block a basketball by just staring at it; he averaged 1.3 blocks in just 20 minutes of mean looks action per game last season. That by itself does not explain why Gibson is the Bulls’ best player after Rose by advanced metrics (109 Offensive Rating, 96 Defensive Rating) since he averaged just 7.7 points and 5 rebounds per game last season. Gibson was part of a Chicago Bulls bench that did not cede an inch to the opposition when the starters were out. He had an adjusted +/- of 11.1 last season (which means the Bulls outscored the opposition by 11.1 points per game with Gibson on court). LeBron James, the most complete player in the league, had 9.8. Gibson blocks, rebounds, takes charges and plays bulldog-defense – things that only advanced statistics can ferret out, if at all such things can be measured.
3. Nick Collison averaged 4.5 points and 4.3 rebounds a game last season. Yet, OKC Thunder coach Scott Brooks will tell you, straight-faced, that he ranks alongside the likes of LeBron James and Chris Paul. And he won’t be that far from the truth. Collison ranked in the top-10 in adjusted +/- (which many stat geeks consider to be the best indicator of player value) in the league for the past two seasons. Simply put, the Thunder outscored their opponent a lot when he was on the floor.
It isn’t simply what Collison does; it’s also when he does it. In last season’s NBA Finals, the Thunder won exactly one game, for which Collison was on the floor in crunch time. With a little over 8 minutes to go, OKC leading 80-77, Collison strips LeBron of the ball, a play that leads to a Kevin Durant dunk on the break. A few minutes later, OKC leading 84-81, Westbrook misses a jumper. Only Collison is right under the basket, corralling the rebound. The play leads to a Durant three, which effectively puts the game away. Durant scored 36 points in that game. Westbrook nearly had a triple-double. Nick Collison is the guy that makes them look better, and that’s precisely why he’s the only holdover from the team’s Seattle days (apart from Durant).
2. Shane Battier plays smart, intelligent basketball. The Daodejing, a Chinese philosophical text, describes the greatest of rulers as one who is just a shadowy presence, and Battier fits that description perfectly. Even when he isn’t knocking down shots, Battier will do every little thing that other players slack off on. He has proven to be the most effective defender on the most effective scorer of his generation, Kobe Bryant, and that’s about the highest praise one can confer on Shane. Battier passes the ball to the right player, rotates well on defense, takes only high percentage shots, dives for loose balls, is never out of position, is a lock-down defender and has what Michael Lewis called the “magical ability to win”. In short, Shane Battier will win you a basketball game without you having noticed him at all. In the NBA Finals against the OKC Thunder, it wasn’t just Shane’s hot three-point shooting that won the Heat the title, but his key defensive plays in clutch time; go back to the footage – Battier drew charges in clutch time in two games, a category he led the Heat in last season.
1. Tony Allen had a ton of talent and athleticism when the Celtics drafted him into the NBA. After a couple of lackluster seasons, he tore both his ACL and MCL, an injury from which few athletes recover with their original athletic ability. With his ‘talent’ gone, he was pushed further and further down the Celtics bench, labeled a ‘head-case’ for his off-court antics. In 2010, the Memphis Grizzlies were a struggling franchise, looking for veteran leadership. It was the offseason of LeBron James. In comparison, the three year/10 million deal Memphis offered Allen was hardly worthy of making the ESPN ticker. Only Tony Allen, a reduced and debilitated Tony Allen, decided to take over the Grizzlies.
He made it to the 2nd All-NBA Defensive team in 2011. How rare is that for a role player? Allen was one of only two players to make it to an All-NBA team without making the All-Star team (other was Thunder forward Serge Ibaka). The Memphis Grizzlies became the Cinderella team of the season, upsetting #1 seed San Antonio in the first round of the play-offs, fuelled by Allen’s energy, defense and leadership. He doesn’t score a bunch of points. He isn’t the model citizen off-court. And yet, NBA GMs ranked him the best perimeter defender in the NBA last season. He held his opponent to 34% shooting in 2011, according to Synergy Sports. Tony Allen breathed life into a franchise and helped turn its fortunes around; he did it scoring 8.9 points per game.
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Udonis Haslem is the ultimate team player. On each of his last three contracts, he has taken less money in order for his team to succeed. His defense on Dirk Nowitzki in 2006 was almost as vital as Wade’s heroics. Age has caught up with the warrior a bit though, although Celtics guard Avery Bradley continues to prove his worth both in the box scores and outside. Bradley should already be considered in Andre Igoudala and LeBron’s league in defensive ability. San Antonio Spurs guard Danny Green was a big part of the Spurs’ hyper-efficient machine last year, and with Kawhi Leonard, played exceptionally intelligent and tough basketball last season, helping the Spurs retain at least some of their previously supreme defensive quality.