What wins games? At the core of basketball, that is the Da Vinci Code and Rubik’s cube that everyone is trying to figure out. Formulas more confusing than the Greek alphabet here, logarithms that were concocted in an MIT lab at 2 am there. It’s been said before, offense wins games but it’s defense that wins championships.
Interesting. Makes sense on the surface. Let’s take a quick look at the past four NBA champions and their defensive ratings and see if this theory holds true.
San Antonio Spurs Defensive Efficiency: 101.2 (No. 2).
Miami Heat Defensive Efficiency: 99.8 (No. 4).
Miami Heat Defensive Efficiency: 98.5 (No. 5).
Dallas Mavericks Defensive Efficiency: 103.4 (No. 9).
Relatively. I guess. But how about this stat: the past 6 NBA champions have all made the most three-point field goals in the playoffs.
Very interesting. As much as the so-called basketball Bob Knight purists want to hammer into our skulls that defense wins championships, it's obvious to see that three-point shooting ability plays a vital role in its own respect.
But what if you can have the best of both worlds? Actually have that elusive clichéd analogy piece of cake and eat it too?
Put yourself in your GM shoes, wouldn’t you think that you should search for players that can shoot the three and defend? It’s almost a no-brainer.
Welcome to the most valuable skill set in the NBA that no one talks about…
TOP 5 3-AND-D PLAYERS
5. CJ Watson – One of the most savvy, consistent vets in the game. When you think ‘CJ Watson’ you automatically think consistency and production. Everywhere CJ has been, his teams have won. Coincidence, I highly doubt it. Watson is the epitome of value at the combo guard position, able to run the team as a high level floor general, win/share percentage per 48 minutes consistently over 0.1 (the number of wins contributed by a player per 48 minutes). Offensively, in catch-and-shoot three-point situations Watson makes defenders pay, shooting 41.1 percent from beyond the arc. And when the stakes of the game are increased, so is Watson’s value.
Recently, in an almost must-win game against New York for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference race, Watson took the game into his own hands and stuck a dagger and 1 three to change the momentum of the game and put the Pacers over the top. Defensively, Watson is as solid as they come. In pick-and-roll, spot up, and isolation situations (the three main defensive allocation areas for a guard) Watson ranks in the top 25 percent throughout the league in all categories. Watson has an overall defensive rating of 99.9 and is holding his nightly match-up to a woeful 30.4 percent from beyond the arc. Watson is much more than a highly reliable back up PG in the league. He is NBA starter value with high-level leadership qualities that extend much further than only on-court contribution.
4. Stephen Curry – To have a Top 5 list that involves shooting without Stephen Curry is like having an Oscar ceremony without Meryl Streep being nominated. Steph Curry is the league leader with 204 threes while shooting 41.7 percent. Here is the thing that separates Curry from all the others – everyone in the arena knows that Curry is going to shoot a high volume of threes every night. And the thing is, you can’t stop him!
Curry’s ability shoot the three directly out of his dribble with a release time of 0.4 seconds allows him to get his shot off and connect at a clip of 42.6 percent from behind the arc while shooting off the dribble. When the shot clock winds down and you know Curry is going to pull up from three with multiple hands in his face, he gets even better, shooting 60 percent with less than 4 seconds on the shot clock. Stating the complete obvious, Curry is a next-level shot maker. Defensively, Curry gets a bad rap. If I were to ask you who the current league leader in threes is, I’m sure you would guess Curry. But if I were to ask you who the league leader in steals is, would you guess Curry as well? I doubt it.
Nonetheless, Curry leads the NBA at 2.2 per game and has been extremely efficient on the defensive end with a 96.0 defensive rating and, believe it or not ranks, in the top 8 percent in overall in all combined defensive allocated situations. So you ask why isn’t he No. 1 overall for the most prestigious award in the history of awards – Mr. 3-and-D? Well, to be honest, Curry does too many things at a high level. Sometimes being too good works against you. Sorry, Steph.
3. Danny Green – There are not many players in the league who have gone through the journey Danny Green has – the 46th pick, a seldom used second-round afterthought selection by the Cleveland Cavs, three different middle-of-nowhere D-League cities, a season in Slovenia, Green has been through it all and then some. Perseverance and capitalizing on the opportunity can sum up Green’s career in a nutshell.
And capitalize Green has done. Is there any player in NBA history who you can think of who raises his level to super hero status when the bright lights are on in the NBA Finals more than Green has in the past two Finals? The 2013 championship series were just an appetizer getting his feet wet shooting 25-of-38 (65.7 percent) from beyond the arc breaking his counterpart Ray Allen’s previous record in only five games. Green followed up in the 2014 Finals hitting big shot after big shot to put the nail in the Heat’s coffin.
Green is the new Big Shot Bob but with defense. Danny Green’s length and defensive savvy have helped him become a great compliment to Leonard on the perimeter as a shut-down defender. In iso situations, Green is holding opponents to a 0.652 points per possession and miserable 32.5 percent shooting while recording 1.3 steals per game. Once an NBA afterthought, Green has built himself into one of the top 3-and-D players in the league through relentless determination in adversity, the expertise of the highest-level shooting coach in the game – Chip Engelland – and the art of seizing the moment.
2. Jimmy Butler – Has there been a player in the league that has shot up the ranks to become a bona-fide star as quickly as Butler has? He’s #trending quicker than Twitter itself. And the scary thing is, he’s only begun to find his stride. Although he still scores in a variety of ways and doesn’t quite shoot the 3 well enough yet to propel him to the top of the chart, his potential (especially on the defensive end) has the Windy City diehards no longer putting all of their faith in a withering Rose.
Butler fits the mold of a 3-and-D analytic like a glove – 42.5 percent from the right corner, 38.6 percent from the left. Butler’s 35.1 percent from behind the arc might not burn the nets like a No. 2 ranking should, but the timing of his shots is what separate Butler from the ordinary. Butler has become the designated closer for the Bulls converting at a 40.9 percent score rate when the shot clock is under 4 seconds. And when the game clock is less than two minutes, Butler raises his adjusted three-point field goal percentage to 48.2 percent.
Even though he is averaging a healthy 20 ppg, Butler’s ability to lock down on the perimeter is where his true value is. The Bulls Achilles Heel in past years has been perimeter defending (ask Tom Thibodeau and he will tell you that it still is). No longer does Rose (when healthy of course) have to defend the locomotive that is LeBron James. Butler is now the hired man for the job. Butler is holding opponents under 1 point per possession in every major category defensively –perimeter, post, transition, you name it and Butler is locking down.
As important as stats are to a list of rankings, even more valuable is tangible on-court production, which doesn’t always show up in the box score. If you think I’m crazy for putting Butler at No. 2, just wait until early June when the Cavs are on the couch and the Bulls are still on the court. Chicago, you will have Butler to thank for that.
1. Bruce Bowen… Wait, Shane Battier (OK, it’s not 2005. But we need to have a moment of reflection to the best 3-and-D players of all time). The Real 1 is Klay Thompson – Klay is the man who has made the term 3-and-D hotter than Snapchat this season. Before signing his four-year, $70 million dollar deal, Klay was hyped as the new L.A. golden boy, top two-way shooting guard in the league. Sure, it was probably a little bit of propaganda boost from power agent Bill Duffy, but overall Klay is a lot of substance. As everyone well knows (unless you live under a rock or in a country without internet access), Klay put on the third quarter of a lifetime vs. Sacramento with 37 points and an unconscious 9-of-9 from deep.
However, what really separates Klay as one of the elite three-point shooters in the league is his ability to shoot it at a very high level in many different situations. In catch-and-shoot situations of 0 dribbles, Klay is shooting 45 percent. Pull-up off-the-bounce threes, 40.5 percent. One of very few to shoot over 40 percent in catch-and-shoot and off the dribble. Off screen situations, 39.6 percent and in transition he is shooting a staggering 50.6 percent.
If you wonder why the Warriors give him the ultimate green light from distance, well here you go – when Klay Thompson attempts a three his points per possession is 1.33. This ranks him in the top 5 percent of the entire league in points per possession rating. With possibly the quickest trigger in the game (teammate Steph Curry is the only one that might challenge for that title) Klay is able to do something that is unquestionably one of the hardest things to do in all of sports – knock down an NBA three with 0-2 foot range of time and space. On average, shooters percentages drop 25 percent when their shot is contested (less than 4 feet of time and space). WIth Klay, it goes up. He is shooting a scorching 44.4 percent with a contested hand directly in his face. Case in point, let the Splash Bro continue to let it fly!
Defensively is where Klay has truly taken the next step in his game to become an All-Star and possible All-NBA selection. His combination of length, lateral quickness and IQ have come to fruition this season to give the Warriors a much-needed lock-down defender on the wing. In isolation situations, Klay is holding defenders to a 0.835 points per possession rate. And as efficient as he is shooting the three, he is nearly at that level defending it.
Rarely are players elite defensively at what they are elite at offensively (example: James Harden in iso situations). Klay is holding opponents to shooting 34.6 percent from beyond the arc. Still the only one who consistently insists he is better 3-and-D than Klay… His father Mychal. (That torch may never get passed in his opinion).
Wesley Matthews – Undoubtedly Wes would have been in the top 5 list, however the unfortunate Achilles injury cut his season short.
Three-point percentage – 38.8 percent, 2.9 makes per game.
Defensive Rating – (points per possession that the team allows while the player is on the floor) 99.4.
DeMarre Carroll – If there was ever a player that deserved the ‘work-your-butt-off-self-made-player award’ it would be Carroll. From undrafted to extremely valuable piece in the Hawks magic season, Carroll is a worthy recipient of the 3-and-D Honorable Mention list.
Three-point percentage – 39.6 percent, 1.7 makes per game. He's shooting above 45 percent from the corners.
Opponent points per possession – 0.792.
Robert Covington – One of the few consistent bright spots in Philly, the 24 year-old undrafted Tennessee State alum is showing why he belongs in the league and can bring it on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball.
Three-point percentage – 37.6 percent, 2.3 makes per game.
Iso defensive situations – Holding opponents to a field goal percentage of 30 percent.
Kawhi Leonard – The reining Finals MVP is one of the most improved shooters in the game. (Thank you again to Chip Engelland. Seeing a trend here?). Defensively, he is the epitome of lock-down creating havoc for top scoring opponents. (Once again, just ask LBJ).
Three-point improvement – Went from a 25 percent three-point shooter in college to a now reliable career 37 percent in the NBA.
% score in ball screen situation – 28.2 percent. In the most difficult situation to defend in the league (pick-and-roll), Leonard is literally the best at shutting it down.