Ranking the Celtics' top 5 defenders: All-time, and on the current squad

NBA.com has been recounting the Celtics’ all-time superlatives - scorers, passers, rebounders, and so on - as part of their offseason coverage, and recently published Marc D'Amico's take on Boston’s best defenders over the years. It should come as no surprise that Bill Russell took the top spot and Kevin Garnett second, though you could be forgiven if Larry Bird’s third place finish was a surprise. While Larry Legend was primarily known as much for his shooting as his trash talk, he was also an amazing defender - a characteristic that has not stuck in people’s minds perhaps as much as he deserves.

Kevin McHale and Robert Parish round out the rest of the top five, which is probably not much of a surprise to those of us old enough to remember their heyday. While McHale was also a potent offensive force in the paint, both he and Parish were renowned for their fearsome defensive capabilities, particularly shot blocking. In fact, Parish is still the Celtics’ all-time leader in total blocks, and is second in blocks per game for the team.
No member of this all-time list is in the league (not even Kevin Garnett), and while it’s safe to say there isn’t anyone quite of this caliber on the roster at the moment, it would be remiss to suggest the current squad is anything less than a defensive powerhouse. Who, then, are the Celtics current top five defensive players?

We can only guess at how D'Amico used the statistics he listed, and one could make plenty of criticisms about the validity of the stats selected, too, though any collection of metrics would be open to such a critique. For example, while blocks and steals are important metrics of defensive abilities, other important measurements - such as rebounding and deflections - could be included for a more comprehensive picture. Also, not all of the metrics are ranked, so creating a scale to compare the listed statistics required a little creativity. Incorporating the same metrics D'Amico did (total blocks and steals, blocks and steals per game, defensive win shares, defensive rating and defensive box plus/minus), I designed my own approach.

Using the numbers from last season for non- rookie players currently on the roster, I averaged overall performance across these metrics by assigning a first place finish a score of five, a second place finish a four, and so on down to fifth place (worth a one), with scores outside the top five rated a zero. Then, I averaged the total for each player, with the results determining overall defensive value for the team.

For example, one player rated first in total blocks (five points), first in blocks per game, (five points), fifth in total steals (one point), fifth in steals per game (one point), first in defensive win shares (five points), second in defensive rating (four points), and third in defensive box plus/minus (three points) for a total of 24 points, divided by the seven metrics for an average of 3.42. We don’t know how (or if) D'Amico weighted statistical data, and there were several ties, so in these cases, I ranked players with identical scores by minutes played.

So, what do the data say when we average out the metrics? The results may surprise you - two of Boston’s most highly regarded defenders actually scored fairly low, one of whom would not even make the top five at all if we used tiebreakers. Given we don’t know exactly how the all-time top five were chosen, I’ll allow ties for the current roster - and this is how it worked out:

5. Marcus Smart: This result is pretty unexpected, given Smart is widely regarded as one of, if not the, most versatile and aggressive defenders on the team. Able to guard players much larger than himself, from point guards all the way up to an occasional center, Smart seemed a lock to be near the top of the list, not nearly off it. The gap between how we talk about Smart and how he ranks with these metrics is probably as much related to the omission of hustle stats as it is his reputation as a fearless defender, which alters offense in ways hard to measure once he gets in his opponents’ heads.

4. (Tie) Avery Bradley and Isaiah Thomas: Writing this analysis up, I  would've assumed Bradley tying for fourth-best defender on the current team would have to be a mistake. And who would think the team’s shortest player, often noted for his inability to defend larger opponents effectively - basically, everyone - would be on this list at all? What it likely comes down to with these two is context. Bradley, like Smart, does a lot of things that don’t show up in standard (if any) metrics, and while he’s a league-leading individual defender great for slowing down a Steph Curry or James Harden, he’s actually a below-average team defender. As for Thomas, it’s probably his quick hands and aggressive play that put him into the running.

3. Jordan Mickey: Another unexpected result, some of which can be attributed to Mickey’s limited playing time and appearances, as well as the fact that he’s usually much better than the third-string players he’s often on the court with. Even still, this is a promising result, and a big part of the reason why you’re not hearing a word about him having to fight for a role on this year’s team. We should expect to see more of Mickey this season - particularly if any trades open up rotation minutes in the front court.

2. Amir Johnson: This is actually the first result that didn’t surprise me. Second only to Al Horford as a rim protector, I expected Johnson would make an appearance in the top three slots. While “quick hands” may not be a phrase anyone is going to use to describe Amir any time soon, his knack for getting a hand on shots near the paint should pan out well for Boston this year, whether paired with Horford, or keeping rim protection on the court at all times as the sixth man off the bench.

...and finally…

1. (Tie) Al Horford and Jae Crowder: It should come as no surprise to see Horford as the Celtics' best defender, particularly after Boston’s inability to score against the Atlanta Hawks in last year’s playoff matchups. It is, however, a bit of a surprise to see Crowder ranked on par with him. Certainly no slouch on the defensive end of the floor, Jae is only a surprise because much of his prowess is generated by intensity and hustle that doesn’t show up in most standard metrics. Still, Crowder has remarkably sticky fingers, as his leadership in total and per-game steals attests.

Boston has long been known for its fearsome defensive players, and it doesn’t look as if the next run at a banner is shaping up to be anything different. We have yet to see how a new generation of Celtics - particularly Jaylen Brown - will contribute to stifling opponents this coming season, and the development of the current squad’s players to boot. With the combined additions, the future looks bright - as long as you aren’t trying to score on the Celtics, anyway.

Crowder photo via csnne.com
Horford photo via Charles Krupa/Associated Press
McHale and Parish photo via USA Today
Smart photo via David Butler II/USA Today Sports
Data courtesy of www.basketballreference.com
Follow Justin at @justinquinnn