Olympic Break All-Defensive Teams Yield Surprises: A Vet and A Rookie Sleeper

. Tuesday, August 5, 2008
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I didn’t know a whole lot about Morenike Atunrase before I found her name leading all guards in blocks per 40 minutes the other day.

Apparently, Atunrase is not just one of those bench players who puts up inflated per minute stats in limited garbage minutes either – she’s an important part of the San Antonio Silver Stars. From the Express-News:

She’s only averaging 2.5 points and 11 minutes a game, but she’s flashed that potential in several key moments.

The 5-foot-10 Atunrase has had the task of guarding Phoenix’s Diana Taurasi and Cappie Pondexter, Detroit’s Deanna Nolan and Atlanta’s Betty Lennox, some of the WNBA’s top scorers.

“They’re good, but I really don’t look at their name on their jersey,” Atunrase said. “I just go out and defend, and that’s something I’ve always taken pride in.

“You just really have to be smart and know how to play them.”
Similarly, Sheryl Swoopes has demonstrated defensive smarts with the Seattle Storm, although she’s at the opposite end of her career. There may be some doubts about Swoopes’ defense given her age and health, but if you’ve watched her this season, she still plays good position defense and plays well within a team defense concept. From the Seattle Storm website earlier this year:
"It's going to be nice to be on her team," Agler said. "I've been on the opposite side, watching her play and disrupt offenses for her whole career. She has great instincts defensively, both on the ball and away from the ball, which not many people have. To incorporate her abilities into what we want to do is going to be exciting for me as a coach."
The core defensive qualities that Swoopes and Atunrase possess – anticipation, effort, footwork, and instincts – are tough to capture statistically. That’s not to mention the role that pure strength and position have in interior defense. Add to that the fact that the television cameras rarely focus on off the ball defensive effort and it’s especially difficult for fans to evaluate players defensively.

However, when I went through the process of trying to identify the league’s best defensive players these two came up near the top of the list. Surprised? I was too…but I think either could make a sound argument for making the WNBA All-Defensive team this year using a few statistics that go beyond blocks, rebounds, and steals per game.

So here’s an attempt to put those numbers together and present the leading candidates for the WNBA All-Defensive teams and the Defensive Player of the Year.

(To see the final rankings, skip down to the section titled "The All-Defensive Teams and Nominees for Defensive Player of the Year" at the bottom)

In search of the best defenders

Similar to the rankings I’ve done previously on point guards and rookies, the goal here is to construct informed arguments for the strongest defensive players at each position rather than just choosing the best overall. However it is a bit more difficult considering the dearth of defensive stats…even just choosing the candidates.

To identify potential candidates, I borrowed selection criteria that David Nelson and Damien Walker used to select the NBA Defensive Player of the Year. In particular, I looked at previous defensive award winners and the defensive reputation of players based on Rebkell posts and media reports.

Next I went to the statistics. I identified players who ranked in the top 5 at their position in blocks, rebounds, or steals per 40 minutes, as listed on WNBA.com. Then I looked at defensive plus/minus leaders as posted by p_d_swanson at Rebkell. To choose players, I looked for those that were dominant (leaders in a statistical category) or versatile (players ranked in the top 5 in more than one category) and picked them as finalists.

Finally, I divided those players into four position types: point guard, wing (shooting guard + small forward), power forwards, and centers. I then added additional players who only appeared in one category to fill out the list and bring it to about 40. To narrow them down I looked to additional statistics.

Percentage Statistics

It seems that percentage statistics say a lot more about defense than a player’s average numbers. Block percentage, rebound percentage, and steal percentage tell us how often a player makes a defensive play when they are on the court. I like to think of these statistics as a measure of how disruptive a player is on the defensive end.

So after using averages to select the initial list, I used percentages to narrow it down. To keep the list balanced, I wanted to have at least five point guards, 10 wings, five power forwards, and five centers to make an initial list of 25. Players that clearly had no chance of being in the top 3 at their position were dropped. Then I used another five spots to include players based on reputation or previous awards to bring the total to 30: 10 wings, 8 centers, 7 power forwards, and 5 point guards.

So after all that, I was finally ready to figure out who the best defenders are.

Four statistical categories: Some established, some invented

The statistical categories I used are designed to capture as many elements of individual defense as possible.

Defensive plus/minus tells us how well the team’s opponent did when a given player was on the court and off the court. It’s a way to approximate a player’s defensive impact. A positive number would indicate that her team did better with her on the court.

Personal foul efficiency is an expanded version of the stl/pf and blk/pf stats available at WNBA.com looking at (steals+blocks)/personal fouls. Since we’re looking at players who are adept at getting steals and blocks, it’s nice to know if they can do so without fouling.

Defensive versatility: This is a “made up” statistic, but is derived from John Hollinger’s versatility statistic that looks at the cube root of points x rebounds x assists. Instead, I look here at the cube root of block% x rebound% x steal %. The results end up being almost identical to what they would be if you just ranked players in all three categories. It’s just helpful to have one number to look at.

Defensive contribution: This is completely made up but designed to give additional credit to players who contribute to the success of good defensive teams, even if their stats are a little lower. The goal is to get a (very) rough estimate of the player’s contribution to their team’s defensive success per minute.

First, I took the percentage of team minutes that each player played. Second, I (and Excel) looked at their team’s defensive rating and figured out how many points above average it was – a below average team got negative points to help create a hierarchy of contributions. So then I (er, Excel) multiplied the percentage of team minutes by the points above/below average to get a player’s contribution to their team’s defensive rating. It’s not perfect – certain players are playing big minutes because of their offensive prowess. However, combined with defensive plus/minus, you get a sense of how much they played and how effective they were doing it.

The Rankings

Each measure has it limitations, but overall, I think the results bring us closer to identifying the league’s best defensive players than the standard practice of using subjective combinations of rebounds, steals, and assists. So here are the top players in each category, as well as the leaders in the percentage stats (which compose the defensive versatility statistic).

 Sanford, Nakia10.1
 Jackson, Lauren6.4
 Atunrase, Morenike6.0
 Swoopes, Sheryl5.8
 McCarville, Janel5.8
 Snow, Michelle5.6
 Ford, Cheryl5.6
 Augustus, Seimone5.2

 Douglas, Katie118.72
 Sutton-Brown, Tammy96.31
 Bevilaqua, Tully83.20
 Catchings, Tamika58.10
 Young, Sophia55.84
 Jackson, Lauren53.29
 Wauters, Ann50.77
 Parker, Candace48.28

 Lyttle, Sancho9.14
 Leslie, Lisa8.11
 Anosike, Nicky7.52
 Pringle, LaToya 6.97
 Parker, Candace6.63
 McCarville, Janel6.25
 Jackson, Lauren6.25
 Wauters, Ann5.77

 Atunrase, Morenike1.36
 Leslie, Lisa1.28
 Douglas, Katie1.25
 Parker, Candace1.18
 Swoopes, Sheryl1.12
 Wauters, Ann1
 Augustus, Seimone1
 McCarville, Janel.98

Lyttle, Sancho39.13
Ford, Cheryl34.71
Wauters, Ann34.71
Leslie, Lisa31.56
Parker, Candace31.49
Snow, Michelle31.19
Brunson, Rebekkah29.67
Sutton-Brown, Tammy28.29

Pringle, LaToya9.99
Leslie, Lisa7.08
Lyttle, Sancho5.23
Sutton-Brown, Tammy5.19
Parker, Candace4.82
Jackson, Lauren4.04
Atunrase, Morenike3.49
Anosike, Nicky3.36

Hornbuckle, Alexis5.31
Anosike, Nicky4.65
Penicheiro, Ticha4.31
Catchings, Tamika4.13
Lyttle, Sancho3.72
Bevilaqua, Tully3.38
McCarville, Janel3.30
Swoopes, Sheryl3.10

The All-Defensive Teams and Nominees for Defensive Player of the Year

Point guards

Honorable mention: Vickie Johnson (49)

Second team: Ticha Penicheiro (49)

First team: Tully Bevilaqua (60)

Point guards didn’t fare well in these rankings as rebounds and blocks are statistics for bigger players, so it’s interesting that all three of these players are veterans with a positive defensive plus/minus. I separated them from the wings because generally point guards are guarding players who are good ball handlers and mostly initiate the offense meaning the opportunity for gaudy box score statistics decreases. Some of the most effective point guard defense comes from just pressuring the ball and forcing opponents to use up shot clock (the classic example to me is when Scottie Pippen guarded point guard Mark Jackson in the 1998 playoffs and completely shut him down). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dhSBTI-txak&fmt=18

Vickie Johnson is another player having a surprisingly good year defensively. She’s second among point guards in defensive rebounding and she doesn’t foul very often. But what consistently impresses me about Johnson is her toughness and aggression on both ends of the floor. She’s quick and knows how to play the game.

Penicheiro makes the cut on the strength of a strong steal percentage and she also does so while keeping the fouls to a minimum. But like Johnson and Bevilaqua, the key for Penicheiro’s defense is her basketball intelligence and playing smart defense rather than physically dominating her opponent.

Wing players

Honorable mention: Seimone Augustus (55) and Morenike Atunrase (93)

Second team: Alexis Hornbuckle (62) and Tamika Catchings (63)

First team: Katie Douglas (67) and Sheryl Swoopes (91)

Whoa – that’s right…that 93 next to Atunrase’s name is not a typo. But the reason I put her as honorable mention is that she only plays 10 minutes per game, usually to lock down the other team’s best player. If you’ve watched her play, you might know why she made the list – she plays with tons of energy and is an impressive stopper for a rookie.

Her energy on the defensive end is perhaps what helped her earn a defensive plus/minus of +6.0, which ranked 3rd among defensive candidates. I didn’t expect this, but she is almost definitely a defensive diamond in the rough and if she keeps it up, she might be a perennial first team candidate.

The other two surprising players for me were Sheryl Swoopes and Seimone Augustus. Augustus is known for her offensive skill, but she’s also becoming an excellent defender as she has prepared for the Olympics.

"Everyone knows what I can do on the offensive end, so defense is key to my role on this team," said Augustus, fourth in the WNBA with nearly 20 points per game. "We have enough people who can score, I just know when my number is called that I need to be able to stop someone."

She doesn’t put up big box score numbers defensively, but like Swoopes she does play excellent position defense. She gets in a good defensive stance, moves her feet well and does a good job of preventing her opponent from beating her to the basket. That is probably why her defensive plus/minus is currently at a +5.2. She’s a perfect example of how box score statistics only tell half the truth and she’s not the only one.

Against the Lynx on July 27th, Sheryl Swoopes matched up with Augustus and was primarily responsible for keeping Augustus scoreless in the first half (Swoopes then left the game due to injury). It was a great example of how defense is as much about basketball intelligence as physical ability. Swoopes missed the All-Defensive team last year, but perhaps there Seattle’s system – as well as the presence of Yolanda Griffith (5th ranked center) and Lauren Jackson – allow a smart defender like Swoopes to stand out even more.

Watching Augustus and Swoopes go at it defensively was one of the best silent battles you’ll see. If Augustus got the ball, Swoopes just didn’t let her go anywhere. Every time Augustus shot the ball, there was a hand in her face. And vice versa when Swoopes was on offense. In fact, neither even got a clean shot off unless someone else was guarding them.

Power Forwards

Honorable mention: Sancho Lyttle (80)

Second team: Candace Parker (80)

First team: Lauren Jackson (97)

Again, two surprises here. Lyttle is rarely discussed as a great defensive player, but the stats tell a different story. She was the most versatile player among defensive candidates, but does so in limited minutes meaning she doesn’t show up on the per game leader boards very often. What I particularly like about Lyttle is her energy on defense – she’s active and had the highest defensive rebounding percentage among forwards and the second highest block percentage.

Parker offense and dunking gets all the attention, but her defense might be underrated. She could become the best help defender in the league within a couple of years, if not already. That’s high praise for a player that could simply rest on her offensive laurels. She’s not quite as versatile as Lyttle, but with Leslie and DeLisha Milton-Jones also grabbing rebounds, there’s not as much opportunity for her – yet she still ranks 1st in defensive rebounds per game and 2nd in blocks…behind Leslie. Parker doesn’t get many steals and has a negative defensive plus/minus, but she clearly has promise as a defender.


Honorable mention: Ann Wauters (77)

Second team: Janel McCarville (83)

First team: Lisa Leslie (98)

Other than Leslie, the centers surprised me – I definitely would have expected Sutton-Brown (4th among centers) or Nicky Anosike (6th among centers) to be in this group. But when you look at the numbers, Wauters and McCarville are having very good seasons on above average defensive teams. It would also seem that both are also able to take up space in the paint, which helps defensively.

Wauters is fourth in the league in blocks per game and 10th in defensive rebounds per game, which makes her a versatile defensive player. Most importantly, she’s able to block those shots while keeping the fouls relatively low with a personal foul efficiency of 1.00.

McCarville is less dominant defensively, but more versatile her defensive rebound, block, and steal percentages were all in the top 10 among defensive candidates. She’s 10th in the WNBA in steals and like Wauters, she keeps the fouls low with an efficiency rating of .98. But what sets McCarville apart from the other top centers is her defensive plus/minus rating of +5.8 – that’s among the best in the WNBA and 4th among the defensive candidates. It would seem that McCarville has the intangibles and basketball intelligence that make her a solid defender.

Defensive Player of the Year

So we now have five nominees for defensive player of the year, by position: Bevilaqua, Douglas, Jackson, Leslie, and Swoopes. As it turns out, Leslie, Jackson, and Swoopes are the three highest rated players (not including Atunrase, who is third ahead of Swoopes). Leslie and Jackson are separated by one point right now for the top spot and it’s hard to say who might be on top by the end of the season.

On the one hand, Jackson was out five games and the defensive contribution statistic was not done on a per game basis, but total minutes (it’s hard to say you’ve contributed if you missed games). That is of course unfair to Jackson as she missed games to represent her country. So with one point separating them, one could say Jackson deserves the top spot because she would be #1 had she not missed games.

However, I don't think awards should be given based upon hypotheticals. At this moment, Leslie is not only #1 right now, but she is also the backbone of the Sparks’ defense. I described this in a summary of the Sparks' home game against the Liberty how there was an 18 point swing when Leslie fouled out of the game. Leslie is also more versatile defensively, but fouls less.

So until the season ends, we’re left with a bunch of questions that will be fun to answer over the next few games or so: is Jackson or Leslie the DPOY? Should Morenike Atunrase get consideration for the All-Defensive team? How good can players like Lyttle and Atunrase become defensively? Are players like Deanna Nolan and Chelsea Newton having poor defensive years or just bad statistical years?

Transition points (added):

I would also have to nominate Sancho Lyttle for the Most Improved Player award (which I am not going to examine). A lot of times these most improved awards go to players who got an increase in minutes but had already displayed considerable skill (McCarville, for example, won the award after being traded and seeing an increase in minutes). Lyttle is one of those rare cases where it’s clear that her game actually improved rather than just getting more minutes. I think that makes it a tough award to hand out…and a firm handle on the stats really helps.

I had Deanna Nolan in my sights, but there was no statistical reason to keep her on this list. Her steal percentage is currently close to a career low (1.9%) and it has been dropping for each of the last 3 seasons. Furthermore, last year she had a 6.6 defensive plus/minus rating and this year she has a -4.6. So all in all, it seems Nolan is having an off year defensively.

This approach is unfair to DeLisha Milton-Jones
. She’s not going to put up good defensive numbers playing next to Parker and Leslie. And she’s guarding perimeter players, which to my knowledge is not her strength. But then that’s part of the point of doing rankings this way -- it highlights some of these things.

Diana Taurasi deserves credit for role in the rover defense. When she turns up the pressure on the opposing ball handlers and picks them up above the three point line, it’s one of the best defenses in the league. The whole system completely falls apart when she’s out…but then again, it hasn’t worked so well when she’s in either.

Tammy Sutton-Brown is a very good defensive center and is next in line for an honorable mention behind Wauters. There are two reasons she isn’t ranked higher – first, her personal foul efficiency is lower than Leslie, McCarville and Wauters. Second, Leslie, McCarville, and Wauters are all more versatile defensively than Sutton-Brown – they all rank among the top 25 in steal percentage.


I borrowed some ideas (and some HTML code) from the Nelson and Walker article at 82games.com.

All plus/minus statistics were gathered from the Lynx plus/minus site and a Rebkell post by p_d_swanson.

Defensive ratings were taken from the Storm Tracker site.