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Is Goran Dragic really a better defender than Hassan Whiteside, as numbers suggest?

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Defensive ratings put Dragic ahead of Whiteside for a solid reason in today’s NBA.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Miami Heat Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

How can the NBA’s rebounding leader from last season and top shot-blocker from two seasons ago, Hassan Whiteside of the Miami Heat, have a worse Defensive Rating (DefRtg) than Goran Dragic? The figures don’t make sense until the importance of shot selection is taken into consideration.

The worst DefRtgs both belong to shot blockers and rim protectors, Whiteside and Jordan Mickey, The best perimeter defenders, Justise Winslow and James Johnson, have the top DefRtgs. In today’s NBA giving up a two-point dunk without a foul is a better strategy than allowing three points per made basket: the lesser of two evils.

Off and Def Ratings (last 15 games)

PLAYER W L Off Def Net
PLAYER W L Off Def Net
Justise Winslow 2 1 123.7 84.7 39.0
James Johnson 7 2 105.5 96.3 9.2
Goran Dragic 9 3 106.2 102.1 4.1
Bam Adebayo 11 4 107.2 103.2 4.0
Tyler Johnson 11 3 109.9 105.1 4.8
Dion Waiters 6 2 98.4 105.4 -7.0
Josh Richardson 11 4 110.1 105.5 4.7
Wayne Ellington 11 4 111.2 105.8 5.4
Kelly Olynyk 11 4 106.8 107.5 -0.7
Hassan Whiteside 5 1 108.5 109.1 -0.6
Jordan Mickey 8 3 106.4 109.8 -3.4

The problem with elite rim protectors such as Whiteside and Mickey is they force better shot selection by opponents, i.e. three-point attempts or they foul on drives to the rim for an and-one-score. Dragic chases his opponent off the perimeter and allows a two-point basket, which is better than a three-point score.

The Los Angeles Clippers with the highlight dunks by DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin, off of lobs by Chris Paul, never made it to the NBA Finals, in part due to their inefficiency in depending on time-consumming two-point dunks without fouls. The Golden State Warriors are known for their efficient scoring by making quick two-point or three-point baskets.

The last two dramatic wins by the Heat didn’t come from emphatic dunks like Donovan Mitchell’s, which counted for only two points anyway. In the New York Knicks game the efficient use of foul shooting and great perimeter defense won the contest. Versus the Utah Jazz, Miami’s foul shooting and quick scores at the rim, plus perimeter defense. sealed the deal.

Giving up baskets is never a great idea, but if it happens, minimizing the damage is a good idea. The DefRtgs suggest perimeter defense holds the key, both in guarding 3-point attempts and not fouling on two-point ones. Also the best defenders get back quick enough to stall fast-breaks, because the least efficient shot, during a game, is a two-point one with less than 5 seconds left on the 24-second shot clock.

Defensive Players of The Year always seemed like the goalies in front the of the net, acting as the last line of defense. Basketball analytics has a different take: make the enemy get pennies on the dollar by forcing ill-advised and/or bad shot selections.