How to Guard the NBA’s Best Players

One of the hardest tasks for NBA defenses are to guard All-Star type point guards. Players like Trae Young, Luka Doncic, Chris Paul, and Kyrie Irving give defenses fits every night by being a threat to pull up, drive, or pass for the open shot.

However, like all other players, these versatile playmakers can be stopped or limited with the right defensive strategies. By analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of primary ball handlers and scorers in the NBA, we can find how to optimally guard the best players and take away their main playmaking options.

Methods and Sample

For this article, I only wanted to examine players that are primary ball handlers or scorers. Therefore, they needed to have a high usage and minutes played. Using the past two seasons’ data, I only included players with at least 1500 minutes, 200 dribbles per 100 possessions, and a high usage rate. This limits the sample to just 70 players, many of whom are well-known all-star or close to all-star type players.

Using this sample, I analyzed the traits and tendencies that primary players usually have. These include pull-up shooting, driving, and passing to open players. To evaluate their skills, I used pull-up points per shot, driving points per shot, and assist to touch ratio.

Best Pull-Up Players

It is important for point guards and other main scorers to be reliable pull-up options because it prevents defenses from playing off and blocking the paint. When players don’t have a reliable pull-up shot (like Ben Simmons), defenses will just play off and stand in front of the paint, daring the offensive playmaker to shoot an inefficient shot. Having an effective pull-up shot also prevents defenses from going under screens.

To see the best pull-up players, I looked at the frequency and efficiency of pull-up shots for the players in the sample. Players located towards the right of the graph below take a higher proportion of their shots as pull-ups, while those located towards the top have a higher pull-up efficiency.

From the graph, we can immediately see that the pull-up frequency and efficiency of players are positively correlated, meaning that players who take more pull-up shots also tend to be more efficient. Chris Paul, Mike Conley, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and Luka Doncic headline the most dangerous pull-up players. Chris Paul takes an astounding 75% of his shot attempts as pull-ups, usually from mid-range, making his high efficiency all the more impressive.

Chris Paul is lethal with his pull-up jumpers. Paul uses a screen set by a big (usually Ayton) on over 50% of his possessions. Paul comes off the screen, uses his signature snake dribble, then pulls up for a shot or passes to an open player. His efficiency in pick and roll plays, which ranks above the 80th percentile accoring to, has been a catalyst for the Suns’ offense and almost always provides a good shot, whether its for Paul or another player.

Meanwhile, the worst pull-up players are Ben Simmons (not pictured), Zion Williamson (not pictured), and Elfrid Payton. The lack of a pull-up game has been painfully obvious for the entirety of Ben Simmons’ career. Defenses consistently opt to not guard him on the perimeter because of his inability to shoot the ball in any situation. He is unable to run an effective pick and roll because defenses will always go under the screen since there is no shooting threat. This has forced him into a limited offensive role in the halfcourt, diminishing his threat as a primary ball handler.

Best Driving Players

Even if a player doesn’t have an efficient pull-up jumpshot, driving is an alternate way to score and create offense. Being good at driving opens up many possibilities, including more shots at the rim and opportunities to pass to open players on the perimeter. The best players at driving are shown below.

The most efficient driver in the NBA right now is Giannis Antetokounmpo, who averages 1.23 points per field goal attempt when he drives to the rim. Giannis’s unique combination of size, speed, and strength allows him to blow by defenders or outmuscle them, easing his way to the rim for an easy shot. The next best efficient drivers are Jalen Brunson, LeBron James, Luka Doncic, and Zion Williamson. The players who are least efficient in driving field goal attempts include Devonte Graham, Lonzo Ball, and Fred VanVleet.

Best Passers

Finally, the one of the crucial skills for any point guard or ball handler is the ability to create and find open shots. Passing to the correct player at the correct time leads to more efficient basketball. Instead of just using assists per 100 possessions, I chose to use assists per touch to measure passing ability because it takes the fact that some players have the ball more often than others into account.

The best passing players will come as no surprise to anyone: Chris Paul, James Harden, Trae Young, and Russell Westbrook. Each of these players record an assist in over 10% of their touches. Chris Paul is the best at passing, using his knowledge of where his teammates are in addition to not looking at where he will pass until the very last moment to deceive defenders and create open shots. When players that do not find open teammates as often, like Tobias Harris, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, and Anthony Edwards, have the ball, it may be beneficial for defenses to help more frequently.

How to Guard Each Player

Tier 1 Players: No Weaknesses

There are some players that just can’t be guarded unless they’re having an off night. These types of players are good at all the necessary skills, including pulling up, driving, and passing.

Chris Paul has earned the “Point God” moniker for a reason, assisting on almost 13% of his touches while averaging over 1 point per possession on both drives and pull-ups. When playing Chris Paul, it is probably best to try to take away passing options quickly and hope he doesn’t shoot well from mid-range.

Other players who are strong in driving, pulling up, and passing include obvious stars like Doncic, Harden, James, Durant, Lillard, and Leonard, but there are also some surprising names like Jrue Holiday, DeMar DeRozan, and Khris Middleton. (The Bucks may want to consider increasing Holiday’s 23.3% usage rate) For all of these versatile players, it is probably best to first take away the driving lane by providing extra help at the rim, and then the defense just has to hope that the stars have an bad shooting night or his teammates are unable to make shots from the perimeter. The pick and roll with one of these players as the ball handler is almost unstoppable, since going over the screen will allow a drive, going under the screen will allow a pull-up, and providing extra help will leave other opponents open on the perimeter. When players like Chris Paul, Jrue Holiday, and Luka Doncic are on their game, they will be unstoppable.

Tier 2 Players: 1 Weakness

The next level of stars include those who are efficient in general, but have a weakness that defenses can try to isolate.

Giannis, Ben Simmons, and Brandon Ingram are 3 players that are weak in the pull-up game, but strong elsewhere. The best strategy for these players is to play off of them, taking away the drive first. This is especially true for Ben Simmons and Giannis, but for different reasons since Ben Simmons just can’t shoot at all while Giannis is crazy efficient on drives. For Brandon Ingram, however, I would say that teams should play him normally since he is developing a strong pull-up game and is close to having an above average pull-up efficiency.

Next, there are some players who are subpar at driving, but still pass well and pull-up efficiently. When playing against the above players, it is best to cover them fiercely on the perimeter and beyond, preventing them from getting a pull-up shot attempt off. When a pick is set, defenses should always go over the pick, forcing the offensive player to drive or pass out. It is probably also okay to have less help at the rim and have defenders stay on their man to prevent an easy assist.

Lastly, there are those who can score well, but don’t always see the open man. For scoring centric players, including all-star players like LaVine, Mitchell, and Beal, it is best to provide lots of help on the perimeter and at the rim, taking away the scoring option and forcing a pass. This category includes Steph Curry and Kyrie Irving, both of whom are very close to being tier 1 players (and should be respected as such). Jalen Brunson, is a surprise player here, but he is already a great driver and has a promising future is he gets the chance to lead his own team in the future. When defenses encounter these players in a pick and roll, they should not be afraid to blitz the ball handler, creating a double team and forcing the ball handler to pass away. This strategy limits the opportunity of scoring if it is executed properly, even though it relies on a lot of help defense.

Jalen Brunson

Tier 3 Players: 1 Strength

The players in this tier have above average efficiency in just one of the three categories. This makes them easier to gaurd, since there is only one option that defenses have to limit.

Paul George, Anfernee Simons, Kemba Walker, and Coby White are the group of players that have above average pull-up efficiency, but below average driving and passing skills. Defenses should play them aggressively on the perimeter and fight over screens, limiting the chance of a pull-up shot while relying on help defense towards the rim in case they drive. It is not too much of a risk to help off other players since this group records an assist on only 6-8% of their touches.

Next, there is the group of players who excel at driving. De’Aaron Fox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander are known for the driving ability, using speed and creative dribbling, respectively, to consistently get looks towards the paint. This crop of players averages about 0.9 or fewer points per pull-up shot, so it is a good idea to play off a little bit on the perimeter and have help defense ready to protect the rim, even if it comes at the expense of allowing a pull-up jumper or a pass out to the perimeter. This is another situation where it is a good idea to go under a screen, decreasing the chance of a drive off the screen.

The final group of tier 3 includes players that are inefficient scorers, but create lots of open shots for teammates. There are several all-stars in this category (Murray, Westbrook, Morant, Butler, Ball), so they are still a challenge to guard. Since this group of players tends to be inefficient, it is best to allow them to take a shot on a pull-up or a drive and use less help, instead allocating defenders towards covering players without the ball to limit the effectiveness of a pass.

Tier 4: No Strengths

Finally, there is the worst group of players: those who are inefficient in all three skills.

Julius Randle, Jayson Tatum, and Anthony Edwards headline the tier of players who are inefficient pull-up players, inefficient drivers, and subpar passers. All of these players get a lot of non-transition points only because they have a high usage. These players should probably play off the ball more often and allow a different player to initiate the offense. Part of the reason some of these players have such low efficiencies is because of their reliance on isolation possessions, which tend to be inefficient. Tatum, Edwards, and Randle each use at least 17% of their possessions on isolations.

Even though this group of players is all-around inefficient, defenses cannot ignore them. No one is going to pay less attention to Jayson Tatum or Anthony Edwards despite their inefficiency. They still have the ability to take over a game and score 25+ points on a consistent basis. Nonetheless, a defense will have an easier time with these types of players as opposed to those who are efficient and good passers. There is not a lot of risk in helping off perimeter players in order to crowd the rim or contest a jumper. Defenses should try to take away the offensive player’s best option and try to force him to take more inefficient shots.

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