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May 24, 2018

Did Joel Embiid get snubbed for First-Team All Defense?

Here's a look at what the numbers say about the Sixers center...

Do awards in professional sports exist for any reason other than to give us something to yell and debate about? Technically the answer is no — they help define legacies and eras and reward excellence in the game at the highest level — but ultimately they are just made-up distinctions of our own choosing, which oddly enough end up having large financial ramifications for players around the league.

The NBA's All-Defense teams were announced on Wednesday afternoon, and the Sixers were fortunate enough to get two different players honored as part of the process. Oft-maligned forward Robert Covington was named First Team All-Defense for the first time in his career, and Joel Embiid finished on the second team thanks to a number of different factors. I don't think anyone on the Sixers or around the league would say Covington has been a more impactful defender than Embiid, but here we are.

Thanks to positional designations, Embiid got the short end of the stick here. He was almost always going to finish behind Jazz center Rudy Gobert at his position, and will likely come up short in Defensive Player of the Year voting as a result, but the "controversy" begins with the selection of Anthony Davis over him. Thanks to his distinction as a Forward/Center, Davis was able to finish in a comfortable second place in total points.

There's nothing we can really do about positional designations here until the NBA does something to change them, and the result is one of the league's most impactful defenders getting bumped to the second team. The question that remains is this: does Davis making it over him constitute a snub?

The team numbers aren't that close

Moreso than at any other position, big men are responsible for deterring and ending possessions on the defensive end of the floor. This is the burden of being seven feet tall and standing near a goal that hangs 10 feet in the rim: you have more stake in getting stops than most of your teammates do, and it defines who you are as a player to some extent.

So we must acknowledge that Philadelphia's defense as a team was a good bit better than New Orleans' last season. The Sixers finished with the third-best defensive efficiency in the league, with Davis' Pelicans pulling in with a respectable, but still inferior showing at 13th.

Since more goes into defense than just the center position, though, we have to determine how much of that success is due to structure and how much comes down to the individual. That's a lot harder to parse through, but judging by the on/off numbers for Embiid and Davis, it is clear who the more transformative defensive player is for their team.

Player Team DRTG (on court) Team DRTG (off court) 
Joel Embiid  99.9111.1 
 Anthony Davis 103.4110.2 

Not only did Philadelphia's defense perform better as a unit with Embiid on the court than the Pelicans' did with Davis, it was also slightly worse with him on the bench than it was when Davis needed to rest. This sort of detonates any argument that Embiid benefitted more than Davis did from supporting cast members performing at a high level defensively.

There's some context to sort through in order to really hammer home that point, of course. Davis spent a lot of his season playing with what could be described as a suboptimal pairing with DeMarcus Cousins, pigeonholing him into certain matchups rather than freeing him to be the disruptive defender he's capable of being. On paper, the loss of Cousins to a midseason injury could theoretically help the Pelicans perform better on D with Davis on the court.

The numbers don't suggest that was the case, and in fact show the opposite when you parse through them via Cleaning The Glass.

Lineup configuration Team DRTG 
 Davis/Cousins (2292 possessions) 103.9
 Davis/no Cousins (3474 possessions)  105.8 

Those broader numbers carry over to smaller trends on defense for New Orleans. They were worse at defensive rebounding without Cousins (obviously), allowed a higher free-throw rate, and created a lower percentage of turnovers. Their defensive eFG percentage — which factors in the value of three-point shots — did improve fairly significantly, and it's up to each observer to determine why that is the case. Is that because of Davis, or because playing one center instead of two allowed you to put more natural matchups onto perimeter players?

I would lean toward the latter. So in the team department, there's not a whole lot of data to back up the case for Davis over Embiid.

What about individual performance?

Grading defense remains one of the most difficult tasks from a public vantage point for various reason. First and foremost — the data we have to work with is relatively terrible, providing a whole lot of noise and a little bit of usable data. Most data-conscious people would tell you defensive tracking numbers are less and less reliable the further away from the hoop you get.

So in judging big men, our best comparative tool at the moment is anything being measured close to the basket. Once again, Embiid has the edge on Davis, this time by a slighter margin:

 PlayerDFG% (< 6 ft.) FG% DIFF. 
 Joel Embiid50.1 —12.1 
 Anthony Davis51.6—10.5 

In fact, while Gobert was arguably the best and most impactful defender in the league this season, Embiid was also better than he was in this department. Of the players who logged more than 50 games and defended at least five shots at the rim per game — a reasonably high volume on both fronts — Embiid was the outright leader in defensive field goal percentage from less than six feet, and nobody had a larger discrepancy between what their opponents normally shoot and what they shot vs. Embiid.

This holds true if you extend the conversation out to every other trackable number. 

If you move the convo out a bit to shots from less than 10 feet away, Embiid once again has the best mark in the league using the same 50 game barometer. Embiid's matchups shot 10.4 percent worse with him as the primary defender from 10 feet and in, compared to 9.3 percent for Davis and 9.2 for Gobert.

If you look at a much different sort of defense — shots from further away than 15 feet — conventional wisdom would suggest Davis should beat out the young center. After all, he's thinner and lighter on his feet, allowing him to keep up with switches and closeouts a bit better.

And while we have to note this is the noisy data I talked about earlier — I would personally bank on Davis defending out to the three-point line more than I would Embiid, especially after watching Embiid's struggles in the Eastern Conference Semifinals — we do have to note that he is once again more impactful than Davis on this front.

Player DFG% ( > 15 ft.) DIFF. 
 Joel Embiid31.4 —6.3 
 Anthony Davis 32.5—5.0 

The caveat there is that Davis defended a lot more of those shots away from the basket than Embiid did. Davis defended more shots from further than 15 feet out than any center in the league (7.4 per game compared to 4.8 for Embiid) and still hung pretty close to the same impact numbers. That's an endorsement of Davis' defensive ability, even if we have to be skeptical of just how reliable public metrics are for the time being.

I would also be remiss if I didn't include blocked shots and steals in this category, because Davis won the battle in both categories comfortably. Personally, I'm of the belief that blocked shots only tell part of the story, and some players often got caught chasing them at the expense of playing defense that's actually impactful. But Davis was and is the more disruptive player overall, and your valuation of causing chaos for opponents will probably vary.

How much does volume matter?

But here is where the case for Embiid vs. Davis primarily rests: how much value do you place on the games/minutes played for both players? Healthy as he has been in his entire career, Davis played a grand total of 75 games in the regular season, compared to 63 for Philadelphia's center.

Even if we threw out the 12 extra games Davis played this season, there's the matter of the extra time spent on the court on a game-by-game basis. Averaged out over the same 63 games Embiid played, Davis' 36.4 minutes per game spent on the court would leave him with nearly 2300 minutes played, a gap of almost 400 minutes between he and Embiid. That's not insignificant.

In the same way volume scoring is probably undervalued — creating your own shot over and over again is a taxing process — volume defending doesn't typically get the credit it deserves. It's a draining process physically and mentally to stop opponents from scoring, and that only gets more difficult the more minutes you play on a given night. Davis deserves a lot of credit for playing at a high level this season while assuming a higher minutes burden and massive responsibility on offense, too.

The ability to take on different assignments should also not be undersold. Davis was forced to play forward a lot of times, sure, but he was also capable of doing so. Embiid is never going to be asked to defend other positions on a high-volume level, even if he's capable of shutting things down on switches. There's a level of value there we might not be able to quantify, though it should be a large point of emphasis in this discussion.

But for this writer, volume in and of itself is a piece of the puzzle and not a compelling argument on its own. Embiid's team performed better than Davis' did on defense, he outperformed him at the tasks big men are primarily responsible for, and he played a large enough role that I believe you can make an case for him having a better season than Davis on defense.

Is that enough to call this a snub? Probably not. When I put together my All-Defense teams on a (fake) year-end ballot for NBA awards, I listed both Embiid and Davis on the second team due to positional constraints. I would stick by what I wrote there unless the league changes the setup.

However, I think it would be fair to bristle about why these positional constraints exist for something like All-Defense, which in my mind should exist to reward the best of the best defenders. Considering Embiid, Davis, and Gobert are the three finalists for the Defensive Player of the Year award, it feels wrong to have one get shafted at the expense of the others. 

That would be the place I would place your anger if you have any. I'd venture a guess that it won't be the last time the league runs into this problem, and it would be more productive to find a way to properly honor everyone instead of tearing down an elite player's season to prop up another.

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