What statistics say about Portland’s best defender ever
Modern defensive statistics aren’t readily-available for those inaugural Portland Trail Blazers teams in the 1970s, but using what we do have — formulas like Basketball Reference’s win shares and box plus-minus — we can at least attempt to tell a bit of the story.
Basketball Reference provides two core statistics: defensive win shares and defensive box plus-minus. There’s a bit of a stigma behind the win shares statistic, since it derives from defensive rating (DRtg), which heavily takes into account how good a team defends, and not a player.
Beginning with Sidney Moncrief first winning the Defensive Player of the Year award in 1982-83. The 37 Defensive Player of the Year Award recipients averaged out to 5.70 per season. Because the Portland Trail Blazers have never actually had a player win the award, we’ll make our cut-off line in this experiment 4.0 defensive win shares. Perhaps there’s a better way of going about it? Anyways, these were the results.
Blazers with most seasons with at least 4.0 win shares per season:
1st — Clyde Drexler (4 seasons)
2nd — Rasheed Wallace (3 seasons)
T-3rd — Jerome Kersey (2 seasons)
T-3rd — Clifford Robinson (2 seasons)
T-3rd — Arvydas Sabonis (2 seasons)
T-3rd — Bill Walton (2 seasons)
T-3rd — Buck Williams (2 seasons)
8th — Kenny Anderson, Jusuf Nurkic, Scottie Pippen, Mychal Thompson, Kermit Washington and Sidney Wicks
This certainly trims the fat. Whereas a player like Scottie Pippen might be the greatest defender to ever put on a Blazers uniform, the fact that he wasn’t on the same level in Portland keeps him honest here.
So, there’s defensive win shares, and then there’s defensive box plus-minus, a statistic that relies on box score information on a per 100 possession basis, and compares them to the average player. So, for example, if Damian Lillard had a +3.1 DBPM, that would mean he was 3.1 points better than the average defender in the NBA.
As always, it’s worth mentioning: positive numbers aren’t always conducive to who the defenders in the NBA are. I’m an eye-test, heart-over-numbers guy myself; this is just what metrics have to say, as to who the best Blazer defender is.
The Defensive Player of the Year winners averaged out at +2.56 on the scale, over 37 seasons. Again, here’s what this means: the No. 1-ranked defender to win the award was David Robinson, with a 4.6. That means he was 4.6 points better at defending than the average player in 1991-92. For our Blazers, we’ll draw the line at 2.0. And, because it’s a per 100 possessions stat, we’ll set the parameters to at least 1,500 minutes played, to eliminate guys who came in and played Ron Artest-esque defense for a few minutes.
Blazers with most seasons with at least a +2.0 DBPM per season:
1st — Arvydas Sabonis (3 seasons)
2nd — Bill Walton (2 seasons)
T-3rd — Sam Bowie, Marcus Camby, Clyde Drexler, Larry Steele (1 season).
Using the players who were most consistent in each, here are the players that statistics say for sure have a case: Arvydas Sabonis, Bill Walton, Clyde Drexler, Buck Williams, Clifford Robinson, Jerome Kersey and Rasheed Wallace. It’s also worth considering what the accolades say, too, though.