What will happen when defense finally matters to basketball fans as much as offense does?
If we’re ever getting there, real plus-minus (RPM) and its defensive component (DRPM) make for a step in that direction. ESPN’s latest tool seeks to isolate a team’s performance when a player is in the game, placing equal value on offense and defense. This approach can lead to results that challenge what is “known” about a league that most view with an offensive gaze.
Andrew Bogut was once asked about SportVU’s player tracking technology, specifically how the defensive metrics showed Bogut to be a great rim protector. "I don't need to check that to know that," he joked. We might want to celebrate great defensive players with numbers that reflect their skill, but it’s hard to tell a great defensive player anything about his defense. Top defenders boast perceptive court awareness -- the ones I’ve talked to largely assume they have it all figured out anyway. You have a new stat? Cool. I see where everyone’s going on the floor like a casino camera.
Defensive specialists like Bogut have been long resigned to how much of their work gets ignored. It’s not about the credit. It’s about doing the job, helping the team and making a handsome living off the teams that value stopping the opposition. Credit and validation do not come with this gig. To quote “Mad Men,” “That’s what the money is for.”
So you’ll excuse wry, crusty Andre Iguodala if he views his impressive RPM with some suspicion. Asked about his top ranking among wing defenders, Iguodala replied, “They say numbers never lie. I’m the opposite of that; I think numbers always lie.”
Iguodala has, on occasion, mentioned the lack of credit he’s gotten for a career so focused on the defensive end. His contract in Philadelphia was the source of derision, despite his immense impact on defense.
Fans and even the stats themselves tend to obsess over who has the rock. "The stat sheet is geared more toward the ball and where the ball's at,” Iguodala says. “I'm more how the ball's being defended or how the ball's being impacted on the defensive end." Apparently we sports fans aren’t so different from the dogs we own: Show us a bouncing ball and we’ll be transfixed into noticing little else.
Iguodala, like Bogut, has expressed resignation when speaking of what gets ignored. He’s been in this game a long time, and ignoring being ignored has become almost a badge of honor.
He tells people not to call him “Iggy,” even if it’s an easy nickname that plays well in 140 characters. On that particular medium, Iguodala is cryptically vague. He intentionally cuts out the context when tweeting, becoming inscrutable to a vast majority of his followers. Sometimes it’s a Vine or a funny story that inspires Iguodala to broadcast unexplained phrases. “A word pops up in my head, and then I tweet it. No one has a clue what I’m talking about,” he says while laughing. “Some people figure it out though. Some people are pretty good.”
"I'm not really an attention whore. I don't always like doing media," Iguodala says while smirking to attendant media. "When you're younger, you're in the league first five or six years, you want the attention. You want to be known as this or that."
Draymond Green, Golden State’s young defensive ace, was more receptive to the new stat. He is second in defense among wings in RPM, behind Iguodala. Golden State’s video guys showed the stat to Draymond. Then he checked Twitter and saw a lot of fans praising him on his high ranking.
“I’m definitely happy to see it,” Green says. “A lot of times, [defense is] overlooked.”
New defensive stats are coming at just the right time for guys like Green. Building a defensive reputation isn’t easy. It’s nice to have stats on your side at the beginning of a career. It’s ammo in the arsenal of the agent, fan or TV pundit who wishes to defend your honor.
Iguodala lacked that kind of tangible defense early in his career. In 2012, Bob Cooney of the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote, “For 8 years, Philadelphia fans have been trying to form a relationship with 76ers forward Andre Iguodala. For the most part, it’s been like trying to grab a fistful of water.”
While Iguodala is suspicious of the numbers, he sees the value in what they might accomplish. “As a player, the whole analytics thing, you take the analytical side and the player's side, and there's that fence. And there's kind of a rift between the two. And I think for the game to evolve to become what everybody wants it to become, there has to be some kind of resolve between the two."
If the stats credit winning basketball, they just might help fans understand an NBA player’s job. If the stats credit winning basketball, they might just help people appreciate what they’re seeing.