In the land of the bludgeoning offense, the defensive stopper is king.
What does this mean? It means that in an NBA season that is oversaturated with offensive-minded players and seemingly devoid of any defense, perhaps being a top-notch defender is the more valuable skill. It’s a simple case of supply and demand.
This season, you can throw a pebble and hit five 20+ points per game scorers. Currently, there are 34 players averaging 20+ PPG compared to 27 last year. But how many gifted, versatile defenders are there? The answer is not many.
Seemingly every night, there’s at least one player putting up a 40-burger, so much so that it’s no longer a special feat. We’re also now seeing more teams like the Brooklyn Nets, who combine a historically good offense with a historically bad defense. I mean, how many teams can score 146 points in regulation and still lose?
These wacky offensive numbers have been cropping up over the last couple of seasons. But this year, it feels like it’s being cranked to a whole new level.
Joe Wolfond of theScore puts this juggernaut of a season in context: “The offensive environment this season is just insane. The Mavs put up the best offensive rating in history last year and it would rank them 6th this year. The 16-17 Warriors would rank 8th.”
Just in case you forgot, that was a 67-win Warriors team that featured Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant.
So why the scoring jump? Is it because teams continue to chuck threes at a record pace? Is it due to the influx of young gunners, like Trae Young and Michael Porter Jr., who view defence as optional? Is it due to the death of the slow-footed centre, resulting in a much quicker pace? Is the result of the 14-second shot clock reset after an offensive rebound instead of a fresh 24? Or does it have something to do with this strange, COVID-impacted season with players in and out of the lineup?
Whatever the reason is, offensive stats are bursting out of box scores on a nightly basis.
So what does this mean for the All-Star candidacy of Toronto Raptors guard, Fred VanVleet, who’s having a career year? (Putting aside the whole should-we-even-be-having-an-All-Star-game talk.)
It’s no secret that when it comes to selecting All-Star players, offense usually wins the day. (The same can be said for MVP voting.) In this sense, VanVleet probably is not All-Star-worthy. His offensive numbers, while good, wouldn’t be good enough to make the cut on most people’s lists. He’s currently just sneaking past the 20 points per game threshold, averaging a career-high 20.4 PPG.
However, in a season teeming with offensive firepower, it’s VanVleet’s stellar two-way play and disruptive defense that should net him one of the 12 East All-Star spots. If nothing else, his stopping power should be looked at as a deciding factor.
The Case for VanVleet
The All-Star team is comprised of six forward spots, four guard spots and two wildcards. That means up to six guards can be on their way to Atlanta.
We already know that two of the guards will be Bradley Beal and Kyrie Irving, as the All-Star starters were announced on Thursday. Both players, it should be noted, are superior scorers, but below average defenders.
If you pencil in James Harden and Jaylen Brown for the two reserve guard spots and Bam Adebayo, Jayson Tatum, and Khris Middleton for the three forward reserve spots, that leaves VanVleet duking it out for one of the two wildcards.
This is quite a daunting task as the candidates for these spots are a-plenty. They include Trae Young, Zach LaVine, Ben Simmons, Malcolm Brogdon, Jrue Holiday, Tobias Harris, Gordon Hayward, Jerami Grant, Domantas Sabonis, Julius Randle, and Nikola Vučević, as well as Raptor co-stars Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam.
It’s near impossible to compare VanVleet to forwards, so for the sake of this argument, let’s stick with apples to apples. The three guards that seem to be at the top of most people’s list for these final spots are Young, LaVine, and Simmons. (Sorry, Kyle.)
Simmons, like VanVleet, is a two-way player who possesses all-world defensive skills. The Raptors guard has him beat in terms of PPG (20.4 versus 15.2), but Simmons’ previous All-Star appearances, bigger spotlight, number one draft pick status and the fact that he plays for the East-leading Philadelphia 76ers, all work heavily in his favour. (Though, personally, I never look at a team’s record when choosing All-Stars. If you’re worthy, you’re worthy.)
So that leaves Young and LaVine. These two may be offensive juggernauts, but defensive stars they are not.
VanVleet’s 54-point outburst aside, both Young and LaVine are much bigger scoring threats and are certainly more consistent. Young is currently sitting at 26.5 PPG, while LaVine is killing it at 28.5 PPG, good for sixth in the NBA.
All three impact winning for their respective teams. Young and LaVine are the clear-cut stars for their teams, at least offensively, while you can argue VanVleet has been the most consistent and impactful Raptor this season on both ends of the court.
Young has one All-Star appearance to his name, but he was voted in last year. There is no telling if he would’ve been selected as a reserve, especially since the Hawks were in the East basement at the time.
Putting all of this aside, if you’re weighing Young, LaVine, and VanVleet on the same All-Star scale, it should tip towards VanVleet simply because of his superior two-way play. Especially this year.
Anyone who’s watched VanVleet over the last couple of seasons has witnessed him develop into an All-Defense level talent.
You can look at all the defensive stats you want, such as on-off per 100 possessions. VanVleet is currently at +10.2, while Young and LaVine are +9.8 and -10.4 respectively (or disrespectivley in LaVine’s case). Or you can pour over Defensive Win Shares: VanVleet 1.1, Young 0.5 and LaVine 0.9. But some of these stats can be noisy.
The eye test tells you everything you need to know. While both Young and LaVine are perpetually at the top the opposing team’s scouting report (and rightfully so), they treat defense like children treat vegetables — by shaking their heads and saying, “Not for me.” On the other hand, VanVleet happily asks for seconds and thirds.
Very few players in the league work harder on the defensive end than he does, especially having to regularly execute Nick Nurse’s out of the box and switch-heavy schemes. On ball. Off ball. Man-to-man. Doubling. Zone. Box-and-one. Whatever defense Nurse draws up, VanVleet’s versatility and IQ allow him to execute it to perfection.
Not only that, the Raptors’ guard is first in the NBA in both steals and deflections, blowing up the other team’s plays on the regular. This often leads to fast breaks and more scoring opportunities for the Raptors.
VanVleet may be small in stature, but he’s a defensive force to be reckoned with. Just ask 3-time NBA champ and 2-time MVP Steph Curry if VanVleet is a defensive game-changer (and championship-changer). How many players in the league can guard Curry the way VanVleet can? His ability to weave through screens and shadow the Golden State guard all over the court has been a thorn in Curry’s side since the 2019 NBA Finals.
Just last month, VanVleet once again shut off Curry’s splash valve. Curry, who is currently averaging an eye-popping 30 points per game and who was on a tear heading into the game versus the Raptors, shot a measly 2-for-16 for 11 points with VanVleet as his primary defender. This was no fluke.
VanVleet also literally punches above his weight, often switching onto much bigger players. In the first quarter of the Raptors’ most recent victory over the floundering Bucks, on a powerful Giannis drive, VanVleet stole the ball right out of the reigning MVP’s hands. That’s six feet, 197 pounds taking on 6’11”, 242 pounds. And just for fun, he later forced the 6’7”, 222-pound Middleton out of bounds by staying in front of him.
The Rudy Gobert Case
Utah Jazz centre, Rudy Gobert, is a good test case for VanVleet making the All-Star game on defensive merit. Gobert was selected to last year’s squad, and will likely make it again this year, largely because of his defensive prowess. So why can’t VanVleet?
The difference is Gobert is a centre who plays for the West-leading Jazz, which literally makes him larger than life right now. He also has the name recognition while VanVleet continues to fly under the radar. The Raptors guard is an All-Defense level player who has yet to get the recognition he deserves.
It should be noted that VanVleet received a lot of love from the players, accumulating 26 starting votes, which ranked him 7th among guards. So his play hasn’t gone unnoticed by his peers. (Although little-known Bucks guard Jaylen Adams received five votes, so…)
Perhaps even just three or four years ago, Young’s and LaVine’s massive offensive numbers would’ve made them special players and standout candidates for the All-Star squad. But this year, they are just two more players putting up numbers in a sea of other numbers.
The defensive-minded VanVleet, on the other hand, is one of the few guards who can curtail these gaudy offensive stats while still putting up some of his own. And that should get him the votes.