This has been said far too often on this blog and others, but I don’t know how to make this any clearer. Josh Smith is not performing well offensively. Josh Smith is performing well defensively.
This won’t be another scathing review of his season shooting the ball. You do not have look far for an example.
But defensively, there is unanimous consent between advanced stats and the old-fashioned eye test that Josh is a great defensive player. An argument can be made that he is the best defender in the league, and simply belonging in that conversation often gets lost in the trade rumor swirl and baffling shot selection.
Look at Basketball-Reference’s metrics of defensive ratings, which is an attempt to measure individual defensive efficiency, and defensive win shares, which looks to measure an amount of defensive value added above a replacement player.
Among players that qualify with enough minutes, Josh is tied for 22th in defensive rating the NBA. He was 8th under the same standards last season. This season, he is tied for 11th in Defensive Win Shares. Last season, he was 1st, with almost 5 Defensive Win Shares, meaning his defense alone was approxiated to win the Hawks 5 games above a replacement player.
I don’t mean to bog my readers down with random metrics, but instead I look to justify what I have seen in almost half a season, not to mention the 8 previous seasons.
Numbers obviously aren’t an exact replication of what happens on the court, but they can help to approximate value and effectiveness. When those different metrics come to a clear consensus, in the case of Josh Smith’s defensive production for example, it makes a solid case as Josh being one of the best in the game defensively.
This is similar to the methodology taken by Bradford Doolittle of Basketball Prospectus to try to isolate the best perimeter defenders in the NBA. He takes Synergy Sports Technology’s points per play, 82games.com’s adjusted opponent PERs, Jeremias Engelmann’s regularized adjusted plus-minus (RAPM) and ordinary steal and block percentage, mixes them in a bowl and cooks it for an hour, and out pops a rating. He then lists the top 10 performers among those who have guarded perimeter players at least 30% of the time.
Guess who is first? Atlanta’s own J-Smoove.
The case builds for Josh’s supremely important defensive exploits. Where would this Hawks top 10 defense be without his ability to protect the rim as well as step out and guard the midrange and longrange? We may just find out come February.
What is most remarkable is that Josh Smith has primarily played at the power forward position, having to battle with 6’10” big men as well as to occasionally step out on 6’5″ guards. Perimeter defense is arguably more important to a team’s success than any other area of defense in a less-post orientated era of the NBA. Think of the lack of classic post players that were present in the 80s and 90s. They have all but dissipated into pick and pop-types and stretch 4s. Compare that with the multitude of talented point guards and wings the exist today. It is nothing short of amazing the Josh Smith has the talent to guard these smaller players with no equal.
Defense is not nor ever will be a glorious aspect of today’s NBA. The masses prefer high flying dunks to well-executed pick and roll hedges. But to deny recognition Smith’s defensive prowess would be doing a great disservice to my readers who seek greater knowledge of a player and team’s true abilities.