The Value of 1-Way Weapons

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Updated: April 17, 2022
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Unlike American Football or Baseball, where roles of a pitcher, shortstop, quarterback, or middle linebacker are clearly defined, the weight of how specific attributes, strengths, and weaknesses flood the subjective space of the NBA with an undefinable gray. Similar to the way a quarterback isn’t valued on his ability to tackle a free safety after an interception, a 20+ win left-handed starting pitcher isn’t defined by his inability to hit a slider in his 3 at-bats at the plate. Although these situations occur and can affect the outcome of a ballgame, their value is simply not attached to this part of the sport as they are specialized weapons that excel at something essential outside of tacking or hitting.

Defense in basketball, on the other hand, is essential for all contributing players. Especially in the framework of the modern offensive tactics applied by spammed pick and rolls or movement off-ball attacks that create mismatches and exploited undersized guards in the paint or strand 7-footers out on an island to guard the perimeter. One defensive liability can change not only a game but a series. Entire film sessions and schemes will be created for a playoff matchup on how to best exploit the weak points of a defense, which is often their opponent’s best scoring guard who is designated as a 1-way player due to their lack of size. Although they can be an unstoppable offensive weapon, when continuously put in the action on the defensive end and attacked relentlessly, their energy bar becomes drained, and their legs are stolen for those big 4th quarter shots they are responsible for.

All that said, going into this season, Luka Dončić, one of the worst defensive guards in all of basketball last year, was the overwhelming choice for betting odds in Vegas on MVP for this 2021-22 season. So, either A.) oddsmakers in the desert assumed Dončić’s defense would improve tremendously, despite him arriving at training camp looking like Zion’s drinking buddy down in New Orleans, or B.) the value of defensive impact is not particularly included in the MVP discussion. 

It is one of the primary reasons some analysts around the league throw Rudy Gobert’s name into MVP talks on the pods. Not because they actually believe he is the most valuable player…at least I hope they don’t believe this sentiment. It is instead stated to emphasize that a player who is a perennial Defensive Player of the Year Candidate and is solely responsible for Utah’s defense which otherwise is surrounded by minus defenders, isn’t even considered to be on the MVP ballot. The same could be said around Draymond Green early in the season who appeared to have a unanimous vote of DPOY at least by public opinion on the airwaves prior to his injury, yet never had even a Blackhorse chance at the 5th spot for Most Valuable Player.

There is a human element to the process of voting which is often referred to as “narrative” that sways the voters’ perspective on who is most deserving for this regular-season award. The outcomes produced by the playoffs, however, are a sobering reminder that narratives do not win championships. Despite the voter fatigue around Giannis’ name after back-to-back MVPs, his premium 2-way play on both ends of the floor are the primary reason the Bucks hung a banner in Milwaukee. Giannis being the best free safety defender in all of basketball may not hold as much weight with regards to narrative and the MVP vote as say Westbrook’s Triple Double production or overwhelming stats produced by ISO scoring, but it is arguably a more impactful skill when producing a title contender. 

The argument could be made that defensive impact has been tied more into the MVP since Giannis won both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year two years back, yet it is quite clear that it is his offensive dominance at the rim which produced his 1st place votes considering Gobert’s rim production did not even land him in the top 5 of MVP in any of his multitude seasons where he ranked 1 or 2 in DPOY voting. Now in this year, the top 3 candidates for this regular-season award are all at least adequate on both ends of the floor, with Nikola Jokic playing the best defense of his career and Embiid and Antetokounmpo being in the conversation for DPOY. However, if we go back to Luka MVP predictions or early Steph Curry nominations, it implies that if a primary scorer on a contender puts up prolific enough numbers, it by definition will monopolize the voters’ gaze for Most Valuable Player. 

The end of the season stat-padding of Lebron James was a transparent example of a player who was essentially absent on at least a half dozen possessions per game on the defensive end and yet due to pure offensive out-put in combination with the narrative will most likely squeeze out a few votes by devotees of the crown despite the Lakers being an absolute catastrophe this season not even qualifying for the play-in tournament. 

The point of the exercise of this discussion is not to imply that defense is more or less important to the game of basketball. It is quite clear that offense overall is the more impactful skill, mostly because even when an elite scorer is defended perfectly, he still can find success around this obstacle. And this is not a controversial take, it is what has been uttered on podcasts from several ESPN and Ringer hosts over the years. Though Giannis’ defensive impact is arguably more impactful than say a vintage James Harden offensive style attack, it isn’t on par with prime Curry or prime Lebron’s offensive impact. So instead of pretending that Most Valuable is an all-inclusive title, maybe it should just more honestly be seen as the player who had the most prolific offensive numbers on a perceived title contender. If the stats are close enough where there is a split decision between the two candidates, then the tie can go to the runner and the better defensive player can be given the edge for playing both sides of the ball. 

However, as of now, the idea that both sides are being equally included is a well-known farce. Nikola Jokic is most likely going to go back to back as MVP and though he has played well on both ends and the defensive metrics have been positive, no one thinks he is even in the same realm as the two all-time great defenders in Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Despite what the regular season numbers may suggest, the first round of the playoffs will show the drastic difference when these giants are schemed against in a series.  

However, it is not only the Joker’s numbers that are so overwhelming that have monopolized the conversation but the fact that he essentially plays the 1/5 as their point-center. The combination of him being a floor general while being an elite post-presence is not only overwhelming to cover but is a novelty as he is the first to occupy this space and style in such high volume. Again though, it is the offensive value that is dominating the conversation enough to ignore the fact that the Nuggets were in jeopardy of dipping into the play-in as a 6th seed while Antetokounmpo’s Bucks had enough W’s to finesse their way out of the 2 seed down to 3 to play a hobbled Chicago Bulls squad. 

It can be said without a sliver of doubt that if the Joker was a top 3 seed that this tightly wound MVP race, would be a landslide…despite what the playoffs will inevitably prove.

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