Basketball is the only sport in which defense truly can win a championship in Fantasy sports. While a great goalie such as (a healthy) Carey Price or a strikeout machine like Clayton Kershaw can single-handedly carry their respective owners, basketball requires all ten players to have a defensive impact on every possession. While many owners like to focus on grabbing an elite scorer like Steph Curry or James Harden, more astute owners can build a successful team based on building a solid defensive foundation.
Rebounding is a definite asset, but if you take a gander beyond the basic stats like steals and blocked shots, the advanced metrics of basketball do a good job of identifying players that can either be great free agent acquisitions or hidden gems who can be had via trade. Heck, there’s a good chance a good defensive-minded player is sitting on your roster.
Case in point: Robert Covington, of (GASP!) the Sixers, who leads the Association with three steals per game. Covington recently saw a massive climb in his ownership, going from 44 percent to 74 percent in standard ESPN Fantasy leagues. Covington averages a respectable 13.7 points per game, yet it comes with the stiff price of his 38.2 field goal percentage entering Thursday’s play. He’s also not the player you want at the three-point line if your existence is on the line, as Covington wears down rims and backboards at a 31.9 percent clip.
Despite his offensive deficiencies, Covington’s prowess on the other side of the court has made him a valuable presence, especially if your team can absorb his…uh….well….lack of true scoring production. Covington’s PER (Player Efficiency Rating for you first-timers to my column) is slightly below average at 14.4, but it’s his defense that is carrying the bulk of his production. He’s also averaging just under a blocked shot per night, which also enhances his value.
Not bad. Not bad at all for a player who suits up on a 1-18 franchise. Covington’s steals rate may dip a bit, yet I can see him raising his blocked shots, especially once the Sixers get Nerlens Noel and the walking bar room brawl that is Jahil Okafor back into the fold. If there’s anything Philly can do well it is block shots, as they rank third in the Association with seven redirections per night entering Thursday’s play. As long as Covington remains averaging around 30 minutes per game (29.9), he will be a good addition for most leagues along with being a solid DFS option.
Covington is ranked 15th in defensive rating with a 96.6 percent clip, putting him in the neighborhood with such high-end possession stoppers like Paul George, Derrick Favors and Rookie of the Year candidate Karl-Anthony Towns. Ten spots ahead of Covington lies another stealth pickup in Pacers center Ian Mahinmi, who is owned in just 17.8 percent of standard ESPN leagues, mostly because of the timeshare he has with rookie Myles Turner.
Now may be a good time to get Mahinmi, who opened this month with 14 points, seven rebounds and four blocked shots in Wednesday’s victory over the Clippers. He’s pulling down 8.1 rebounds along with 1.7 blocked shots and a surprising 1.2 steals over his last ten games, and as the Pacers continue to get Turner acclimated to the rotation, Mahinmi becomes more intriguing for those who in need of a defensive impact. He’s a good fit for those owners who are living life without Rudy Gobert for an indefinite period, as Mahinmi does a reasonable impression of the injured Jazz big man.
Mahinmi is fourth in defensive plus/minus (Covington is 15th if you’re wondering), yet — like Covington — he also comes with a certain amount of offensive baggage, especially if your league has free throws as a category. He’s shooting a “robust” 43.9 percent from the charity stripe, which, in a sense, makes Mahinmi something of a poor man’s DeAndre Jordan if you really think about it. You could do much worse than a mirror image of a big man who can create havoc on the defensive side of things.
There is a flip side to this, where there are players who are assumed to be defensive assets that are negatives. Oh, that means we’re looking at you out in Oklahoma City, Enes Kanter, whose -3.2 defensive plus/minus ranks him 389th among the 427 players who have suited up thus far. Kanter’s 8.4 rebounds are meh for someone who stands 6’11”, 250 lbs., but if you’re crossing your fingers that he can offer anything defensively, then I have an acre or so of land in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico to sell you (call between the hours of 5:00 am to 9:00 pm Pacific and ask for Trudie).
Kanter averages all of .01 steals and .04 blocked shots per game, numbers that should make fans of big men weep while wondering, “where you gone, Michael Cage?” Imagine for a second how much worse Kanter’s numbers would be if he didn’t have an elite defender like Serge Ibaka (whose 0.7 defensive plus/minus is well off his normal) doing a nightly CYA to hide the fact that Kanter is just a well-paid spectator who gets to run with the other four players on the court. He’s a player I’d suggest you move, as there isn’t much hope in Kanter turning his putrid numbers around.
Kobe Bryant ranks 402nd, (-3.8), but has the excuse of playing out a first-ballot Hall of Fame career. Kanter is 23, so there’s no “the dog ate my homework” bailout he can offer. If you’re wondering who is the least effective defensive player among those who have played in at least 15 games, we introduce you to Bucks power forward Chris Copeland, whose -5.6 DPM brings the kind of joy that’s reserved for magic moments built for two in the minds of opponents when Jason Kidd inserts him on the court.
Yeah, it does help to have scorers, but players like Covington, Mahinmi or Celtics swingman Jae Crowder (ranked 18th in defensive efficiency) are the ones who win Fantasy titles. If you have a player like a Kahwi Leonard or Favors, who are the only two players ranked in the top 20 in both offensive and defensive efficiency), then you’re certainly ahead of the curve.
Defense wins championships. You just have to trust in the numbers.
Clearing the Bench
*I wish life’s problems would extend to whether I want to order pizza from Domino’s or Papa John’s while wondering if Coltrane or Sinatra is the better background music to write.” Sadly, as we saw (yet again) in San Bernardino on Wednesday, it’s not. Having lost two friends to gun violence over the years, it pains me that our nation refuses to make the changes necessary to stop making mass shootings an almost weekly thing. We’re supposed to be better than this.
*I’m not one for tanking, but if you’re in a keeper/dynasty league, sitting in last place may not be such a bad thing if you saw what Ben Simmons did on Tuesday. The LSU freak of nature is a one-and-done, and I can’t see anyone else who would be the first player selected in a rookie draft next October. If his low end is Lamar Odom at his peak while also invoking images of Kevin Durant or Dirk Nowitzki, then take solace in knowing you’ll have a player who can turn your fortunes around.
*Happy 13th birthday to my youngest nephew, Keanan Gatson. Whenever I hit a funk, I know you’re always there to say or do something to remind me how blessed I am to call you my nephew. You’re one of three reasons why life is a beautiful thing, even if you’re catching up with me on NBA 2K16. I owe you (and the Spurs) a beatdown over the holidays.