The NBA is always evolving and the style of play ebbs and flows. In 2022, the league is spoiled with lethal scorers, and most players, at all positions, are expected to be offensive threats. Elite offense does not fit one mold – Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, and Nikola Jokic are some of the league’s best talents but their games are all vastly different.
Despite the plethora of offensive talent and the style of modern basketball, defense still wins championships. Last season, the top four teams in defensive rating were the Warriors, Celtics, Suns, and Heat. Three of the four made it to the Conference Finals and the Suns had the best record in the league.
Teams must have a top-ten defense and a top ten offense to be a real contender in the NBA. Last season, the Cleveland Cavaliers were tied for the league’s fifth-best defensive rating but missed the playoffs because they ranked 20th in offensive rating. The Charlotte Hornets finished the regular season with the eighth most efficient offense but the eighth worst defense, and as a result, they were a lottery team.
Good defense in today’s NBA starts with elite wing defenders. With the majority of the league’s scoring threats on the perimeter, it is more important than ever to have a defender that can slow down the opposing team’s guards and forwards. For the Memphis Grizzlies, Desmond Bane and Dillon Brooks are typically tasked with this job, and, for the most part, they succeed.
What really puts a defense over the top is its rim protector. It is crucial for teams to have a big man that makes interior scoring difficult. Even if a team has solid wing defenders, scorers can go around screens and create mismatches to help them get inside. The rim protector serves as a second line of defense and uses their size to force difficult shots. Luckily, Memphis has one of the best.
Only 22, Jaren Jackson Jr. has emerged as one of the league’s best paint defenders. A monster inside, Jackson stifled opponents all season long. Jackson’s defensive improvements were one of the primary reasons the Grizzlies finished with the NBA’s second-best record. JJJ’s defensive leap last season elevated him to a new tier of elite rim protectors. With that tier in mind, who else dominates the paint like Trip?
Honorable Mention: Bam Adebayo
Bam Adebayo is one of the most versatile defenders in the NBA. At 6’9”, Adebayo is undersized for a center, and he does not offer the same rim protection as the rest of the top-tier shot-blockers. However, as arguably the Heat’s best defender, Adebayo was a big reason Miami finished fourth in defensive rating.
He does not get as many rim protection opportunities as other centers, because he often switches onto guards and forwards. Most centers would be at a disadvantage when left on the perimeter, but Adebayo matches up well with almost anyone thanks to his size and shiftiness. Adebayo did not play enough regular season games to qualify, but if he had, he would have had the second-best defensive rating in the NBA.
5. Robert Williams III
Last season: In 61 games (29.6 minutes per game) — 2.2 blocks per game, 134 total blocks, Block rate on contests: 55.37% (99th percentile), Defensive win shares: 3.9, All-Defensive Second Team
Robert Williams finally broke through last season after dealing with injury after injury in his first three seasons. The anchor of the NBA’s best defense last season, Williams is a menace in the middle. The Boston Celtics’ incredible midseason turnaround was in large part due to the team’s improved defense and no one was more important on that side of the ball – not even the DPOY, Marcus Smart.
It’s not just Williams’ 7’6” wingspan that makes him such a force inside. Simply his paint presence is enough to deter opponents’ shots. Opponents’ FG% against Williams vs. their expected shooting percentage was -12.64%, which places him in the 100th percentile, per The B-Ball Index. Williams was second in the league in blocks per game and finished with the third-most blocks.
On The B-Ball Index, Williams received grades of an A or above for blocks per 75 possessions, block rate on contests, adjusted rim points saved per 75 possessions, and rim protection. Opposing offenses have to gameplan how they will attack the paint with such a dominant presence inside. Going into his fifth season, Timelord has improved every year. After a dominant showing in the NBA Finals in which he averaged nearly three blocks a game, Williams is a serious contender for DPOY this season.
4. Giannis Antetokounmpo
Last season: In 67 games (32.9 minutes per game) — 1.4 blocks per game, 91 total blocks, Rim dFG% vs. Expected: -10.45% (99th percentile), Defensive win shares: 3.7, All-Defensive First Team
Other Defensive Awards: 2020 Defensive Player of the year; All-Defensive First Team in 2019, 2020, and 2021; All-Defensive Second Team in 2017
It is hard to define Giannis Antetokounmpo’s greatness. Somehow still only 27, the Greek Freak has done it all. He could retire today and be a first-ballot Hall of Famer and an all-time great. Antetokounmpo’s dominance on offense is unmatched – he is 6’11” with all of the muscle in the world and fluidity with the ball that players of his size are not meant to possess. He is much more than an offensive star, however. With his size and defensive IQ, it is clear he is undoubtedly one of the league’s best defenders.
The definition of a basketball unicorn, Antetokounmpo is almost impossible to score against. He logs most of his minutes at the four, creating an impenetrable frontcourt with Brook Lopez. The Greek Freak can guard almost everyone with his massive frame and unbelievable footspeed and lateral quickness.
A season ago, Antetokounmpo finished with an A+ in rim dFG% vs. expected, adjusted rim points saved per 75 possessions, and rim protection. He also finished with an A- or higher in % rim shots contested, blocks per 75 possessions, block rate on contests, and screener rim defense.
Alongside Jrue Holiday, one of the league’s best perimeter defenders, Antetokounmpo played elite defense on basketball’s biggest stage. His block on Deandre Ayton in the 2021 NBA Finals is one of the clutchest defensive plays in league history. Giannis has been one of the league’s best defenders for over half a decade and is a perennial DPOY candidate. Count on the Greek Freak to continue his dominance this season.
3. Myles Turner
Last season: In 42 games (29.4 minutes per game) — 2.8 blocks per game, 118 total blocks, Blocks per 75 possessions: 3.59 (99th percentile), Defensive win shares: 3.1
Often overlooked and constantly in trade rumors, Myles Turner has been one of the league’s best shot-blockers since entering the league in 2015. Turner led the league in blocks per game in 2019 and 2021. He also led the NBA in block percentage, an estimate of the percentage of two-point FG attempts blocked by a player, in 2019 and 2021.
Despite only playing 42 games, Turner recorded 118 blocks last year. If he played 67 games like Antetokounmpo, he would have blocked 188 shots, which would have led the NBA. In Turner’s short time on the court last season, he was an absolute force in the paint. Of the interior defense stats available on Cleaning the Glass, Turner has a grade of A- or higher in nine of the 10.
Turner averaged an unbelievable 3.59 blocks per 75 possessions – over two more blocks than Antetokounmpo. Turner is a block machine but he has had trouble staying on the court recently. He played 47 games in 2021 and only 42 last season. If he is able to stay healthy this year, the Pacers will have one of the league’s best interior defenders as their man in the middle.
2. Jaren Jackson Jr.
Last season: In 78 games (27.3 minutes per game) — 2.3 blocks per game, 177 total blocks, Rim dFG% vs. Expected: -13.71% (100th percentile), Defensive win shares: 3.7, All-Defensive First Team
Memphis finished the year with the NBA’s fifth-best defensive rating, in large part due to Jaren Jackson’s elite defense. Jackson became only the third Memphis Grizzly to make an All-Defensive team, joining Tony Allen and Marc Gasol. JJJ led the league in blocks per game as well as total blocks – he had 40 more than Rudy Gobert who had the second-most. Jackson also had a block percentage of 7.4, the highest in the NBA.
Jackson was an A+ in five of Cleaning the Glass’s ten interior defense categories, finishing in the 98th percentile for blocks per 75 possessions, block rate on contests, rim dFG% vs expected, adjusted rim points saved per 75 possessions, and rim protection.
Before the 2022 season, Jackson gained some serious muscle, a bulk that resembles the transformation Antetokounmpo made early in his career. When he was first selected as the fourth overall pick in the 2018 draft, Jackson measured at 6’10” and 225 pounds. Four years later, JJJ has gained an inch and now weighs 242 pounds.
Jackson may have developed the reputation of being injury prone early in his career, but after only playing 11 regular season games in 2021, Trip played 78 games last year, the most of any Grizzlies player.
Jackson’s paint dominance and growth as a defender was delightful but not a complete surprise. What caught so many teams off guard was his ability to stay with guards and forwards on the perimeter. Jackson regularly got switched onto smaller players but always seemed to hold his own.
When Jackson would get switched onto a smaller, faster wing, he was prone to picking up fouls. These fouls were often avoidable and a result of a brief mental lapse from an otherwise high IQ player. The fouls were not always Jackson’s fault; he was on the receiving end of many questionable calls (he got a particularly bad whistle in the playoffs). Jackson was second in the league in personal fouls last season. Despite this, JJJ averaged the least amount of fouls of his career last year.
Unfortunately, Grizzlies fans will have to wait a while to see Jackson’s defensive dominance again. After undergoing foot surgery in June, JJJ will possibly be out until Christmas. Assuming Trip returns at full health, the Grizzlies will be back in contention with a formidable defense.
1. Rudy Gobert
Last season: In 66 games (32.1 minutes per game) — 2.1 blocks per game, 137 total blocks, Rim dFG% vs. Expected: -13.39% (100th percentile), Defensive win shares: 4.3, All-Defensive First Team
Other Defensive Awards: Three-time Defensive Player of the Year, All-Defensive First Team in 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021
He may be one of the league’s most divisive stars, but there is no denying Rudy Gobert is the best rim protector in the NBA. Potentially, the most decorated defender in league history, the Stifle Tower continued his dominance in 2022.
Gobert finished with an A+ in three categories on Cleaning the Glass – rim protection, adjusted rim points saved per 75 possessions, and rim dFG% vs. expected. He was also elite at deterring and contesting shots at the rim finishing in the 98th percentile in percentage of rim shots contested. Last season, he finished second in total blocks and third in blocks per game. A year ago, the Jazz were -8.4 points when Gobert was off the court. It was even worse in 2021 when Utah was -12.7 without Gobert.
Grizzlies fans know all too well of Gobert’s stifling defense. In the first round of the 2021 Playoffs, Gobert dominated Memphis’s bigs, averaging 17.4 points, 13 rebounds and 3.2 blocks in five games. The Frenchman stands at 7’1” with a 7’9” wingspan making finishing over him nearly impossible, no matter how hard Ja tried.
Gobert has been criticized in the past for not coming through in the playoffs, but there are a lot of factors to be considered when weighing his impact. Utah’s wing defenders were miserable against the Mavericks last postseason, leaving Gobert to carry the defense and make up for their mistakes. Looking at his playoff stats or seeing a couple of plays does not show a full reflection of the defensive burden Gobert was tasked with. He may be a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, but he cannot guard the paint and the three-point line at the same time.
Please don’t tell me Gobert gets played off the court in the playoffs because of 5 out small ball. He carried the Jazz defense on his back. This is hilarious perimeter d lmfao pic.twitter.com/CMZGWtKYvC— Wolves Talk (@twolvestalk32) July 1, 2022
After being traded to Minnesota, Gobert will see a new style of play. Now playing alongside Karl-Anthony Towns, Gobert will have another big man to defend the paint with. The Timberwolves’ wing defenders are not significantly better than Utah, so Gobert will still be asked to be the anchor of the defense and he certainly has the talent to transform a defense.
All five of these paint protectors have anchored playoff defenses, two of which went to the Finals. With JJJ in the middle, the Grizzlies have a core piece that is essential to a title team. Trip is one of Memphis’s franchise cornerstones and as long as he is anchoring the defense, the Grizzlies can compete for a championship.
Now considered a title contender, Memphis will need Jackson’s dominance inside to continue when he returns from injury later this year. Ja, Bane, and Jackson are the Grizzlies’ big three – a core that could land Memphis its first Larry O’Brien trophy.
Stats found on The B-Ball Index.