Even in today’s age of advanced metrics, measuring defensive prowess in the NBA can be a bit tricky.
It’s why sometimes the All-Defensive team can be one of the hardest to select.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra doesn’t need metrics to tell him how valuable Josh Richardson has been on that end of the floor for him this season. His eyes do.
“Look I'll say it, I think he's All-NBA defense,” Spoelstra recently said of Richardson, who at season’s end ranked 25th in the league regardless of position in defensive win shares while holding opponents to 41.6 percent shooting on shots he’s defended.
“Night in, night out he's going to have three of the toughest covers in the game… and he doesn’t even blink. And that's the expectation and how he’s developed that potential. He’s become a very disciplined, dynamic defender, one that can really guard multiple positions in a totally different way. He will challenge Dwyane [Wade] as far as a shot-blocking two guard if he's able to play that many years down the line. He's going to rack up a lot of blocks. And as we call them, one-on-one kills.
“I think unquestionably, he's an All-NBA defender. I think it's a shame. I don't think his name out there. I don't think people recognize the kind of defender he is except for the teams that he plays against. I think they see it.”
The Heat could certainly use Richardson’s defensive abilities against the Philadelphia 76ers over the next couple weeks. At 6-6, 200 pounds, Richardson is going to give up size to the likes of Rookie of the Year candidate Ben Simmons (6-10, 230), Robert Covington (6-9, 225) and Dario Saric (6-10, 223) when he ends up guarding them in this opening round playoff series. But his heart, hustle and athleticism more than make up for it.
Richardson’s 75 blocks this season are second only to San Antonio’s Danny Green (80) for the most by a player this season 6-6 or shorter. He also led the Heat and ranked 14th in the league with 214 deflections. His 121 steals, meanwhile, ranked fifth among all forwards.
“He's amazing,” Goran Dragic said of Richardson. “He's proven himself the whole season. He’s guarding the best guys on other teams. He’s challenging the guys, blocking shots. I think I already said it before the season that he's the best blocking guard in the league. Probably D-Wade is going to be mad at me. But you know he's developing as a player, a two-way player. It's unbelievable and I'm really happy for him. He deserves it. That's why I think I think he's All-NBA Defense.”
Richardson, 24, said he’s not worried about getting any recognition for his defense. His proudest achievement, in fact, was that he only missed one game this season because of injury.
“Just being out there for my teammates every night. I really take a lot of pride in that,” said Richardson, who signed a four-year, $42 million extension to stay with the Heat through the 2021-22 season. “[Being named to the All-NBA defensive team] would be awesome, but I’m not going to be bent out of shape if I don’t [get it]. I know how those things go sometimes.
"I’m not too worried about it. I think I’m a top 10 defender in this league. I know in my own head. It’s gone from working harder to working smarter on defense, knowing guys tendencies, knowing what spots they like to get to and trying to keep it away from them. That’s where I’ve gotten a lot better.”
A solid defensive performance against the Sixers, though, could go a long way in getting Richardson more notice for the future. During his rookie season and the Heat’s run to the Eastern Conference semifinals, Richardson was one of Miami’s best defenders, with opponents shooting only 39.3 percent against the shots he defended in his first 14 career playoff games.
He was a backup then. The responsibilities in this series as a starter will be tougher.
“I’m confident,” Richardson said of facing the Sixers. “It’s a tough team and it’s going to be a very tough series both ways. But if we play our game, I think we’ll be successful.”