It wouldn’t be unfair to say the concern for the Clippers in the upcoming season is defense; particularly frontcourt defense. Frankly, defense has been the concern for the past two seasons, ever since pairing Chris Paul with Blake Griffin turned “potential” from a hopeful notion to that of a burden. And while there were no obvious improvements to the frontcourt, here is a quartet of reasons to feel emboldened about the defensive end.
The Declining Significance of the Bench
There is quite a bit of anxiety in Clipper Nation that there are no discernible big man defensive stoppers on the roster. But the questions I have are: how many teams feature backup big men that are reliable defensive stoppers? How often would you want a rotation big man taking minutes on the floor?
There are 96 minutes available at the power forward and center position in a regulation game. Last season Blake Griffin (32.5 mpg) and DeAndre Jordan (24.5 mpg) played a combined 57 minutes per game. Concerns about the backups are warranted when they’re asked to play 39 minutes per game. That is more than a third of the game.
Except that we are applying last season’s rotation setup to a reloaded roster under a new coaching direction. There has been no indication that Doc Rivers will have complete lineup changes as his rotation. And Doc spoke of the likely increase in minutes for the Clippers’ two young big men: “A lot of times DJ or Blake were not on the floor in the fourth quarters. We want to have them on the floor as much as we can. And we want to prove that they can play together in space.“
Concerns about bench defense should be mitigated if the intention is to increase the roles of the starting bigs. Which segues to the next point…
Big Man Title Dreams
There are no good individual defensive statistics or metrics. But the available tools do measure some defense and paint a picture when given within the context of other players. Take defensive rating, for instance. Below is a chart of DeAndre Jordan’s rating through his first five years along with the trajectories of Joakim Noah and Tyson Chandler’s first six seasons.
Chandler is a player that is often mentioned when projecting DeAndre’s arc as a player because of their similar frame, skill set and youth. It’s plain to see that while Chandler seemed to have a better grasp of measurable defense early in his career, by season five, his defensive rating is quite similar to DeAndre’s (Tyson had a very peculiar season four where he seemingly drops five points from his previous best and then never approaches that same score of 94 DRtg again).
In terms of a development curve, DeAndre’s defensive progression actually mimics Noah’s early career improvements reasonably well. Noah, of course, being one of the more highly touted defensive big men in the league and thus with better marks after each season.
But two advantages Chandler and Noah enjoyed over DeAndre was no lack of minutes and no lockout shortened season early in their development. To me, the biggest means of improving a young big man, especially ones not refined at the outset, are: 1. training camp, 2. practices to reinforce early instruction, and 3. ample and consistent game minutes to secure and harden those techniques.
In the case of DeAndre Jordan, he totaled 771 minutes as a rookie; about half the minutes of Tyson Chandler and Joakim Noah. Complicating matters, DeAndre’s fourth season was lockout shortened, featuring essentially no training camp or practice. So if we toss out DJ’s rookie year for lack of minutes and merge the lockout season with his fifth season:
Suddenly, DeAndre’s development trajectory falls in line much more neatly with other recent big men’s progression arc.
Nature vs. Nurture
One of the reasons Joakim Noah is included along with Tyson Chandler as comparisons is that, while Chandler bears a physical resemblance to Jordan, Noah will share a different trait: transitioning from a Vinny Del Negro defense to a Tom Thibodeau designed strong side halfcourt pressure defense. The dramatic shift between Season 3 and 4 in Noah’s defensive rating? That is the difference between the final year of Del Negro (2009-10) and the first year of defense under Thibodeau (2010-11).
Check out the data via mySynergySports on centers last year.
[note: much of defense is help defense, rotation and rim protection, which is difficult to log and track. Thus, I only provided the categories that offer tangible metrics: isolation and post up defense]
In individual, one-on-one situations, DeAndre Jordan’s numbers last season would suggest that he is a capable defender, with isolation numbers similar to Chandler and Roy Hibbert, and post-up figures close to Hibbert.
But the interesting fact is that Jordan is similar or better than Noah’s last season under Del Negro. Notice how Noah’s number improve substantially in his first season coached by Thibodeau? One could argue that coaching has nothing to do with it and Noah’s improvement was his own. But this season will certainly add data to that hypothesis should DeAndre also show marked improvements in these categories.
The other point I’d like to bring attention to is the decrease in post up occurrences against Noah in 2010-11. As I mentioned, help defense and rotations are not easy to track, but a 25-percent decrease in post up attempts may suggest improvements in those areas; better perimeter ball pressure to decrease post entry, better ball containment to the strong side to decrease quick swings and post ups on the weakside, and possibly better rotation if the ball does swing to decrease post entry passes. Even though Noah’s defensive points per play (PPP) increased in his first year under Thibodeau, the sizable decrease in attempts means fewer overall points given.
By no means am I suggesting that DeAndre Jordan and Joakim Noah are the same player, but it will be interesting to see if Jordan’s defensive post attempts also decreases under the Thibs designed system.
The Authenticity of Effort
We judge music better with our eyes than ears. Seems counter-intuitive, but a study was recently conducted that suggested listeners from novice to expert could better predict winners of music competitions by watching their actions rather than listening to the composition. Viewers would subconsciously be searching for visual cues that could convey to them the emotion, intensity or passion of the performance.
Sound familiar? Things like “the will to win” and “wanting it more” also occupy the same nebulous terrain. And I wonder if DeAndre’s on-court demeanor influences the perception of his game moreso than his actual performance. If DeAndre scowled the entire game, imitating a Kevin Garnett-like facial intensity and posture, would fans be less critical? This same question applies to Griffin, to an extent — although Griffin’s obvious higher ability buffers him from the worst of such criticism. It’s no coincidence that the critiques lobbied at both DJ and Blake are that they just want to produce highlights and enjoy themselves in games; as if those are mutually exclusive to winning and being determined.
The above tables and charts have already outlined that DeAndre is already a reasonable defender and is at least comparable to a Hibbert-type as a one-on-one defender. But the perception does not support that contention. And I have no intention of executing a study as to how body language and visual cues influence our analysis of a player. But maybe we should think about what constitutes “effort” and “desire” and whether that definition can co-exist in a more effervescent personality.