04 January 2012
Al Jefferson has been accused in mainstream media as being the worst defender in the entire NBA, and he's well aware of this. Indeed, the reputation is so deeply ingrained at this point, even among Jazz fans, that he'll be fighting an uphill battle here for likely years to come, regardless of what he does on the court.
Every time an opposing player drops a handful of numbers on Big Al the immediate reaction will be that it's due to a lazy and lackadaisical defensive posture or an utter misunderstanding of how to actually play defense. Let's delve into some numbers this season to see how Al is doing, to see if he's backing up his rhetoric that he intends to improve there.
Photo via bettor.com
As many fans realize, blocks and steals numbers can be put up in copious amounts by actual bad defenders, so going by the standard box score can be deceiving as to the true defense that was being employed by a player. Also skewing numbers can be a player that has a particularly warm night shooting, as we saw out of Manu Ginobili recently versus Utah, and Drew Gooden last night.
Determining defensive impact by the numbers is often difficult, much more so than offense. Taking advantage of various tools available to us can help tremendously in getting to bottom of the matter -- it's not uncommon for a sullied rep to fool the eyeball, leaving one with with a biased reaction due to a preconceived notion. Combining sortable data from HoopData to BasketballReference with shot charts, PopcornMachine, and SynergySports, among other sites, are very helpful in obtaining a real insight into what happened on the floor and identifying trends among both teams and players.
Drew Gooden's 12-20 for 24 points from the floor (with no free throws -- sound familiar before last night?) might at first feel like "Sure, Al scored a lot, but he gave up a lot too," while in fact Gooden had more makes using his great height on spot-ups than he did in the paint. A spot-up from a 7-footer that's hitting is virtually unguardable.
The most successful offensive play against the Jazz this young season is the spot-up shot, usually run off of various screens by the opposition. We've seen Ginobili, Jason Smith, and Drew Gooden make the Jazz pay for being a step slow in fighting through and around screens on defense, giving up open looks that are generally not as high a percentage make as seems to happen against Utah, for whatever reason. I'm sure this happens to every team, but my eyeball bias makes it feel like it happens more to the Jazz than any other team. That's a hazard comes with being a fan, one I willingly accept, but will always challenge myself to enter any analysis with an open heart and mind, letting the truth tell itself.
Al's pick-and-roll defense has been a target of disdain for many years, so I thought I'd take a look inside the numbers for the Jazz bigs to see if actions are pacing rhetoric there this season. Here's the straight numbers, via Synergy, for PnR, post-up, and spot-up defense by the Jazz bigs as they try to better protect the paint this year (Enes Kanter is making visible strides by the minute here, but his sample size is yet too small to be of value):
• Defended 16 post-ups, giving up 63.6% FGs and 1.00 PPP (Points Per Possession)
• Defended 7 PnR roll men, giving up 66.7% FGs and 1.43 PPP
• Defended 20 spot-ups, giving 29.4% FGs and 0.69 PPP, best among Jazz bigs
• Defended 7 post-ups, giving up 33.3% FGs and 1.43 PPP
• Defended 3 PnR roll men, giving up 33.3% FGs and 0.67 PPP
• Defended 13 spot-ups, giving up 58.3% FGs and 1.38 PPP
• Defended 32 post-ups, giving up 32% FGs and 0.66 PPP, best among Jazz bigs
• Defended 8 PnR roll men, giving up 25% FGs and 1.00 PPP, best among Jazz bigs
• Defended 16 spot-ups, giving up 68.8% FGs and 1.44 PPP
Al has been pushing his man farther out this year with body work and textbook positioning, in this case Emeka Okafor. Note the spread of Al's feet and the way he's leaning into Okafor here as Emeka receives the incoming post pass.
Al would continue to force Okafor out as he went through his offensive motions to get a shot off, Jefferson forcing a clang off the back rim and corraling the defensive rebound.
Again, here, Al pushes out Tim Duncan as he received the inlet pass on the low block.
Notice the the textbook focus and stance again as Duncan makes his move to the paint. Good defenders are taught to stare at the opposing offensive player's mid-section, using their periphery vision and reflexes to react to where the limbs and ball go.
Duncan and Jefferson played this out several times during the game, Big Al getting the best of Timmy in the paint, sometimes poking the ball away for a turnover, in this case off of Duncan (Al's done this a handful of times this season to various opposing offensive players, a la Karl Malone)...
...and others straight up challenging, forcing in this case a miss that the Jazz would recover for an offensive possession.
There have been quite a few defensive plays by Al where he does everything noted above with the exception of ultimately challenging the shot, often taking that patented poke at the ball then yanking his hands back quickly, holding them up as the shot gets off. Clearly, he's used to hearing a whistle in this case, but it hasn't come often this year, and the vast majority of these shots have resulted in misses due to the nice defense employed causing a lower percentage shot to be taken from farther out -- obviously, Al's bothering guys as they go through their motions.
Between Al's good man-defense, and the threat of two outstanding help defenders in Millsap and Favors standing by to clean up, the Jazz's big men have done an overall fine job in improving their paint defense thus far this season. While there's still plenty of ceiling space before they elevate themselves to elite D-status, the early returns have been quite promising.
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