Boris Diaw and the Big Man Market (Part 2)
The Spurs acquired Boris Diaw last Friday. The first part of this statistical introduction to Boris Diaw and the market the Spurs passed on covered offense. This time? I’m covering defense. To start, I’ve collected the overall per-possession rebounding and general defensive statistics on all our comparison players. I’ve collected the following statistics: ORB%/DRB%/TRB% (the percentage of offensive, defensive, and total possible rebounds collected while that player is on the court), STL%/BLK% (percentage of all opposing possessions that player steals or blocks when on the court), CHG (number of charges taken per game played), and the gold standard of per possession defensive statistics, DPPP (points per possession scored on said player when they are the last line of defense on a defensive possession). Along with DPPP, I’ve reported the number of defensive possessions they’ve played, and their rank according to their DPPP among all their NBA peers this season.
In each column of the percentage statistics, I’ve highlighted the highest value among the players. For DPPP, I’ve highlighted in green any players who are above the Spurs’ average, and highlighted in red any who are below it. For the rank column, I’ve highlighted in orange any players in the top 50 (which, given the number of players in the Synergy stats, is top 15% in the league). The overall table is ordered by DPPP. Some main takeaways? Duncan is — even at 35 — still the best rebounder of any of the men on this page. Especially defensively. In actuality, this table might underrate him on that end. His DRB% total of 29.0% is 2nd overall among all NBA players, and within spitting distance of the #1 player overall (Dwight Howard, predictably). To wit, the top 5:
- Dwight Howard, ORL. (32.8%)
- Tim Duncan, SAS (28.6%)
- Andrew Bynum, LAL (27.3%)
- Kevin Love, MIN (26.8%)
- DeMarcus Cousins, SAC (26.3%)
While Duncan’s less sparkling offensive rebounding pushes him down in the overall TRB% rankings (10th in those), it’s worth noting that his rebounding this season has been a superb bounce-back from last season. It’s the main reason our backup bigs have needed help on the boards when Duncan is out, as well. The backups are trying to replicate the rebounding of a player that’s doing more on that end than almost anyone else in the league. That’s difficult, and although none but Bonner are doing poorly (in Bonner’s case, his rebounding is best described as “virtually nonexistant”), it partly explains why we always seem to miss key rebounds when Tim isn’t on the floor. In terms of our new acquisition, though? We shouldn’t expect a big improvement. Diaw has been a substantially worse rebounder than either Blair or Tiago overall, and he’s barely outperformed Bonner. This is doubly absurd when you look at his role on the Bobcats — he’s played on a team that both misses a ton of shots (which translates to more opportunities, which should incrementally raise your per possession efficacy) and relied on him as the primary rebounder for most of the year. Given these factors, one could argue that Diaw may be the worst rebounder on this list. If you’re expecting him to improve our sans-Tim rebounding problems, prepare to be brutally disappointed.
In a surprise to no one who knows his defensive tendencies, Blair leads the pack in steal percentage, offensive rebounds, and charges drawn. Blair plays defense as more of a large, roly-poly guard than he does a center — fittingly, then, the majority of his positive defensive contributions in traditional statistics come in the form of guard-centric metrics like steals and charges drawn. In terms of shot blocking and steals, Diaw is decidedly middle-of-the-pack — he blocks more shots than Blair or Bonner, but far less than Tim or Tiago. He draws fewer charges than our bigs do, as well — which makes sense, when you consider that he’s large enough that taking charges would have a chance of seriously hurting him. Overall, by these metrics, Diaw is rather middle of the pack — if we wanted the best rebounder available, we would’ve wanted Hickson (or Kaman), and if we wanted the best shot blocker available we’d have given Turiaf the call. Diaw will hurt the Spurs’ rebounding numbers if he takes minutes from either Blair or Tiago, and provide a very marginal improvement over Bonner in rebounding if he gets minutes over Bonner.
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In overall defense, though? That’s another story. Diaw rates as the 2nd worst per-possession defender among all the players, with Blair in absolute last. I’m going to examine the components that make up their DPPP in a moment, but first, I thought it’d be useful to describe per possession defense for our readers who aren’t fully acquainted with it. PPP statistics primarily are found as provided by the team at Synergy Sports. The concept is rather simple in theory. How many points were scored among all possessions where a player’s defensive assignment took a shot, got fouled, or turned the ball over? After you have that, you simply divide by the number of possessions and arrive at your number — the average points per possession an individual player allowed. As a teaching example, imagine a player who allows nothing but makes or misses. 50% of the time, he allows his defensive assignment a completely unguarded two. The other 50%, he forces a turnover. That player would be — first off — an absolutely terrible defender. He would end up with a PPP of 1.00 — for every possession of 2 points, there’s one of zero points. Which averages out to 1 PPP. For an applied example, let’s take the Spurs big men and multiply out their PPP numbers.
- Tiago Splitter has a DPPP of 0.84, on 177 defensive possessions. That’s 149 points allowed directly by Splitter.
- Tim Duncan has a DPPP of 0.72, on 223 defensive possessions. That’s 161 points allowed directly by Duncan.
- Matt Bonner has a DPPP of 0.80, on 260 defensive possessions. That’s 208 points allowed directly by Bonner.
- DeJuan Blair has a DPPP of 0.99, on 219 defensive possessions. That’s 217 points allowed directly by Blair.
Taking this on a team concept, you can take the total number of points allowed by a team — for this year’s Spurs (at the time I pulled these numbers), 4055. By that measurement, you can thus calculate what percentage of the total points the Spurs allowed were allowed by each of our big men — in this case, Splitter allowed 3.67% of all points scored against the Spurs. Duncan allowed 3.97%, Bonner allowed 5.1%, and Blair allowed 5.3%. Altogether, that means our 4-man big rotation allowed 18.1% of all points scored against the Spurs — a rather small percentage, especially when you consider the fact that those four players have combined to play 35.7% of the minutes available among all players. That gap is both indicative of the Spurs’ big men being relatively effective at containing their own men and indicative of a team that’s not overplaying its hand.
All that said, the cardinal rankings of the bigs by Synergy seem relatively odd on their face. Duncan being first makes sense — few who’ve watched Tim this year could say that he’s been anything but excellent on the defensive end. But Matt Bonner at a close 2nd? J.J. Hickson with a positive rating? DeJuan Blair being that bad? A strange set of results. Let’s go deeper into the stats, by splitting the overall Synergy numbers into the 4 most prevalent defensive assignments bigs have. Click for a larger image.
A few high level observations here. First, the Spurs defense (which I used at the bottom of the table for reference) is overall rather poor — every non-Diaw big on the market has a better overall DPPP rating than the Spurs do overall. Despite being a poor defensive team overall, the Spurs actually do a rather excellent job defending post-up plays, and do a relatively good job defending spot-up shooters and the roll man on the pick and roll. They technically defend isolation plays better than they defend the P&R or Spot-Up plays (0.89 PPP compared to 0.95 and 0.92), but because the league average defense holds isolation plays to around 0.80, the Spurs isolation defense ranks a poor 28th in the league. As for the individual players, a few comments:
- Boris Diaw is a man of a few elite defensive skills and a few awful ones. A mixed bag. Unlike a player like Chris Kaman, who’s elite in nothing but dastardly mediocre at everything, Diaw is extremely good at isolation defense and defending the rolling big on the pick and roll. Despite this, his overall defensive numbers are awful, primarily because of his couldn’t-be-worse spot-up defense. As we’re all aware, Boris is a large man. This makes him excruciatingly slow on recoveries, and due to his generally slow movements it’s rather elementary for a guard or a wing to get him out of position. If we wanted a big man who could help the Spurs improve their overall defense in isolation, out of all available bigs, Diaw was easily our man. That’s a good thing.
- J.J. Hickson may have the most misleading numbers here. He has only defended 164 possessions as of this writing, far fewer than the number we’d expect given the number of minutes he’s played. There’s a good reason for that. Unlike most bigs in the NBA, Hickson has no compulsion to challenge a broken play — if his man gets by him, he prefers to let the other big man on the court take the fall and die trying to help on his man. This leads to a lot of plays in the post where the final possession wasn’t technically guarded by Hickson, but where responsibility for a virtually wide open dunk lies squarely on his shoulders. This isn’t to underrate his spot-up defense — for all of Hickson’s faults (of which there are many), he’s always been a pretty dependable spot-up defender when he’s mentally checked in due to his athleticism, length, and hustle. But his lapses elsewhere on the court may not show up in his Synergy numbers, and the Synergy defensive numbers here are probably overrating the quality of his defense more than they are anyone else on this list .
- Matt Bonner is the 4th best post-up defender in the league, per Synergy. I didn’t believe that at all on first glance, so I spent about 45 minutes watching every single post-up possession Matt Bonner has defended in the past three years. I came away shocked. His post-up defense isn’t pretty, but it’s quite effective. His foul rate is minuscule compared to that of the league average big, and he has a fantastic sense of when and how to lay off his man and use his size to bother the shot. He always keeps his arms up, and he moves in a sort of shuffling gait that more often than not confuses the post-up player. On the pick and roll, that’s generally less Bonner’s acumen than it is Tiago and Tim helping out, but Bonner does his fair share of the work on those possessions as well. He keeps the big close and generally forces them to take shots from angles they aren’t very good at, and again, he does an excellent job keeping his foul rate down.
- So, Aaron. Tell me. Why, if he’s got a few solid defensive skills, does Bonner have the reputation of a defensive sieve? Simple, voice in my head. The two most avidly watched types of defensive plays by the general populace — isolation and spot-up recoveries — are Bonner’s two absolute worst defensive categories, per Synergy. He’s below league average on isolations and only slightly above it on spot-ups. Worse, for him, is the way he allows shots in isolation and spotting up. He generally has a terrible time covering quick guards on switches, and gets embarrassed physically when an athletic player does a jab step or an up fake. His lateral quickness is poor, and although he’s essentially league average or slightly at both those categories, the downright hilarious way he allows points leads to a reputation that doesn’t actually fit with his defensive play, which appears to be overall better than even I had ever given him credit for. Next time you’re watching the Spurs, I ask that you pay attention to Bonner when players try to post him up. I have for the last few games. Guarantee you’ll be somewhat impressed, if not immediately thereafter amused when he blows an isolation coverage on the next possession of the game. A feast-or-famine type defensive player.
- On the other end of the spectrum, DeJuan Blair is simply a terrible defensive player. I love DeJuan’s grit and hustle, but in 2011, DeJuan was the worst defensive starter at the center position in the entire league by DPPP. In 2012 he isn’t the worst, but he’s close. Despite defending on 4 possessions fewer than Tim Duncan, he’s allowed 56 more points scored directly on him over the course of the year. That’s quite a gap. And while part of that is Tim’s overall stellar defense, a lot of the blame has to be put on DeJuan himself — while he’s decent on the P&R, he’s poor in isolation and a travesty at recovering on spot-up shooters. Which, by the way, is why he plays center so often. I’ve been asked by friends who don’t follow the Spurs why DeJuan (a 6’7″ player) is forced to play center so often. It isn’t necessarily because Pop wants to do it, it’s because if he cross-matches onto a power forward he gives them a wide open look at a spot-up jumper virtually every time. He’s no great shakes in the post, either, but at least he’s slightly above league average. When you put the whole package together, though, you have a player who’s league average at best in most defensive categories, and who unfortunately averages out as a big liability on the defensive end. Which is a shame, because again — I really love DeJuan, and I really wish he was just a few inches taller and a few pounds lighter. But as of this point, his career has been awful on the defensive end, and it’s really aggravating to watch him work.
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In sum? The Spurs got an interesting player in Boris Diaw, to say the least. He’s not the missing piece. He’s not really better than any of the big men we currently run with, although his isolation defense is worth keeping an eye on. As most Spurs fans noticed during the recent Mavs game, when Diaw really puts an effort into shutting down a sweet-shooting forward like Dirk, he has a lot more success than most Spurs players have had over the last few seasons. On the other hand, fans watching the Sixers game may have also noticed the dark side of Diaw’s play — his difficulty recovering on spot-up shooters and putting requisite pressure on their post-up players, namely. They may also have noticed his abhorrent rebounding fundamentals, and his curious lack of talent for a man so large at boxing out and protecting the paint. Diaw isn’t going to solve all the Spurs’ ills, but the main point of this post isn’t really that. It’s that none of the players available were going to.
Diaw offers as much upside as any of them, and very few downsides. If he doesn’t work out? The Spurs have a minimum contract player sitting on the bench. And, of course, there’s the familiarity aspect — Diaw actually went to high school with Tony Parker, and Parker has been running Popovich offensive sets with the French National Team for years now. Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw had a relatively potent two man game back in Charlotte during their ill-fated 2010 playoff jog, and given the fact that the Spurs have just 19 games left this season, acquiring a player with some familiarity in the Spurs system may have been for the best. Diaw is not a savior, but he’s not chopped liver. He can help the Spurs if they can do a good job at hiding his deficiencies and put him in a position to succeed. Without injuries, we hope.
Given Pop’s track record, I think we’ll be just fine.