When Stan Van Gundy was looking to get back into coaching , he didn’t just want to coach. He wanted full control of personnel decisions and he got his wish in May. As President of Basketball Operations and head coach of the Pistons, Van Gundy will be able to single-handedly change the culture of the team and he’s already made a huge impact on their roster.
After winning only 29 games last season, it seemed like a tall order to turn the Pistons around but Van Gundy already has them looking like a lock to make the playoffs, albeit in the weaker Eastern Conference. Part of the reason the Pistons were so bad were the questionable moves made by former GM Joe Dumars and the horrific coaching job by Maurice Cheeks last season. Years of eyebrow-raising moves culminated in the long-term signing of Josh Smith. A crowded frontcourt coupled with bad coaching were too much to overcome as Dumars and Cheeks successfully drove the Pistons into the ground. To be fair, Cheeks was fired only 50 games into the season after going 21-29, but owner Tom Gores didn’t envision his team potentially missing the playoffs with the talent they had.
Van Gundy addressed the Pistons’ number one need this offseason by adding three solid three-point shooters – DJ Augustin, Jodie Meeks, and Caron Butler. This could take them from 29th in 3-point shooting last season to the top 10, especially with the way Van Gundy will utilize his shooters and the long-range gunners already on the team – Brandon Jennings, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Singler, in what’s going to end up being a crowded backcourt with a lot of position battles.
It seems clear that there will be a similar system to the one employed in Orlando, with the 21-year old rebounding machine in Andre Drummond playing the role of Dwight Howard. Except this time, Van Gundy wants the Pistons to emulate the Spurs’ ball movement more with lots of shooters surrounding a dominant big man. The Spurs relied on teamwork and contributions from unheralded players and took the NBA by storm. It looks like there’s a new blueprint for winning and the Spurs are at the forefront of this revolution.
Expect to see more wins, a lot of frustrated Stan and those stylish turtlenecks.
When looking at why the Pistons were so bad in the Eastern Conference (while actually trying to make the playoffs) last season, one player stood out. Josh Smith had a historically bad season shooting the ball. He took the “short memory” mantra great shooters have and ran with it. The problem is he’s not a shooter. Not even by the greatest stretch of the imagination. Smith took 265 3-pointers last season and made only 26.4% of them. Since the 3-pointer was added in 1979, only 2 other players shot at least 265 3-pointers and made less than 27% of them, according to Basketball-Reference. Here’s the short list no player should ever want to be a part of:
While it’s easy to blame Josh Smith for hurting the Pistons so much last season, Maurice Cheeks is the real culprit. The Pistons still had quality 3-point shooters last season and Smith stole a lot of those attempts. Cheeks should have made sure he took mid-range jumpers if he had to shoot at all and post up more, which he plans on doing this season. Smith’s low percentage shots wasted many possessions and hurt the Pistons’ offense. In the 2009-2010 season, Smith took a career-low seven 3-pointers and shot a career-high 50.5% from the field. The Hawks won 53 games that season, the most Smith would win during his nine seasons in Atlanta. While Smith’s decision to shoot less 3-pointers that season may have not been the reason for their success, it definitely seemed to help them win more games.
Smith is still a very skilled player who can finish at the rim, rebound, block shots, pass, and defend multiple positions. When used properly, he can be a dominant two-way player. In a league filled with specialists, players should play to their strengths and let everyone do what they do best. Very few superstar players emerge who can do it all but Josh Smith simply isn’t one of them.
There’s a 3 in 4 chance Josh Smith missed this 3 last season. Getty Images
Brandon Jennings was another Piston who was part of a very short, historic list for the wrong reasons in the 2013-14 season. Jennings hoisted 457 3-pointers and shot a more respectable 33.7%. He wasn’t gun shy from long range but at least he is a guard who can shoot, unlike Smith. Only nine players in NBA history took at least 457 3-pointers while shooting under 34%, per Basketball-Reference. As a “dynamic duo”, Jennings and Smith were the anti-Splash Brothers, jacking up 722 3-pointers and only making 31% of them. In case you were wondering, the actual Splash Brothers, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, made a ridiculous 43% of their 1,130 3-point attempts – efficiency at a very high volume.
Jennings is a good shooter and is capable of getting hot but too many difficult isolation shots hurt the Pistons. Jennings shot an atrocious 37% from the field last season and this can be attributed to Cheeks’ system. Jennings went off for 55 points in his rookie year, ironically against the Warriors, when Curry was a rookie as well. Most of Jennings’ points came off screen and rolls and drives, it was a thing of beauty. Monta Ellis and the Warriors being satisfied with going under every screen didn’t hurt either.
The good news is that the Pistons should make the playoffs this upcoming season. It’ll take a few years for them to establish an identity and winning culture from a decade ago but under the guidance of Stan Van Gundy, the journey will be fun to watch.
There’s a saying that if you’re seven feet tall and can walk and chew gum at the same time, you can play in the NBA. While that may be true, it takes much more to be an effective rim protector. With the new player tracking data, player movements have allowed us to understand basketball in innovative new ways. Players who were known as being top tier contributors are now having their weaknesses exposed and at the same time, less heralded players are recognized for their vast and previously abstract impact which wouldn’t have necessarily shown up in the stat sheet.
Some aspects of the game such as scoring, rebounding and passing have allowed us to assess players’ strengths and weaknesses and profile their games at a rudimentary level. The SportVu cameras now allow us to understand a more abstract area of the game – defensive impact. One of the most esoteric areas of the game in terms of being able to measure and quantify, is how good a player is on defense and a player’s ability to protect the rim and serve as an anchor of a defense.
A deep dive into this data confirms some mainstream beliefs and reveals a very interesting list of the best rim protectors. At the same time, it may also be surprising to see some names not among the elite. Rim protection, as tracked by the SportVu cameras is “defined as the defender being within five feet of the basket and within five feet of the offensive player attempting the shot.”
For the purposes of this deep dive into rim protectors for the 2013-2014 season, criteria for qualifying players is a minimum of 150 opponent field goal attempts at the rim. While it seems unfair to compare players with 150 opponent field goal attempts at the rim with players who had over 700, this list is intended to be forward looking as well. There should be no reason why a player can’t sustain a high level of rim protection after doing so through 150 opponent attempts. After seeing some familiar names in the top 10 with closer to 150 opponent attempts (Brook Lopez, Larry Sanders), it further verifies the validity of the list. There were 184 qualifiers and the top ten are below, along with their blocks per 36 minutes.
Considering that the league average field goal percentage at the rim was 52.1%, holding opponents to about ten percentage points below the average (which is what the top ten rim protectors did) for an entire season is very impressive.
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A CLOSER LOOK AT THE TOP 10 RIM PROTECTORS
1. Bismack Biyombo
The number one rim protector on this list for the 2013-14 season was Bismack Biyombo. Yes, you read that correctly. Biyombo’s one dimensional game forced coach Steve Clifford to play him sparingly at only 14 minutes per game and give the majority of minutes to Al Jefferson and Josh McRoberts. It’s surprising that Biyombo truly remains a one dimensional player after his third full season, not showing much improvement in any other area. Seeing as he’s only 22 years old, Biyombo has tremendous potential.
Brook Lopez has been in the conversation as one of the best centers in the league the past couple of seasons, but his inability to stay healthy and rebound for his position haven’t solidified his place as the top center. Even though he missed the majority of the season and only registered 155 opponent field goal attempts at the rim, he was a dominant defensive anchor. The Nets struggled in the beginning of the season but Lopez remains a valuable building block as a rare combination of an elite rim protector and 20 point per game scorer.
While Perkins only played 20 minutes per game and with only 217 total opponent field goal attempts this season, his elite rim protection has been undeniable. He relies more on his physicality and strength than athleticism and leaping ability to body up against opponents. Perkins is unable to run the floor well and slows down the uptempo style the Thunder like to employ which is a stark contrast from the Celtics offense he was a part of a few seasons ago. His 7’2” wingspan and solid frame allow him to dominate the paint defensively.
Hibbert’s ability to contest and alter shots while also blocking over two shots a game has been a huge part of the success the Pacers’ defense had this season. Hibbert has practiced defending at the rim without fouling and explained how verticality really is an art, in an interview with Bill Simmons. Hibbert would constantly get into foul trouble and working on this skill has paid off. Being 7’2″ definitely helps but not all seven footers are able to effectively defend the paint. His backup, Mahinmi (13th), is also a dominant rim protector and helped shore up the Pacers second unit defensively. Although some may disagree, he should be viewed as a starting caliber center in the NBA.
Coming off a four-year $44 million offseason contract extension, Larry Sanders has been a huge disappointment this past season. When he was healthy and starting in the 2012-2013 season, he nearly averaged a double-double. His vast improvement and potential as a defensive anchor of the future convinced the Bucks to lock him up long-term. His understanding of verticality is evident as well. Every team should watch Sanders and implement his approach to rim protection:
Without a doubt the biggest offseason acquisition for the Blazers this past season, Lopez allowed LaMarcus Aldridge to move to his natural power forward position and focus on scoring, instead of going up against opposing teams’ centers. Lopez was a spectacular rim defender and was dominant all season. He’s one of only two players this past season to have over 770 opponent field goal attempts at the rim and be a top 10 rim defender. Rim protection seems to run in the Lopez family and he will be on many teams’ wish lists when he becomes a free agent in 2015.
Probably the most surprising player on this list depending on who you ask, there’s no surprise as to why the Kansas Jayhawks were so dominant with Withey as the starting center and blocking almost 4 shots per game. He’s a very agile seven footer with great timing and length. If he can develop the rest of his skillset, he could be a very solid backup center going forward.
Frustrated this past season and with good reason, Kaman looked like an all-star when Mike D’Antoni did give Kaman minutes (and not sleeping on the bench, getting on Kobe’s nerves). With the Lakers’ lack of skill at pretty much every position, D’Antoni refused to play him regularly. He only played in 39 games this season but averaged 20ppg/11rpg/3apg/2bpg per 36 minutes. Apart from his stellar stats, he was an absolutely dominant rim protector. For a team that was atrocious defensively, there’s no doubt he would have helped shore up the Lakers’ defense.
In his first few years in Toronto and Memphis, Davis was used as an energy player. He isn’t very skilled offensively but has proven he’s a good rebeounder and defensive player. For his career, he averages a double-double per 36 minutes and should have a chance to contribute to the Lakers this upcoming season.
10. Giannis Antetokounmpo
AKA the Greek Freak, after playing in Greece, there was not much known about his game. One thing that was undeniable was that he was a physical specimen. Antetokounmpo’s still extremely raw and hasn’t developed an identity in the NBA. His wingspan and high motor have allowed him to become a dominant rim protector at just 19. Giannis’ potential is sky high.
GUESS WHO’S THE BEST AT PROTECTING THE RIM – PAUL PIERCE, BORIS DIAW OR THADDEUS YOUNG?
By looking at these three players, there’s no doubt that athleticism has very little to do with rim protection. They’re all around 6’8” and had over 300 opponent attempts but their opponent percentages are about as far apart as they can be. Paul Pierce, who is the oldest of this trio, is by far the best rim protector (44th). Boris Diaw (167th) is near the bottom of the list and Thaddeus Young (180th) was even worse. Young is easily the most athletic of the three players but that didn’t translate into effective rim protection. Diaw was even fortunate enough to play alongside an elite rim protector most of the time and was still very bad. The ageless wonder Paul Pierce is clearly doing something right.
AREN’T MOST TALL, ATHLETIC CENTERS AND POWER FORWARDS EFFECTIVE RIM PROTECTORS?
The main takeaway from this look into rim protectors is that it is definitely a skill and it can be taught. Some players like DeAndre Jordan (59th), Demarcus Cousins (84th), Samuel Dalembert (95th), Andre Drummond (98th), Blake Griffin (119th) and Anderson Varejao (132nd) seem to have all the physical attributes to be better than mediocre to poor rim protectors but for now, that’s all they are. Much like rebounding, with positioning, discipline, patience and practice, rim protection can definitely be an acquired skill. Length, not athleticism seems to be the biggest defining factor for an effective rim protector but does not necessarily equate to being an effective one. Tiago Splitter (12th) has been a terrific rim protector mostly by using his length, since it’s no secret he’s a below average athlete for NBA standards. The Spurs coaching staff may be the best at teaching this valuable skill as they have one of the best rim protecting tandems in the NBA.
THESE CAMERAS AREN’T KIND TO KEVIN LOVE
While it’s fair to call Kevin Love (168th) the human turnstile because of his terrible rim protection, it’s unfair to be overly critical of players in this aspect. Rim protection is just one aspect of the game and should not be looked at in a vacuum. He played in an extremely tough Western Conference, on a team with one of the worst benches, and a starting point guard in Rubio with many deficiencies, including being an ineffective closer. Kevin Love is a transcendent talent and his dominant rebounding is often overlooked but is a valuable aspect of his defense, since every board takes away possessions from his opponent and ultimately gives his team more opportunities to score. There are only a few players in the league who can rebound at Love’s level. If Love didn’t take so many three’s, he would definitely grab even more (offensive) rebounds.
Instead of looking at this one flaw and viewing Love as a subpar defender who’s hurting his team, the Timberwolves should look into pairing him with another center instead of Pekovic (148th), while working on developing Love’s defense at the rim. Pekovic is nearly as bad as Love at defending the rim and they aren’t effective defensively as a starting frontcourt, especially in the brutal Western Conference. Pairing Love with Gorgui Dieng (90th), who’s a much better rim defender, would be more feasible since he has the physical tools to be a great rim protector. Per 36 minutes, Dieng averaged 13ppg/13rpg/2bpg in his rookie year and showed some great offensive skills. Starting Dieng would allow the Timberwolves to strengthen their bench while complementing Love with a more defensive-minded center. Even though Kevin Love will end up playing for the Cavs, this is potentially one type of lineup change that can be made to improve a team.
Some limitations of this deep dive are that it doesn’t take into account the ability to defend players on the perimeter and to defend the pick and roll. Even though Joakim Noah (24th) is not in the top ten, his versatility as a defender allowed him to guard players further away from the basket. This unique defensive versatility for a center along with the Bulls top ranked team defense ultimately led to Noah winning the Defensive Player of the Year award.
SO THE TOP SHOT BLOCKERS ARE GREAT RIM PROTECTORS, RIGHT?
One myth that has been dispelled is that shot blockers are effective rim protectors. After this close look at the player tracking data, this is clearly not the case. Pau Gasol (138th), who blocked a solid 1.8 shots per 36 minutes, was at the bottom of this list , while Tiago Splitter who only averaged 0.9 blocks per 36 minutes, is an elite rim protector. There are also many other elite shot blockers who don’t compare with Splitter in terms of rim protection.
Great rim protectors pursue shot attempts and do something I call “talling and walling up.” They understand verticality and put their hands up high and contest and alter shots without fouling much, consistently. This skill is innate for some players, yet is a blind spot for others and needs to be taught. Altering shots won’t show up in any highlight reels but this is every bit as valuable as swatting a shot into the fifth row. While someone like Splitter may alter 3 or 4 shots a game, this is much more valuable than emphatically blocking one shot and disappearing for the rest of the game. Of course, there are a handful of players like Serge Ibaka and Larry Sanders, among others, who are both great shot blockers and dominant rim protectors.
A KEY COMPONENT OF TEAMS WITH CHAMPIONSHIP ASPIRATIONS
Looking back at the past 15 champions, the only two teams without legitimate rim protection were the Miami Heat in 2012 and 2013. Not having an effective rim protector puts tremendous pressure on a team to play great individual defense and to score more than they normally would have to with a rim protector. The Heat had a tough time protecting the rim against the Spurs in the finals this past season. They would have benefitted greatly from a player like Ian Mahinmi starting next to Chris Bosh. Mahinmi is an underrated, agile center and was absolutely dominant protecting the rim this past season. The greatness of LeBron James helped make up for their lack of rim protection in 2013 (and Ray Allen of course) as they had to rely on epic performances from him to win in last year’s finals.
The Heat were in desperate need of a rim protector in the finals against the Spurs this past season. Chris Bosh (99th) is a great stretch four and pick and roll defender but he isn’t very good at protecting the rim. Chris Andersen (39th) on the other hand is a solid rim protector but doesn’t play full time starter’s minutes. The Spurs were masterful at protecting the rim this past season and especially in the finals. When guarding LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard did a great job staying in front of him and when he couldn’t, he funneled James into the “great wall of Duncan (34th) and Splitter.” James and Wade had a very tough time getting shots up against this duo or even against one of them because of their length and solid rim protecting fundamentals.
With this player tracking data, teams can now spend their offseasons analyzing players’ games in new ways. A team such as the Clippers definitely needs to take a deep look at their frontcourt and ways they can improve their rim protection. What’s so frustrating to many people, myself included, who watch Blake Griffin, is that he seems to have all the physical tools like a Serge Ibaka but it doesn’t translate to the defensive end. The tenacity of his dunks don’t translate to the defensive end – protecting the rim or even as many blocks as he should have on a regular basis.
The good news is that rim protection and defensive positioning can be improved through practice and dedication. DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin have the potential to be a dominant defensive tandem and need to be taught the nuances of rim protection. Since three of the top four teams left standing had not just one, but two great rim protectors on each of their teams (Spurs, Thunder, and Pacers), it’s clear that rim protectors are crucial for any team looking to contend.