Of all the potential award recipients this NBA season, none strike me as odder than the candidacy of Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan for the Defensive Player of the Year award.
I don’t just mean he shouldn’t win. I mean he shouldn’t even be in the debate. He’s not even one of the best at what he does.
There already has been much written on why he doesn’t deserve it. BBALLBREAKDOWN’s Ben Dowsett, writing for Basketball Insiders, wrote;
Bandied about by many as the apparent frontrunner for the award after finishing third last year, Jordan is absolutely having a great two-way season as one of the most important pieces on a Western Conference contender. But to be clear right away, not only is Jordan thoroughly undeserving of the DPOY award, even considering him among the five or so most realistic candidates is an absolute slap in the face to a number of far more impactful defensive players.
Dowsett then points out that the Clippers’ average defense actually gets better when Jordan sits down, which is shaky ground for DPOY candidates to be standing on.
Another member of our writing team, Seth Partnow, was more diplomatic in an article for the Washington Post:
As to whether this is enough to make Jordan a worthy winner of the award, who can say? His rim protection is somewhere between mildly and wildly overrated. Even with Jordan on the floor, the Clips are mediocre to bad on that end, despite the presence of perennial all-defense point guard Chris Paul and at least competence at the wings in Matt Barnes and J.J. Redick, so overall, how good could he be? But if one wanted to make the best case for Jordan, his ability to dominate, meaningfully, on the defensive glass would be it.
Dowsett, Partnow, and others do a fine job of pointing out why Jordan doesn’t really deserve consideration. But they’re just looking at the holes in his resume, not actually comparing him head to head with other players.
Playing devil’s advocate, one could argue that you can take any player and poke holes in them. Particularly on the defensive end, it’s hard to find the “perfect” defensive player since there are different roles often in conflict with one another. Ergo, by doing one thing well, other things suffer. For example, a big who helps to guard the perimeter, such as Anthony Davis or last year’s DPOY Joakim Noah, might not have the same rim protection numbers as someone like Roy Hibbert, whose primary focus is to defend the restricted area.
Therefore, if you’re going to make a case for DeAndre Jordan to be the best defensive player, the first thing you have to do is establish that he’s the best rim protector. Rim protection is his speciality on his defensive end, along with his defensive rebounding. If he’s not the best at it, then he doesn’t even belong in the conversation for DPOY.
A player doesn’t have to be the best at one thing to win. Noah wasn’t the best at any one thing, and neither was the winner of two years ago, Marc Gasol. But both of them did everything well, protecting the rim and perimeter effectively. Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green is a frontrunner this year, but he’s not the most dominant at any single thing. Instead, his claim is built on his versatility, as is that of San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard. Defense, by its very nature, is a complicated thing.
But Jordan is a specialist. The majority of his defense is staying inside. Based on his defense dashboard at NBA.com, over 60% of the shots he challenges are within 10 feet. Compare that with someone like Noah, who only has about 45% of his defenses come in that range.
This should not be read as a critique of either player. It’s an observation. They have different roles in different defensive systems. But like needs to be compared with like. Jordan is not a wing defender (obviously). He’s not the jack-of-all-trades. He’s primarily a rebounder and rim protector, so he needs to be evaluated by his impact on those areas.
Therefore, I measured Jordan against some of the other elite rebounding, rim protectors in the league: Andrew Bogut, Rudy Gobert, Roy Hibbert, Dwight Howard and Hassan Whiteside.
Rim protectors are favored by the stat sheet, since two of the easiest things for them to come by are rebounds and blocks. That’s inherent in the role. Ideally, rim protectors are important because they stop and/or end possessions. And that’s where Jordan dominates the most. He’s averaging 15.0 boards and 2.2 blocks per game, and those are hefty totals.
Jordan’s coach, Doc Rivers, is big on rebounding.
Doc Rivers on article: "He didn’t mention rebounding. How the hell can you not mention rebounding in defense?"
— Ben Bolch (@latbbolch) March 13, 2015
Doc Rivers continued: "Rebounding is maybe the No. 1 thing about defense because you have to get the rebound to stop the other."
— Ben Bolch (@latbbolch) March 13, 2015
It’s impossible to have a discussion about Jordan’s defense without someone waving 15.0 rebounds in your face. But there’s a lot of noise to that. First, 4.8 of those rebounds are of the offensive variety. Offensive rebounds are crucial, but these are extending possessions, not ending them as Rivers asserts. They have nothing to do with defense.
Still, even without them, Jordan has more than 10.0 defensive rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game, and it’s only the 21st time in NBA history that’s been accomplished. One could argue (and many have done) that that fact should certainly put him in the conversation for DPOY.
Defensive rebounds are not all created equal, however, Some are contested and some are uncontested, and Jordan has established a reputation as being something of a vulture for those of the uncontested variety.
The rebounding dashboards at NBA.com/Stats provide information on which ones the rebounder had to fight for. Here is how our rim protectors break down.
|Player||Uncontested DREB/G||Contested DREB/G||% DREB Contested|
Consider the difference between Jordan and Bogut here. Jordan averages 4.1 more defensive rebounds than Bogut does, but 3.4 of those are uncontested. When it comes to actually having to scrap for the rebounds, he’s only getting .7 more.
But Jordan is also playing 10 more minutes per game than Bogut. When you adjust for minutes, Jordan (2.67) trails both Whiteside (3.69) and Bogut (3.10) in contested defensive rebounds per 36 minutes.
There’s a limited value in uncontested rebounds. And there’s something to be said for actually playing those extra minutes. Whether that’s enough to justify DPOY, though, is quite another matter. The bottom line here is that most of the rebound argument for Jordan is pure fluff. And thus an awful lot hinges upon his paint defense.
Using blocks as a defensive measure is troublesome for a couple of reasons. First, even an elite blocker is only getting about 2-3 blocks per game. A player is going to be on the court for about 60-70 defensive possessions per game. That means that blocks reflect, at most, about 4% of defensive plays.
Second, many blocks aren’t even meaningful. Some go out of bounds. Some are recovered by the offensive team. Only those which are secured by a player’s own team are meaningful.
Vantage Sports tracks what happens to blocks, and whether or not they are blocked “to possession” (meaning that the defensive team recovered the ball). Here are the number of block numbers for our players and how many are recovered by their own teams versus the competition:
|Player||Block to Poss %||Unrecovered Blocks/36||Recovered Blocks/36|
Jordan’s block to possession percentage is actually pretty solid, but the total number of recovered blocks reflects the relative lack of value in how much difference they make. Consider that the difference between Jordan and Howard’s total (who is the worst among our sample) is .71 shots per game. Theoretically, about half of those shots, were they unblocked would go in anyway. So the difference is really tantamount to just one-third of one play out of every 70 or so.
The ostensive value of defensive rebounds and blocks are that they end possessions. So let’s add in steals and look at the total number of “Possession Ending Plays” by our rim protectors:
|Player||BLK to POSS||Cont. DREB/36||STL/36||PEP/36|
The problem with basing an argument on Jordan’s defensive rebounding and blocks is that a lot of those rebounds and blocks aren’t really making a difference on the defensive end. This goes a long way towards explaining why the Clippers defensive rating isn’t really impacted by him when he’s on the court. His box score stats are kind of hollow.
A true paint defender’s impact comes not from the possessions that they end, however, so much as the ones they change. A true paint defender is a deterrent, someone around whom opposing teams are forced to change their game plan.
Chris Paul, advocating for his Clippers’ teammate, had the following to say.
You look at the stat sheet and you don’t see how many times Aaron Brooks didn’t drive because D.J. was there or how many shots where guys went up and they passed it. That doesn’t show up on the stat sheet.
But there are more advanced stats which reveal exactly what Paul correctly says the traditional stats don’t—how many times a player isn’t going inside because a particular defender is there.
Vantage Sports tracks “Inside Shot Percentage Against (ISPA).” This measures the number of shots taken by the opponent in the low post and behind the rim—represented by areas S, T, U, V and W here:
The theory is the more of a deterrent a player is, the lower percentage of shots opponents will be attempted from inside. Here are the top bigs in the DPOY race, listed along with both their team’s percentage of opponents shots taken inside, both overall and with the player on the court:
“Deterrent” is the team’s overall ISPA minus when the player is on the court. This is to account for the fact that other players can also influence deterrence. And while it’s true that Jordan does make opponents think twice about coming inside, Bogut leads this category by a considerable margin. Whiteside and a declined Dwight Howard are also better deterrents than Jordan. Paul’s argument that Jordan’s presence as a deterrent cannot be accurately measured is thus flawed in two ways – it can be measured, and now that it is so, Jordan doesn’t even win.
Going inside and scoring inside are also separate issues. Players may not be going inside often, but they might be successful when they do. Or maybe they go there more often and fail. How can we measure that?
There are two numbers which are reflective of that. First, there’s the difference in opponent’s field goal percentage inside, available from NBA.com/Stats’ tracking data. For this, I looked at the overall field goal percentage of a team’s opponents inside six feet (DFG%), compared to when that particular player is protecting the rim (FG%). The “Diff%” below is how much lower the opponent’s field goal percentage is against that defender.
The second is Estimated Rim Protection Value, a metric devised by Seth which estimates how many points a big “saves” at the rim by successfully contesting shots (listed here as points saved per 36 minutes”.
Here are our players’ numbers in those areas:
|Player||DFG%||FG%||Diff%||Pts Saved 36|
Once again, Bogut stands out above the rest in terms of both lowering the efficiency of their opponents trying to score inside and the number of points they save at the rim. In fact, he makes the area near the rim about as efficient as a long-two.
Rudy Gobert and Roy Hibbert also are on an elite level. Jordan, however, is a fair distance behind them.
Even for a rim protector, rim protection isn’t the totality of defense. There’s still help defense to consider, and even the best rim protectors have to have some measure of mobility. To view our representatives’ contributions in those areas, we’ll look at defensive rating, with the player both on and off the court to see how much impact they’re having on the defense. And along with that, we’ll look at Defensive Real Plus-Minus, tracked by ESPN.com:
|Player||Def RTG On||DEF RTG Off||NET DEF RTG||DRPM|
Here, Gobert has the best net defensive rating, but Bogut has the best DRPM. Jordan’s net defensive rating is fourth among the elite rim protectors and his DRPM is also fourth. We have not been able to find a single category in which he was the best.
Combining these numbers doesn’t really give you a single number good for quantifiable analysis. It’s not going to tell you how many points a player saves per game, for example. But doing so does give a cumulative effect of how all these thing add up. I converted the negative numbers to positive in the following chart, so as to show the total impact of each defender:
What we see when we put the whole picture together is not surprising considering what we’ve already seen. As a defensive big man, Bogut is head and shoulders over Gobert. Gobert is head and shoulders over everyone else. And everyone else is head and shoulders above Jordan.
Does that mean that Bogut should be the Defensive Player of the Year? Not necessarily. There still is the verstatile defense of Draymond Green and the lockdown wing defense of Kawhi Leonard to consider. As the best defensive big man in the league this year, Bogut belongs in that debate.
But if we can’t even make a case that Jordan is a top-5 rim protector, we can say, unequivocally and unapologetically, that he has no place in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation.