Back in 2015, Mark Jackson said something that pissed a lot of people off. I know, stunning, right? Here’s a quote from the very first Golden State broadcast Jackson did for ESPN after being fired.
“To me, a rim protector is overrated in this league.” Jackson said on a Jan. 9, 2015 telecast. “You look at the Warriors. No Andrew Bogut, their defense stays or even improves because of the identity, because of what they force you to do.”
There’s important context we can’t ignore. The Warriors had a one-of-a-kind setup anchored by a 6’7 center that could switch everything and protect the rim. Also, Jackson famously feuded with Bogut during his time as Warriors coach, so the comment wasn’t entirely altruistic. But in an era where basket protection was seen as the holy grail of defense, Jackson’s words seemed heretical.
It took me three and a half years, but I now see the kernel of truth in Jackson’s point. Syphoning off a zone of the court, even one as essential as the basket, is important, but limited. Think of a great rim protector like a great home run hitter that strikes out a lot and doesn’t hit for average. On the whole, this player is extremely valuable. Baseball games are decided by runs scored, and the easiest way to score a lot of runs at once is to hit a home run.
But sometimes, the upside that the home run hitter provides (being able to score lots of runs at once with one swing) is counterbalanced by the increased likelihood that he’ll provide the team nothing at all.
In hoops, the basket is the most valuable real estate. Strip away all defense and context, and it’s much easier to score from two feet away than 25 feet away. But basketball isn’t just a zillion mad dashes to that elusive space. There are many more situations where teams need timely singles, especially with teams shooting from so far away.
Imagine, then, that you could transport the qualities of an elite rim protector to anywhere on the court. Imagine if instead of a stationary brick wall in one place, you could pick up that brick wall and put it wherever was most needed at any given time.
Meet Anthony Davis.
Much of the credit for the Pelicans’ surprising 2-0 series lead over the Portland Trail Blazers is going to New Orleans’ supporting players. Aggressive Jrue Holiday. Clean-shaven Nikola Mirotic. PLAYOFF RONDO. All three have been outstanding.
But the reality is that the Pelicans’ 2-0 series lead starts with one person and one person only: Anthony Davis. Forget his numbers. His mere presence makes all his teammates thrive.
This is true on offense, because his ability to space the floor and dive in for threatening alley-oops is opening the paint for Holiday’s drives.
But it’s on defense where Davis most exhibits the wisdom of Jackson’s point.
The Blazers’ success is built around a simple concept: they have two great guards in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum that can pull up from anywhere and get to the cup. Protect against the drive too much, and they nail shots in your eye. Sell out too much to stop the long shot, and they get by you or slip it beautifully to their four teammates to attack three opponents. That allows Portland to roast towering big men and their smaller, quicker counterparts with equal delight.
To deal with them, opponents need a player that can protect the rim when needed and cut off the obvious three-point shot if necessary. They need a rim protector, yes, but also a floater protector, a pull-up three protector, a mid-range protector, and a deep three protector. They need a player capable of providing home runs and timely singles when the situation merits it.
Enter Anthony Davis. During the regular season, opponents:
- Shot 10.5 percentage points worse on shots inside of six feet with Davis defending.
- Shot 5.1 percentage points worse from beyond 15 feet.
- Shot four percentage points worse on three-pointers.
No matter the zone, Davis’ mere presence blunted the impact.
Compare this to a great, more traditional rim protector like Utah’s Rudy Gobert, a leading candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. Gobert shuts off the rim beautifully, holding opponents 10 percentage points below their usual shooting marks at the basket. But beyond 15 feet, opponents actually shot 5.2 percentage points better with Gobert defending than without. He protected his house, but was less adept when forced to protect others.
This is not meant to denigrate Gobert, who is a great defender that makes a massive impact on the Jazz’s overall success. And these stats are crude because it’s hard to measure which defender is closest to the shot. But if anything, they also underrate Davis’ impact around the court. Gobert’s intimidation factor stops so many shots from even being attempted at the basket. Davis may not have that same degree of intimidation in that one zone, but he creates the same effect from everywhere.
This series is showing that ability on full display. He is just as capable of stopping the Portland guards at the rim ...
... as he is stopping them at the point of attack.
If Portland’s guards try to find the open man, Davis is there, too.
Davis is the mallet and the Blazers’ guards are the moles. Wherever they go to try to find space, he’s there. If they use their quickness to attack him, he’s quick enough to slide his feet and keep them in front.
If they try to rain moonballs over the top, he’s long enough to get all the way out there, too.
And if they attack someone else and surge right to the basket, he’s tall, sturdy, and athletic enough to snuff their layup out.
Worse, the Blazers cannot escape him. If they run pick-and-roll with his man, Davis can directly erase whatever the Blazers are trying to accomplish. Principally, that means fewer shots for Lillard and McCollum, and lower-percentage shots when they do get them off. During the regular season, Lillard and McCollum combined to make an average of 11.4 unassisted field goals per game. In the first two games against the Pelicans, they’ve made a total of just nine unassisted field goals. In shots classified as pull-up jumpers, the Blazers’ dynamic duo is shooting 6-22 in the first two games of the series after nailing 43 percent of said shots in the regular season.
But if the Blazers try to run away from him and run pick-and-roll with someone else, Davis is always there anyway lurking on the back line.
New Orleans has often used Davis to “guard” non-shooting threats like Al-Farouq Aminu, with Mirotic defending Jusuf Nurkic or Ed Davis. When the Blazers use their big men to set ball screens for Lillard or McCollum, Mirotic or whoever else will jump out with a hard trap to get the ball out of their hands.
Fine, right? Portland’s beaten this coverage this a thousand times before by tossing it out of the trap and setting up a 4-on-3 situation.
The difference is that other teams don’t have Anthony Davis as one of those three. As the Pels trap, Davis will drift far off his non-threat of a shooter to get in the way. He can swallow up any attempt by the roll man to score at the hoop.
Or, he can deter said play and still recover to make the next rotation.
This creates an impossible choice for the Blazers. Do you want the entire foundation of your team to get erased by Anthony Davis right away, or erased by Anthony Davis a couple seconds later? Either way, you’re getting erased. The only difference is where that soul-crushing defeat happens on the court.
There may be some creative ways for Terry Stotts to attempt to minimize Davis’ omnipotence in Game 3 and beyond — watch out for double ball screens where Davis’ man screens for one of the guards, followed by a second screener picking Davis off. But the fundamental problem still remains. The Blazers cannot target a Davis weakness on defense because he doesn’t have one. He may not be as good in any one area as a rim protector or switch-proof wing defender, but he can do either whenever the situation is merited.
In that sense, Jackson had a point all those years ago. Great rim protection builds a barrier around one valuable piece of real estate. That’s useful, to a point. The Great Wall of China sure did well to keep Mongolian tribes away from the Ming dynasty.
But in today’s NBA, where teams are proficient at all sorts of aerial attacks from different spots on the court, it’s far more valuable to have a portable Great Wall to drop in wherever necessary at any given time. One need only watch Anthony Davis against Portland to understand that.