The Los Angeles Clippers are facing a tough situation right now. Blake Griffin is injured and will be out for at least another month. Chris Paul, in a game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, separated the tendon in his right thumb, sidelining him for 1.5-2 months. And finally, they just lost a close match against the lowly Minnesota Timberwolves, which is a sign that without their two all-stars things may go down hill very quickly.
That is, unless DeAndre Jordan – the Clippers third best player and defensive superstar – can lead the team to wins.
For a player with as limited of an offensive skill-set as Jordan has, the thought of him leading a team to victories against all but the worst teams seems crazy. The fact is, though, DeAndre’s play means he’s arguably the best defensive big-man in the NBA. Yes, even better than Rudy Gobert.
Rudy Gobert. The Stifle Tower. In many ways, a near-lock for Defensive Player Of The Year.
Regardless of how you phrase his name, Gobert is one of the best defensive players in the NBA. He is central to the best defense in the NBA, and when Gobert is playing the Jazz give up less than one point per possession which by itself would be the best defense in the NBA.
Furthermore, Gobert’s playtype data – i.e., how he does against certain plays – reflects this thinking. Per Synergy Sports Technology, Gobert ranks in the 96th percentile of all players who have defended the roll-man in a pick-and-roll this season, the 86th percentile of post-up defenders, and is the best player in the NBA at guarding shots off screens. Gobert is one of the most natural defensive players we have seen in a long time.
Okay, so with all of that said, how is DeAndre Jordan a better defender?
With Gobert, we tend to focus on what he does extremely well, and ignore the negative aspects of his game. He is an average spot-up defender (54th percentile) and isolation defender (63 percentile). But perhaps the biggest problem is Gobert’s ability to guard the ball handler in the pick-and-roll.
As this chart demonstrates, there is one aspect of Gobert’s defense that is problematic, and everywhere else ranges from “fine” to “elite.” That area is his ability to defend the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll. Teams attack him using this play over 59% of the time, and he has not demonstrated an ability to be an even average defender against this set.
So why is it a problem that Gobert struggles at this type of play? To act as the Devil’s Advocate, when the pick-and-roll goes to the ball-handler, an elite team will average only .9 points per possession, hardly something to be nervous about. Moreover, Gobert is still allowing only .865 points per possession on those plays, which should not be concerning to the Jazz.
The answer is the frequency of how much these types of plays are run. Portland, Houston, Los Angeles Clippers, and the San Antonio Spurs all average .88 points or better on the ball-handler pick-and-roll, and rank in the top-ten teams in the NBA at executing such plays. The French big-man is not bad enough at defending these plays to the point where Quin Snyder should feel obligated to pull him; however, Gobert’s inability to defend these plays at an average level will be attacked in the playoffs. This makes the Jazz defense less frightening than what their regular season stats suggest precisely because there is a way to attack it.
This brings me to DeAndre Jordan. Just last year, Jordan’s coach Doc Rivers made a statement that DeAndre was deserving of the Defensive Player Of The Year award. And this year, unlike last year, he has an argument for deserving it. Let’s compare his play-type stats with Gobert and the average NBA big defender.
Jordan is a better defender on two of the main criterion of big-man defense: defending the ball handler in the pick-and-roll as well as defending post-ups. While he is worse at defending spot-up shots, this is more of a problem with the Clippers’ defense, and less to do with Jordan. We know this because, per Synergy, 88 out of the 106 spot-up attempts DeAndre has defended have been catch-and-shoot, no dribble shots.
What this video shows is that, in the Clippers’ defensive scheme, DeAndre Jordan is asked to clog the paint rather than jumping to defend catch-and-shoot and/or spot-up shots. This allows for multiple open spot-up looks outside of the paint for the man Jordan is supposed to be defending, and consequently, a poor percentage on defending such possessions.
Yet, when you witness Jordan’s interior defense, the Clippers scheme tends to make sense. He is nearly impossible to score against in the post.
These two clips both show DeAndre making cerebral defensive plays. In the first clip, he reads Oklahoma City’s offense and realizes that Sabonis – the player with the ball – will be unable to pass to the man Jordan is defending, Jerami Grant. Because of this, at the perfect time, Jordan runs to create double-coverage and forces a turnover.
On the second play, DeAndre Jordan is guarding Karl-Anthony Towns on a post-up. Towns is arguably the best offensive center in the NBA. Yet, Jordan uses his strength and basketball IQ to prevent Towns from getting anywhere close to the rim, and thus forces a contested midrange jumper.
With all of that said, Jordan also happens to be a phenomenal pick-and-roll defender, and this is perhaps where his game shines most.
The first two clips show Jordan getting blocks off the pick-and-roll, one being on the ball-handler and the other on the roll-man. The third clip demonstrates what happens when Jordan switches on to the ball-handler. He forces Rubio to take a contested midrange shot, and while Karl-Anthony Towns gets the rebound, DeAndre is quick enough to recover and contest Towns’s shot as well. Finally, the last clip shows Jordan’s stellar defense on Tyus Jones off a switch on the pick-and-roll.
What these clips demonstrate, in total, is that DeAndre Jordan has a mix of basketball IQ, strength, and speed that lets him be a great “switch” defender on the pick-and-roll. It is difficult if not impossible to force Jordan out of the game by getting him involved in a series of screens, and consequently he is a valuable defensive player against most every team in the association. This is something unique to Jordan that Gobert does not possess.
So why isn’t the French big-man good at this? It has to do with the Rudy’s ability to go under screens. Gobert likes to hedge, sag, and go under screens because, in theory, his length gives him plenty of time to recover the lost space. For an example of when this works, watch the video below.
On this play, Gobert switches on the ball-handler while still remaining far enough away where he can use his length to recover on defense and stop the roll-man. The dilemma is that stats suggest that is generally not the case.
On this chart focus on the middle column. Per Synergy, when Rudy Gobert goes under the pick-and-roll he gives up a whopping 1.21 points per possession, this compared to Jordan’s .741 points per possession when he goes under. This is because Gobert tends to gamble on his ability to recover, and consequently, gives up a lot of open shots.
The four clips show how NBA teams exploit Gobert’s defense on screens. But is this just part of the Jazz’s scheme? Do the Jazz want Gobert gambling when he goes under screens? Videos from Eurobasket 2015 and the 2016 Olympics suggest it has less to do with Quin Snyder’s scheme and more to do with Gobert.
These show Gobert doing the same thing for the French National Team. Therefore, due to his penchant for gambling when going under screens, the Jazz are forced to make Gobert go over the screen or into the screen more than they would like.
What the above stats demonstrate is that DeAndre Jordan is much more versatile in how he can defend the pick-and-roll. This lets the Clippers experiment with different defensive strategies depending on their opponent, something the Jazz have more difficulty doing.
For example, on January 5, 2017, the Jazz played the Raptors and gave up 101 total points, including 33 points to Kyle Lowry and 23 points to DeMar DeRozan. All game long the Raptors attacked Gobert in the pick-and-roll, and were successful at doing it.
The problem for Gobert is that when he sags off of screens and/or goes under, he is gambling on three factors: first, that his length will allow him to recover; second, that the opponent won’t make a slightly open midrange or three-point shot; and third, that the ball-handler won’t be quick enough to attack him off the dribble (this last part can be seen in the above clip of Lowry and the Eurobasket video where Sergio Rodriguez attacks Gobert in the same way). This gambling does not work and results in Gobert being a mediocre pick-and-roll defender.
For DeAndre Jordan, though, that is not the case. He is an elite pick-and-roll defender, especially when he is switched on to the ball-handler. Per Synergy, Jordan is the 12th best big (minimum of 100 possessions) in the NBA at defending the pick-and-roll.
Consequently, if Rudy Gobert is a player who can use his defense to make the Utah Jazz a top-four seed in the Western Conference, than it is not inconceivable that DeAndre Jordan could use his prowess to keep the Clippers above water. Jordan is elite at defending the post, and very good at stopping isolation and pick-and-roll plays as well. It will be possible for DeAndre Jordan to use his defensive abilities to help the Clippers survive this rash of injuries, and potentially, to make noise in the 2017 NBA Playoffs.
If the Clippers’ big-man does this, than frankly, he should be a favorite to win Defensive Player OF The Year over Rudy Gobert. While Gobert is the new, hot fad in the NBA, his defense is simply easier to exploit than DeAndre Jordan’s. So while Jordan was not a DPOY candidate when Rivers said he was, right now Jordan is arguably the best defensive big in the game, and should be able to aid the LA Clippers to a positive season.