In the 1991 NBA Finals, the Chicago Bulls lost game 1 to the Los Angeles Lakers. For game 2, Coach Phil Jackson had 6’9” All-Defensive small forward, Scottie Pippen, guard 6’8” head of the snake, Magic Johnson. The Bulls won the next 4 games.
6’9” forward Robert Horry has won 7 NBA championships as arguably the most valuable role player in NBA history. Fans will remember him most for the amazing clutch shots he hit. As his #1 fan, I won’t be shy about sharing one of many YouTube videos paying homage to these clutch shots:
When I think of Robert Horry, I think of countless defensive plays as well: emphatic blocks as a weak side helper, blocking jump shooters, poking the ball out of the post player’s hands, and trapping all-star point guards in the backcourt to cause turnovers. While there are fewer videos of Robert Horry playing defense on YouTube, you can still find them:
Horry played in the golden era of power forwards – an era that included Charles Barkley, Chris Webber, Karl Malone, Tim Duncan, Rasheed Wallace, Kevin Garnett, and a young Dirk Nowitzki to name a few. That special fraternity of players have won a combined 8 championships. Horry won 7. Was he in the right place at the right time, playing with prime Hakeem, prime Shaq, prime Kobe, and prime Duncan/Ginobili/Parker? Of course. Would these stars have fewer rings without Horry? Yes, would be my guess.
I am not a man on an island when it comes to heaping effusive praise on Robert Horry. In chapter 11 of his book, The Midrange Theory, Seth Partnow analyzed why certain players play better in the post season than the regular season (and not in a trite Skip Bayless “it’s the player who wants it more” sort of way). An example he highlighted was why All-Star forward Carlos Boozer was consistently worse in the playoffs while Robert Horry was consistently better. To net out, it had to do with a) the magnitude of Boozer’s role with the Bulls during the regular season, which helped optimize regular season wins and b) the fact that he was undersized and played below the rim, which meant that playoff teams with the best players could more easily neutralize him. On the flip side, how do you neutralize a 6’9” rangy, versatile defender who hits open shots like Robert Horry?
My hypothesis is that these rangy, versatile defenders can be the true difference making role players in the NBA. But how much time is committed to developing these skills by players, teams, and agents? I believe this a potential area of growth and innovation for all 3 of these stakeholders.
Before you continue reading, here is a Tik Tok video of Draymond Green to prep you for the rest of this article:
“I thought he sucked in college, and I thought he’d suck in the pros” – veteran NBA scout relaying to me what he and some of his peers thought of Jaden McDaniels before agreeing that he has turned into a very good pro.
Jaden McDaniels certainly didn’t come into the NBA with the same fanfare, expectations, or talent of Robert Horry, but, whether intentionally or not, he’s developed his game to mimic some of what Horry brought to the table. McDaniels came into the league 6’9”, 200 lbs., with a 7 ft wingspan – a very rangy, mobile athlete who can play above the rim.
This was noted scout, Mike Schmitz’, analysis of McDaniels heading into the draft:
- Interesting blend of size, length, and agility at 6-foot-10 with an 8-11 standing reach. Can play above the rim in space with relative ease.
- Holds considerable defensive upside given his agility and size. Has shown the ability to sit down and slide with wings. Finished the year averaging 1.0 steals and 1.6 blocks per 40 minutes. Improved motor.
- Versatile offensive attack with his ability to make a standstill 3, handle in the open floor and create for others on occasion. Although he made only 34% of his 3s at Washington, he has sound touch and solid mechanics.
- Can rise into 3s and mid-range pull-ups. Good footwork overall. Has touch on floaters. Changes speeds and directions with the ball. Shows glimpses of feel as a playmaker.
That’s quite a scouting profile. Surely, he was a lottery pick, right? There were actually 27 players picked before him (feel free to look them up). You know what makes this worse? He was drafted by my beloved Lakers before being sent off in the trade for Dennis Schroder. If the Lakers had kept that pick, they would have had either McDaniels or Desmond Bane. Lakers fans, imagine this team with one of those guys. That Schroder trade haunts me for a myriad of reasons, but this is the biggest one. But I digress…
It should be noted that McDaniels has parlayed these skills into a meaningful role on a playoff team (certainly more meaningful than the majority of the 27 guys selected before him). He is one of only 2 NBA players in the 80th percentile for both Rim Protection and On-Ball defense. Looking at the D-LEBRON stat, McDaniels is comfortably in the top quartile of NBA players. He is not as good a 3-point shooter as Schmitz had suggested he might develop into, but he did shoot 35.7% on pull up 3s and corner 3s…functional enough if his shot selection is good.
I’d even argue that his defense, mobility, and rim protection will be what ultimately determines how successful the Rudy Gobert trade will be. See my previous article about 2-big lineups, which you can find here to understand why.
Jaden’s overall offensive impact is brutal. He is good at certain things, but his overall shotmaking is near the bottom of the league, he is terrible at creating at the rim (but converts decently because he gets great shot quality), is horrible at drawing fouls on drives, his 3-point shooting talent is in the 31st percentile for Wings, and he can’t do much in the post. I don’t say this to bag on him, but to highlight how important his defense is. He played 26 minutes on a playoff team last year.
Look at the LEBRON data below. As atrocious as his offense was, he still ranked pretty favorably in LEBRON Wins Above Replacement player.
To be clear, he isn’t without any offensive talent. He actually has a really good midrange, is a good enough shooter to hit a fair amount of the high quality 3-pointers he gets, is a decent roll man, and hit over 80% of his free throws.
He is the type of guy you can envision playing better in the playoffs (like a Robert Horry) because opposing defenses will be optimized to slow his more well-known teammates. As a proof point, during the regular season, he shot 37.1% from three, averaged 1 free throw per game, and shot 80.3% on those free throws. In the playoffs, he shot 50% from three, averaged 2 free throws per game, and shot 83.3% on those free throws.
The lesson here? Jaden McDaniels has played meaningful minutes because he has used his physical attributes to develop and focus on being a difference maker defensively.
If only there was a player with Jaden McDaniels’ physical profile who could shoot threes. Oh wait, there is – his brother, Jalen, who was taken in the 2019 NBA draft the year before Jaden. Similar profile, perhaps even more rangy and mobile at just shy of 6’10”, 191 lbs., with a wingspan that extends beyond 7 feet. But while BBall Index gives Jaden an F 3-point shot-making grade, Jalen has a B+ grade with much higher shooting percentages on similar shot quality.
So Jalen is the better player, right? With that build and agility, the defensive side of the ball should be a slam dunk. Looking at his D-LEBRON, he’s barely in the top 50% of NBA players, while his brother is in the top quartile.
Maybe I’m missing something; maybe he wasn’t forecasted to be a defensive talent. Let’s see what Mike Schmitz said about Jalen prior to the 2019 draft:
McDaniels showed what makes him intriguing long-term with his positional size, fluidity, tremendous motor, flashes of shot-making ability and defensive versatility as a 6-foot-10 forward. The big question is his 3-point shooting, as he’s just 22-for-72 on the season (31 percent). But his 77 percent career free throw shooting, as well as his midrange prowess, offer some hope in that regard.
It looks like Jalen was expected to be an excellent and versatile NBA defender. Why hasn’t that borne fruit? I’ve talked to different coaches and basketball aficionados and have heard, effectively, “Some guys just don’t have it.”
I don’t buy that. I want to go back to something Mike Schmitz wrote in his assessment of Jaden McDaniels: Holds considerable defensive upside given his agility and size. If that’s the case, any player with similar size and agility should hold considerable upside, not just the McDaniels brothers. Players like Jalen Smith, Brandon Ingram, Cam Reddish, etc., should be classier defenders than they’ve shown thus far in their careers. Their physical make up alone should raise their defensive floor.
But why? In short, they should be quicker than their heavier counterparts in the league, who may be the same size or taller. And their shorter counterparts, while quite capable of being excellent defenders, lack the advantage of size and wingspan, which enables the Jaden McDaniels of the world to cover more space, both horizontally and vertically. This is important because a differentiating capability that these guys can bring on the defensive end compared to other wings and guards is Rim Protection. This is huge.
Rim Protection is the single most important metric that impacts D-LEBRON stats. Measuring defense is an imperfect thing because it involves evaluating a player’s contribution to something that is measured as a team’s impact. When it comes to measuring this, D-LEBRON is the best game in town. And the correlating data tells us that Rim Protection is the biggest influencing factor in this metric.
I’m sure plenty of NBA fans and basketball minds are probably skeptical of this. After all, so much of the free agency talk was about teams desperately trying to get wing defenders. Heck, the Clippers gave Robert Covington a new contract because they didn’t even want him to hit free agency.
Looking at the chart below highlighting On-Ball Defenders above the 90th percentile, we see that they are all over the board in terms of their overall defensive impact (D-LEBRON in the vertical axis). We see the aforementioned Cam Reddish at just above the 91st percentile in on-ball defense, but almost at the complete bottom of the league in terms of defensive impact.
However, when you look at the players in the 90th percentile and above in Rim Protection (below), their overall defensive impact is much greater. Almost all of them are above the 75th percentile in D-LEBRON and most are much higher than that. You can see the darling of this piece, Jaden McDaniels, sitting above the 90th percentile in Rim Protection and 80th percentile in D-LEBRON. You’ll also see the aforementioned Jalen Smith who looks to be hovering around the 35th percentile in D-LEBRON. In fact, knowing how impactful elite rim protection is to the D-LEBRON stat, it indicates that other parts of Smith’s defense are, to be polite, in need of attention.
I want to go back to the point that was made previously – that some guys “just don’t have it” – whether it’s foot speed or processing time. The implication is that it can’t be developed, which I have a hard time buying. You will get 100% agreement from me that simply making defensive development a point of emphasis doesn’t mean guys will develop into a Kawhi Leonard or Draymond Green type defender, much like devoting himself to 3-point shooting development won’t turn a guy into Steph Curry. But, players can be much better than they are, and there is evidence that these defensive skills can be developed.
Let’s take a look at the top 10 players in the D-LEBRON stat for 2022. This stat tends to skew heavily toward anchor bigs because, due to height and length, it’s easier to be good at Rim Protection. For example, Hassan Whiteside, who is 7’1” with a 7’7” wingspan, would have to try really hard to NOT be a good rim protector. Since I want to analyze players who improved their defensive skills (which changes how teams can use them in defensive schemes), I removed Anchor Bigs from this analysis:
Since defense is supposedly something you just have or don’t have, the trend analysis should show that these guys are consistently good defenders, but does it?
I spread the 10 players among 3 charts to make things cleaner to read. Some key insights:
- At age 35, Al Horford’s 3.55 D-LEBRON rating is a career high and almost 2 points higher than one year ago, which means his number went up 122%. A 35 year old’s number went up 122%.
- It’s hard to imagine, but Giannis started as a fairly average to slightly below average defender with a -0.16 D-LEBRON rating in 2014 and 0.26 in 2016. But by 2020, he had skyrocketed up to 4.25, which is an insane number.
- Robert Covington didn’t become an elite defender until his 4th year in the league.
- Otto Porter, Jr. was positively dreadful his 1st 2 years in the league and now is in the top 10. Some of this was due to injury. Some was definitely not.
- Lonzo Ball started strong in LA, dipped his 2 years in New Orleans, and then showed out stronger than ever in Chicago. Lonzo’s knee problems have followed him at all stops, so there may have been a culture difference in New Orleans in terms of how defense was taught/emphasized (even though New Orleans picked up a couple of really good defenders in Herbert Jones and Jose Alvarado).
- Jae Crowder was a middling defender most of his career, until the last 2 years in Phoenix.
This evidence suggests that defense CAN improve and dramatically. Additionally, here are top 10 risers over the last NBA season in D-LEBRON. When you look at the improvements, keep in mind certain numbers:
- Rudy Gobert led the statistic with a 3.75 D-LEBRON and Terrence Ross was 374th (last) at -2.83.
- The median player was Kessler Edwards at -0.06.
- To be in the top quartile required a D-LEBRON of 0.78
- The bottom quartile was below -0.62
That’s a fairly tight dispersion, with a spread of 6.61 from the best defender to the worst defender, and puts into perspective the magnitude of the following 1-year improvements:
This is more evidence that defense can be taught, learned, and improved. Some of it has to do with injury, some of it team situation, but a lot of it is the player themselves. For example, Luke Kennard has been a Low Activity defender his entire career. This past year, his D-LEBRON grade on bball-index.com jumped from a resounding F to a C-…same team, same coach, same roster.
Again, I will submit that the ceiling for certain players will be higher because of processing time; in other words, I would expect that even the most dedicated players would be unlikely to be as good as prime Draymond Green. However, I think players with the physical profile we have been discussing should have a much higher floor.
So who should care about this?
College and NBA Players who are highly mobile, 6’8”-6’10”, rangy player with long arms
- I get it. You were a superstar in middle school, a superstar in high school, and a superstar in college. But in the NBA, there are only so many stars…and even fewer superstars. There are guys sitting at the end of the bench who absolutely dominated everybody prior to the NBA. The league is hard. Really hard. In all likelihood, you may have to deal with the reality very quickly that you won’t be one of the few who is a star in this league
- Think back to the Jaden McDaniels example. He was in his 2nd year and getting meaningful minutes on a playoff team despite offensive limitations. His defensive versatility is how he earns his playing time. As long as he hits a reasonable amount of open shots and makes the simple pass, his offense won’t keep him from playing. On the flip side, there are better offensive players who wouldn’t get the minutes Jaden gets because of how much of a liability they are on the defensive end.
- For guys that are fringe stars, do you want to be a seen as a guy putting up points on a bad team? Or do you want to be seen as a difference maker and leader on a playoff team? Do you want to be a guy who can be seen as the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd best player on a championship team? Getting it done defensively will help. For example, Brandon Ingram, who I really like, can make a major leap by using his 6’9” mobile frame and 7’3” wingspan to be a versatile, disruptive defender. This would do wonders for the Pelicans.
- Players want to sign with agents who help them maximize their careers. It’s not unusual for agents to help with things away from the team – shooting coaches, nutritionists, trainers, etc. Having a defensive guru help these guys with skills development, film study, and using their unique physical advantages will help get your players more playing time and longer careers.
- Also, guys like this can be difference makers on teams with championship aspirations. If your player is traded from a middle to bottom tier team to a championship contender because of these skills, it will greatly increase his exposure and earning potential.
- Teams are always looking for competitive advantages, whether the goal is to make the playoffs or win a championship. While there will never be a substitute for elite basketball skills, this unique physical profile can’t be learned or taught. Players who are blessed with these genetic advantages should have expectations placed on them on the defense end. If I am Indiana, I would work with Jalen Smith on becoming a meaningful and versatile defender (he already has the shot blocking). If I have Cam Reddish, who is a wonderful 3-point shooter and sensational on-ball defender, I’d demand that he earn playing time through his defensive play. And if I’m the Pelicans, adding a defensive-minded Brandon Ingram to a healthy Zion and CJ would help this team leapfrog a lot of the other teams in the West.
- Teams have salary restrictions and limited access to talent. Some teams also don’t have many 1st round picks because of trades. How do you build a competitive team? Can you take a 6’9” mobile athlete like a Jalen McDaniels with the 52nd pick and develop him defensively? Can you find a similar guy who went undrafted and devote the resources and time necessary to develop him defensively? The G-League and 2-way contracts certainly have made that more possible.
For example, the Lakers worked out Kaodirichi Akobundu-Ehiogu, from UT Arlington prior to the draft. He is the type of player you consider for developmental reasons – a 6’9” freakish athlete/shotblocker who shot 85.7% from the free throw line. He opted to return to school to continue to work on his game, but he is absolutely the type of player I can see becoming the next Jaden McDaniels.
I will end this piece with a treat – showing you the video footage of his crazy athleticism: