Thursday, April 2, 2015

Good Centers Play Defense

When you are looking at what types of players you want to draft, one of the more instructive things to do is look at the rosters of the playoff teams and see if you can find any patterns. One that jumps out right away is that good teams tend to have C's who play defense. Here's a look at the Top 8 out West:

Golden State - Andrew Bogut
Memphis - Marc Gasol
Houston - Dwight Howard
Portland - Robin Lopez
Los Angeles - DeAndre Jordan
San Antonio - Tim Duncan
Dallas - Tyson Chandler
Oklahoma City - Steven Adams

The smallest guy on this list is Tyson Chandler at 7'1 240 and he's an absolutely exceptional athlete, although he is starting to slow down at the age of 32. Bogut, Gasol, Howard, RoLo, DeAndre, Duncan - these are all massive human beings who move their feet pretty well and know how to cover up the front of the rim.The one guy you could say isn't a high-level defender is Adams, if only because of his age and inexperience. And how does OKC make up for it? Serge Ibaka + Kevin Durant + generic defensive wing + Russell Westbrook in front of him. If you are a good team in the Western Conference, you are either getting good D from your C position (2nd line of defense) or you are getting good D from the other 4 positions (1rst).

Nor do these guys come on the free agent market very often. Duncan, Jordan, Gasol - they are all on the teams that brought them up. For the most part, you either have to draft and develop them or flip your own assets to get one. The Warriors turned Monta Ellis into Bogut while the Blazers lucked into Robin Lopez as part of a three-way deal. The only guys on that list who hit unrestricted free agency were Howard and Chandler. What happened to the teams that let them go? The Lakers and the Knicks are currently vying for the No. 1 pick in this year's draft, where they would presumably draft a C.

Even in the East it's the same story.

Atlanta - Al Horford
Cleveland - Timofey Mozgov
Chicago - Joakim Noah
Toronto - Jonas Valanciunas
Washington - Nene
Milwaukee - John Henson
Miami - Hassan Whiteside
Brooklyn - Brook Lopez

You have to go all the way to the No. 8 seed out East to find a C with a bad defensive reputation.

Now let's take a look at the rosters of the bottom 10 teams in the NBA and tell me if you notice a pattern:

Indiana - Roy Hibbert
Charlotte - Al Jefferson
Detroit - Andre Drummond
Denver - Jusuf Nurkic
Sacramento - DeMarcus Cousins
Orlando - Nik Vucevic
LA Lakers - Jordan Hill
Philly - Nerlens Noel
Minnesota - Nik Pekovic
NY Knicks - Player X

Wouldn't you know it, just about every C with the scouting report "great scorer but struggles to defend the paint" shows up. If you go down the list - Hibbert probably won't be on it next season with Indiana getting Paul George back, Drummond might be able to graduate out as he improves his defensive recognition under Stan Van Gundy, the reason people were excited about the Kings at the start of the season was that DMC had started to get going on defense under Mike Malone.

There are some good C's on that list. It's obvious that a lot of them could be on good teams - it's just that they have to be in a very specific situation to succeed. Pekovic seems like a good example. My suspicion it the reason that team in Minnesota last season didn't make the playoffs is because they didn't have enough rim protection. Switch Pekovic even with Robin Lopez and I bet the Wolves make it. If you don't have a good defensive C, you had better at least have a good defensive PF and Kevin Love is many things but he is not that.

The bottom line is that C is primarily a defensive position. You are the last guy between the opposing player and the rim. You can use whatever analogy you want - the QB of the defense, the goalie on the floor. It's great if your goalie can give you 20-25+ points the other way, but if it's going to compromise what he's going to do on D then it doesn't really have much of an effect on winning games. You can hide poor perimeter defenders on non-shooters or guys who aren't primary options. There's nowhere to hide a bad goalie. The only thing you can do is slide him to PF and play a goalie behind him.

The problem with that, of course, is that putting a guy with a C's size at the PF position AND playing him with another C means there is very little space to score on the other side of the floor. This has been the main problem for Greg Monroe over the course of his career and it is the No. 1 concern for Jahlil Okafor.

It feels like Jahlil has the Carmelo Anthony problem in that he has been such a gifted scorer his entire life he has never needed to play much D. Jahlil has been able to win basketball games by getting buckets since Day 1. The NBA is the first time in his life when that's going to change. If he starts right away, he is going to be tested on D every night. He is going to be tested individually, both in the pick-and-roll and the post, and as a team defender, in terms of the number of different actions he's going to have to call out. It's very hard to be a young C on a good team because you have so much responsibility and so many decisions to make. With Jahlil it will be 10x harder because he will also be having a lot of plays run for him and he'll be going up against the best 1-on-1 defenders he has ever seen in his life. He might need a year or two to really get going on offense and figure out the NBA lifestyle before he even thinks about the other end of the floor.

The question for whatever team that drafts him is how good can this guy be on defense and how quickly can he do it. It takes a long time for C's to develop - it's a very difficult position to learn. Rookie C's don't start very often and when they do they aren't usually on good teams. To complete the sports analogies, I'd say there are a lot of similarities between being the center in the NBA and the catcher in MLB. Most MLB teams don't care about offense from their C for the same reasons that NBA teams don't for theirs.

Let's look at the ages of all those Western Conference C's:

Bogut - 30
Gasol - 30
Howard - 29
RoLo - 27
DeAndre - 26
Duncan - 37
Tyson - 32
Adams - 21

Jahlil is 19. Unless he gets drafted to the Oklahoma City Thunder, it's probably going to take him awhile before he's ready to be a playoff C. The best case scenario is probably the trajectory of DeMarcus Cousins, a teenager who came into the league as a dominant scorer and who looks ready to turn the corner as a complete player at 24. At this point, the Kings just needed to have done a much better job of building around him. Here are the guys they took in the next four lotteries - Jimmer Fredette, Thomas Robinson, Ben McLemore, Nik Stauskas.

If you have Jahlil developing into a dominant low-post threat at the ages of 20-23, you should be able to draft a pretty good team around him in the meanwhile. You can get a lot of elite two-way shooters to put in front of him and then you could really have something.

I'd say that (barring injury of course) Al Jefferson is probably the floor for what Jahlil becomes. He's just that gifted a scorer. How good his teams become is primarily going to come down to how good he can become at defense. My guess is he will be on one of the best teams in the NBA by the time he gets to 28-29 but that it could take him a long while to get there.

Whoever drafts Jahlil Okafor is going to have to be real patient. 

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