Access Denied: Why Elite Rim Protection Still Matters In The NBA

Rudy Gobert has become a punching bag across the NBA. 

Whether it be the Frenchman's talent, accent, style of play, location or the unfortunate honour of being the first of many players to test positive to COVID-19, he's long been a polarising figure. 

Conversations over his impact and value to a team have typically been left to social media in a carousel of points per game v screen assist inspired arguments. However, as he so often does, Patrick Beverley had something to say when the Minnesota Timberwolves hosted the Utah Jazz last week. 

Also, and which is so often the case, Beverly's words were largely ridiculous. 

It started with his jab at Gobert as the two teams headed to the locker room at halftime. Beverley became vocal after hitting a floater over the Frenchman before adding: "we know they have the Defensive Player of the Year, quote unquote, defensive player of the year, in Rudy Gobert, so we just wanted to get out and play fast."

The Timberwolves scored only one other basket on a shot defended by Gobert. He defended 12 in total as the Jazz thrashed Beverley's Timberwolves by 32 points. Unsurprisingly, Beverley wanted the last word:

“If I’m defensive player of the year, I’m always guarding the best player no matter what, I’m not roaming. It’s no discredit to Royce O’Neale or any of the others on their team, but if I’m defensive player of the year, I’m not guarding Royce O’Neale. I’m guarding Mike Conley, I’m guarding Donovan Mitchell, I’m guarding (Bojan) Bogdanovic. You got Rudy Gobert out there guarding (Jarred) Vanderbilt. And he’s talking about he’s Defensive Player of the Year. So, uh, whatever.”

The Jazz play with the fifth-best defence in the NBA allowing 106.1 points per 100 possessions - to go along with their top-ranked offence - and are 3rd in the Western Conference but, uh, whatever.

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Perhaps Beverley doesn't mind looking silly if he gets his verbal shot off. All he's done here is show a lack of understanding for how the Jazz defends. 

Utah deploys a defensive scheme rather than assigning individual matchups. It's not about the best player on one team defending the best player on another, but playing with the best defensive scheme against another group.

"He can’t guard everybody, said coach Quin Snyder.“He tries to, and I’d like for him to, because I think he’s — without getting into all the analytics and advanced stats — I think he’s our best isolation defender and the best rim protector in the league.”

Gobert is, in fact, the best rim protector in the NBA. 

Of all players that defend 5+ shots at the rim per game (min. 15 games), Gobert's 43.0% is the best mark in the league - by a distance. Cleaning The Glassputs the league average at 63.8% at the time of writing. 

Snyder is right about Gobert's ability to defend in isolation, too. He's not only the best isolation defender on the Jazz roster, but he's one of the best in the league. Of players that defend 1+ isolation plays per game, Gobert's 32% score frequency and 0.68 points per possession are good for the eighth-best in the NBA.

Those are all Defensive Player of the Year numbers; Beverley should know that. He should also know that the best defensive teams in the NBA carry with them a top-tier rim protector. They're often built different but the results are similar. Defend the rim and you'll play with a good defence.

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Gobert is currently leading the Jazz to the fifth-best defence in the league per CTG. The Milwaukee Bucks are just behind them at sixth and have just added an elite rim protector in Brook Lopez to the mix. Giannis Antetokounmpo has done a stand-up job of defending the rim in Lopez's absence. He leads the Bucks with 5.0 defended field goals at the rim per game with his 46.0% defended field goal percentage behind only Gobert (min. 15 games). But by adding Lopez who has led the league in opponents field goal percentage at the rim in each of the last three seasons - opponents shot 14.3% in the one game he's played so far this season - to the defence, we can expect the Bucks to jump into the top five sooner rather than later.

The trend of playing with an elite rim protector continues up the standings.

The Cleveland Cavaliers rank third in the NBA in defensive rating with Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley both in the Top 10 in opponents percentage at the rim with their 51.6% and 52.3% putting them at seventh and eighth respectively.

The Phoenix Suns have continued to exceed expectations this season and have done so behind the second-best defence in the league. They defend the mid-range and corner three particularly well, but it's Deandre Ayton manning the paint that makes a lot of that possible. Opponents shoot just 50.5% when faced with Ayton at the rim (3rd).

The Golden State Warriors top the list of NBA defence right now. They defend the whole court at a high level with Draymond Green acting as the quarterback. He doesn't have the raw numbers others might, but he is undoubtedly what makes the defence tick and a deserving Defensive Player of the Year favourite. 

Opponent Shooting per Cleaning The Glass

What is different about the Warriors to the other teams mentioned is their lack of individual rim protector. They don't have a Gobert, Allen, Mobley or Ayton. Instead, and it's not too dissimilar to the schematic style of the Jazz, they simply don't allow many shots at the rim. Only 26.6% of all shots the Warriors give up come at the rim. It's the best mark in the NBA and well below the 32.1% league average. So, while the Warriors don't have a rim-protecting player, they have a rim-protecting scheme that has played a major role in their NBA-best defence so far this season.

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The NBA big man is said to have died years ago. As teams catch up to the analytics and look for ways to create more opportunities from beyond the arc, old-school seven-footers that dominate with their back to the basket have become close to extinct. However, their influence on the defensive side of the ball is clear. 

Despite the move further and further away from the basket, shots at the rim are still the best shots to take based on league averages. Teams are scoring 1.26 points per shot at the rim compared to 1.05 points per shot from beyond the arc this season. A good rim protector or rim-protecting scheme is - quite clearly - a recipe for success on the defensive side of the ball. 

Beverley may not see what Gobert adds to the Jazz defence but the numbers and trophies on his mantelpiece speak for themselves. So too does the fact that the best defensive teams in the league carry similar traits.

Long live the NBA big man.

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Jason Oliver

As far as Jason is concerned, there is no better time of year than March through June. An overlap of the NBA and NRL seasons offer up daily opportunities to find an edge and fund the ever-increasing number of sports streaming services he subscribes to. If there's an underdog worth taking in either code, he'll be on it.

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