We all know Nerlens Noel by his defense. Two seasons of gaudy steal and block numbers alone tell us that; to say nothing of his oft-comical deficiencies on the other end (seriously Nerlens, ask Jordan Mathews if you can borrow the Eagle’s Jug Machine).
Increasingly, though, there’s a counter-beat to the drumming of his swats bouncing into the stands: Sure he guards the rim and pick-pockets the pick and roll. But he’s still skinny and weak, he gets crushed in the post, “where the men play.”
The other half of this argument posits that this area of the court is precisely where Jahlil Okafor, our other young big with whom Noel is now in constant theoretical opposition, excels. While his, er, “girth” may keep him too close to the ground to be a forceful rim protector or help defender further out, that same weight allows him stonewall opposing bigs in the trenches, so the argument goes. But is that indicative of what’s really happening?
Sort of. Per NBA.com’s SportVU player tracking data, Nerlens Noel was indeed bad at guarding post ups. He ranked in only the 24th percentile league-wide in terms of points per possession (PPP) allowed when guarding the post, surrendering 0.99 PPP on such plays. For perspective, the San Antonio Spurs managed to rank second in the league in post up success with that same 0.99 PPP.
Making matters slightly worse was the frequency with which Noel guarded post ups. His 1.9 possessions guarded per game (124 total for the season) ranked him second on the team. While two possessions per game doesn’t sound like a ton (more on that idea later), the fact that an objectively bad post defender guarded the second most posts ups on the team is a bad premise for any defense.
Sadly, while that’s the end of the bad news here for Noel, there’s plenty more bad news for the Sixers. The only player on the team that guarded more post ups was Jahlil Okafor at a whopping 2.5 per game. That tied him with Nikola Vucevic for most in the league last season. And, contrary to what the eye test might tell you, he fared far worse than his leaner teammate. Okafor gave up a gnarly 1.02 PPP against post ups, good for only the 17th percentile leaguewide.
We can’t even contextualize Okafor’s post-guarding problems with a team comparison as we did for Nerlens because no team last year was able to generate points out of the post at that rate. The closest any team got was The Thunder who generated a round 1.00 PPP on post up possessions.
It’s a little surprising, then, that the Sixers weren’t dead last in the NBA in guarding the post. That dubious distinction fell to Miami, interestingly enough given Hassan Whiteside’s looming presence.
There’s still another side to this criticism: how much does Noel’s (and Okafor’s) ineffectiveness guarding post ups really matter? Luckily for the Sixers going forward, it appears not that much.
As it turns out, the rise of analytics and the ensuing small-ball movement has, not incidentally, lead a demise in the post up game. Older school NBA fans may lament it, but against modern defenses, and compared to other forms of shot creation, post ups just aren’t that effective.
To wit: last season the average post up only produced a paltry 0.86 PPP. Compare that with the point generation of a spot up shot: 0.97; or to that of feeding the roll man on the pick and roll: 1.01. The chasm in efficiency jumps out. We are talking about 10-15 points different over the course 100 possessions (around what an average NBA game contains).
The NBA is nothing if not a results driven league. That lack of production from post ups has predictably lead to a drop in their frequency relative to other play types. Last season the average NBA team devoted only about eight possessions a game to post ups. That pales in comparison to the 21 spot up jump shots per game NBA offenses succeed in generating.
So, despite the growing pains our abundance of bigs may cause in the rapidly expanding small-ball era, it appears there’s an ironic saving grace. Our our defensive stalwart’s biggest (only?) defensive weakness is rendered nearly irrelevant by NBA’s march toward pace and space. Who cares if Noel never develops into a stout post protector? Turns out he’ll almost never be called on to be one.
In fact, given the paucity of value to be had from post shots, let’s advertise Noel’s ineptitude harder around the league. Maybe we can draw teams into “taking advantage” of him in the post with objectively worse shots…hmm… someone get Brett Brown on the phone!
Mandatory photo credit: Rob Carr/Getty Images