Throughout the eras of NBA history, defenses have continuously evolved as offenses change. In today’s league, it’s hard to believe that there was once a time in which defenses were crowded around the paint, with not a player on the perimeter. However, in the modern age of shooting, this statement becomes flipped with nearly everyone playing up. This reversal has made us often forgot about how important a rim protector is, and how their value may be higher than it has ever been. When we think of a rim protector, the first thing that comes into many of our heads is blocking shots. While this is an important part of these players repertoire, there is so much more that makes them so valuable to a team. Let’s delve in.
To start the 2017-18 season, the Jazz were in the absolute slumps. Star center Rudy Gobert had only played a handful of the season’s games so far, the team was 18-27, and a year after having the NBA’s third-best defensive rating they had slid to tenth. Then Rudy Gobert, the rim protector of that defense, was able to come back for the rest of the year. The numbers afterward were astonishing. The Jazz ended up finishing the season with the league’s best defensive rating and from January 19th to the end of the regular season were well above of the pack. Gobert’s overall defensive impact that year could be shown even further as when he was on the court the Jazz had a defensive rating of 99.0 whereas when he was off they had a defensive rating of 107.8 (Per CleaningTheGlass). Another story of a rim protector’s severe impact comes in with Joel Embiid, who made a drastic impact in the 76ers defense and transformed how the team played on that side of the ball when he was on the court. If you want even more proof that rim protectors can make a defense great, just look at the top five defenses by defensive rating in the NBA this year. The Bucks had two great rim protectors in Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez, the Jazz had Gobert, the Pacers had Myles Turner, the Thunder had Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel, and the Raptors had Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam and, late in the season Marc Gasol. Just taking a look at these examples, it’s clear that rim protectors are key to a great defense. However, to truly see their impact, one must look at how their impact is made.
What Makes A Rim Protector So Important
Reason 1: More Aggressive Perimeter Defense At A Lower Risk
Instead of not being able to go for momentum-shifting steals or deflections due to the risk of an easy basket if the aggression backfires, the perimeter defenders now are able to go for these momentum swingers more often, as the rim protector will be able to cover mistakes. For example, out of the five best defensive rating teams we mentioned earlier, the Thunder were 1st in Deflections Per Game while the Raptors were 2nd. Additionally, the Jazz were 7th. The remaining two top three teams? The Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings, and Houston Rockets, all of which do not with elite designated rim protectors, and all of which had bottom 13 defenses per defensive rating. Now I know you think this is contradicting to the point, but it isn’t. Listen here, if the deflections don’t lead to steals, which almost half the time they don’t, then this leaves the defense in a vulnerable position, meaning the last line of coverage, which in these situations is often the rim protector, will have to be great at stopping the easy baskets. Despite being 6th in deflections, the Jazz are only 12th in steals meaning that in order to post the great defensive rating they had, they would have had to overcome a good amount of blown steals per game to get to that position, which Gobert added value in by overcoming many of these by contesting shots in the post.
Reason 2: Limits Teams Ability To Shoot At The Rim
Shots at the rim are the most efficient shot in all of basketball, that’s why under his new defense Mike Budenholzer decided to protect the paint at all costs, even if it meant giving up threes. It ended up being effective as Milwaukee gave up the fewest shot attempts at the rim per 100 possessions (Per CleaningTheGlass) and ended up with the league’s overall best defensive rating. They were able in part to be this effective by stationing Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez as rim protectors, where both proved to be some of the best in the business. If you have a great rim protector stationed in the paint, players will be less daring to try and score at the rim. With teams not going to the rim as much, poor shooters will have to be forced to take outside shots, thus, more bad perimeter shots will be taken.
— NBA Fantasy (@NBAFantasy) March 23, 2018
Notice how in the first play the offense is able to get past their defender but is too scared to drive on Gobert, which leads to a tightly contested pass and eventually turnover.
Reason 3: The Ultimate Help Defender
Help defense is absolutely critical, and one could argue the most impactful part of defense. Even if you have the greatest of lockdown defenders (I’m looking at you Clippers), there will always come times when playing man to man will falter and an easy blow-by will come. The rim protector comes in as the last line of defense in this situation, and a great one will be able to stop an easy shot from happening. As mentioned earlier, more and more players are now on the perimeter, and the rim protector will have to often times single-handedly stop these shots from going in. A great rim protector is able to add significant value by doing just this. That’s why in the great Clippers defense, one shouldn’t ignore Harrell, who we should see once again proving himself at the rim this season.
— utahjazz (@utahjazz) September 8, 2016
Fast forward to the 15-second mark in the clip above. Notice how Gobert is the last line of defense in transition and, due to his elite rim protecting ability, is able to stop the easy basket.
With the NBA becoming more and more small-ball and offensively oriented, it’s important to take a look at the impact that a defensive rim protector can make on the modern NBA. When watching the best NBA teams play next season, have fun watching the star players on offense, just don’t forget to pay attention to what some of those stars and others will be doing on the other side of the ball that gets overlooked.