One of the trendiest new phrases to throw around when discussing the NBA these days is “rim protector.” As in, “so and so center is a great rim protector,” or “Team X desperately needs a rim protector.” The idea, put simply, is to have a big man (generally the team’s center), be capable of effectively deterring opposing teams from scoring around the rim, particularly when the rest of the team’s defense breaks down and he is the last line of protection.
The league has been rife with recent examples – think Dwight Howard during the Magic’s 2009 Finals run, Tyson Chandler during the Mavs 2011 championship, and Roy Hibbert during the Pacers’ recent spate of deep playoff runs.
While the concept is quite nuanced, there are a couple main benefits to having such a big man. The first is simply that having an elite defender right by the rim helps to eliminate some of the opposing team’s most efficient shots – layups. Without easy layups, an opponent’s efficiency plummets.
Secondly, having a big who can single-handedly protect the rim allows his teammates farther from the hoop to play more aggressively. If they know that Mr. Rim Protector behind them can likely clean up any potential messes, they can play tighter on their man, knowing that if he does get by them, the damage has a chance to be mitigated.
This brings us to our beloved Blazers. Two seasons ago, during J.J. Hickson’s final year in Portland, it was readily apparent that he was not a rim protector. When general manager Neil Olshey made the move to bring in Robin Lopez (for relative pennies), I suspect many, including myself, did not quite know what to expect.
Sure I remembered him as one of the goofy haired twins from Stanford’s March Madness run, but as for his professional career that started in Phoenix and New Orleans? I can’t say he was on my radar. Thus, what ultimately happened last season rather surprised me: Lopez proved to be a bona fide rim protector. This does not mean he was pretty good at it, or acceptable– no, he was quite literally one of the best centers in the NBA at defending those precious five feet around the rim.
Thanks to the NBA’s new player tracking cameras, more and more specific data is available to us. One of these now available stats is how well opposing players shoot in a given area when guarded by a specific player. Here is the list of all players in the NBA who defended at least 1,000 shots (this threshold is low enough that nearly any center who played meaningful minutes is included) within five feet of the hoop, sorted by opponent field goal percentage.
Unfortunately this database can’t do positional filtering, so take a look at just the centers ahead of Lopez – Hibbert and Timofey Mozgov. That’s right – Lopez was, by all accounts, the third best rim protecting center in the entire league last season, holding opponents to a paltry 54.7% shooting within five feet of the hoop.
This is not just a product of a smaller sample size from Lopez not playing as many minutes as other centers, and thus not being tested as often– his 1,773 shots defended in this area were the second most of any center in the league, behind only DeAndre Jordan’s 1,798. Let that sink in. Despite being called upon to defend the second most shots of any center within five feet, Lopez still held opponents to the third lowest shooting percentage among centers in this area.
If that isn’t the picture of a rim protector, I don’t know what is. While scheme, health, and the play of the backups surely contributed, the difference between the Blazers’ rim defense in 2012-13 and 2013-14 is astounding. In 2012-13, the Blazers were 23rd in opponent shot percentage within five feet. In 2013-14, the team jumped all the way to third, an unbelievable leap of 20 spots.
While yes, other factors assuredly played a role, the largest change by far was the presence of Lopez. Say what you want about him, but he absolutely proved himself to be a true “rim protector” last year.
This, though, does beg the question of why the Blazers still had a relatively poor team defense last year. While Lopez and the team as a whole did an excellent job of defending the rim when called upon to do so, opponents simply got into the lane too often. In fact, despite allowing one of the stingiest opponent shooting percentages in the area, the Blazers still allowed the 12th most made shots in this area. Lopez was up to the task of defending the area if needed, but the next step for the Blazers is to not so frequently put him in the position where he has to do so in the first place.