There is no single factor that triggered the rapid evolution of NBA basketball we’ve witnessed over the last five years. A deep cast of innovators and actors1 led us to this point, but the tipping point in my eyes was the Death Lineup. Steve Kerr was not the first coach to dream of playing small (it used to be called “Nellie Ball” after all), but none of the smallball proponents before him had Draymond Green.
When the Golden State Warriors unleashed the Death Lineup (Green, Barnes, Iguodala, Thompson, Curry) upon the world, they shocked us with their two-way dominance. Before that moment, smallball lineups were almost always spectacular offensive units—that was the point of going small. But downsizing was usually synonymous with “sacrificing defense”. Draymond was the skeleton key that unlocked Golden State’s stifling defense; the defensive yang to Stephen Curry’s offensive yin.
There are very few (if any) players in NBA history who could match Draymond’s ability to provide elite defense on the perimeter AND in the paint2. Part of that is fortuitous timing (I don’t think he could have played center in the 90s), but he is a truly spectacular and unique defensive weapon.
- 2015-16 Oklahoma City Thunder (Serge Ibaka, Kevin Durant, Andre Roberson, Dion Waiters, Russell Westbrook)3
- 2015-16 Cleveland Cavaliers (Tristan Thompson, LeBron James, Richard Jefferson, JR Smith, Kyrie Irving)
Since those 2015-16 playoffs, OKC lost Durant (giving Golden State a Death Lineup on PEDs) and the Cavs no longer have the athleticism to compete defensively. The closest counter to the death lineup we’ve seen this year has been the Rockets 5-man squad featuring PJ Tucker at center.
It’s small sample theater to the extreme, but lineups featuring Chris Paul, James Harden, PJ Tucker and two of Eric Gordon/Trevor Ariza/Luc Richard Mbah a Moute have blitzed opponents to a plus-73 net rating in 24 minutes. The eye test has mirrored the numbers in the few moments D’Antoni has deployed those lineups (most notably to mount a huge comeback against the Blazers; Ben Falk’s article on the subject is a must-read).
Those Rockets units check two important boxes for beating the Warriors:
- 5 shooters on the floor? Check.
- Ability to switch all 5 positions? Check.
But will the Rockets death lineup be able to defend the rim well enough to survive? That question may determine Houston’s playoff fate, and it got me wondering which non-big players are the best rim protectors. Thankfully, we have some numbers that can shed some light on the topic.
I compiled all available rim protection data (via NBA.com/Stats, which dates back to 2013-14 ) to determine the stingiest rim defenders with at least 500 rim field-goal attempts4 defended. For the most part, the data aligns with reputation:
My approach was subjective, but I singled out the non-big players in the 206-player sample to see which wing players provided legitimate rim protection. Here are the 22 wings/guards that provided above-average rim protection:
Some of these players aren’t truly wings, but they’ve shown the mobility to be high-volume switchers5 (e.g. Paul Millsap, Patrick Patterson, Dario Saric). I dove into the film on the names that most intrigued me.
The Freaking Warriors, Combined Rim FG% Allowed: 49.3% (84th percentile)
This is just unfair. Draymond Green, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson all grade out as above-average rim protectors. Is there anything these guys don’t do well?
Let’s start with the two legitimate rim protectors: Draymond and Durant. The lanky duo has pestered opponents all year and is the primary reason the Warriors are 1st in blocks per game this season by a mile.Their length and instincts allow them to come out of nowhere and provide weak-side help; their agility and quickness mean they can stay within an arm’s length of smaller players and contest their shots.
Next up, the curious case of Stephen Curry’s rim protection. My gut says this number is boosted by the presence of his more imposing teammates. As long as Curry puts up a base level of resistance and funnels his man the right way, someone is there to clean up the mess.
Klay Thompson, on the other hand, is typically left to handle his own messes. We overlook his versatility because he fits so neatly into the shooting guard category, but the Warriors count on his size and unleash his diverse defensive skill set. They let Thompson switch onto bigger players and defend the resulting post-ups 1-on-1. They also know Thompson doesn’t give up on any plays and will contest everything—whether he’s on-ball, was beaten off the dribble or is a weak-side helper.
By the way, rookie Jordan Bell has only faced 129 rim FGA, but opponents are shooting a lowly 48 percent on those attempts. The Warriors are playing a different sport than everyone else. They’re able to “go small” without sacrificing much size which is how they’re an elite defensive unit without a traditional big man on the floor.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Rim FG% Allowed: 50.3% (74th percentile)
Giannis Antetokounmpo is already a game-changing presence on both sides of the ball, so it’s ridiculous that he has room for growth. We understandably daydream about what Giannis would look like with a jump shot, but rim protection is an equally important aspect of his ceiling.
Giannis unquestionably has the physical tools to handle minutes at the center position. Nobody in their right mind would question his height or length, and he’s incredibly strong despite a lean frame. As the numbers show, he is a defensive menace around the rim, but he’s not yet good enough to anchor a defense as its primary rim protector.
In the 191 possessions he’s played at center this season, the Bucks concede a defensive rating of 118.3 and opponents shoot 72.2% within 4 feet of the rim—both of which are in the bottom 1% compared to all lineups that have played at least 100 possessions per Cleaning the Glass.
Despite these abysmal numbers, Antetokounmpo is still only 23 years old and has shown plenty of shot-blocking potential with his physical tools and aggression. Once he has a better grasp of defensive principles (perhaps with a better defensive coach), it wouldn’t be surprising to see Antetokounmpo ascend to Draymond Green levels of rim protection.
The Bucks are firmly entrenched in trade talks surrounding DeAndre Jordan, but their pursuit of a big-name center is complicated. The highest-ceiling version of the team might involve Giannis playing significant minutes at the 5.
Jerami Grant, Rim FG% Allowed: 46.7% (96th percentile)
I’ve always known Jerami Grant could block a shot with enough ferocity to puncture the ball. What I didn’t realize (until looking at these numbers) is how much of a deterrent he appears to be at the basket. There are only 8 players with a better rim FG% allowed since 2013-14: Rudy Gobert, Roy Hibbert, Andrew Bogut, Dewayne Dedmon, Jeff Withey, Kristaps Porzingis, Serge Ibaka and Kevin Seraphin.
Though he still has a frustrating tendency to try to spike shots into oblivion, his rim protection numbers are outstanding. Rim defense isn’t the problem; it’s every other part of the game.
But there are intriguing flashes here. He’s shooting a woeful 26 percent from downtown this year, but the shooting motion looks smoother than it did in Philadelphia. If he can recapture his form from 2016-17 when he made 37 percent of his 116 three-point attempts (a BIG if), he would no longer be an offensive liability.
He doesn’t do it with the consistency you’d hope for, but he’s shown tantalizing flashes of switchability on defense. His athleticism means he’s already an efficient pick-and-roll roll man, but he needs to improve as a screen-setter and rebounder to round out the nuances of his game.
Grant has a long list of weaknesses to address, but uniquely elite rim protection given his mobility is an alluring starting point. If we’re fortunate enough to see a Thunder – Warriors playoff series, we may even see OKC counter the Death Lineup with units featuring Grant at center.
He’ll test unrestricted free agency this summer at the age of 24. It will be fascinating to see where he ends up and whether he can continue taking steps towards becoming a high-quality rotation player.
Jeremy Lin, Rim FG% Allowed: 49.0% (84th percentile)
I don’t know what to make of Lin’s surprisingly excellent rim protection stats. He’s tied with Stephen Curry for the most surprising entry on the list, but Curry’s numbers are probably influenced by his spectacular defensive teammates. Lin has played on two good defenses (2013-14 Houston Rockets and 2015-16 Charlotte Hornets) and two awful defenses (2014-15 Los Angeles Lakers and 2016-17 Brooklyn Nets).
There may be some element of randomness inflating his numbers, but it seems clear that Lin is an exceptional rim defender for his position and size. When I looked at some of his defensive film, two things stood out to me. Firstly, he has a knack for sneaking up on big men and blocking their shots from behind. Secondly, he’s good at staying connected to ballhandlers, forcing them to shoot over him when they get to the rim.
I don’t think Lin has a future as a primary rim defender in other Death Lineups, but his production is an interesting quirk in these numbers. While he can’t anchor a defense as a rim protector, he may be a more versatile defender than I initially thought.
The Warriors’ defensive excellence is not just attributable to the quality of their smaller rim protectors, but the number of deterrents they keep on the floor when Draymond slides to center. Even though Lin lacks the size to be a high-volume rim defender, there is plenty of value in handling that role in small doses. Lin’s rim defense is certainly something I’ll monitor whenever I watch him in the future.
1. The most influential factors in my book: all of Don Nelson’s teams, Mike D’Antoni’s Suns, the LeBron-era Heat and the Curry Warriors. For more information, I recommend Ian Levy’s ‘A Brief History of Small Ball’.^
2. Some of the candidates that came to mind: Scottie Pippen (‘nuff said), Young Dennis Rodman (before he became a maniacal weightlifter), prime LeBron James (think 2011-2016), Andrei Kirilenko (I wish he could play in today’s NBA), Ron Artest (but he probably wouldn’t provide the same level of rim protection as the others).^
3. Steven Adams was awesome in that series, but OKC’s best lineups came with Ibaka at the 5. For the series:^
4. I can’t figure out what exactly constitutes a Rim FGA; the NBA stats site isn’t clear on the subject.^
5. I think it’s important to differentiate between players who can switch well occasionally and high-volume switchers who can handle switching regularly on defense. For example, DeAndre Jordan can get down in a stance and move his feet quite well on some plays when he switches onto guards, but he’s not mobile enough to switch on every ball screen so I wouldn’t consider him a high-volume switcher.^