Big men who can protect the basket have become an increasingly valuable commodity in the NBA. Teams who possess an agile, athletic power forward or center who can take away opposing teams’ layups and dunks are more likely to have a positive defensive rating. Furthermore, these bigs can simply alter shots with their presence.
However, the number of bigs who can perform protect the rim without fouling is a select group. With the value for these types of bigs rising, offensively limited centers like Omer Asik and Roy Hibbert are commanding salaries upwards of $14 million per year. So who is in this elite class of NBA rim protection?
With the help of SportVU cameras in NBA arenas, casual fans can now track a variety of previously unknown stats, including rim protection.
The following data chart visualizes the NBA’s best and worst rim protectors. Players who allow the lowest percentage of conversions at the rim appear horizontally. Vertically, the chart illustrates how many attempts at the rip each big man faces per game. The color scheme is representative of the percentage of plays a player blocks a shot, red is the highest and green is the lowest.
All data is from NBA.com, and the player criteria required to be considered was playing at least 25 minutes per game for 30 games and facing at least 4 shot attempts at the rim.
Unsurprisingly, Roy Hibbert and Serge Ibaka stand out as two of the top rim protectors last season. Both bigs finished in the top five in Defensive Player of the Year voting and both have a tremendous track record of slowing down penetrating perimeter players.
Tim Duncan was his usual defensive stalwart self, even if he did see less minutes last year. One of the great all-time defenders, Duncan managed to prevent opponents from scoring at the rim at a well above average rate, as he only allowed 47.6% conversions at the rim on 9.2 attempts per game. Duncan’s continued excellence was a big key during the Spurs championship run.
A name that might jump out at some NBA followers is Robin Lopez. Lopez had an excellent year for Portland and was a key addition to their defense. Lopez was a huge upgrade in the Blazer’s front-court over JJ Hickson. Along with the growth of Damian Lillard, Lopez’s rim protection and offensive rebounding helped carry the Trailblazers from a non-playoff team in 2013 to the second round in 2014.
Another unexpected efficient rim protector was Paul Pierce. Pierce managed to only allow 48.2% conversions at the rim. He did so against 4.2 attempts per game, because he was moved to power forward in the second half of the season. After Brook Lopez was injured, Jason Kidd was forced to come up with a creative solution to defending without his leading shot blocker. Pierce filled the job admirably, and his defensive prowess at both forward positions will be a welcome addition to the Washington Wizards, who just lost both Trevor Ariza and Trevor Booker to free agency.
Here’s a chart with the top 10 players with at least 7.5 attempts against them per game who allowed a maximum of 50.1 percent shooting to opponents.
On the other side of the coin, it’s easy to see why Carlos Boozer lost so many fourth quarter minutes to Taj Gibson last season. Boozer is well known for his poor defensive habits, and the rim protection statistics validate this assertion. Boozer finished among the worst rim protectors on the chart, as he allowed opponents to shoot 55.3% against him at the rim. Taj Gibson allowed nearly 10 few percentage points when opponents shot against him at the rim, 45.7% to be exact.
Two names that are surprising to see in the middle of the pack are Marc Gasol and Chris Bosh. In this case, it appears the numbers do not tell the whole story. Gasol was injured early in the season, and that may have had a negative impact on his numbers. Bosh was a core piece of Miami’s high trapping strategy, and is generally regarded as an above average interior defender and rim protector. Despite what the chart may indicate, Bosh and Gasol are two of the best defensive big men in the NBA, and their presence in the middle of the rim protection chart is not indicative of their true defensive impact.
LeBron James’ decision to join the Cavaliers was a joyful one for the city of Cleveland, but new head coach David Blatt will have his work cut out for him on the defensive end. Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varejao combined to be one of the most porous rim protecting combinations in the NBA last season. The undersized Thompson, in particular, finished as one of the worst rim protectors on the chart, allowing opponents to shoot an embarrassing 59.1% against him. Including the very poor defender Kyrie Irving, Cleveland must make significant strides defensively if it wants to compete for a championship in 2014-15.