Over here at LB, I talk a lot about offense, for a myriad of reasons. Offense is fun, offense is sexy, and offense is generally quantifiable, to name a few. Even in the cases when offense is lifeless and quantifiably bad – I’m looking at you, Philadelphia 76ers – it’s an easy enough thing to complain about. Why are you no fun, offense? New York’s offense is up for anything!
Alas, defense constitutes half of the game and should be given its proper respect. Now that we’re in the offseason and subject to a plodding news cycle, it’s as good a time as ever to focus on defense, specifically that of a few individual Sixers. The end goal of this exercise is to supply a loose evaluation of the specific player in question's 2012-13 defensive performance. Not an easy task, mind you, as individual defense is much more difficult to evaluate than individual offense.
We’ll work from the top on down, and truth be told, probably won’t make it very far. This of course means starting with Jrue Holiday.
Note: I figured we'd use this section as a jumping-off point. How is the player's defense perceived?
Holiday is generally well-regarded as a defensive player, and has been since college. While the offensive development of Ben Howland’s guards was questionable during the coach’s tenure at UCLA, there is no mistaking that he taught the Bruins how to guard. In Holiday, he coached a player with excellent physical tools; his size, wingspan, and lateral quickness are all above average for the point guard position.
Some NBA observers have lauded Holiday's sound fundamentals (i.e. lack of gambling) when effectively pressuring opposing ball-handlers. His versatility, the ability to guard both backcourt positions, is often mentioned as well.
A Statistical Look
For a frame of reference, I only looked at statistics from Holiday’s last three seasons. His rookie campaign, marked by fluctuating playing time and Eddie Jordan's LOL-worthy defensive tactics, didn’t seem very pertinent to this exercise. Holiday spent his last three years playing in a defense constructed by Doug Collins and Michael Curry.
If you were to chart Holiday's Synergy defensive numbers on a line graph (and why wouldn't you?), the resulting shape would resemble the letter V. Years one and three are pretty similar and year two is the outlier amongst the group. With regards to Holiday’s defense this season, it's a negative trend: Year two is the outlier because it was better.
While it’s well documented that Holiday struggled mightily in Collins’ ultra-conservative 2011-12 offense, he conversely excelled as part of the team’s stifling defense. According to *Synergy, he surrendered only .72 points per possession when he was the primary defender. This number was good enough to rank 29th in the league out of all players who qualified.
*A quick note about these Synergy numbers: Basically, they’re flawed. They only record how the play ends, so if Holiday were to get blown by on an isolation, causing Evan Turner to help and leave his man, who then would convert a three, Turner would receive the "credit" when really the play was more Holiday’s fault. I don’t think they're useless numbers, far from it, but making value judgments solely based on them – Holiday is a better isolation defender than Player X because Synergy says – is incomplete. Regardless, there's no doubting that Holiday played a big part in the team's defensive success.
As a team, the Sixers sported the league's third best defensive efficiency in '11-12. While the season was largely painted as a disappointment for Holiday, I’m not so sure. Yes, the offense was severely lacking, but if you value defense as half of the game, then Holiday received a very high grade on 50 percent of his fictional report card. The A in Math and B+ in English helps take a little of the sting out of the the C in History and D+ in Chemistry.
This year’s defensive numbers resemble those from two years ago. Holiday's overall (.90 PPP in ’10-11, .87 this year), pick and roll ball handler (.84, .81), and isolation (.83, .81) numbers are all fairly similar, and all of them are a decent bit worse than ‘11-12.
Did Holiday's defense regress? Not necessarily. Charting individual defense is an inexact science, one NBA teams spend millions of dollars on to try and improve. Truth is, most individual defensive metrics don't spell out if they're indicative of a regression on Holiday’s part or a lack of defensive talent around him. They give you the what but not the why.
Some of the On/Off splits suggest the personnel changes may have in fact have the largest effect. In ‘10-11, the Sixers were actually 2.7 points better on defense over a full game with Holiday off the floor, per 82games. In ‘12-13, they were almost a full four points worse with him off the floor. Holiday played a ton of minutes this season with very different personnel combinations – Nick Young went from getting 25 minutes a night to "The Artist Formerly Known As Swaggy P" – and he mostly went against other starters.
Still, it's hard to truly know what happened unless you also watch the tape, and even then, it's still pretty hard. I fired up Synergy and did my best.
The plan here is to review the three major areas of Holiday’s defense, which make up over 80 percent of his possessions: Isolation defense, when he’s guarding the ball-handler on a pick and roll, and when he's guarding spot-up shooters.
Isolation: 149 possessions, 14.5% of defensive possessions tracked, .81 points per possession (159th ranked), 43-109 field goals (39.4%), and 6-25 (24 %) threes.
Even though Doug Collins dismissed advanced statistics, his "house-yard-fence" approach to defense was right up the alley of analytics everywhere. The mandate was simple: The shots we want to give up are two-point jumpers. We want to welcome our opponents inside the fence, but not into the house. We want to keep them in the yard.
When you're out on an island against an NBA point guard, it can be a tough mandate to follow. Holiday's mediocre numbers are evidence of that. If you’re pressuring the ball enough to discourage a jump shot, NBA point guards are difficult to keep out of the lane. In Holiday’s case, it was especially difficult considering his major responsibility.
Like Andre Iguodala before him, Collins* challenged Holiday on the defensive end in the sense that he was given no help. If you listened closely during the game, sometimes you could hear an assistant coach yell "On your own, Jrue." The underlying message is clear: We expect you to handle the player you’re guarding by yourself. Holiday didn't always succeed, and was inconsistent at times, especially late in the year.
*A quick word about Collins: I've always had trouble identifying the distinguishing factors of his defensive scheme, but I would never dare question him on the subject. Forget the top three finish last year; This season's defense was slightly above average, which I still have trouble believing. The Sixers seriously overachieved in that respect.
It's not all bad, though. Holiday still has defensive possessions where he, to borrow an football scouting term, "jumps off the screen" at you. This one from early in the season against Kyrie Irving is probably the best example. It's a pretty extraordinary play. Only a handful of guys in the league even have the ability to pull that off.
It's also not sustainable. More times than not, Irving is going to beat extremely high pressure like that and get into the lane. This is where my main complaint with Holiday's defense comes into play: Sometimes he gets hurt by trying to do a little too much.
Take this play for instance, which the Atlanta Hawks broadcast was kind enough to shoot from the 2K camera angle. What Holiday does in beating Jeff Teague to the spot and "turning" him is impressive. Here’s the problem, though: He goes too far, and in doing so, gives Teague a lane to the basket. Why not work a little less hard, stay on Teague’s right hand and position yourself between him and the basket?
Part of Holiday's motivation is clearly to take away the option of Teague passing to Kyle Korver running off staggered screens, which he does. I’m just not sure that’s Holiday's responsibility. Part of the reason the help defense is so bad on the play is that the three defenders on the left are very concerned with the stagger action. It looks like they have things under control.
Here are two other plays where Holiday gets beat trying to stop what is going on behind him:
As far as Holiday's isolation defense goes, cheating, and trying to do too much in the process, is my biggest complaint. Still, he does a lot of great stuff defensively, especially creating turnovers without fouling.
Coming Tuesday: Pick and roll defense, spot-up defense, and (hopefully) a final conclusion.