clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Nerlens Week: Playing Devil's Advocate With The Sixers Defense

Nerlens does have great moments, but using the team's defense as a rallying point and reason for his candidacy may not be the guiding light to a ROY award.

Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

To cap off Nerlens Week, we're moving a bit away from him or his competition, his future, or the tendencies of the people who can vote for or against him. Instead, let's look at something maybe considered the feather of the Sixers' collective cap - a one-time "Top 10 Defense" - and something used to support Nerlens Noel and his ROY case.

Ask someone who watches the Sixers regularly and who does not have knowledge of this about this fact. They'll either tell you that Defensive Efficiency is bogus, because numbers don't make sense to them and basic math is just too, too difficult, or they'll say that this fact just doesn't match what they see with their eyest:

But it's true. The team ranked 10th and the timing of the tweet above. They're currently 12th, per NBA.com. You can look it up on the internet at that hyperlinked address and everything. The internet would never lie to you. It must be true.

I even wrote about the phenomenon earlier this season - at one point with an unfortunate headline - because it's very real, and if you looked it up today, the numbers are even better. They still cause havoc primarily through forcing turnovers, though rotations and little things have clearly improved as the season has progressed. No doubt there's been development.

But people who watch and question the rating may be right about one thing - it might not feel like a top 12 defense because the team is routinely beaten on rotations, make simple errors, or give up high scoring quarters. Not coincidentally, and what I've taken so long to get to, these breakdowns and big quarters happen more often in the beginnings of games, when people tune in, or when games can turn into blowouts as the opposing team's starters and best players beat down the Sixers.

The Sixers' defensive rating by quarter, points allowed per 100 possessions per NBA.com, reflects that they are not a good first half team (league rankings in parentheses):

1Q; 106.3 (24th)

2Q: 105.5 (T-22nd)

3Q: 98.4 (5th)

4Q: 97.6 (1st)

So, the Sixers are a great fourth quarter defensive team. If the fourth quarter were all that mattered, as so many people believe, the Sixers would have the best defense in the NBA! Of course, that's not the case. The other three quarters matter! The Sixers routinely are down double digits at halftime. On average, the Sixers trail by 6.8 points per game (per TeamRankings.com) after two quarters, which is the worst in the NBA, and by 8.0 points entering the fourth quarter.

Because of this, the Sixers routinely face competition that either takes their proverbial foots off the pedal, or they're facing backups throughout the second halves of games. Plus, by being so far behind, with the league's second worst point differential, the team avoids late-game foul shenanigans by just not being in regularly competitive games. Late-game fouls tend to offset decreased offensive efficiency in fourth quarters, the result of player fatigue and heavy backup minutes, as foul attempts have a higher points-per-possession tally than any other non-open-layup or dunk result.

Good defensive teams follow the Sixers in defensive rating: Golden State (which faces the same thing in fourth quarters, but only because they're outscoring opponents by millions of points a game), Houston, Portland, and Chicago immediately follow. Sixth-best? The bleeping NEW YORK KNICKS, who for the full game, rank third worst in defensive efficiency, and are the only team with a worse point differential than the Sixers.

Nerlens plays the same number of minutes in virtually every quarter - he averages between 7.6 and 8.0 minutes across each. He's playing as much in games where the margins are closer and the team is falling behind and the defense struggles as he is in the fourth quarter, when an average game margin is between three and four possessions. Does Noel magically play better in the second halves of games? I doubt that.

The Sixers' (and Noel's) statistics in garbage time (without Katie Nolan) inflate his case which, if you're waging Nerlens Noel's ROY case on him creating more value than Wiggins, and more minutes than Mirotic, must be evaluated as well. How much of his defensive value, and the team's defensive performance, is meaningless? The Sixers' effort defensively while trailing is a great indicator of work ethic, but if you're building a true ROY case on this, you cannot ignore how little his case means to game results.