No one who follows basketball would be silly enough to say that defense and rebounding don't matter. As a general rule, however, defense tends mostly to be discussed as it relates to players who are also great on offense. Fans are often more interested in debating who the NBA's "best two-way player" is as opposed to comparing the relative worth of guys like Rudy Gobert and Bismack Biyombo.
The Sixers have their own defensive stalwart in Nerlens Noel, who put up another standout statistical season despite playing out of position for most of the 2015-16 campaign. His name circulating in trade talks (along with Jahlil Okafor) has led to a lot of discussion of what his value is as a trade asset and a future player. Because I see his value as self-evident, I'm not as interested in that as I am what it costs to acquire players like him, whether through the draft or free agency, or what it costs to keep these players once they develop.
Biyombo is the perfect starting point for the discussion; the contract he fetched this offseason helps establish the market for the relative worth of a big man whose only strengths are defense and rebounding. While keeping in mind the cap jump distorts our understanding of dollar value, his $17 million per year deal with Orlando is a good place to start, especially since he’s likely to be the third big in the Magic rotation.
His road to the riches was long and winding, but his likely salary and already established draft position -- seventh overall in 2011 -- hits a sweet spot. While you may not have to spend a top overall pick to get a defense and rebounding specialist, you are going to pay a hefty price to keep one around.
If you comb through the list of the NBA's playoff teams, the vast majority of the league's 16 best prioritize and/or have paid hefty prices for one (or both) of these traits. Let's go right on down the line.
Note: These blurbs are framed mostly within the context of last year’s rosters and performance unless otherwise detailed.
Golden State - The Warriors present defensive identity stems mostly from Draymond Green, but their growth on that front started with the arrival of Andrew Bogut. Golden State gave up a recent lottery pick (Ekpe Udoh), their leading scorer (Monta Ellis) and our old friend Kwame Brown to acquire him. Bogut's original draft slot: No. 1 overall.
Cleveland - The Cavaliers have paid through the teeth for elite rebounders; Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson's cap figures combined for almost $34 million last season. Love's skill set is decidedly more offensive, but his defining trait has always been his work on the glass. Thompson’s work as a pick-and-roll defender and monster on the offensive glass helped Cleveland make a historic Finals comeback. Original draft slots: 5th overall (Love), 4th overall (Thompson)
Oklahoma City - Steven Adams and Serge Ibaka are decidedly defense and rebounding first. The merits of this decision are up for debate, but Oklahoma City chose to sacrifice James Harden in order to keep (and pay) Ibaka, and Adams' acquisition was only made possible by trading an all-NBA talent to Houston for draft assets. Original draft slots: 12th overall (Adams), 24th overall (Ibaka)
Toronto - The Raptors best big (Jonas Valanciunas) makes up for some lacking defensive traits with stout rebounding numbers, racking up at least 11 per game since his age 21 season. He received a four-year, $64 million extension last summer that kicks in this offseason. Toronto was able to survive Valanciunas' absence in the playoffs by handing Biyombo a bigger role, despite his near uselessness on the offensive end. Original draft slots: 5th overall (Valanciunas), 7th overall (Biyombo)
San Antonio - Kawhi Leonard extended the shelf life of the Spurs dynasty, but Tim Duncan's metronome presence powered San Antonio for damn near 20 years. The Spurs Relative DRTG was at least four points better compared to league average for 14 of Duncan's 19 seasons. Original draft slot: 1st overall
Atlanta - Neither of Paul Millsap or Al Horford were rebounding specialists, but both are excellent defenders possessing versatile skill sets on both ends of the floor. Horford signed for a max contract with the Celtics this summer, while Millsap's deal through 2017-18 will pay him nearly $20 million per year under old salary cap terms. Additionally, the Hawks are now paying Dwight Howard $70.5 million over the next three years. Original draft slots: 3rd overall (Horford), 47th overall (Millsap)
Miami - If not for concerns about his makeup, Hassan Whiteside would have been a lottery candidate and on his way to bigger and better paydays. As it stands, he earned the four-year max thanks to his combination of rim protection and glass-cleaning. Miami's other key big, Chris Bosh, is already making max money as one of the most versatile and impactful defenders in the league. Original draft slots: 4th overall (Bosh), 33rd overall (Whiteside)
Portland - The Blazers are the first outlier here in terms of team construction. Portland is built around an elite backcourt and has a massive need to for a low-usage defensive force at the five. They were a candidate to pay someone like Biyombo and instead opted for former Warriors center Festus Ezeli, a backup with strong per-36 rebounding figures (12 per game). Original draft slot: 30th overall
Los Angeles Clippers - DeAndre Jordan does three things -- rebound, block shots and dunk. He was one of the 15 highest-paid players in the league and the centerpiece of one of the most bizarre free agency sagas in recent memory. Original draft slot: 35th overall
Houston - Malign him if you please, but Dwight Howard was often the only player defending on the Rockets last season. Headache though he may be, teams continue to bet on his talent as a shot-blocking and rebounding force despite free-throw woes that would render less-talented guys unplayable. Original draft slot: 1st overall
Memphis - Once maligned as a throw-in when the Lakers traded for his then-starring older brother, Marc Gasol eventually blossomed into a defender elite enough to overcome pretty weak counting stats in the rebound department. His deal with Memphis escalates until he is paid over $25 million in 2019-20. Original draft slot: 48th overall
Indiana - The Pacers have established a desire for bigs who protect the rim, with Roy Hibbert establishing the baseline there. They spent last year's lottery pick on an athletic shot-blocker in Myles Turner, and Ian Mahinmi finished in the top-15 for both Defensive Box Plus/Minus and Defensive Rating last season. Cost isn't an issue yet, but assuming steady growth for Turner, a big pay day will come. Original draft slots: 11th overall (Turner), 28th overall (Mahinmi)
Dallas - Dirk Nowitzki’s one-of-a-kind skills at the power forward position are an outlier in terms of team construction. It’s worth noting, however, that Nowitzki’s HOF career only reached the team summit when Tyson Chandler — a player many see as a rosy outcome for Nerlens Noel — was in the mix. This offseason, the Mavericks allowed the Warriors to open the cap space to sign Kevin Durant in order to upgrade from Zaza Pachulia to Bogut at the five-spot.
Boston - The Celtics powered to the playoffs behind a plethora of swarming guard and wing defenders, but they self-identified a massive need with the signing of Al Horford: two-way play at center. Boston paid a hefty price for Horford’s defense and floor-spacing, handing the former Hawk $113 million over four years.
Detroit - Andre Drummond is the rock upon which Stan Van Gundy will build his church. Drummond was the best rebounder in the league last season in addition to his shot-blocking/rim-running on offense, and would have been drafted higher if not for murky pre-draft concerns surrounding his mental makeup. He signed an extension this July that made him the highest-paid Pistons player ever. Original draft slot: 9th overall
Charlotte - Steve Clifford worked some serious magic to keep the Hornets in the playoff mix the last two seasons; how does a team with Marvin Williams as their leading shot-blocker stay in the hunt? The Hornets spent several high picks on bigs with primarily offensive strengths (Cody Zeller, Frank Kaminsky), while the defensive specialist they let get away (Biyombo) has gone on to greener pastures.
On balance, a pattern emerges. The teams competing in the playoffs have invested tons of assets between cap space, draft picks and trades in order to protect the paint and end/extend possessions with rebounds. Teams without the services of such players -- or in need of better players with those skills -- have moved aggressively to acquire them on the open market.
It’s an oversimplification to say you can only build an NBA team in one way. There is a scarcity argument to be made for big men who dominate offensively the way Okafor might one day; seven-footers who can walk and chew gum are hot commodities, making players with deft-moves in the post the rarest birds of all. Even still, there’s very little (if any) indication that players of this archetype can be the leading man in the middle for a team with lofty aspirations. Being a complimentary piece sans defensive skills is a stretch as well — Enes Kanter was playing barely 10 minutes a night by the time Oklahoma City reached the latter stages of the playoffs this past season.
Decades worth of evidence point to plus-defense in the paint being a necessity, not optional, for a team to break through into the realm of serious contention. Consider that even historical outliers like the 2004 Detroit Pistons — famously considered the only star-less team to win an NBA championship — were anchored on defense by Ben Wallace, then in the midst of four straight All-Star selections despite never scoring more than 9.7 points per game. The merits of the Warriors’ "Death Lineup" are well-documented, but the loss of Bogut to injury was a major factor in Golden State’s epic Finals collapse.
In fairness, there are arguments to be made concerning the merit of each individual contract, particularly in the case of Biyombo’s Magic deal, when he might be the third big in the rotation barring a trade.
The Sixers are up against the same problem as Orlando, only they already possess the shot-blocking, rim-running type that fits comfortably into any permutation of the roster moving forward. The other primary difference is the uncertainty surrounding the presumed "best" center on the roster; Nik Vucevic has several productive seasons under his belt for the Magic, while Joel Embiid has yet to step on a basketball court.
Okafor Defense Breakdown
NBA analyst Nick Sciria has recently made some waves by creating long Twitter threads providing in-depth video analysis of players' games. He recently shared a deep dive on Jahlil Okafor's rookie season.
The value of what Noel offers has been dismissed by many under the premise that, "the Sixers can always go out and find another rim-protector." This is untrue on multiple fronts; Noel’s defensive peripherals are rare for a center his age, and players with that type of production consistently received boatloads of cash in free agency even before the cap jump. At best, you’d likely be obtaining an older model of Noel for a similar price, at worst a diluted version with no room for improvement.
If the draft is your avenue for improvement, there are several hurdles to clear. Being bad enough to pick high and snag a readymade rim-protector is an indicator that the program hasn’t taken the expected steps forward. On the other hand, you might be able to find a bargain in the second round, but by the time he’s ready to make a real contribution the likelihood is you’ll be ponying up the cash you were afraid to spend to begin with. Most of the teams on the lower end of the upside scale above -- without mentioning all the teams who missed the playoffs -- could desperately use players like Noel.
In most scenarios, both Okafor and Noel are viewed as glorified insurance policies in the event Embiid is never able to stay healthy. The truth of the matter is insurance has no value if disaster strikes and your policy doesn’t help replace what was lost in the disaster. While Okafor can certainly shoulder an offensive burden, we have yet to see evidence that he can live up to the primary responsibilities of a center on a successful NBA team. Using Okafor as Embiid insurance is the equivalent of getting a stack of sconces after your house burns down.
Noel is never going to be the centerpiece of your offense, but he has already displayed the requisite defensive prowess a perennial playoff team needs at the five. The market value of bigs like Noel is clear — they get paid a ton, they (mostly) get selected high in the draft, and they are more often than not the type of players at the pivot for teams in the playoffs, let alone ones that compete for championships. Barring injuries, his value is self-evident whether he’s on his rookie deal or commanding large sums of cash.