In Defense of Pek's Interior D.

In a November 15 column (The NBA's E-League), Bill Simmons praised Roy Hibbert:

SportVU Revelation: One of the many reasons why Roy Hibbert is running away with Defensive Player of the Year: He challenges 10.1 field goals per game at the rim, but opponents score on only 38.2 percent of those shots. By contrast, opponents shoot 58 percent at the rim if it's DeAndre Jordan protecting and 56.9 percent if it's Boogie Cousins. If it's Jonas Valanciunas? We're looking at 52.6 percent. You probably already knew this.

I would argue that there is more than one way to protect the rim.

Updating Simmons' numbers, I checked the player tracking data through 12/8/13 for centers averaging 20+ minutes per game with at least 15 games played (, Google Spreadsheet). Hibbert defends 9.7 FGA at the rim each game, with opponents scoring at 39.7%, the lowest percentage allowed by any center. Sounds good, but is it?

How does the Timberwolves Nicola Pekovic compare? He allows opponents to score on a much higher 56.2% of their attempts at the rim. However, opponents challenge him with FGA at the rim just 6.8 times per game, compared to 15.2 FGA for Hibbert.

I normalized the FGA and FGM data to per 48 minutes, and I learned that the average center faces 12.5 attempts and allows 6.2 makes, or 49.5% shooting percentage.

Let's compare Hibbert and Pek to some of their peers, as well as compared to average FGA and FGM per 48 minutes as well as their opponents' FG Pct.:

Pct Rank FGM Rank Player Opp FGM at Rim/48 Opp FGA at Rim/48 Opp FGM at Rim/48 Comp Avg Opp FGA at Rim/48 Comp Avg Opp FG Pct at Rim Comp Avg
10 1 Al Horford (Hawks) 4.4 9.2 -1.8 -3.3 -2.1%
9 4 Andre Drummond (Pistons) 5.0 10.3 -1.2 -2.2 -2.2%
4 7 Tim Duncan (Spurs) 5.5 12.9 -0.7 0.3 -7.0%
22 8 Nikola Pekovic (Timberwolves) 5.6 9.7 -0.6 -2.8 6.7%
1 14 Roy Hibbert (Pacers) 6.1 15.2 -0.1 2.7 -9.8%
5 15 Andrew Bogut (Warriors) 6.2 14.3 0.0 1.8 -6.5%
6 17 Dwight Howard (Rockets) 6.5 14.0 0.3 1.5 -3.9%
Avg. Avg. Average Center 6.2 12.5 - - -

Under these metrics, Pek jumps from 22nd (out of 27) to 8th best. Hibbert drops from 1st to 14th. Whether through positioning, intimidation, or his massive size, opponents challenge Pek (9.7 FGA/48) much less than they do Hibbert (15.2 FGA/48), about 5.5 fewer attempts per 48 minutes. Al Horford of the Hawks fares the best under this metric, with opponents taking just 9.2 attempts at the rim per 48 minutes.

In the end, opponents facing Pek make 5.6 FG per 48 minutes, while Hibbert allows 6.1 FG per 48 minutes.

Does this make Pek a better defensive center or rim defender that Hibbert? I wouldn't say so. However, I would argue that defensively, he is perhaps a bit underrated, probably because he doesn't block many shots. If anything, I would argue that teams facing the Pacers should make fewer attempts at the rim, while conversely suggesting that Wolves opponents...never mind...forget it...

As always, I welcome people trying to poke holes in my theory, ask questions, or comment. Thanks for reading.