July 24, 2012 Breaking Down Nene and Okafor Part Two: Defensive Ability
This is the second and final installment of breaking down Nene and Emeka Okafor, but be sure to check out part one here.
The Washington Wizards, in dire need of a big man to come in and become a force in the middle, traded for Emeka Okafor during the offseason in hopes that he would become that player. While offensively Okafor is going to make only a marginal difference, on defense is where his reputation in the NBA has been carved out. Nene, on the other hand, will for certain make a difference on offense, it’s still unclear what his defensive impact really is. Since we already covered their offensive abilities in part one, we’ll take a look at their defensive skills in part two.
In terms of rebounding ability:
Even though these two big men are similar in physical stature, not all bulky bodies are able to rebound equally. Okafor and Nene are miles apart in their capabilities on the offensive and defensive glass. We’ll start by discussing Okafor, because his accomplishments are worth noting. In Emeka Okafor, the Washington Wizards finally have a big man who likes to get on the boards. Gone is JaVale McGee, and in is a guy who, among active players, ranks behind only Dwight Howard, Tim Duncan, and Kevin Garnett in rebounds per game at 10.1. In that order. Rebounds per game obviously aren’t a catch-all stat, but if the saying “Birds of a feather, flock together” holds any weight in basketball, we can see exactly what Washington is about to get.
What makes Emeka such a good rebounder is his knack for being very active on the offensive end. Six of his eight seasons in the NBA thus far, Okafor has been in the top 10 in offensive rebounds. The two other seasons where he missed the mark, Okafor was injured the majority of them (including last year). In 2008-2009 with the New Orleans Hornets, Okafor pulled down 275 offensive rebounds, good for second in the NBA. Because he isn’t a blow-you-away athlete, Okafor is a permanent fixture in the low post and tends not to venture too far from his wheelhouse. The end result is that Okafor extends possessions using his big body to force other defenders into less than ideal rebounding areas. Wizards fans are going to be amazed at how cerebral Okafor is when it comes to rebounding. He isn’t quite Kevin Love, but he is leaps and bounds ahead of JaVale McGee in terms of playing the angles.
When it comes to defensive rebounding, Okafor is no slouch, either. His career average of 6.7 is solid (it’s about on rebound shy of Tyson Chandler’s mark) but it doesn’t mean anything without some more context. For example, Okafor also is great in a very telling statistic: Total Rebound Percentage (this calculates the total percentage of available rebounds grabbed while said player is on the court). In TRP, Okafor is right up there with All-Star centers at 18.30. He is eight for his career among active players, behind only guys like Tim Duncan, Marcus Camby, Dwight Howard, Tyson Chandler, and Ben Wallace. In other words? The dude is Windex on the glass.
That rebounding ability is a damn good thing, because his counterpart, Nene, can’t really rebound well at all for a guy his size. Nene’s career TRP is a paltry 13.5, which doesn’t crack the top 75 and puts him in a grouping with a bunch of small forwards and poor rebounding power forwards. Not to bring up a sore subject, but he is actually very similar in TRP to another former Wizard in Andray Blatche (13.8). I bring him into this conversation because Wizards fans can understand better what I’m trying to say when I relate it to something familiar. Andray had the ability to rebound very well, but far too often he did not have that mean streak and true drive for pulling down double digit boards every night. In other words, when he put in effort on the defensive end it was easy; the other times, he was a non-factor. That’s basically Nene’s issue, as he isn’t a big proponent of unforced contact. He is much more finesse, for better or worse, and in this case you take the good with the bad. Nene simply isn’t a good rebounder.
The good news is that his 7 rebounds per game (his career average) may improve with the Wizards a little bit. For large parts of Nene’s career he has played alongside guys who are, in a sense, rebound hogs. Camby, Chris Andersen, and recently Kenneth Fareid all grab boards at an alarmingly high rate, with the last one on that list being compared favorably to Dennis Rodman. There really were not a lot of opportunities to get rebounds with those guys around, but I can promise you that will change with the Wizards! Washington, even with Okafor and great college rebounding guard Bradley Beal at the helm, is not going to top any charts in rebounding. Nene should have more opportunities to get boards, so that number may increase slightly to the point of becoming passable. I say potentially, because in the 11 game sample from last season, Nene really did not do anything different from his typical numbers (he never really does).
In terms of blocking shots:
Nene and Okafor are again different in their abilities to block shots with, you guessed it, Okafor leading the charge on that front. While Nene is not bad, Okafor is significantly better at swatting shots. While neither has the innate ability of JaVale McGee, they both play with far more control and do not actively seek to volley ball spike every shot out of the arena. The end result is that the two should actually be better than just McGee alone will be, which I think will be a good thing for Washington’s defense.
Okafor is one of the better blockers in the game, as he usually finishes in the top 15 every season. For his career, he averages almost two per contest, and that is not likely to change. He is very good at moving away from the post and blocking forwards and centers attempting jump shots from a bit further out. In 2010-2011, of his 128 blocks, 63 of them were on jump shots alone, with another 59 coming from in close. He blocked 3.5% of shots attempted on the court that year, which may not seem that high at first, but when you consider how many possessions there are in the game and how few result in blocks, his number is actually very good.
The bad part about him being so willing to swat is that he racks up fouls a lot. During that same ’10-’11 season, Okafor collected 109 shooting fouls as well, attributable to his big body. I don’t really look at this as being a bad thing, because disruption in the lane and on shooters means he is actually trying hard, but it is something to look into because a center in foul trouble is a worthless center. He is smart enough to not foul out very often, but foul trouble marginalizes his effectiveness on the court (and Okafor doesn’t play oodles of minutes as it is).
Nene, on the other hand, is an average blocker who, for his career, sends back just under one per game. This is not, however, because he isn’t trying. Nene also racks up a lot of fouls attempting to contest shots; in ’10-’11 with the Nuggets, he picked up 110 shooting fouls against 74 blocks. He gets to his man on time, but he doesn’t always succeed in sending the shot back. But Nene is definitely talented at help defense, which entails coming into a play a tad late, and that in turn means he may have to use his body to alter a shot. Hence the fouls.
Overall, Nene is not going to wow you with his numbers, but when you consider all the other things he does on the court defensively, the difference between one block and two is not a major difference. If you want an example of this (and this is slightly off topic but has to do with defensive ability so I’m going to throw it in), look no further than Nene’s domination in thievery. For his career, Nene averages 1.2 steals per game, but in ’10-’11, you can see just how effective he can be. That year, when stretched over 48 minutes, Nene averaged almost 1 1/2 steals a game. That doesn’t happen for a big man, really, ever. But Nene has quick, soft, hands which he uses to pickpocket big men who try to back him down or drive on him. So while he cannot block as well as others, he does excel in his own right.
I’m not a huge fan of plus-minus or opponent statistics, because the stats are inherently flawed. It is so dependent on the rest of the team, the caliber of opponent, and whether your team is winning or losing. Plus-minus has less to do with individual performance, and more with pegging guys as “winners.” It’s a bit like a pitcher who has a 1.97 ERA through 4 games, but because of a lack of run support, has gone 0-4 and is considered a loser. Likewise with opponent statistics. Playing against Dwight Howard is not the same as playing against DeAndre Jordan, and so the stats are completely skewed. They give no real indication of how Emeka fared (which is actually very solid). So therefore, I’m not going to get into those statistics.
The conclusions we can draw from all of this? Nene and Okafor have all the trends of great big men tandems. Where Okafor lacks offensive production, Nene is able to pick up the slack. Where Nene is incapable of rebounding, he has Okafor around to do the dirty work. The two work relatively well together, even though they are a bit one dimensional in their abilities. On paper, I think defensively Washington is going to be tough to drive against. Two legitimate, solidly-built big men are an imposing presence to attempt to score on. JaVale’s physique wasn’t scaring anyone, but Nene and Okafor just might. All good news for Washington.
All stats courtesy of 82games.com,Basketball-reference.com, and hoopdata.com