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Can Kristaps Porzingis defend the perimeter?

We already know he can protect the paint.

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at New York Knicks Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re like me and followed the New York Knicks consistently throughout the 2017–18 season, you have managed to come across some version of the following statement posted by Anonymous Knicks Fan X: “Kristaps Porzingis cannot defend on the perimeter; he is simply not good at it.” Anonymous Knicks Fan X would then follow up with something resembling this statement: “Porzingis needs to play the five in order to protect and stay closer to the rim because this is what he is best at on defense.”

Anchoring the defense and not defending players outside the paint is an easy stance to take. In spite of playing 88 percent of his time at power forward, Porzingis managed to average the 16th most defended field goal attempts within six feet of the rim and was second in defended field goal percentage differential amongst high-volume rim protectors, per (Note: high-volume is defined at averaging at least four defended field goal attempts per game. Also, I am not counting Luol Deng as second because he only played one game). Based on the defended field goal percentage differential statistic, Porzingis is an elite rim protector in this league; he’s consistently been a top 10 player in this statistic for his career, improving each season.

But what about his defense not associated with defending this rim? Porzingis also ranks well in the various adjusted plus-minus statistics. The Unicorn was 35th in defensive RPM (2.27), 46th in defensive RAPM (1.4075), and 24th in defensive PIPM (1.96). Positionally, Porzingis ranked eighth in defensive RPM amongst power forwards and would have been 12th amongst centers, 12th amongst “bigs” (players who primarily player power forward and/or center), and 14th amongst “bigs” in PIPM (Note: if you want a layman’s understand of RPM and RAPM, this is the best article, and here is the methodology on PIPM). Furthermore, the Knicks are 5.9 points per 100 possessions better on defense on when Porzingis is on the floor, which is in the 91st percentile, per Cleaning the Glass.

No matter now you slice it, Kristap Porzingis is a significant defensive plus when he on the court for New York and consistently ranked in the top 15 amongst big-men defenders. So why is it that a good chunk of Knicks fans say that Porzingis cannot defend in space? Well for one, opponent three-point shooting frequency increases 6.1 percent — 4.9 percent of that coming from the corner — when Porzingis is on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass, which is in the second percentile. Fortunately for the Knicks, opponents were not converting those shots as their three-point shooting percentage was 5.0 percent worse with Porzingis on the floor.

In conjunction with those team stats, here are Porzingis’ defensive play-type metrics for last season:

The pick-and-roll roll man and the spot up figures are alarming and what individuals point to as the basis of their “Porzingis cannot defend in space” claim. Averaging 1.06 and 1.12 points per possession in pick-and-roll and spot up defense, respectively, is far from being just mediocre.

On the surface, these numbers in a vacuum are discouraging; however, we cannot evaluate defense in a vacuum. Play-type data as well as three-point shots allowed when on the court isn’t quite as straightforward as we would like it to be. Hell, the defensive plus-minus statistics don’t provide much context either, but rather a very general understanding of “is this person a net positive on defense when on the floor?” The defended field goal percentage differential is the most straightforward of the statistics currently presented so far. Evaluating defense needs not only the available individual defensive metrics, but a significant amount of context via film and a defensive metrics of that player’s teammates.

So, the question at hand becomes what is causing the public perception stated in the beginning of the article and those ghastly play-type values related to Kristaps Porzingis? Let’s begin by examining which teammates Porzingis played with the most and their respective individual adjusted plus-minus figures:

This data in and of itself is rather alarming. The four primarily players Porzingis played with (the starters) all have negative defensive RPM figures. And if it wasn’t for PIPM’s box score prior generously helping Kanter, the starters would all be net negative defenders in PIPM as well. Not surprising to those who followed the Knicks closely, the two best defensive players other than Porzingis, Frank Ntilikina and Kyle O’Quinn, rarely played with The Unicorn. According to Cleaning the Glass, lineups with Ntilikina, O’Quinn, and Porzingis tallied 266 possessions and allowed 98.1 points per 100 possessions — again, not surprising that those lineups were very good on defense last year.

Having Jack and Kanter on the bench did wonders for New York’s defense. Though the adjusted plus-minus metrics were kinder to Jack than Courtney Lee, anyone who simply watched five minutes of Knicks basketball could tell you that Jarrett Jack was far from even mediocre on defense; same goes for Enes Kanter.

Speaking of Jack and Kanter, this lethargic defensive duo played a critical role in Porzingis’ “space defense” figures and perception. Every aspect of defense is interconnected with one another to varying degrees. In order for an offense to succeed in spot-up shooting, the ball handler needs to break down the point of attack, force the defense to rotate, and kick the ball out to an open shooter. The best way to achieve this is by running a pick-and-roll. The screen seals off or impedes the path of the defender long enough to create space for the ball handler to then go one-on-one with the screener’s defender. If the ball handler blows by the defender, the defense is forced to rotate and a shooter will more than likely be open in the corner for a three-point attempt.

Can you guess which two players that Porzingis regularly played with were abysmal at defending the pick-and-roll? Jarrett Jack was in the 11th percentile in pick-and-roll ball handler defense averaging 1.02 points per possession and Enes Kanter was in the 17th percentile in pick-and-roll roll man defense averaging 1.23 points per possession. For comparison, Frank Ntilikina was in the 90th percentile averaging 0.65 points per possession and Kyle O’Quinn was in the 73rd percentile averaging 0.84 points per possession. Having Jack and Kanter together on the floor is a recipe for disaster for a team’s defense as you get plays like this:

They cannot contain the weak side pick-and-roll and Dragic easily drives to the hoop, which leads to the ball to swing around the arc and finds James Johnson with a clean look. Fortunately for New York, Porzingis does manage to get out on Wayne Ellington, who was lights out from three this season (39.2 percent on 7.5 attempts), and forced him to give up the ball, but for a better shot, of course. Then in the second part of the video, Jack gets screened twice out of the play and Kanter recognizes the drive late and gives a half-assed contest. This is what happens when your second big isn’t a threat to protect the rim.

Jack dying on screens and simply switching onto Porzingis’ man or being behind on the play was the norm. The Celtics blowout in late January encompasses Jack leaving Porzingis (or any player, really) out to dry.

And let’s not forget Kanter hitting the trifecta: flat-footed, out of position, and lazy:

The Zeller three is disgusting. Porzingis forces DeMarre Carroll to not only use his off-hand, but drive baseline and have no other play besides passing to Zeller in the corner. What does Kanter do? He half-ass hedges at Carroll, watches the pass go by him, and then lolligags his way to the corner. Tyler Zeller has tougher contests during warmups when no one is guarding him.

Despite the difficulties Jack and Kanter present for the Knicks defense and Kristaps Porzingis, there is at least some foundation to the claim in discussion. Porzingis is definitely not a lockdown defender in space by any means. And it doesn’t help when players hit three-pointers in his face.

Jaylen Brown hits an in-rhythm transition three that’s contested; hard to fault Porzingis there. There may have been a miscommunication on the Morris three as you can see Porzingis point to Morris for either Ntilikina or Lance Thomas to take him, but he still goes out to defend Morris. You can definitely make the case that Porzingis should have forced Morris to drive by jumping out and closing out harder. He also had O’Quinn near the rim. You can also make the claim that he should have been up more on Holiday too; however, this isn’t necessarily egregious or poor defense. Hell, Porzingis took away the Hollis-Jefferson drive, but Hollis-Jefferson made the contested midrange jumper. It could have been better with a bit more effort in the first three plays of the video, but definitely doesn’t warrant the “bad” claim.

With that said, Porzingis does not make it easy on folks:

In the first three plays of the video, you can see Porzingis either be a step slow or simply not getting out in time. I purposely have the last two plays of the video at the end because they are especially frustrating. Porzingis gets low in his stance, hands up, and takes away the Carroll drive to force him back out to give the ball up. He gets caught ball-watching as Carroll slips to an open spot behind the arc. Porzingis shows more athleticism to flash out to Horford to take away the pass out of the trap. He then has a brain farts and lingers in the paint while Horford eventually gets a WIDE open three-point shot attempt.

There is a commonality in the previous two videos and in general with Porzingis’ perimeter defense. The issues do not appear to have to be related to athleticism. When individuals phrase this issue as “Porzingis cannot and is not good at defending in space and chasing stretch fours around the perimeter,” the implication is that he is simply physically incapable and not athletic enough to do so. This assumption or connotation doesn’t appear to be the case. More than anything else, this appears to be more of an effort and fundamentals issue than anything else.

When on the perimeter, Porzingis is primarily flat-footed, erect, and has hands down. He jumps into space rather than having active feet as well as rarely being low enough in his defensive stance and is not always up on his man. You could say that by Porzingis not doing these defensive necessities, he will not succeed at defending in space, which in turn makes him a poor perimeter defender. But he certainly is capable.

Tipping the pass and getting out to contest a step back three from Davis, getting skinny, low, and moving his feet to force a contested midrange Morris jumper, and forcing Hollis-Jefferson into a poor position for the layup by moving his feet all suggest that Porzingis can in fact defend in space at an adequate level. Is he perfect? Can he do this consistently throughout a the course of a game? Will he ever be great at space defense? No, of course not. But given the circumstance of primarily playing with minus defenders and primarily playing the four, Porzingis certainly wasn’t bad at perimeter defense. I know it’s a marginal difference, but there is a distinction between being “fine” and being “bad” — and Porzingis was definitely fine.

It would be remiss of me if I did not also dedicate some time to discuss Porzingis’ defense coming off his ACL injury. This is where the opinion of “Porzingis needs to play the five more so he can be near the rim” really begins to hold merit. No one knows if The Unicorn is going to transform into The Lizard in order to recover faster and stronger than ever. Will this injury affect Porzingis’ ability to sink into those hips and bend those knees to really dig into a proper defensive stance? Is he going to lose a step if he’s drawn out to the three-point line? The natural assumption is going to be “yes,” but we need to wait and see the results of his rehab.

Outside of building strength in his core, hips, and lower body to not lose a step and basic defensive footwork fundamentals, a smart way to help counter the concerns coming off the injury is to actually play Porzingis with good defenders. Ntilikina is a significant defensive improvement over Jack, having Kevin Knox or Thomas play the three instead of Lee or Hardaway allows for better matchups, and Mitchell Robinson athleticism and defensive potential is already an improved defensive team. Granted, Knox and Robinson still have much to prove and improve on the defensive end; they are rookies after all. Lee and Hardaway, however, are too small (especially Lee) to consistently defend wings. Robinson is more than likely a better defender than Kanter right now, and Robinson hasn’t played organized five-on-five all of last year and still doesn’t know positioning or how to utilize his length.

One thing we cannot lose sight of is that assuming moving to the five magically solves this perimeter defense concern or prevents him from ever defending in space. Teams are going to still try to pull Porzingis away from the rim on pick-and-rolls and switches. They always look to take away strengths and exploit weaknesses. Whether Porzingis plays the five, four, or three, if he cannot defend perimeter players, opponents will ensure it happens more often than not.

There is still much to learn and see before we come to any sort of false conclusion that Kristaps Porzingis isn’t good at defending on the perimeter. He certainly was not as bad as many Knicks fans have made him out to be last season, which is promising moving forward under an assumption that there is a full recovery. This is in no way suggesting that Porzingis should be on the perimeter chasing fours around, but rather he is capable of holding his own when pulled out there. To maximize Porzingis’ defensive potential, he should be defending the rim and anchoring the team defense.

Seeing the growth of players like Ntilikina, Knox, Robinson, and Hardaway, for example, as well as the defensive system Coach Fizdale installs is equally as important to the success of the defense and the perception on Porzingis. Right now, only time can answer those questions.