The Spurs’ defense was bad 2018-19, but it has been cripplingly bad so far this year. The little bit of relevant off-season shuffling the team did - welcoming back Dejounte Murray and, in essence, swapping Davis Bertans for Trey Lyles and DeMarre Carroll - has not helped in that regard. The reasons are myriad, but the most important issue, one J.R. Wilco and I discussed on last week’s episode of Superfluous Poppycock, is the inability of one of the team’s best players to defend on every play.
That idea received more push back than I expected, given DeMar DeRozan’s long history of being a poor defender. But that doesn’t make it any less true, so let’s dig into the film.
First, simply saying that DeMar is bad when his team doesn’t have the ball is both completely accurate and a far-too-neat summation that elides so much nuance as to be useless. Defense in the NBA is complex and the impact of a single player is very difficult to measure. There are numerous individual skills and abilities that go into being a good defender, but being a good defender is no guarantee of being on a good defense.
The Spurs were famously worse on defense with Kawhi Leonard on the floor for much of the 2016-17 season. In retrospect, what Matt Moore showed in that piece is obvious, though I assure you it wasn’t at the time. Still, common sense says that you’re only as strong as your weakest link. In that case, Leonard was essentially irrelevant to the team’s ability to defend in the halfcourt, despite being the best wing defender in the league.
In much the same way, the actual defensive ability of this version of the Spurs as a whole is hard to estimate, because they spend so much of their time with a sieve at small forward. That may sound extreme, but the film doesn’t lie. The fact is, DeMar’s defense is often a liability, even when he’s trying.
DeMar sees the turnover and immediately begins running back on defense, but then, inexplicably, turns to backpedal like a corner, opening up the passing window and turning a probable bucket into a certainty.
There’s no shame in struggling to defend the LeBron James - Anthony Davis pick and roll. But DeMar’s actually in good position as LeBron brings the ball over the screen and heads into the center of the floor. For a moment at least, DeMar draws even with Davis and appears to be on his way back to LeBron, which would allow LaMarcus Aldridge to potentially recover before it’s too late. But then DeMar loses contact, stumbles a little and veers to the wrong part of the floor. LeBron makes the easy pocket pass and Davis slams it home.
Still, there are a lot of different ways to make an impact on defense. Rudy Gay, for instance, has developed into a very good weak side help defender. He’s always ready to stop penetration, disrupt a rolling big man or zone up on weak side shooters as someone else goes to help. Though he’s a bit overzealous at times, that’s a better problem to have than not helping at all. DeMar, on the other hand, rarely gets in the right position early enough or moves quickly enough to disrupt the play.
Going for the deflection here isn’t a very good decision by Jakob Poeltl, but he should have good help behind him. DeMar’s trailing his man over to the weak side, a situation in which most defenders lag in the paint to deter a drive for as long as they can. DeMar, though, is nearly out of the lane on the far side. He needs to beat Joel Embiid to the edge of the restricted area, which should have been easy, but has to settle for fouling to prevent the dunk instead.
Once Rudy goes to help, DeMar’s job is to zone up between the two players on the weak side. He starts off pretty well, but then jumps out of position anticipating a steal, giving up a wide open corner three.
Another example is Marco Belinelli who, for all his many warts, communicates switches well and is almost always aware of where everyone is on the court. Though he gets beat far too often because he’s the slowest person on the court, Marco makes the most of what he has to work with. DeMar, despite being much more athletic, gives up just as many plays, usually because he isn’t aware of what’s going on around him and doesn’t appear to communicate well with his teammates.
Without knowing the game plan, it’s a little difficult to assign blame on this play, but the Spurs were trying not to switch actions that involved Embiid, for obvious reasons, so the Spurs’ typical response would be to switch the first screen here. That means DeMar should have jumped out on Harris and Dejounte would have stayed with Simmons. That didn’t happen though, and Dejounte couldn’t catch up to Harris before he drilled the three. Given that Dejounte is chirping at DeMar once the play’s over, it seems like a good bet that that’s what was supposed to happen.
In a similar situation where it’s clear LaMarcus has jumped out on the ball handler, DeMar misses the switch again, this time letting Randle go on a free roll to the rim. Derrick White moved as soon as the pass was thrown but is still a hair late because the roll was so open.
DeMar clearly doesn’t know the screen is coming, though it appears Bryn Forbes and LaMarcus are talking. That leaves Bryn to pick up LeBron, which is less than optimal. DeMar then helps off Alex Caruso at the top of the key, though he doesn’t actually do anything once he gets in the vicinity of the play. That gives LeBron an easy passing lane out to Caruso, who fortunately bricks the shot.
As evidenced on this play, Bryn, like Patty Mills, is too small to be a good individual defender at his position, but fights on every play and never stop hustling. DeMar, though, can be counted on take a possession or two every night.
Jakob makes accidental contact with DeMar’s left leg, which causes him to trip and miss the pass from Derrick. The Knicks bring the ball up court - not all that quickly, mind you - and find RJ Barrett for a wide open three in the right corner. He misses, and fortunately, Derrick and Bryn are able to keep Taj Gibson from pulling down the rebound. At no time in the Knicks’ possession do we ever see DeRozan on the screen. Maybe he got up. Maybe he started walking over to join his teammates playing defense. Without another angle, we just don’t know.
Pause it with 5 seconds left in the half. DeMar’s the low man on the floor, meaning he can see all of the match ups. Trey, who is literally right in front of DeMar, clearly thinks he’s guarding Davis. LaMarcus has Dwight Howard, Dejounte is picking up LeBron and Bryn is on Danny Green in the left wing. DeMar, though, is just standing there. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who’s wide open on the left wing, doesn’t let his three pointer go until there’s less than 2 seconds left on the clock. Even if DeMar couldn’t be bothered to run all the way over there in those 3 seconds, he should’ve at least told Trey to do it.
On top of that, even when he’s in good position, he often gives minimal effort to close out to shooters, choosing instead to hold his hand up and shuffle forward slowly.
To be fair, though, one thing DeMar does well on defense is make plays. He’s 3rd on the team in deflections and steals and 4th in blocks.
It’s difficult to reconcile his ability to affect the outcome of a play like this with the way he plays the majority of the time. DeMar understands the game — he’s a hooper, as the kids say — but clearly doesn’t value his own ability to have impact the same way on both ends of the court.
He’s often found standing, bent at the waist with straight legs, sometimes with his hands grabbing his shorts, even when he’s guarding the ball handler.
He appears tired, and since he carries such an incredible load on the offensive end, perhaps that’s the case. But if he’s too tired to defend, then he should be taking a breather on the bench.
All of the clips included here were from the team’s last 3 contests. This isn’t cherry picking a bunch of bad plays over the course of a season, DeMar’s been doing this stuff pretty much every game this year, which is why the defensive component of 538’s new metric RAPTOR currently rates DeMar as the 6th worst defender in the NBA.
He’s been much, much worse this season than he was last year, or at any point going back to 2014, which is as far back as the metric is available.
That matches up pretty well with what we see in the film. DeMar was bad, but playably bad in his first year in the Silver and Black. But so far this season, he’s been close to the worst defender in the league.
Still, none of this is to say that DeMar is a bad basketball player. There’s simply no denying that he’s a critical driving force behind the team’s offensive success. It’s also not to somehow imply that other players on the team play perfect defense. That’s far from the case. Every player makes mistakes every night. At the same time, DeMar plays most possessions just fine. The issue is the frequency with which defensive breakdowns center around his weaknesses, and, in particular, his lack of effort.
If we’re going to have a discussion about what DeRozan brings to this team, we need to get as close as possible to a shared understanding of how he contributes in each facet of the game. Hopefully, this is a step in that direction.