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How Derrick White’s help defense led the Spurs to victory over the Pelicans

There’s some things the stats don’t show but are just as important.

San Antonio Spurs v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

It’s difficult to capture the value of good help defense. There’s no stat for disrupting drives or blowing up screening actions. The impact becomes visible over time in the form of defensive efficiency, but even that gets clouded by hot and cold streaks as well as who else is on the floor on both sides of the ball. Advanced plus-minus metrics seek to parse through all that information to identify who is having an impact and do a pretty good job over a long enough timeline, but even with enough data it still can’t show why.

A good example of all of that is Derrick White, whose defensive instincts lead him to the most important position on the floor at the exact right moment time and again. On the biggest defensive possession of the Spurs‘ Wednesday night victory over the Pelicans, that’s exactly what happened.

The Pelicans get Patty Mills switched onto Brandon Ingram, which is an obvious mismatch. Patty plays as close to chest-to-chest as he can with a player who’s 6 inches taller than him, staying on Ingram’s right to prevent a three and force a drive to the left. Josh Hart clears out to the weak side corner, but Derrick lingers in the paint, waiting for the inevitable penetration. When it comes, he maintains his discipline, sliding his feet instead of reaching and going straight up for the contest instead of chasing a block.

Ingram’s attempt to seek contact throws him off enough that the ensuing shot is well off the mark. The rebound ricochets through several hands before Derrick gathers it up to complete the stop.

Plays like this win games, and Derrick makes them consistently. Just within his first 6 minutes on the floor against the Pelicans, he took away several high value opportunities with hustle, awareness and good decision-making.

This is a fun one because Rudy Gay clearly wants Derrick to jump out on Ingram between the two screens.

But that’s probably not the right answer. If Derrick switches this the way Rudy seems to be imploring him to, he’ll be in trail position with Ingram headed to the middle of the floor. They’d either give up a dunk or DeMar DeRozan would have to help out of the right corner, which is a pretty bad outcome, too. Instead, Jakob Poeltl jumps out on to Ingram and Derrick stays with Niccolo Melli as he rolls to the rim.

Once Ingram makes his move, Derrick steps into his path, forcing the kick out. Rudy is just barely able to recover in time for a decent contest, but he’s still fortunate JJ Redick didn’t knock this one down.

The Pelicans pushed off a make on their next possession, but to no avail. With Derrick back on defense there’s no easy path to the rim, and Lonzo Ball gets called for an offensive foul when he tries to create enough room to get to the basket.

A minute later, Derrick found himself alone on the right side as the Pelicans pushed the pace again. Ball and Ingram’s quick swings leave the Spurs’ defense out of position, but it doesn’t matter because Derrick closes perfectly, deflecting Redick’s attempt to throw it back up to the wing out of bounds.

The Pelicans got Patty switched onto Ingram on the last possession of the 1st quarter, with similar results to the play we already discussed. Derrick stunts in and Ingram takes one too many steps attempting to get rid of the ball.

Similar to his play on the Pelicans’ transition opportunity he busted up, Derrick again closes to the high side of the player in the corner and is able to get his hand in the passing lane and deflect the ball out of bounds.

Then, with 285 pounds of mid-debut rookie sensation barreling down the lane, Derrick calmly steps in and takes the charge. Normally when a player takes a charge and their feet leave the ground, it’s a sign of some additional effort on their part, but that’s probably not the case here. It very much looks like the force of Zion Williamson’s impact quite literally knocked Derrick of his feet.

Derrick’s instinct to help on the ball lines up with one of the conceptual underpinnings of the Spurs’ defense: the most important guy on the floor is the one with ball. But that concept is at odds with some other very simple precepts that guide modern NBA defenses. Helping when it’s not your job is generally a no-no, as is helping one pass away. Derrick does these things to great effect, but sometimes his gambling has a cost.

Derrick sinks in on the roll man, but loses track of Ball behind him, giving up an easy cut to the rim.

Up by 6 with just a minute an a half to go, it would definitely be preferable to force Jrue Holiday to finish over DeMar rather than give up a wide open corner three.

Still, Derrick’s good plays far outweigh the bad. That he’s currently 115th in the league in Defensive Player Impact Plus Minus, 214th in Defensive Real Plus Minus and 77th in the defensive component of Raptor is more a sign of the limitations of those metrics’ ability to parse through player value within a single season than an accurate assessment of his defensive impact.

Derrick’s defense is a key reason the Spurs slid into 8th place in West at the end of last night’s game, and really, that’s the only metric that matters.