When Golden State and Milwaukee faced off on Tuesday, three of this season’s top rim defenders shared the court: Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez from the Bucks, and Draymond Green from the Warriors.
While the 3-point shot has become omnipresent in today’s game – nearly 40% of all field goal attempts come from beyond the arc this season – the most efficient shot in the game remains the ones at the basket.
As the chart below illustrates, more points are scored per field goal attempt inside the restricted area (1.32) compared to any other area of the court with corner 3-pointers second at 1.15 points per attempt. Teams are shooting a combined 66.2% at the basket, which is by far the highest percentage of any shooting zone.
|In the Paint (Non-RA)||11,456||13,321||0.86||43.0%|
|Left Corner 3||3,984||3,447||1.16||38.5%|
|Right Corner 3||3,606||3,165||1.14||38.0%|
|All Corner 3s||7,590||6,612||1.15||38.3%|
|Above the Break 3s||21,543||20,581||1.05||34.9%|
Note: All data through games played on Sunday, Dec. 11.
All of that points to the need for strong rim protection to help prevent – or at least limit – opposing teams from scoring at the basket.
Here is a closer look at the 10 best through the first eight weeks of the 2022-23 season:
Note: Medium volume (minimum 75 total shots defended at the rim, 92 players qualify)
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee
Among the 92 players that have defended at least 75 shots at the rim this season, Giannis holds his opponents to the lowest shooting percentage at 47.4%. Giannis’ career began in 2013-14, which also marked the debut of player tracking data, so we’ve been able to chart his progress as a rim protector for his entire NBA career. He has only one other season in which he held opponents below 50% shooting at the basket, and it’s the same season he was named Defensive Player of the Year (2019-20, 41.7% allowed at the rim).
Giannis has a combination of height (7-foot), length (7-3 wingspan), speed, leaping ability and overall athleticism that has earned him the nickname of the Green Freak. When those assets are coupled with strong defensive instincts, you get a player that can make a play like he did in Game 4 of the 2021 NBA Finals. The Suns ran a Devin Booker/Deandre Ayton dribble hand off at the top of the key; Giannis hedged on the screen to help his teammate and cut off a Booker drive into the lane at the right elbow of the key, leaving Ayton rolling freely to the basket. Booker then tossed an alley-oop pass to the rim, and Giannis was able to turn and recover back to the rim in time to block the shot and prevent the Suns from tying the game. Milwaukee would win Game 4 to tie the series at 2-2 and eventually win the title in six games.
Draymond Green, Golden State
Green is currently on pace to post the second-lowest opponent field goal percentage at the rim of his career. He led the league in rim protection in 2020-21 when he allowed a career-low 47.3%; he ranked third at 50.2% in 2016-17 when he was named Defensive Player of the Year.
That DPOY season, Green ranked 12th in blocks and led the league in steals – his highest career rankings in both categories. But the counting stats don’t come close to measuring the defensive impact of Green that the eye test shows us. Player tracking data helps color in that picture much more clearly.
But perhaps Green’s greatest defensive asset is his versatility. Standing 6-foot-6, he is just as comfortable protecting the basket amongst the trees in the paint as he is switching onto a guard in pick-and-roll and locking them down on the perimeter. Finding a player that can do those two tasks consistently over the course of a game, a season or a career is nearly impossible. That’s Draymond Green.
Brook Lopez, Milwaukee
Through the first 25 games of the season, Lopez is having a season where the counting stats (he leads the league in blocks at 2.9 per game) and the player tracking data (51.8% allowed at the rim) coincide quite nicely. While Lopez ranks eighth in rim protection among the 92-player field that has defended at least 75 shots, when we increase that minimum to 125 to filter the field down to the players that see the most shots at the basket, Lopez ranks first out of those 26 players.
Note: High volume (minimum 125 total shots defended at the rim, 26 players qualify)
Lopez has consistently ranked among the top 10 high volume rim protectors since joining the Bucks in 2018-19. Lopez’s worst rim protection season with Milwaukee (52.5% allowed, 7th in league, 2018-19) was better than all but one season on record during his time in Los Angeles and Brooklyn (52% allowed in 2015-16 with the Nets). He’s been the anchor of coach Mike Budenholzer’s defense since the two arrived in Milwaukee to start the 2018-19 season. Here are Milwaukee’s season-by-season defensive efficiency rankings over that stretch: 1st (2018-19), 1st (2019-20), 9th (2020-21), 14th (2021-22) and 1st (2022-23). The Bucks’ lowest ranking during the Budenholzer era came in the same season Lopez was limited to 13 games due to injury.
Player to Watch: Jaren Jackson Jr, Memphis
Jackson made his season debut on Nov. 15 after missing the first month of the season (14 games) while recovering from surgery to repair a stress fracture in his right foot. Due to his missed time, he did not meet the minimums set to be included among this leaderboard of rim protectors. But the numbers are too good to ignore despite the limited sample size.
Through 10 games, Jackson has defended 64 shots at the basket and held opponents to 43.8% shooting at the rim, which would by far lead the league in rim protection. Considering the number of shots he contests at the basket – 6.4 per game ranks 13th among all players – Jackson will fit into the high volume leaderboard as he plays more games. Jackson’s 43.8% allowed is eight percentage points lower than Lopez’s 51.8, which currently leads that high-volume group. If Jackson can stay healthy and continue to put up these types of numbers, he’ll be at the top of the list when we revisit this leaderboard later in the season.