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Defending in Denver

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Jordan Kahn breaks down the latest NBA trends in video form. You can find more of his work at Basketball Things and follow him on Twitter @AyoitsJordan.

Denver acquired JaVale McGee to help shore up an interior defense that been flagging under Nene’s watch. While it seems like front office types are legally obligated to talk about McGee’s athleticism, potential, and defensive abilities, anyone who’s seen any coverage of the NBA this season knows he has shortcomings too.  What Denver can expect on defense from their new 7-foot acquisition?

Blocked Shots

With a 9’7” standing reach and 33” vertical leap,  JaVale McGee has elite shot blocking ability.  About three quarters of McGee’s 101 blocks have come out of help defense situations.  McGee’s physical talents are truly on display when he is roaming the lane.  Even when opponents alter their release or put more arc on the shot, McGee can still get up and block it.  It’s easy to fall in love with his potential when you see him effectively cover two players – helping on a driver or roll man and then recovering to block the shot of his own man when the ball gets there.  If the Nuggets go to a small lineup with McGee in the middle, this kind of spectacular play will go a long way in making a successful unit.

Pick and Roll Defense

As far as the routine play, stopping the pick and roll, McGee has had some problems.  This is likely part of the Wizards’ strategy, but McGee rarely hedges hard on the pick and roll ball handler.  Instead he stands back, waiting for the drive.  McGee took this to its logical extreme versus Sacramento, and it got him benched.  There are too many effective finishers at guard in the NBA for this to be a consistently viable defensive strategy.  However, to play devil’s advocate, you can see his logic in how he defends these pick and rolls.   Even when standing 5 feet away, McGee’s presence can stop most point guards from shooting a jumper.  And by giving that cushion, he is now closer to the rolling screener, as well.  Nevertheless, this strategy gives the ball handler a nice running start to attack McGee.  The video below shows how offenses have exploited McGee’s pick and roll defense.  It’s up to George Karl as to how he wants McGee to approach pick and roll defense with Denver.


McGee’s individual rebounding numbers are good; he’s well above league average for centers on both the offensive and defensive glass.  However, despite these numbers, the Wizards were a better rebounding team when McGee was on the bench.  McGee can hurt his team on the defensive glass because he is so committed to contesting all shots in the lane.   When McGee goes for those blocks, he leaves his man all alone.  A missed block or a slick pass and the opposing center has a layup.  As seen in the video below, The Nuggets’ defensive rotations will have to be very crisp to make up for McGee’s pursuit of blocks. Denver may view a few more offensive rebounds as a fair tradeoff for McGee’s blocked shots. Plus, having Kenneth Faried to clean up behind him should help matters, too.

Post Defense

He has had some major problems with on-the-ball defense.  Opposing centers have a 22 PER when facing off against McGee; that’s like going against Greg Monroe or Al Jefferson every single night.  Part of this is due to the rebounding problems discussed above.  But McGee is also a poor post defender, giving up 0.94 points per post possession, according to Synergy Sports.  If they can help it, Denver would be wise to avoid teams with an elite frontcourt player because McGee has had serious problems when guarding the upper echelon big men.  He’s given up an astounding 1.5 points per possession when playing post defense against Dwight Howard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol, Chris Bosh, DeMarcus Cousins, Al Jefferson, and Greg Monroe.  As a point of reference, none of those players average over one point per possession in the post this season.  The video below shows how McGee has been pushed around by these players.

When looking at a player’s positives and negatives, it can be difficult to separate the player from the system.  Some of McGee’s negative tendencies could be left behind in Washington, specifically his approach to pick and roll defense.  If we see him moving his feet and cutting off pick-and-roll ball handlers with Denver, then we might just witness McGee reach his potential in some of the other parts of his game.

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