The 3-5 Charlotte Hornets start has formed a lot of possible topics for debate. Ones that concern the gelling process of our roster and the overall chemistry of it, some that question the production of certain players and also some which touch on minute distribution and rotations. Among the latter – the discussion on who should be Charlotte’s back-up center. Jason Maxiell, who a month ago seemed to be the designated 15th man on an unguaranteed deal, has snatched the position to much dismay of the Hornets fans who would have preferred lottery talent, Bismack Biyombo or Noah Vonleh, getting the playing time. I don’t find it to be in my competence to determine what of Rick Bonnell’s reported quotes from Coach Clifford are just coach-speak (the talk about effort sure seems like nonsense) and what are the actual reasons, however, I can break down what do Maxiell and Biyombo exactly bring to the table on defense (offense in this case is seemingly an after-thought) and who’s better at it.
Maxiell is pretty much doing the best job a heavy 6-7 big approaching 32 years of age can do. You can sense that he has a good general understanding on where to be on defense and what to do, yet his body sets considerable limitations on him. So he does the only thing he can do – uses all of his 260 pounds of weight and tries not to get out of position. In a very old-school manner, he starts his work once his opposing player approaches the paint by bumping him:
He’s like a electric fence around the paint which constantly reminds his man of that area being secured by pushing him. It almost seems to be a irresistible tick for Maxiell to remind his match-up of his presence with random pushes:
This comes more into effect rebounding-wise. Some might point at Maxiell’s numbers (4.0 rebounds per game per 36 minutes) and criticize him, but that’s an outdated way of measuring rebounding. Several teams have abandoned offensive rebounds altogether which should make high individual defensive rebound averages less impressive, but seemingly the perception of being a great rebounder if you manage to snag 10 of them every game has stayed the same. What matters for bigs is whether your team rebounds better when you are on the floor, what doesn’t matter is JJ Hickson flying over smaller team-mates for uncontested rebounds. Maxiell certainly knows how to get his body in the way of his match-up and he will do so quite early by facing-up and tracking his opponent first , which is an important, yet an often forgotten detail:
I used this exact play as an example just because Maxiell still went by the book even if Bosh’s initial non-involvement in crashing the boards might have suggested that it’s safe to ignore him (which can then end up in that player using the opportunity of his match-up not locating him). Whenever the opponent engages in chasing the rebounding Max turns it into a real battle:
Maxiell knows that if he’ll stray away from such fundamentals, it will look really bad:
We’re right around our team defensive rebound percentage (which is 79.9%, league’s second best) whenever Max hits the floor (79.3%, 80.2% with him off) and even if the net is -0.9%, it evidently hasn’t been caused by his lack of effort (side-note – Cody is at a surprising -7.5%, which is something to watch coming off of that missed box out on Aldridge that could have decided the Portland game).
He’s also capable of using his body to deny post position. If the opponent big somehow has got deep post position on him, like in this case Marc Gasol has off an off-ball screen, Maxiell will fight to death trying to prevent the two points from happening. Watch how Gasol goes from having perfect position right underneath the rim to being moved out to the elbow:
The problem is that while Jason certainly doesn’t lack the effort or pounds to do this, he’s toast once a taller center (which means – pretty much any center) receives the ball with his back to the basket and starts to go to work on him, no matter how far from the basket Jason might have made him catch the ball. He lacks height to such a degree that even mediocre offensive options like Alexis Ajinca can successfully make shots over him as if they were warming up before the game with an assistant coach guarding them to re-create a game-like situation:
And that’s what it all boils down to. No matter how smart of a player Maxiell is, he doesn’t have the body that can execute all of his wishes. He knows how to position himself in pick-n-roll defense, whether he has to drop back on them or hedge. It’s just that he’s very vulnerable in these kind of situations since it requires swift change of direction that he doesn’t have in him. His drop backs will look solid until point guards start to sense that they can attack him and turn the corner on him, which most of the time he won’t be able to close:
His hedging on pick-n-rolls is surprisingly spry but it seems as if a secondary action after the hedge is too much for him. This way Max has given up way too many open mid-range looks for good shooters like Amare and Antic, but ironically his opponents haven’t been able to knock them down, them being 5 for 18 when shooting from a distance greater than 15 feet per NBA.com (less than 10 feet – 20/28). Either way it seems as if he’s concerned about being taken off the dribble so his contests on mid-range looks have been non-existent:
If the big man involved in the pick-n-roll decides to trail the play or pop out for the jumper, him getting an easy look is basically a foregone conclusion. Maxiell can’t get out there fast enough and only a weak-side defender stunting (fake aggressive help with the intention of getting back to your man either way) can interrupt that particular big, like Brian Roberts kind of does in this case:
Lastly, Jason just can’t protect the rim. In our weekly update of his opponent field goal percentage at the rim, he’s the seventh worst in the league among bigs with sufficient field goal sample sizes. Luis Scola (73.3%, 2.4/3.3), Spencer Hawes (71.4%, 2.1/3.0), Tarik Black (70.6%, 2.4/3.4), Al Horford (68.5%, 5.3/7.7), Boris Diaw (68.0%, 2.4/3.6) and Aron Baynes (68.0%, 2.4/3.6) have been worse than Jason (66.7%, 2.8/4.1), with Maxiell being the leader among them at field goals allowed per 36 minutes (7.5). Just like point guards can turn the corner on him they can easily score over him, especially if they throw a hesitation move at him when he’s already having a tough enough time dropping back:
His help defense has good intentions but he seemingly can’t manage to get over in time to offer real rim protection:
And then there’s Biz… Bismack is a like a freaking Duracell energizer bunny. He’s always engaged, in motion, ready to crash the glass one the offensive end and make it back on defense, and visibly wants to make the defensive play. If he fails at making that play, he’ll express his frustration. Arms and shoulders will be flailed after an eager Biyombo falls for a pump fake and commits the foul. I don’t see how Clifford can pin the blame on Biz by claiming that his energy isn’t there (unless he actually was slacking during pre-season) when Biyombo’s biggest defensive short-coming is being aggressive and energetic to a fault. He’ll often get caught up in the moment and guard a player too close 18 feet from the basket when there was no need to do so:
The last play of that clip and the following one are great examples of the two opposite worlds of Biz’s abilities. He demonstrates his defensive understanding and ability to move around by sliding down to the paint to contain the pick-n-roll as a help defender and is able to seamlessly get back to his man, only to jump out too eagerly at Hansbrough and allow two points:
Such plays, I imagine, could be the reason for a coach’s frustration with Bismack’s defense. You could make an argument that these are the type of plays a more level-headed veteran wouldn’t make.
His jumpiness can also be a shortcoming in defensive rebounding. I can’t say that he religiously forgets the fundamentals of boxing out to the point of angering the basketball gods, but he can get a bit too eager on simply wanting to jump and grab the ball that he’ll forget everything else around him. His bad hands don’t help and sometimes it will end in an awkward mess:
There is something to us being the worst at rebounding the ball on defense last year whenever Biz was on the floor (75.0% with Biyombo on – team worst, 78.6% off – a team worst if you exclude Neal and Ridnour who both played only 28 games for us)
His weak-side help can also produce negative plays where he’ll be too aggressive and foul or get himself out of position by jumping. But I won’t argue with the results here since there’s nothing wrong with the man being dedicated to protect the rim. As I said a week ago, last season he lead the league in opponent field goal percentage at rim allowing them to only make 39.1% of their attempts (that’s among players who face at least 4 shots at the rim per game). His ability to make two fast jumps in a row is scary:
Biz’s skills of hedging pick-n-rolls are a bit shaky as he’s prone to getting out of position and I assume that’s why coach Clifford mostly had him dropping back on them last season. You’ll rarely see a game where a point guard will attack him often in these situations, perhaps, because there aren’t back-ups who are good enough to make shots over him. Most will be wary of his intimidating athleticism and won’t attempt drives against Biz who’s dropping back. The ones, who unbeknownst to themselves are too small to do this, will get their shots swatted away (Will Bynum comes to mind, a repeat offender of daring to attack Biyombo in the pick-n-roll).
He’s dynamite whenever Charlotte gets to ice the pick-n-roll, meaning plays where the point guard forces the action to the side-line by stepping in front of the screen and only leaving an open path towards the side of the court where the big who’s guarding the screen setter is already waiting. If the ball handler is dribbling besides the side-line, he’s nimble enough to shut his path down and will rarely allow the opponent to turn the corner on him. From that point on it’s very difficult to make a pass over his out-stretched arms, especially if a second defender joins Biz to form a trap:
Such things are impossible for Jason Maxiell to do and I’d look at the situation this way – both Maxiell and Biyombo have shortcomings that are likely to be exposed during a game. Only with Maxiell it’s a given that the best outcome with him out there will be him doing what he’s supposed to do, yet not making us better either. If he doesn’t end up on the wrong side of being targeted by the offense, fine, he’ll box out and bump guys, yet he can’t prevent nobody else from scoring either. Biz, meanwhile, might not have the sense of placement on defense that Maxiell has but he can actually go out there and provide the defense with a positive boost. No offense can specifically target Biyombo and be assured that it will profit from it. Both round out to about the same on an average night, however, Maxiell can’t approach Bismack’s ceiling no matter how many times he bumps an Amare Stoudemire.