Sixers vs Knicks: Where Has Nerlens Noel’s Defense Gone?

In the first game of Okafor's two-game suspension, the Sixers offense struggled to score against the New York Knicks. But where has Nerlens Noel's defense gone?

Whether or not Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor can succeed playing together is a key question for the Sixers this season | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Whether or not Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor can succeed playing together is a key question for the Sixers this season | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

In the first of two games the Sixers will play without suspended center Jahlil Okafor, the Sixers’ offense struggled to get anything going against Kristaps Porzingis and the New York Knicks. The Sixers lost 99-87, snapping New York’s four-game losing streak in the process.

The suspension, announced hours before the Sixers faced off against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, will also include Saturday’s afternoon game against the Denver Nuggets in Philadelphia.

While the suspension leaves the Sixers without their leading scorer, it is looked at by many as a chance to get third-year big man Nerlens Noel back on track. Noel had previously missed two games because of soreness in his right knee before returning for Tuesday’s win against the Los Angeles Lakers.

The time off, along with Noel being able to return to his natural center position, would hopefully allow Noel to build off of his 14 point, 9 rebound, 3 assist performance against the Lakers. Instead, Noel had one of his worst games of the season, recording only 6 points (3-11 shooting), 6 rebounds, 0 blocked shots, and 0 assists.

It was the second game in a row, and fifth in his last seven, that Noel failed to record a blocked shot.

While Noel is struggling offensively this season, shooting just 41.3% from the field, it’s his drop in defensive contributions that has been most surprising. Virtually every one of Noel’s defensive statistics are down. His counting stats have taken a massive hit, dropping from 1.8 steals and 1.9 blocks per game last year to just 1.4 steals and 0.9 blocks this year. His rate stats are dropping even worse, with a steal percentage of 2.2% and a block percentage of 2.1% well below last year’s production of 2.9% and 5.0%, respectively.

Much of that decline was theorized to be because of Noel playing more of the power forward position to accommodate Okafor, pushing him further away from the basket and providing him less opportunities to alter shots.But Noel’s statistics are still way down even when Okafor is off the court, as Noel is blocking just 1.5 shots per 48 minutes when he has played without Okafor, compared with the 2.9 blocks per 48 minutes he recorded last year.

noel-blocks-48-min

Beyond just the accumulation of blocks, Noel is altering less shots at the rim than he was last year, according to SportVU’s motion detection cameras, which tracks the number of shots where Noel is within 5 feet of the basket and also within 5 feet of the opponent taking the shot. While Noel is in position for this to happen less this year than last year, from 9.5 field goal attempts where this was the case last year to 7.6 this year, opponents are shooting far better this year (52.5%) than they did last year (44.9%).

Even when Noel is in position, he’s not altering shots the way he did last year.

Perhaps some of that is related to the move to power forward to make way for Okafor. Noel played some of last year at the power forward spot, in anticipation of playing alongside Joel Embiid, but he’s certainly been doing more of that this year.

But you would expect Noel’s stats with Okafor on the bench to be close to what he produced last year, and they just haven’t been.

After Noel was ejected from the Orlando game, Sixers head coach Brett Brown mentioned that he was dealing with knee tendinitis and a sore wrist. After the Orlando game, Noel sat the next two games to recover from the injury, then sat two more games — December 27th against Houston and December 29th against Memphis — once again because of knee soreness.

When you look at Noel’s stats before and after the Orlando game when we first learned of the injuries, his production is night and day.

Here’s a table of some of Noel’s statistics up to, and after, the Orlando game, while also including last year’s production as a point of reference.

 Last YearUp to 11/7Since 11/7
Pts/48 min15.518.113.9
Reb/4812.714.611.6
Blocks/482.92.70.6
Steals/482.82.51.9
(Nerlens Noel's production, per 48 minutes, since the Sixers revealed he was playing through a wrist and knee injury after the November 7th, 2015 game against Orlando)

Noel’s impact becomes even more pronounced when you look at how much he is, or is not, altering shots at the rim. Again, Noel contesting less shots because he’s playing more on the perimeter makes perfect sense, and is one of the downsides to the Nerlens Noel/Jahlil Okafor pairing. But Noel not altering shots when he is in position to do so is a different matter entirely.

Here we’ll take a look at two metrics. The first one, labeled as “Opp FG% at rim” in the image below, looks at what an opponent is shooting when he’s within 5′ of the rim and when Noel is within 5′ of the shooter. The second, labeled as “Noel’s Assignment < 6′” looks at what Noel’s man is shooting when he’s within 6′ of the hoop and defended by Noel. Both stats courtesy of nba.com/stats.

noel-defense-orlando

A note about the second group of statistics in the above image: 51.6% his man shot last year was 8.2% less than they averaged on the season, and 52.9% up to the Orlando game 6.9% worse. 69.1%? 10.9% more efficient than they’ve otherwise averaged.

The short: up to and including the Orlando game, Noel was playing better offensively than he was last year, and his defense was in line, or even better, than it was last year, despite the change in position which moved Noel out to the perimeter more. Since the injuries were revealed? He hasn’t been nearly the same defensive force.

It’s hard to say definitively how much the injuries are holding Noel back, as that’s something only he can really answer. But the correlation seems strong. Hopefully this is something that doesn’t bother Noel all year. While most people have concerns whether Noel and Okafor can work together long-term, and it’s an easy, and logical, conclusion to say that Noel’s drop in production is related to that pairing, it’s impossible to get a full read on the situation when Noel is not at 100%, and there was enough success with the pairing before Noel’s injuries were revealed to at least have some hope on the defensive side of the court.

Okafor Has Less Money

With a two game suspension, Sixers center Jahlil Okafor is set to lose upwards of $83k.

That number comes from a league rule where suspended players are docked 1/110th of their pay for each game missed due to suspension. Since Okafor is missing two games, 1/55th of his $4,582,680 contract comes out to $83,321 and change.

Covington Hurt?

Towards the end of the game against the New York Knicks, Robert Covington began to limp. Tom Moore of the Calkins Media reported that Covington should be good to go for Saturday’s game against the Denver Nuggets, and that he was kneed in the thigh. Covington has been instrumental in the Sixers’ improved play of late.

Coach K’s Reaction

Jahlil Okafor’s form coach, Mike Krzyzewski, chimed on on Okafor’s off-the-court struggles, from Laura Keeley, the beat reporter for Duke athletics from the Raleigh News & Observer:

Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine’s Sixers Post. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter