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The NBA Players Who Are Too Busy Complaining To Get Back On D

As someone who each week watches about a dozen NBA games for a living, I have my fair share of pet peeves. Like many fans, I lose my patience with the glitchy League Pass whenever I’m forced to stream a game on my laptop. By the ends of close games, I’ve often lost interest during the 15-minute span it takes to play the final two minutes.

I have a special place reserved, though, for players who fail to get back on defense. In particular, nothing drives me up the wall like seeing a complaint from a player about a no-call lead to a 5-on-4 advantage on the other end of the floor and a basket by the opposing club. Now, instead of losing out on just 2 points from the no-call, a 4- or 5-point swing has taken place in mere seconds.

With that in mind, I wanted to find a fun way to estimate which players most frequently take the longest to get back on defense, because of complaints or other reasons. Even with all the fancy new player-tracking systems, there’s no “lagging” stat. So we tried to approximate it. Brittni Donaldson, a data analyst from SportVU, the NBA’s camera-based tracking system, sent me how many times each player had trailed the ball across the half-court line this season (as of March 21) after a failed offensive possession.

But a player might be slow across the line for lots of reasons, some more legitimate than arguing with the refs — battling under the boards, for example. So to get a better sense of who’s taking their sweet time instead of getting back on D, we baked another layer of data into our analysis, looking at how many times each player took more than 3 seconds to reach half court once the ball had already crossed that point.

From there, we divided the second number by the first one to find how often a player was lagging way behind. And voila — that’s what we’re calling “Lag Rate.”1 Players who rank highly don’t always trail the ball across half court — but when they do, they’re behind it by seconds and seconds.

One huge caveat here: No power forwards or centers rank highly in this metric because they’re generally bigger and slower than other players. They also camp near the rim for offensive boards — something that makes it more difficult for them to get back on D as quickly. So, in effect, we’re seeing a list of the wing players who lag behind most often. With that said, here are the leaders in “Lag Rate”:

NUMBER OF TIMES PLAYER CROSSED HALF COURT BEHIND BALL …
PLAYER TEAM TOTAL 3+ SECONDS LATER LAG RATE
Draymond Green GS 90 18 20%
Russell Westbrook OKC 213 41 19
LeBron James CLE 129 24 19
John Wall WAS 124 23 19
James Harden HOU 119 19 16
Trevor Ariza HOU 110 17 15
DeMar DeRozan TOR 101 15 15
Kyle Lowry TOR 114 16 14
Kyrie Irving CLE 123 17 14
Bradley Beal WAS 134 18 13
Which NBA players lag behind on defense?

Only players who lagged more than 3 seconds behind the ball at half court at least 15 times included. Through March 21.

Source: SportVU

Of course, it’s one thing to lag and another to complain. You’ll notice, for example, that the list is filled with stars, who can be forgiven for not running quite as hard on defense sometimes since they’re doing so much on offense for their clubs each night.

So I dove into the film, watching hundreds of these lag instances. I found that someone like Houston’s Trevor Ariza, a player whose role is to spot up for corner 3s, owes his Lag Rate to his positioning on the court. Look where he is at the end of this Rockets possession, for example, in the top-left portion of the screen.

But the top five, I discovered, aren’t really victims of positioning — they’re victims of their own play styles. Play styles that, yes, sometimes include complaints.

Draymond Green: Some of Green’s delays in getting back down the court appear to happen because he’s disappointed with himself after an overly fancy pass he’s made is intercepted. But the Warriors’ fiery fifth-year forward makes his fair share of complaints and often stays behind to air them.

No one can dispute Green’s value, given his superb passing ability and his immense defensive skill, which makes him a deserving candidate for defensive player of the year. But he’s prone to joining plays late when he feels he’s been bumped off course while en route to the basket. (He sometimes argues when he feels teammates are fouled, too.)

There are times when Green’s lateness burns Golden State. But based on the film I watched, the Warriors’ defense — one of the league’s best — was able to hold off opponents until Green made it back down the court more often than not.

Russell Westbrook: Through March 21, Westbrook had 41 instances of lags of more than 3 seconds, 17 more than LeBron James, the next-closest wing player. Studying video of each example, I found a wide variety of reasons why he took so long to get back on defense.

Every now and then, Westbrook seems to fall this far behind as a way to catch a quick breather — understandable given how much he’s asked to do for OKC’s offense. Other times, the hyper-athletic Westbrook takes an ugly spill or appears to get hit in the face, sending him into a momentary daze.

But, yes, he absolutely complains, and occasionally does it by continuing to sit on the floor long after he’s fallen to the ground.

LeBron James: The King’s inclusion on this list is not a surprise. But it was surprising to see why he made the list. Yes, James complains plenty about no-calls.

But the primary reason that James is in this group is simple: After missed shots and turnovers, he often cherrypicks when it looks like the opposing team may speed the ball down the court for a quick shot. That makes for awkward instances when Cleveland’s opponents pull the ball back out to actually run their offense, as it forces him to try to rejoin the action up to 10 seconds after the fact.

Cleveland’s struggles on defense have been a head-scratcher to many. James’s choice to often stay on one end of the floor is likely part of the reason why the Cavs ranked last in transition defense during the regular season.

John Wall: Wall — every bit as explosive as Westbrook, if not more — encounters many of the same issues as the Oklahoma City star. When Wall is bumped in the air while moving at a high speed, he goes flying. As such, his delays in getting back are seemingly split: About half the time, the Wizards guard appears to genuinely fall down; the other half, he is beside himself over a no-call.

One thing that sets Wall apart from many of the others on this list: He’s fast enough to be completely out of a play and then recover in time to force a turnover.

James Harden: Harden is the player whose lag seems most often to be the result of complaining. Unlike Wall and Westbrook, who race around the court, Harden is more deliberate and generally doesn’t fall over when bumped. His displeasure with the calls is generally what’s slowing him down.

Harden, the slowest-moving defensive wing in the NBA,2 sometimes argues for too long, putting the Rockets in a tough spot when he does. Houston’s been fantastic when it can set its defense; the club ranked seventh in efficiency on that end after a make, according to Inpredictable, which specializes in win probabilities and advanced stats. But the club falls to 24th after it misses a shot and has less opportunity to align itself properly.

While the playoffs figure to stop players from lagging behind, don’t expect the shot at a title to quiet the arguments. Over the weekend, ESPN commentators Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson were taken aback by all the complaining.

“I understand why referees just put their hands up at a certain point and say, ‘Just stop,’” Van Gundy said during Game 1 of the Pacers-Cavs series. “Because on every call or non-call, everybody is complaining.”

“To me, it’s at an all-time high,” Jackson responded.

Footnotes

  1. This also helps neutralize elements of pace, since a player like Toronto’s Kyle Lowry gets so many fewer plays per game than Houston’s James Harden, for instance. Only players with at least 15 instances of crossing half court more than 3 seconds after the ball qualified for inclusion on the list.

  2. Among players logging 20 minutes or more.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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