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Grading Spencer Hawes's Defense

We looked at Jason Thompson earlier this week, and promised a detailed look at the defense of Spencer Hawes. If I may, for a moment: it's pretty unfair that these two are constantly compared and graded against each other, and I'm perhaps the world's most guilty part on the subject. Consider it a function of their adjacent arrivals, their subtle differences, their own imperfections, this team's thirst for a post-Webber/Divac pivot ... it's not just easy to place these two in a head-to-head battle for the hearts and minds of Sacramento. It's almost impossible not to.

With that, the defense of Spencer Hawes ...

Hawes's defensive rating of 109 matched that of Thompson. But plus-minus data suggests Thompson was a boon for the team's defense, with the Kings 1.6 points per 100 possessions better on defense with J.T. on the floor than without. But the Kings were worse on defense with Hawes on the floor -- 1.16 pt/100p worse. This is all unadjusted for opponent strength and teammate strength, though given that each big man rotated between the bench and starting five and that they were both Kings all season, I'm less concerned about the lack of adjustment than I'd normally be. Certainly, it's conceivable Thompson is better for the team's defense than Hawes, and this data says that.

But again, let's dive into Synergy's play-by-play data to see where Hawes has trouble.

Let's get it out of the way: he has trouble in one-on-one situations. In isolation, Hawes was really bad last year, giving up 0.96 points per possession. J.T. gave up 0.66 ppp. If you placed Thompson in isolation defense on 10 consecutive plays, based on last season's data, you'd expect the opponent to score 6-7 points. Put Hawes in the same situation and you'd expect 9-10 points. That's a huge difference, the gap between "excellent" and "awful."

The post is no better. Thompson struggled to defend in the post, giving up 0.9 ppp, finishing middle-of-the-pack. Hawes was worse, giving up 0.97 ppp in 219 opportunities. Hawes allowed a higher shooting percentage for his opponents (.484 versus .468) and caused fewer turnovers. He did, however, foul less than J.T.

Hawes did better in other situations -- he closed out on spot-up shooters much better than did J.T., allowing opponents to shoot .428 eFG versus a ridiculous .549 eFG for Thompson. Is that a function of J.T. more frequently guarding stretch fours while Hawes is chasing 7-footers who may not be as good at shooting? Perhaps. But that's still a huge gap, and it shows us Hawes is better at closing out on shooters than Thompson.

There's also the pick and roll, which Hawes defends rather well, with the roll man scored 0.8 ppp (versus 0.97 for J.T.). But each player had only minimal opportunities to defend the roll man on a possession-ending play, a combined 64 possessions. So it's hard to put too much stock in those numbers, though we can safely say the limited data is surprisingly positive for Hawes in that area.

But in total, it's not good for Spencer. The data suggests Hawes is among the worst defenders in the league. Nearly half his defensive assignments last season came in the post, where he's below average. Another fifth of his plays came in isolation, where he's disastrous. He has shown promise in chasing shooters out to the perimeter and in defending the pick and roll -- two important elements of big man defense -- but there is so much work to be done it's hard to figure out where to even start.

In the war no one wants, Thompson wins this battle. But Hawes is young and you can't teach size. So hope lives another day.


(There's no way for me to easily break down in-season progress, though I should note that beginning around early March the Kings defense began improving markedly, and it was noted at the time Hawes looked much better on defense. It's something worth looking into going forward.)