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Getting Spicy

There has been a lot of talk about Pascal Siakam and the Most Improved Player award recently, and it’s well deserved. He’s made the difficult adjustment to go from a role player to a star, and has been one of the best players on one of the best teams in the league this year. He’s developed as a ballhandler, and as a shooter, and recently started to make adjustments to deal with double teams coming his way as opponents start to hone in on trying to stop him, because of the offensive threat that he’s become. It’s a fantastic story, and it’s been told many times, everywhere, recently, which is great to see for a player who definitely deserves the attention.

That hardware seems to be coming his way, and it would be viewed by many as an upset were Siakam not to win Most Improved Player. So we’re not going to talk about that here.

Most of the attention Siakam has garnered has been at the offensive end of the floor, and there’s good reason for that. He’s a dynamic, fun player to watch attacking in transition or off the bounce, and the entertainment value he brings on the attack definitely gets people talking. However, there is a real case that he’s been at least as valuable to the Raptors at the other end of the floor, and with award season coming, it’s worth looking at his defensive impact.

First of all, let’s acknowledge that Pascal Siakam likely won’t make All-Defense this year, through no fault of his own. He’s playing alongside two former Defensive Player of the Year winners in Kawhi Leonard and Marc Gasol, and the Raptors start plus defenders at every position. That depth around him has likely obscured some of his own impact, and without question has lowered the amount that he’s asked to do on certain nights, as the Raptors have plenty of options to throw at any opposing offensive star.

That being said, there is still reason to single out Siakam for acknowledgement. First of all, despite the defensive depth around him, no one on the Raptors has been asked to guard a greater variety of positions this season. Siakam has excelled playing small-ball center in limited minutes when called upon to do so, with a defensive rating of 98.4 in 53 minutes since the All-Star break with neither Marc Gasol or Serge Ibaka sharing the floor with him. As well, Pascal has been the player the Raptors prefer to use guarding big men where the opponent is going to seek out a switch, and has found himself guarding the likes of Steph Curry and James Harden on the perimeter in these situations and generally acquitted himself well, using his quickness and footwork to close off their space while contesting shots with his length.

When a player is so routinely asked to guard the best player on the other team, and asked to do so at every position, you’re going to have moments where you don’t look as good, and there are the rare matchups where Pascal has struggled a little bit. In particular, Blake Griffin’s strength and quickness allowed him to get the best of Pascal a few times this year. But the way the NBA is currently constructed, there isn’t a defender who doesn’t have a few tough matchups, and for Siakam those have been the exception, not the rule, and it’s only been elite talents who have truly been able to cause him difficulty at that end of the floor.

In fact, by Krishna Narsu’s defensive positions tool, which estimates the amount of time an individual defender spends guarding each position, there have been only two players this season who have spent more than 10% of their defensive possessions guarding each of the five NBA positions while posting a defensive Player-Impact Plus-Minus(D-PIPM) greater than +1.0. Those two players are Draymond Green, who has won a DPOY for that very versatility, and Siakam.

The comparison to Green has come up with Siakam frequently, and he brings a lot of similar things to the table. The Warriors enable a lot of their best defensive stretches through Green’s ability to create a positive defensive matchup no matter how the opponent chooses to attack him, and his presence in help defense if they try to keep him from being involved. Siakam brings a lot of the same things to the floor that have made Green that player.

The All-Defense teams, however, to come back to the award in question, have generally been largely awarded with regard to legacy, which is why sometimes you see players getting them past their prime at that end of the floor. With Kawhi Leonard returning to health this season, and some of the huge moments he’s had defensively late in games, it’s more likely than not that Kawhi will end up the player rewarded for the Raptors’ top-5 defensive ranking this season, and it’s certainly not wrong to say that his defense can be as impactful as anyone in the league. However, as much as the Raptors have used load management to try to preserve Leonard for later in the season and make sure that he can be at his most effective when the playoffs arrive, they’ve also used the strength of their defensive depth to also spell him minutes on the floor, and try to prevent their star player from having to fully exert himself all the time when he is out there. The primary way the Raptors have done this is by using both Siakam and Danny Green to guard the tougher assignments on opposing teams for most of the game, and then asking Leonard to carry a larger load in clutch minutes.

In fact, Siakam has played nearly as minutes with Leonard off the floor as on this season due to the games missed and Siakam’s tendency to play alongside bench minutes this season, and has posted a 99.0 defensive rating without Leonard, compared to a 104.7 DRtg alongside Kawhi. While some of this can definitely be accounted for through playing against weaker bench lineups in some of those minutes, the trend reverses for Leonard, with his DRtg jumping up to 106.8 when Siakam isn’t beside him. It certainly isn’t wrong, again, to acknowledge Kawhi’s defensive instincts and his ability to contain offensive players, and he’s had moments of absolute brilliance, generating key turnovers in the closing minutes of several huge games this year by taking the toughest assignment for himself. But those moments have been more the exception than the rule, and that’s been to the team’s benefit that they haven’t needed to ask that of him all the time, as Leonard has been looking as healthy as he have all season of late.

In fact, even in those moments, Leonard being able to to single out the opponents’ go-to player and take him out of his game is only possible because of the defensive strength behind him, because he can depend on Siakam, Green, Lowry, and either of the Raptors’ centers to make sure that there isn’t an easy option available for the other team to run their offense away from Leonard’s defense. The Raptors’ ability to present no easy options to an opponent is one of their greatest strengths at that end of the floor, and that starts with having the versatility to match up with opponents when they go bigger or smaller to try to generate mismatches.

Defense is tough to evaluate in the NBA, generally speaking, because it’s not played individually and often times we’re simply bad at assigning blame when a defensive breakdown occurs, as it can be hard to immediately identify where that started and who is initially at fault. However, Siakam’s numbers pass both the eye test, where he’s frequently had stretches where he’s been everywhere on the floor, containing ball handlers, recovering in rotation, and helping in defense at the rim, and the numbers test, where he ranks alongside one of the most versatile defenders in recent history. It wouldn’t be shocking if Pascal weren’t named to the All-Defense team due to the nature of the award and the tendency to give it to players with long-earned reputations at that end of the floor, something that doesn’t yet exist for Siakam, but if not named to the team, it certainly wouldn’t be because he doesn’t deserve it.

The breakout of Siakam this season has certainly established that he’ll earn plenty of hardware in his career to come, but that doesn’t mean that he can’t get an early start on it this season. It’s easy to speculate that he might have Most Improved Player already in the bag, and the case for that award is clear and being made everywhere right now, but maybe it shouldn’t end there. Siakam being a standout defender among a roster this talented defensively shouldn’t count against him, it should be a feather in his cap that he’s notable even among this much talent. I’m not suggesting that Siakam should be in the DPOY conversation himself, although I wouldn’t be shocked if he gets himself there at some point in his career, but he’s certainly been among the most notable and accomplished defenders in the league this season, and that should be enough to get him in the conversation for one of the All-Defense spots.

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