Conventional logic would say that having the five best defenders on the court would result in the best defensive outcome.
When there’s no weak link on the defensive end, the offense doesn’t see any mismatches on the court and is therefore unable to take advantage via switching, which should work out in the defense’s favor.
This is part of what made Boston’s defense so dominant last season. With a plethora of quick and strong perimeter defenders and a front line of versatile big men, the Celtics had no single player that could be targeted defensively (ok, maybe Payton Pritchard at times). Whoever the offensive star switched onto would be able to, at least somewhat, hold their own defensively.
But what if we’re thinking about defense the wrong way?
Celtics opponents average 1.11 points per possession on offense. However, when opponents decide to turn to isolation offense – which they do about 9.4% of the time against the Celtics – only 0.97 points are scored per possession.
This would equate to the worst offense (and the best defense) in the entire NBA. By far.
This same pattern holds for the rest of the NBA; even the best isolation offense in the league would still be the worst offense by a wide margin.
This is likely the case because isolation offenses have two main characteristics that yield negative results. First, isolation offenses often attempt to switch their best offensive player onto the opposing team’s worst defensive player. This is called switch hunting, and it often takes some time to accomplish given the defense’s unwillingness to allow the switch to even occur (even though I’ll shortly explain that maybe they should). Once they find the switch, the offense is left with less shot clock to operate.
Secondly, and more importantly, isolation basketball often means complete stagnation from the other four offensive players. The remaining players are usually spotting up in the corners or the dunker spot and watching the iso scorer go to work – not cutting or screening. Conversely, this allows the defense to set up help defense and stay in the gaps more effectively than if the offense were running a normal set.
So, perhaps it makes sense (although counterintuitively) to force the offense into using isolation by coaxing them into targeting a weak defensive player and the Celtics version of tempting opponents into isolation offense is having Sam Hauser on the court.
Opposing offenses target Hauser on a whopping 21% of possessions, the highest percentage in the league for qualifying players. Clearly, offenses are under the impression that Hauser can’t defend, so they target him with reckless abandon when he’s in.
Unfortunately for these teams, though, they only score 0.96 per possession, which would, again, be by far the worst offense in the NBA.
That’s probably why Sam has the 5th best defensive rating on an individually-stacked defensive unit.
So, what makes Hauser effective in isolation defense? First, he’s surprisingly solid at sliding his feet and staying in front of smaller defenders.
Darius Garland – one of the shiftiest guards in the league – throws a myriad of moves at Hauser, but Hauser doesn’t bite. He slides his feet and forces Garland into a contested, off-balance floater. Notice, too, the lack of cutting and screening from the other offensive players, which allows all of the help defenders to be ready in the gap.
Hauser can also defend larger wings in isolation.
Here, Sam beats RJ Barrett to the spot even before Barrett knows he’s going there (shocker, he went left) and displays some solid physicality and hands to steal the ball. Again, very little movement from the remaining offensive players, allowing excellent help positioning for the rest of the C’s.
Barrett asks for two screens to get his desired matchup on Hauser, but it doesn’t matter because Grant brings timely help and swallows up RJ. The double from Grant would normally open up other offensive players for cuts, but the lack of movement from them during RJ’s initial isolations ruins that hope for the Knicks. Classic outcome of isolation ball.
The Celtics – and every team for that matter – should consider doing whatever they can to force opposing teams to play iso ball. Statistics would indicate that Hauser is the best way to induce isolation basketball, so he probably deserves more minutes, especially given what he adds offensively (but that’s a story for a different article).