Deconstructing Elfrid Payton’s disastrous defense

Elfrid Payton is not a good defender, and few would argue otherwise. But the impact of his struggles reaches even farther than one might expect.

If you are reading this article, you are probably well-acquainted with Elfrid Payton’s failure to live up to the pre-draft projections about his defensive potential.

You probably know Payton won the Lefty Driesell Award as the nation’s top defender in his junior year with the Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns. That award propelled him from a Sun Belt school to the 10th overall pick in the Draft.

And You are probably well aware of his penchant to freelance off his defensive assignment, gamble and fail to consistently execute basic team concepts. It is one of the most frustrating aspects of his game.

But just how bad is his on-ball defense statistically?

Fortunately, Cranjis McBasketball from Forum Blue and Gold has supplied the internet with numbers that tell us exactly that.

His points over expectation data takes every player’s and team’s performance in every play type – pick-and-roll ball handler/roll man, spot-up, off-screen, putback, handoff, transition, isolation, post-up and cut – on both offense and defense and shows how many points above or below average that player or team conceded or scored in that play type.

Going by these numbers, the Orlando Magic’s sorest area of defense is defending pick-and-roll ball handlers. They have conceded almost 30 more points than an average team would have – good for 25th in the league.

Although there are other areas of defense where they concede more points on a per-possession basis, there are none that have resulted in more total points worse than average. If you had to point to one area of this team’s on-ball defense to fix, it is this one.

Good or bad defense usually happens on a team level. It is rare to pick out one player (especially if that player is not a center) and blame him for a team’s defensive woes.

Scheme plays a major part, and most offensive actions involve multiple defensive players. For example, a drive-and-kick sequence demands a series of rotations from at least two or three defenders. A post-up or isolation involves one primary defender but is often affected by help defenders.

But the Magic’s issues defending the pick-and-roll can be reduced to Payton.

He has conceded nearly 48 points more than an average player would have on the same number of possessions. That is worst in the league by a wide margin. It is particularly astonishing considering he has played nearly 10 fewer games than the rest of the bottom five.

The second-worst defender of pick-and-roll ball handlers on the Magic is Aaron Gordon. He has conceded 11 more points than expected. Nearly everyone else on the roster, including Arron Afflalo, Wesley Iwundu, D.J. Augustin and Shelvin Mack, has been average or above-average in that category.

Not only is there no one worse at defending pick-and-roll ball handlers, there is no one worse at defending any play. The second-worst on the Magic is Mario Hezonja, who has conceded 14 points more than expected defending post-ups. And many might argue Hezonja is playing out of position at power forward. Teams know to take advantage of his lack of size down there.

The second-worst in the league is Caris LeVert, who has conceded 39 more points than expected against pick-and-roll ball handlers in seven more games than Elfrid Payton.

Payton allows 1.07 points per possession on these plays. For context, that is the same offensive efficiency as the Oklahoma City Thunder, who are a top-10 offense. For more context, the average player allows 0.84, which would be 16 points per 100 possessions worse than the Sacramento Kings.

Phrasing that differently, if every single play a team ran was a drive or off-dribble jumper off a ball screen with Payton as the primary defender, they would have an elite offense.

Replace Payton with an average defender and they would have one of the worst offenses of all time. In that hypothetical scenario, Payton’s presence gives that offense an extra 23 points per 100 possessions.

So just how deep does this affect the Magic?

The Magic have allowed 20 points more than expected defending both roll men and ball-handlers in the pick-and-roll this season. That is comfortably in the league’s bottom 10.

If you take Payton’s defensive concessions out of the equation, they have allowed around 27 points fewer than expected. That would be in the league’s top 10.

Suddenly the Magic’s most significant defensive weakness becomes a major strength. And that is not even accounting for the fact removing Payton would mean more defensive possessions for D.J. Augustin and Shelvin Mack, both of whom have been better than average.

If we do that same exercise for the Magic’s overall defense, where they have conceded 56 points more than expected, the team again goes from bottom-10 with Payton to better than average without him.

Again, that is without accounting for playing better defenders for more possessions or the impact of Payton’s struggles on other players, such as making rotations, containing roll men and ball handlers as a big man. The actual improvement would likely be even greater.

Most Magic fans probably do not need much more explaining. But just for the sake of balancing numbers with film, here are a few clips to illustrate some of his issues. Particularly navigating screens and understanding schemes.

Here he trips over his own feet trying to defend Damian Lillard on a Jusuf Nurkic ball screen.

On this play, Cody Zeller is a good screener. But Payton looks like he either gives up immediately upon contact or just has no idea what to do here.

This possession against the Boston Celtics is not a pick-and-roll, but it demonstrates his preference for making unconscionable gambles instead of properly defending his man when more than one offensive player is involved in a play.

On this play, unless you believe Dennis Schroder is capable of hitting Stephen Curry-esque 30-foot jumpers off the dribble, there is no reason to step out this far and this early to ice a side pick and roll.

By moving this far past the screen, Schroder gets plenty of space to snake the defense. It makes Nikola Vucevic’s job much harder than it needs to be.

Payton has obvious issues both with footwork and awareness navigating screens. He also has difficulty with his understanding of how to properly execute pick-and-roll defense.

It is not often you can say one player’s woes defending one play type is the difference between a team being a cellar-dweller defense and an average, or passable one. Likely removing Payton would not create an instantaneous change.

But that has been the case with Payton and the Magic. Payton’s impact defensively has been undeniably negative. The tape shows it as much as the statistics. And that will be something Orlando must consider as they attack the trade deadline.