Welcome to a new series at FB&G where we will take one player on the Lakers’ roster and discuss one specific skill they possess. Sometimes it will be something very subtle, others it will be more straight forward. We’ll try to shed some light on how this skill can help the team in the coming season. Our previous entries can be found here. Today, we take a look at Robert Sacre’s defensive positioning. Yes, you read that right.
There are a lot of things Robert Sacre isn’t. He is not particularly athletic. While possessing good height, bulk, and strength, he does not possess great length. His offensive skill level is okay, but he is not a plus shooter, passer, nor dribbler. His athletic limitations mean he’s not the best rebounder or shot blocker — especially for a player his size. Combine all of these facts and Robert Sacre is what he is: an end of the bench big who, in spot minutes, can provide adequate play for short stretches.
I like Robert Sacre as a player, however. He works hard. He’s good in the locker room. He celebrates his teammates’ success from the bench. He is the classic good teammate who can play a small role on any type of team in the league simply because the above things are true. Where he’s gotten in trouble is that he’s been asked to play a larger role than he’s capable of, but that’s another post for another day.
Today, however, we look at one of the key things he does well and, why, I’m guessing, his coaches have found a reason to put him on the floor as much as they have. As a back line defender, Sacre seems to be in the right place more often than not. For all the things I listed above which do not work in his favor, what Sacre does possess are good feet for a man his size. He slides well when coming up as the hedge man in the P&R. He’s able to identify his help responsibilities early in a possession and move to his spot accordingly. He will not be many players in a sprint, but his short area quickness is good enough for him to effectively patrol the paint as a viable last line of defense.
This ability is reflected in the numbers, as well. Last year teams shot 61.9% from the field in the restricted area against the Lakers. That was the 5th worst mark in the league. When Sacre was in the game, however, that number fell to 55.5%:
(shot chart via NBAsavant.com)
Again, Sacre isn’t a shot blocker. He’s not going to alter shots at the rim by challenging attempts a la Roy Hibbert. There will be times where his limited athleticism and length is just too much to overcome, the league’s best athletes elevating over him for scores once they get into the paint.
But, more often than he’s given credit for, what Sacre does do is position himself in a manner which makes interior shots more difficult. He uses a combination of good feet, good strength, and smarts to make up for his other physical limitations.
This isn’t to heap undue praise on Sacre. The Lakers, in general, have been a bad team whether or not Sacre has been on the floor. But when he has played, they’ve been much better defensively* and a big key of that is his back line defense and ability to be in the right place at the right time more often than not. As someone who has seen way too much of players who did not do this consistently (last year’s version of Jordan Hill or Carlos Boozer instantly come to mind), Sacre is a breath of fresh air.
I do not expect Sacre to get a lot of minutes this upcoming season. With Roy Hibbert in place and Tarik Black likely to be his primary back up, there simply will not be a lot of minutes for Sacre at Center. I know there are some fans who are probably hoping he doesn’t make the team at all in favor of the newly signed Robert Upshaw. But, if Sacre is around and does get into the game, you can bet he’ll make his normal positive impact defensively.
*Per the NBA’s stats tool, the Lakers were 7.3 points per 100 possessions better defensively when Sacre was on the floor versus when he was on the bench. This was the largest differential on the team and equivalent to the difference between the Warriors’ league best defense and the Nuggets’ 26th best defense. For more context, when Sacre was not in the game the Lakers Defensive Efficiency was 110.1, a mark which would have been the worst in the league over the course of the full season. While he was on the floor, the Lakers Defensive Efficiency was 102.8, which would have ranked in between the 12th ranked Celtics (102.1) and the 13th ranked Clippers. This isn’t really a small sample either, as Sacre played over 1,100 minutes last year, many of them as a rotation player against other team’s top big men.