As the NBA continues to evolve, the center position appears to be developing faster. The Three-Point Revolution heralded the beginning of a generation of old men who were comfortable with setting off from behind the bow.
The logical consequence of this development was the evolution of the huge man’s defensive prowess. There’s nothing complicated in the gameplay here: if you fire the player’s primary mission three times, you’ll benefit from being able to close three-point attempts.
All this to provide broad context for a specific question: Should the Rockets go after Nick Claxton?
Nick Claxton is the big modern primitive
Rumors have it that Rocket is interested in the soon-to-be banned free proxy, among other potentially large backup companies.
I’ll touch more on the other candidates later, but there’s a reason this article is about Claxton:
He’s the best mega man the Rockets can have this summer.
FiveThirtyEight has a metric called D-RAPTOR that uses “game play data and player tracking to calculate each player’s plus-minus measurements and win over replacement”.
Don’t ask me to explain it further. It is widely regarded as one of the best available metrics for measuring defensive impact. You don’t need to know how to make sausage personally.
If you’re interested in putting stock in the metrics, you’ll like what they have to say about Claxton’s defensive effect. Among the positions with four years of NBA experience or less and who played at least 1,000 minutes last season, he tied for sixth with an average of +1.6.
Some notes provide more context. Claxton tied with rookie Evan Mobley, who was primarily touted as a potential defender for the generations ahead of the 2021 draft. Among the players who have moved up the standings using the same criteria, Brandon Clarke is a really strong striker who saw enough time as a small five-ball to qualify.
Otherwise, the players ahead of Claxton look like the defensive big guys. Robert Williams III, Mitchell Robinson, Garen Jackson Jr. and Onyeka Oncongo are all considered prestigious stoppers.
Of course, you may not trust metrics. They are not particularly reliable in terms of tracking defensive impact. However, it should be noted that all of the above names have a reputation that matches numbers. It is safe to assume that D-RAPTOR is not just a random combination of random data points.
An eye test may indicate that Claxton should rank slightly higher. Mitchell Robinson is probably the best rim guard, but it doesn’t have the same versatility as the Claxton. At 6’10”, 215 pounds with an impressive wing and lateral movement ability, Claxton is able to check out some guards and most wingers.
In other words, he is the perfect modern big guy from a defensive standpoint.
Claxton gives rocket options
There’s an elephant in this room, and he’s likely to trample through every comment section of this article.
Alperin Sengon will be the starting center for the Rockets next season. Claxton’s acquisition should not threaten that outcome. However, if you have enough confidence in Sengun, you don’t have to worry about a bit of internal competition.
I already devoted a lot of words to Sengun’s possible defensive shortcomings. I recognized his attacking brilliance with equal force. Suffice it to say, having a player who is roughly the inverse of Sengon makes perfect sense for rebuilding the Rockets.
Claxton doesn’t do much in attack. He struggles to hit free throws, not to mention threes. On the other hand, it’s unlikely that rockets will land a big man in two directions this summer. Most of them are untouchable. Entering the 2022-23 season with a huge man who is talented offensively, limited defensively and one opposite allows the Rockets to have a whole bunch of data on what works for them.
Unless there is a bigger course available to them in the free agency?
Is Claxton better than the field?
There is no.
Outside of Claxton, the Houston Chronicle recently named Isaiah Hartenstein, Andre Drummond, Mason Plumley, Mo Bamba, Hassan Whiteside, Gavel McGee and Dewyn Deadmon as potential free agency targets for the Rockets.
Bamba and Hartenstein are interesting options. Both are young enough to be a part of this team’s future. Bamba is particularly interesting, as it offers ground spaces that Claxton does not. Moreover, fans of the Rockets will surely be drawn to the redemptive nature of the encounter with Hartenstein. He was a fan favorite and was widely seen as underused during his final stint with the team.
However, they both end up dropping great coverage. Versatility is the name of the game for the modern big man. The spacing between the pentathlons is fine, but if this year’s playoffs are any indication, the pentagonal periphery defense is even more important. Looking only at the Finals, Robert Williams III and Kevin Looney started with the Celtics Warriors.
Neither of them can shoot, and both can defend shooters. The slow big players who can’t survive in space on Earth have been played in recent years, but this trend was particularly evident in this year’s playoffs.
Otherwise, Plumlee has a degree of defensive versatility, but as a veteran, he wouldn’t have the chance to be a long-term part of this Rockets heart. Finally, McGee, Whiteside, Drummond, and Dedmon all feel like it’s a poor allocation of resources. The Rockets will also stay with recently acquired Boban Marjanovic.
Claxton’s value is difficult to determine. Some Rockets fans will feel that the full mid-level exception is a bit pricey, but anything less likely doesn’t take it away from the Nets.
One thing is for sure: if the team doesn’t acquire a player like Claxton now, they may eventually need him.
These days, it seems like every title contender has one.