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How Bismack Biyombo can transform the Magic's defense

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By signing Biyombo, the Magic have acquired their best rim protecting center since Dwight Howard, and his presence will be key to making Frank Vogel's defense work.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

It's nice when I dive into NBA research and it shows me exactly what I would have wanted to see. Case in point: NBA.com's data concerning opposing field goal percentage against individual players, specifically around the rim. After narrowing things down a bit to weed out the smaller sample sizes (at least 50 games, 20 mpg, and 3 "contested" rim attempts per game), look who's right there at the top: Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo, second and third respectively in opposing field goal percentage (Rudy Gobert, unsurprisingly, is first).

I don't want to overstate this, but the Orlando Magic probably couldn't field a competent defense without these two players, no matter how good Frank Vogel is. Orlando's top four players by rim DFG% last season aren't on the team anymore, and Victor Oladipo was sixth. Dwayne Dedmon's 46 DFG percentage last season compares similarly to Ibaka and Biyombo , but that came in way fewer minutes and with more fouls.

Meanwhile, the remainder of the roster let opponents score around the rim like it was their hobby. Nikola Vucevic's defensive exploits are well-known to Magic fans by this point, but with exception of Aaron Gordon, every other players allowed 55% shooting or higher. This isn't to say Elfrid Payton is supposed to be pinning layups to the backboard, more that nobody else on the team would be able to either.

Not only did Orlando manage to replace that skill, they upgraded it in a big way, adding the team's two best rim protectors since Dwight Howard. Obviously, any team would do well to more effectively defend shots around the basket, but if Vogel wants to run a defense like what he put together in Indiana, he needs guys like Ibaka and Biyombo to fill that "Roy Hibbert" role, big men who not only swat shots around the rim, but also survive in pick-and-roll situations without requiring teammates to "help" on the play.

Much has been said about Ibaka's role on the team, so I'd like to focus on Biyombo's potential contributions, including what we should expect from him based on last season's results and what he can add that the Magic lacked on the defensive end the past two or three seasons.

A mobile shot-blocker

As we well know by this point, when it comes to defense, it's not enough to be a tall guy with longish arms. Vucevic is exactly that, and while that height and length serves him well on offense, he does little with it on the other end.

It's also not enough to be "just" a shot blocker, especially in the modern NBA. That gets you JaVale McGee, a volume shot blocker who's never really defended at an average level, much less at the elite level suggested by his box scores.

No, the ideal defensive big man in today's NBA has to do more than just swat shots.

As was demonstrated in the most recent Finals, there's a lot of value to be had in a center who can hold his own on the perimeter, especially defending pick-and-rolls. Tristan Thompson, in addition to the rebounding advantage he afforded the Cleveland Cavaliers, was crucial in defending the Golden State Warriors' devastating outside game, because he could switch onto guards and stay in front of them.

Biyombo defends much the same way, shutting down plays with not only his shot blocking, but also by suffocating drives and surviving around the arc. His full array of defensive skills were displayed in the playoffs, especially when he took over the starting role after Jonas Valanciunas's injury. Perhaps his finest overall play came in the first quarter of game 5 versus the Miami Heat, when he earned three blocks and shut down numerous other plays that don't show up in the stat sheet.

In the play above, watch Biyombo step up to stymie Goran Dragic's drive, forcing the pass to the corner. Biymobo continues to follow the play, recovering from the perimeter all the way back to the paint to block the attempted layup. If you count his original assignment of Udonis Haslem, Biyombo defended three different Heat players in the span of about four seconds.

This play, on the other hand, demonstrates how Biyombo handled Dragic in more of a one-on-one situation. Again, he switches on the pick-and-roll, but then sticks with the Heat point guard throughout the rest of the play. Dragic gives up on the drive, passes out of his disadvantageous post position against the bigger center, and resets at the 3-point line.

In theory, Dragic should have the advantage now, but Biymobo doesn't bite on the weak jab step, and contests the shot in time to force the miss. Even though his contest isn't immediate, his length is enough to bother the shot attempt. Also note how Biyombo positions himself just a few feet from Dragic and keeps his feet moving, putting himself in a good position to react to Dragic's decision.

Thanks to Biyombo's defensive efforts, Miami was held to 18 points in that quarter... Eight of which were scored in the 1:40 after Biymobo went to the bench.

We think about Biymobo as someone who broke out in the playoffs when he got the chance to start, but he was doing the same things in the regular season, too. I pointed out his rim protection numbers at the top, but we can also break it down by other distances, and he looks good at most any range. From last season, per NBA.com:

Distance DFG% Diff%
Less than 6 ft 49.6 -10.1
Less than 10 ft 45.4 -9.0
>15 ft 41.3 +3.7
3-pointers 34.1 -0.4

DFG%, again, is describing how well opponents shot when Biymobo defended them at each respective distance. "Diff%" shows the difference between league-average percentage on those shots and how much better or worse their accuracy was against Biyombo. For example, on average NBA players hit about 60% of their shots within 6 feet of the basket, but they were sub-50% against Biyombo.

Based on this data, Biyombo is a huge pain to deal with anywhere within 10 feet of the basket, especially in the paint. His only "bad" area is the dead-zone for analytics-types: long midrange shots. The way NBA.com breaks down the data is actually generous toward him in that respect, since "greater than 15 ft" includes 3-pointers. Doing a little math to parse those values suggests Biyombo allows 50% on shots from 15-22 feet: not good, but not as bad as it looks when you consider that he only defended 1.2 such shots per game, and he's probably not fouling on a lot of those jumpers.

Let's not lose the forest for the trees, though. The big takeaway is that Biyombo defends well in the places you'd care about most: excelling close to the basket, and holding his own when he has to defend 3-point shots. Combine that with what we've seen about how he defends screen plays, and it's clear the Magic have a defensive weapon the likes of which they've not enjoyed for several years.

Before we start planning the championship parades, let's remember that this is just an assessment of his defensive skills. Offensively, he's a total zero, and that's a pretty severe issue for an Orlando squad that's struggled to score even more than they've struggled to defend. Vucevic makes up for the lack of shooting on the roster by being one of the best-shooting centers in the league, but when Biyombo plays, he reverses that advantage and becomes a liability, someone who clogs the paint. Players like Evan Fournier thrived on their ability to drive into the paint; can he still do that if Biyombo is on the court?

If Vogel can figure out that puzzle, Biyombo should be a huge plus for the Magic. He won't exactly replicate Roy Hibbert's Indiana form, but he possesses all the skills a typical Vogel defense requires. He won't need much help defense, and he's nimble enough on the perimeter to block off drives and perhaps hedge on screens. He's also an excellent on the glass, and should hopefully improve on Orlando's mediocre rebounding (19th in rebound percentage last season).

Combined with Ibaka, Biyombo has the potential to remake Orlando's defense into a formidable force, something that is sustainable for an entire season rather than just the first two months. Just as important, he might provide the foundation for the defensive identity the Magic have desperately sought.