Chris Andersen is more than just a
pretty face tattooed, eccentric back-up center riding the coattails of the defending NBA champs — he’s a very good basketball player and an exceptional defender, not to mention a perfect fit for a team with a defensive scheme like Miami’s. But Andersen has always been an effective defensive center, and really doesn’t seem to get enough credit for his overall play.
In fact, check out his Win Shares per 48 minutes since his return from suspension in 2008-09: .176, .166, .207, .183, .207, for an average WS/48 of .182. (For reference, anything above a .100 is considered to be a solid, better-than-replacement-level NBA rotation player, and anything over .200 is super-star level. Only LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Tyson Chandler, James Harden, and Tony Parker joined Andersen in playing in 40+ games and having a WS/48 of over .200 in 2012-13. Yeah, he’s good.)
Over the past few years in Denver, Andersen has been part of many highlight reels due to blocked shots and conversions of lobs into alley-oop dunks. His defense is shining as bright as ever in the 2013 playoffs with the Heat, and it’s never been more apparent than in his stifling defense on the Indiana Pacers’ big man duo of Roy Hibbert and Doug West, two All-Star-caliber post players.
Andersen is an extremely impressive help defender, and still has enough quickness to help on a roll to the basket or contest a drive into the lane and recover to get back to his man or protect the rim. Consider this one sequence in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Pacers. D.J. Augustin and Roy Hibbert run a screen-and-roll near the sideline on the right side of the floor. As Augustin drives to the hoop, note Andersen’s position.
Andersen has successfully trailed the drive to the hoop (the ball is in Augustin’s hands, underneath the red arrow), keeping him from pivoting around his defender and towards the middle of the floor for a floater or short jump-shot. Birdman is also in position to contest a potential shovel-pass to Tyler Hansbrough in the middle of the paint, whose defender (Shane Battier) has helped double-team Augustin. Andersen is effectively trapping the ball, preventing a pass into the lane, and staying within a stride and a raised hand of Hibbert, who isn’t a real threat to shoot from 20-feet away anyways. His positioning is indeed perfect, as we see in the next frame.
Augustin is able to dribble out of trouble and complete a contested hand-off to Hibbert at the free throw line-extended with just 7 seconds on the shot clock. Hansbrough actually has good position on the smaller Battier in the post, but Birdman’s length and Ray Allen’s help position at the free throw line is enough to deter Hibbert from attempting an entry pass. As the play continues to develop, Hibbert is playing right into Andersen and the Heat’s hands.
As you can see, the Pacers have run themselves into a situation where Norris Cole is effectively guarding two of Indiana’s perimeter players at once, while Hibbert has put the ball on the floor nearly 20-feet from the basket and is in no position to kick the ball out to an open shooter, including a forlorn-looking Sam Young in the opposite corner with his hand raised. Hansbrough is now crowding Hibbert’s impossible-looking drive to the hoop, and Andersen has him headed to another trap on the baseline.
Battier has done a fantastic job of sealing Psycho-T along the sideline, and Hibbert is essentially playing 1-on-5. Once Hansbrough is completely under the basket and Hibbert has still failed to look towards a teammate, Birdman forces him into a tough, moving hook-shot on the baseline, which he misses. Below, note that the Heat defense understood that Hibbert never once considered passing the ball, and the entire Pacers’ offense stood on the perimeter/was pushed and boxed-out directly underneath the bucket.
Granted, this possession was almost as much about Miami’s general positioning as a defensive unit, but Andersen’s initial help defense on the pick-and-roll forced the not-ideal end-of-the-shot-clock situation for the Pacers. Birdman also played Hibbert perfectly on his ill-fated drive to the baseline, and knew that he was more likely to throw up a right-handed hook shot than spin back towards the middle of the floor.
There are plenty of examples of Andersen denying Pacer pick-and-rolls from this series, and a lot of one-on-one match-ups with David West that Birdman won outright. His defense on Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter is undoubtedly the key to the Heat-Spurs Finals match-up. Keep an eye out for his positioning, especially away from the ball and on any Tony Parker-initiated screen-and-rolls.
And remember — if anyone tries to tell you that Birdman isn’t good, just tell them they’re dead wrong.