There is no doubt Joel Przybilla is a tough guy. He blew out his knee and walked off the court. He’ll take one on the kisser for the team. He went toe-to-toe with Shaq, and he pisses off Tyson Chandler. Because of these exploits and his lumberjack look, there’s a tendency to say Joel “never relied that much on his quickness” or “he can still give us six hard fouls.” I hate these statements because they undervalue Joel’s tremendous defensive production in his prime, and give an unrealistic picture of what we can expect from the guy when he comes back.
The hard foul (or any foul at all) is the epitome of unproductive toughness. It hurts your team by either giving the opposition a side out of bounds or free points, and putting the team in the penalty. To the extent that some fouls are necessary to prevent a layup, it’s symptomatic of either a team screw-up or the fouling player rotating too late.
Further, the idea that fouls are going to deter later drives is ridiculous. In the age of Jerryd Bayless, Dwyane Wade, Russell Westbrook and Danilo Gallinari, perimeter players love to see a stupid goon in there. You say six hard fouls, I say 12 free points. General inattention to defense leads us to conflate apparently unathletic big men: Joel Przybilla becomes Juwan Howard, the difference between Omer Asik and Desagna Diop goes unnoticed, and so on.
Meanwhile, nobody knows the benefit to the team of drawing a foul like Joel P. himself. Joel was 21st in the league in drawing offensive fouls in 2008-2009. Maybe he got whacked a lot (31 times all in all) but that never stopped him from stepping in there again and again, sometimes in front of runaway freight trains like Russell Westbrook or LeBron James.
Adding to his help-defense repertoire, Joel rated 23rd in block percentage in 2008-2009. Compare the two lists, and note that the only players to rate highly in both areas were Chris Andersen and Josh Smith, two of the best weakside defenders in the league. No matter what he looks like, it takes considerably quickness to break off your man and challenge the shot, or get out of the restricted area and get your feet set. So despite an unathletic appearance, Joel found a way to do some athletic things as well as anybody in the NBA.
Finally, Joel led the league that year in total rebound rate. All indications point to him being one of the best defenders in the league in 2008-09, and yet we’re acting like he was some sort of trier with limited talent. The guy was a one-way beast (-8.37 defensive on/off). The idea that losing a step won’t affect the part of Joel’s game that makes him more Josh Smith than Juwan Howard is ludicrous.
Why this is a problem
The problem with all this is that without that all-world defense, Joel becomes a massive liability. All the hard screens in the world (and I don’t really understand the benefit of a screen from a guy who can catch the ball, seems like you’re just inviting a double team) can’t cover for the fact that the guy can’t catch the ball, shoot the ball or pass the ball. Even in 2008-09 when he sported ridiculous and aberrational efficiency numbers, the team was still considerably better offensively with him on the bench.
For Joel to be effective (or even playable/better than Kurt Thomas), he absolutely has to do athletic things like drawing charges, blocking shots and battling for boards. I’m very skeptical that he’ll retain the quickness to do those things after two tendon ruptures. Hopefully this served as a reminder of just how good Joel was at his peak, along with an unfortunate reminder of the difficulty he’ll have contributing on return from injury after very little basketball in the past few years.