As opposed to last year, the Delaware 87ers have taken a big step forward in the standings this season. Finishing out last year a disappointing 20-30, they have seen their record jump all the way to 18-17, good for third place in the Atlantic Division and just a game and a half away from the division lead.
This winning record is due in no small part to the improvements that they've made on offense. Players like Sean Kilpatrick, Earl Clark and Christian Wood have surely aided those efforts, but the overall system is flowing much more smoothly and it has shown throughout the year, as the team finds itself 3rd in the D-League with 110.7 points per game on 46.1% shooting that ranks in the top half of the league.
With such a proficient offense, many would expect to be the 87ers to be even better than their record shows, but their shortcomings on the defensive end have held them back and may ultimately wind up costing them a playoff spot. This large disparity between their offense and defense couldn't have been better represented than it was in their last home game before the All-Star break.
Taking on the Atlantic Division-leading Maine Red Claws, Delaware scored an impressive 133 points in regulation but still managed to lose the game. On 54% shooting from the field and from three-point range, the Red Claws tallied a jaw-dropping 147 points, which included 81 at halftime.
The team has reliable perimeter defenders in Sam Thompson and Juwan Staten, and Sean Kilpatrick is no parking cone himself, but they can often be dominated on pick and rolls and they lack a true rim protector for when their perimeter defense breaks down.
In the game against Maine, one of these breakdowns occurred on a bit of a broken play. Kilpatrick loses the ball and immediately turns to the official looking for a foul, but in the process allows his man to get free. It doesn't cost them immediately, but a nice spin move and a flashy pass by the Red Claws' Davion Berry after the defense collapses leads to a wide open look.
Their troubles on the pick and roll are concerning, but no amount of strong defense on that play would make up for their glaring lack of rim protection. While Wood is an offensive threat and a good rebounder on both ends, he will never be mistaken for a lockdown defender. He currently ranks near the bottom of the league in defense within 5 feet of the rim, where he's allowing opponents to score on nearly 65% of their shots. His size limits him from being able to handle bigger guys down low and he can often be overpowered even by players that he should have a size advantage against.
Here, Coty Clarke is able to back him down with ease despite being three inches shorter than him.
His size is something that certainly limits him, but that's not the end of his issues on the defensive end. Many players that don't have the strength to defend in the post can offset that a bit by being able to defend on the perimeter, but he's not all that great there, either. His footwork leaves a lot to be desired and smaller players are easily able to exploit his lack of lateral quickness. In addition to his poor numbers within five feet, he's also allowing the best mid-range field goal percentage on the team at nearly 50%.
Malcolm Miller, who stands three inches shorter and around the same weight as Wood, is able to lure him out to the perimeter and eventually draw a foul.
In addition to Wood's shortcomings on that end, there isn't any other big man that can really fill the void that is opened by the errors shown above. Earl Clark is a solid one-on-one post defender, but he doesn't have the length or athleticism necessary to be a shot blocker, and he if gets dragged out of the paint it typically causes problems.
While it would be unfair to expect him to just be able to flip the switch and become an elite defender, if Christian Wood can take a step forward and get stronger while also improving his help defense, it could propel this team into being one of the powerhouses in the Eastern Conference.