We’ve been chronicling the MVP and ROY races throughout the season, and figured it was time to take a look at the Defensive Player of the Year candidates as we head down the playoff stretch. Even if big men aren’t appreciated nearly as much as perhaps they should be these days, they’ve dominated this category for the better part of 20 years.
Outside of Metta World Peace (Ron Artest) in 2004, a non-C/PF hasn’t won this honor since Gary Payton swiped the award way back following the 1995-96 season. While there are several guards worthy of recognition for their defensive efforts this season, this still might not be the year to expect that trend to end.
As the proverbial “last line of defense,” big men often take this award due to how much they can influence that side of the court with rebounds and blocks, as well as being both an on-ball and secondary defender. Without further delay, here are some of the candidates we expect to be in the discussion.
Roy Hibbert, Indiana Pacers – Hibbert has developed into one of the league’s best rim-protectors, as the 7’2” center has all-but mastered those ‘rule of verticality’ scenarios at the rim. Opponents shoot a league-worst 51.6 percent on shots within five feet against the Pacers. Averaging 7.5 RPG, he’d probably be an absolute lock for the award if he were to average double-digit boards. It should, however, be noted that Hibbert only plays an average of 30.2 minutes per night throughout the regular season, and has proven to increase productivity when leaned upon in the past.
Serge Ibaka, Oklahoma City Thunder – Like Hibbert, Ibaka is not only an excellent shot blocker (2.5 BPG), but also impacts his fair share of shot attempts in help situations. Far from a coincidence, but OKC is second to Indiana in opponent’s FG percentage within five feet, surrendering just 54.9 percent from that range. By comparison, the last-ranked Minnesota Timberwolves allow opponents to shoot a whopping 63.1 percent from five feet and in. Being an intimidating force as a weakside defender may not always be recognized in a standard box score, but you can rest assured opposing players know exactly where Ibaka is any time they decide to attack the paint against the Thunder.
Paul George, Indiana Pacers – George could very well be the league’s best and most versatile perimeter defender. At the very least, he’s in the conversation. George is every bit of his listed 6’9”, but remains agile enough to defend anyone from the league’s best guards to the high scoring forwards like Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, and LeBron James. He’s currently ranked eighth in the league with 13 drawn charges. George is also great at playing the passing lanes (1.8 SPG), and swarming as weakside support.
Dwight Howard, Houston Rockets – Howard may not quite be the absolute defensive terror that once haunted opposing teams (not just big men), but his physical health has returned to a level that has him making plays both in the key and around the court from time to time. He’s in the top 10 in both BPG (1.83), and RPG (12.5). Howard’s presence in the middle as a rim protector also permits the Rockets to extend the defense and run opponents off the three-point line. After finishing 25th in opponent’s FG percentage between 20-24 feet in 2012-13, they are currently second in that particular category this season (35.0 percent).
LeBron James, Miami HEAT – With so much of the focus on James often surrounding his offensive game, it’s almost easy to overlook how devastating he can be on the other end. Even though some of James’ defensive prowess (on big men) can be overstated at times, he remains one of the league’s more versatile defenders. From applying pressure on the ball, to chase down blocks in transition, to playing the passing lanes, James is the catalyst to Miami’s defense when they are at their best.
DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles Clippers – Jordan may not be the first name that comes to your mind when thinking about this category, but that’s probably because you haven’t been paying enough attention to the progress he’s made under Doc Rivers. Jordan is third in the league in BPG (2.46), while leading the NBA with 13.9 RPG. Although the Clippers still give up their share of transition buckets within the paint, they’ve adopted Rivers’ swarming defensive style around the perimeter specifically because of the ‘safety net’ Jordan can be as a help defender.
Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls – Noah may only block 1.4 shots per game, but he is constantly challenging shots at the rim, providing support on the pick-and-roll, and his physical nature in the middle discourages players from waltzing down the lane when they play Chicago. The Bulls are ranked in the top five whether it is in opponent’s FG percentage from within five feet, from 15-19 feet, and from 20-24 feet. Meaning, they defend excellently at the rim, in the mid-range, and from deep. Noah is one of the rare bigs that defends the entire court when out there.
Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans – If Davis can stay healthy enough, he could easily be in consideration for one of the league’s better defensive players for the better part of the next decade. He blocks shots both on-ball and from the weakside (3.0 BPG), has quick enough hands to swipe the ball from his man, and is quick enough to flash and flood the passing lane (1.5 SPG) like a player far smaller than his 6’10” frame.
Andre Iguodala, Golden State Warriors – One of the biggest reasons Golden State decided to sign Iguodala in the offseason was specifically for his defensive capabilities. Specifically, to apply pressure around the perimeter. They improved from the 16th ranked team (last season) at defending between 20-24 feet to the league’s best in 2013-14. At 30, he still has the agility it takes to defend the likes of Durant, a healthy Kobe Bryant, or even a Dwyane Wade or LeBron James in the event they were to face them in the Finals.
Other players deserving of recognition: Mike Conley (MEM), Jimmy Butler (CHI), Chris Paul (LAC)
Is Kyrie Irving’s Second Opinion a Cause for Concern?
Shane Rhodes breaks down the tough situation the Celtics are in with Kyrie Irving.
The Boston Celtics are in one awful predicament.
With a third of the roster out due to injury, Brad Stevens has been forced into the impossible task of maintaining Boston’s championship aspirations with some subpar talent; while they have performed admirably, the likes of Abdel Nader and Semi Ojeleye wouldn’t see the same run they are currently on with most contenders. Gordon Hayward has missed the entire season, save a few minutes on opening night. Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis are all currently out, some for the year and others not. Key contributors Al Horford, Marcus Morris and others have missed time as well.
It couldn’t get worse, could it?
Well, it may just have. Reports surfaced Tuesday that Irving, who had missed time this season — including the last four games — with left knee soreness, is seeking a second opinion after a lack of progress in his recovery.
My understanding is that Kyrie Irving is getting a 2nd opinion on his left knee, perhaps as soon as tomorrow. Bottom line: he needs the screws out. Knee is flaring up. He will either play thru it going forward or … he will get thee screws out and won’t play at all. Stay tuned.
— Tony Massarotti (@TonyMassarotti) March 20, 2018
With lack of progress on his ailing left knee, Celtics All-Star Kyrie Irving plans to travel for a second opinion later this week, league sources tell Yahoo.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) March 20, 2018
In the wake of the Isaiah Thomas fiasco and his ailing hip last Summer, an injury that lingered deep into this season, the Celtics will likely be more than cautious with Irving, whom they gave up a haul (the rights to the 2018 Brooklyn Nets first round pick, most notably), to acquire. But one can only wonder if these persistent issues — Irving’s left knee was surgically repaired after he sustained a fractured kneecap in 2015, and he reportedly threatened the Cleveland Cavaliers with surgery this offseason before his trade to Boston — are a cause for concern for general manager Danny Ainge and the Celtics.
The situation presents the Celtics with a quandary, to say the least.
Knee injuries aren’t exactly a death-knell, but fans need not look far for to see the devastating effect they can have on NBA players (e.g. Derrick Rose). They can snowball and, over time, even the best players will break down. Regardless of the severity, Irving’s knee issue presents problems both now and in the future.
The problems now are obvious: the Celtics, already down Gordon Hayward, cannot afford to lose Irving if they are at all interested in making a Finals run this season. Boston struggles mightily on the offensive end when Irving and his 24.4 points, 3.8 rebounds and 5.1 assists aren’t on the court. In a playoff atmosphere, especially, the team would sorely miss his scoring prowess.
Looking ahead, if Irving is dealing with these problems at the age of 25, what could the future hold for the All-Star guard? Knee issues, most lower body issues in general, are often of the chronic variety, and constant maintenance can wear on people, both mentally and physically.
Just a season separated from a likely super-max payday, will the Celtics want to commit big-money long-term to potentially damaged goods?
If there is a silver lining in it all, it is the fact that 20-year-old rookie Jayson Tatum must now shoulder the scoring load, something that should go a long way in building on the potential that made him the No. 3 overall pick last June. And, should Irving miss the remainder of this season, exposure to the fires of the playoffs should only temper the Celtics’ young roster. In the event that Irving’s absence isn’t prolonged, time like this could only serve to strengthen the roster around him.
Still, Ainge brought Irving to Boston for a reason: he was meant to lead the Celtics into battle, alongside Gordon Hayward and Al Horford, in their quest for a title. Obviously, he can’t do that from the bench. Without Irving at 100 percent, the Celtics are not a championship caliber squad, healthy Gordon Hayward or not. That fact alone will make Irving’s situation one to monitor going forward and for the foreseeable future.
NBA Daily: Houston Has It All
Deciphering whether Houston is a contender or pretender is tough, but they’re making it easy.
It is very easy to get caught up in the NBA regular-season hyperbole. The past is littered with a plethora of NBA teams that looked like world-beaters in the regular season only to pull up lame in the playoffs and emerge as a bunch of pretenders.
So when it comes to the Houston Rockets, it’s no surprise many pundits and fans of the game fall heavily on one side or the other. The 2017-18 Rockets are a polarizing squad in that respect. On one side of the fence, you have the folks that are struggling to get behind Houston until they see how the franchise performs in the playoffs under the brightest of lights and on the biggest of stages. On the other, folks that place a great deal of weight on the 82-game regular season and the ability to sustain consistency throughout the marathon.
As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
At the top of Houston’s lineup are two future Hall of Famers in James Harden and Chris Paul. The latter was a perennial star in his heyday and is still a top-tier talent in the league. Harden, on the other hand, is closing in on his first MVP award and had serious cases for winning the honors in prior seasons, as well. Both Harden and Paul are criticized for their past playoff failures.
Paul entered the league during the 2006 season and has been dogged by the ever looming fact that he’s never reached a Conference Finals. Harden has been to the NBA Finals but has been dogged for multiple playoff missteps and shaky performances that remain etched in everyone’s memory. But something about this season’s Rockets team (57-14) seems different as the duo closes in on 60 wins.
One way to measure the true greatness of a NBA team is evaluating how many ways the roster can win playing a variety of styles. From the eyeball test, Houston checks the boxes in this category. The team sustains leads during blowouts. They have an offense built to erase large deficits quickly. The team possesses the talent to employ an array of versatile lineups to withstand top heat from opposing teams. Head coach Mike D’Antoni has shown the ability to adjust on the fly during certain situations. Houston is seemingly comprised of a bunch of guys that are selfless and ready to sacrifice at this stage of their respective careers.
Time will tell on all of those aforementioned aspects, but the Rockets are built to compete and win now. On paper at least, the team fits the criteria.
Paul has a chance to go down as a top five point guard in NBA history .His court vision is unquestioned and his big men always seem to end up being in the top five of field goal percentage each season (i.e. Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan and now Clint Capela). In years past, the Rockets faltered down the stretch of games because the entire system ran through Harden. But this year’s club has the luxury of taking some of the on-ball expectation away from Harden and by giving the rock to Paul who naturally thrives in this role the squad doesn’t take a step back on the floor.
This is going to be big for Houston which has seen Harden gassed late in playoff games from carrying the entire load.
Small Ball Ready
Presumably standing between the Rockets and an appearance in the NBA Finals are the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors turned the NBA upside down with their free-flowing offense, long range accuracy and the successful ability to push the pace while playing small ball.
At the height of Golden State’s success they employed the “death lineup” which places All-Star forward Draymond Green at center. In different variations this gives the Warriors five guys on the court who can dribble, drive, pass and shoot. Versatility is important and if you look at this year’s Rockets team they have the ability to match the death lineup with their own version. Veteran forward P.J. Tucker would be able to guard Green in this scenario at center or Houston could just rely on the athleticism of Capela.
When it comes to defense, the Rockets will never be confused for the bad boy Detroit Pistons of yesteryear, however, the team has an assortment of individually capable defenders on the roster. Paul has all defensive team honors hanging on his mantle during his time in the league. Small forward Trevor Ariza made his bones in the league by placing an emphasis on defense. Before Capela emerged as a double-digit scorer, he was relied on as a defensive spark off the bench. Luc Mbah a Moute has a reputation and consistent track record of being a very willing defender.
Shooting, Versatility and Experience
All of this success, leads to the variation D’Antoni can put out onto the floor. The versatility to go with a small ball lineup or a lineup heavily skewed toward defenders is a luxury amenity. Houston also features five guys with 125 or more three-pointers made this season with Harden, Eric Gordon, Ariza, Paul and Ryan Anderson leading the way. A sixth, Tucker, should join the +100 club before season’s end. Veteran Gerald Green has only played 30 games with the franchise but has already knocked down 76 attempts from distance.
Experience is key as well. This year’s Rockets team features only one player under 25, receiving 25 or more minutes per night in the rotation. Look at NBA history, title winning teams are full of veterans not second or third year players.
Again, the Rockets will never be confused with the late 80s or early 90s Pistons but the team has more than a few guys that don’t shy away from contact or physical play. The collection of Nene, Tucker, Green and Ariza have had more than their share of shoving matches when things get heated on the floor.
With the start of the NBA playoffs (April 14) under a month away, the Rockets continue to build momentum toward a title run. Will Harden and Paul’s playoff demons from the past emerge or is their first true shot at greatness with a complete team? These questions will soon be answered.
PODCAST: Breaking Down The Western Conference Playoff Race
Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte break down the Western Conference playoff race and check in on the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers.