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Defensive Player of the Year Watch

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Evaluating candidates for Defensive Player of the Year (DPOY) can be tricky, especially since statistics don’t necessarily paint the whole picture. That doesn’t stop us from ranking candidates based on those stats, however. Here’s an update from last week:

3. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs

There’s a reason Kawhi Leonard is the reigning, back-to-back DPOY. Since making his debut near the end of 2011, “The Claw” has been one of the biggest pests in the NBA for opposing offenses. His combination of length (7-foot wingspan) and athleticism allows him to wreak havoc on players, garnering steals, blocking shots and creating deflections like it’s nobody’s business.

Currently, Leonard ranks sixth in the league in steals per game with 1.8 while also placing seventh in the league in total steals with 122 on the year. Pair that with his 48 blocks and Leonard is one of the better all-around defenders in the league. Additionally, per NBA.com, Leonard also ranks seventh in the league in deflections, averaging 3.5 per game.

What’s most astounding about Leonard is that those numbers could be considered “down” for him. While his steal numbers remain steady, his overall blocks, Defensive Win Shares (DWS) and Defensive Rating (DRTG) have taken a slight dip from last year’s campaign. Leonard, having become the true No.1 option in the Spurs’ offense, is just unable to put in the same amount of attention and energy in on the defensive end as he has in years past. Yet, he still manages to rank sixth and eighth in the league in DWS (4.3) and DRTG (101.6), respectively.

An interesting tidbit about Leonard and the Spurs’ defense: opposing offenses are 8.1 points per 100 possessions better when Leonard is on the floor. While this is (likely) coincidental and can’t be solely attributed to Leonard (probably), it is a fact that is sure to lose Leonard some votes in the DPOY race.

2. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

Known as the “Stifle Tower,” Rudy Gobert has emerged as an absolute force in the paint for the Jazz, leading the league and setting a new career high in blocks per game (2.6). Gobert leads the league in total blocks as well with 193 (also a career high), and currently has 37 more than Myles Turner, who ranks second with 156. He is also first in blocks per 100 possessions (4.1). Case in point, if there’s a stat relating to blocked shots, Gobert probably ranks at or near No. 1. He has 48 steals on the season as well, not too shabby for a guy who is 7-foot-1 and mainly roams the paint.

The advanced stats paint a pretty picture of Gobert’s defense as well. Gobert leads the league in block percentage at 6.3, ahead of noted shot blockers Hassan Whiteside (5.0), Anthony Davis (5.0), DeAndre Jordan (4.4) and others. He places first in DWS (5.5) and DRTG (98.7) while placing second in Defensive Box Plus Minus (4.6), a stat that shows the number of defensive points per 100 possessions a player contributes over a league-average player. Per NBA.com, Gobert ranks third in the league with 14.3 contested shots per game. Utah’s defense is 6.8 points per 100 possessions better when Gobert is on the floor as well.

Gobert has also become an elite defensive rebounder this season. Setting new career highs in total defensive rebounds (662, fifth in the league) and defensive rebounds per game (8.9, fifth) with a defensive rebound percentage of 29.5 (sixth), Gobert has made the Jazz one of the better rebounding teams in the league. On the defensive glass, the Jazz rank 10th in the league with 33.9 boards per game, largely in part due to Gobert’s hard work and effort.

Anchoring Utah’s elite defense in the absence of Derrick Favors, Gobert has blossomed into a defensive stalwart. His numbers scream DPOY material. However, there’s one player Gobert sits behind in the race.

1. Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors

Is Draymond Green the most versatile defender in the NBA? If you said no, you probably need to rethink your stance. Green has played with a massive chip on his shoulder since being drafted in the second round of the 2012 NBA Draft. His 7-foot-1 wingspan, paired with his high floor IQ and inner fire give him the defensive chops that allow him to guard almost any position.

In terms of actual numbers, Green is one of the most well-rounded players in the league. Both his steal and block numbers are up from last season when he placed second in DPOY voting behind Leonard. This season, Green has set new career highs in steals per game (2.1) and total steals (149), both of which lead the league, while he is tied for 13th in blocks per game (1.4) and tied for 11th in total blocks (98). Playing within the Warriors’ league-best offense has certainly helped Green achieve those numbers. Without the responsibility on the offensive end that Leonard and other stars have, Green is free to focus most of his energy on the defensive end.

The advanced numbers support Green’s candidacy as well. Green ranks third in the league in steal percentage (3.1), while he sits second behind Gobert in DWS (5.1) and DRTG (98.8). However, he beats out Gobert and leads the league in DBPM (5.0). Per NBA.com, Green ranks second in the league in deflections per game (4.0) and is sixth in contested shots (13.9) as well. The Warriors defense is 6.7 points better per 100 possessions when Green is on the floor.

To put his numbers in historical perspective, Green is the first player to average at least 2.3 steals and 1.5 blocks per 36 minutes since two-time DPOY Hakeem Olajuwon did so in the 1988-89 season. While you can’t really go wrong with a vote for Green or Gobert, Green’s versatility, consistency and overall defensive impact make him the frontrunner for this year’s Defensive Player of the Year award.

Unless otherwise noted, all stats are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com

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About Shane Rhodes

Shane Rhodes