Determining who should win Defensive Player of the Year (DPOY) can be a challenging endeavor in any given season. Despite the development of advanced statistics and player tracking technologies, it is still relatively difficult to measure who has the greatest defensive impact over an entire season. However, with so much room for debate, it’s always a fun topic to explore and this season is no exception.
Notably, only 13 players over the last 25 years, going back to the 1992-93 season, have earned this honor, including four-time DPOY recipients Dikembe Mutombo and Ben Wallace. Additionally, only three of these 12 players have been perimeter players, including reigning DPOY Kawhi Leonard.
With all of this in mind, let’s evaluate the leading candidates for this year’s DPOY.
- Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
The defending back-to-back DPOY has long been recognized as one of the NBA’s best all-around defenders. Leonard is known for being able and eager to defend an opposing team’s best player, which he has done in past postseasons against Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul and Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James.
While Leonard hasn’t ranked quite as high in key defensive metrics this season as he has in prior campaigns, he has still been a menace on defense. He is sixth in the league in steals per game (1.8), sixth in deflections per game (3.6) and eighth in loose balls recovered per game (1.2). With a combination of length, strength, solid footwork, elite lateral mobility, huge hands and a high defensive IQ, Leonard is always in position to strip an opponent or jump a passing lane.
Leonard hasn’t necessarily taken a step back defensively this season, but arguably is more focused on being an offensive focal point for San Antonio. Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich recently said that Leonard would be his vote to win this year’s MVP award.
“[Leonard is] the best two-way player in the league, obviously,” Popovich said.
Leonard is more than a defensive specialist and with Tim Duncan no longer around, it is incumbent on him to impact every aspect of the game for the Spurs. A perfect encapsulation of Leonard’s impact this season came about on March 6 against the Houston Rockets.
With the Spurs down one, Leonard hit a go-ahead three-pointer and immediately thereafter chased down James Harden for the game-winning block. Leonard doesn’t make highlight plays like this every night, but he consistently gets stops on one end of the court and anchors the offense on the other end for San Antonio.
Furthermore, Leonard has upped his scoring from 21.2 to 26.1 points per game this season, has been shooting 5.2 three pointers per game and is tallying 3.4 assists per game — all career highs. In short, Leonard is carrying an incredibly large load on both offense and defense this season for San Antonio, so it’s understandable that he isn’t able to lock in on defense quite as much as he has in the last two seasons.
Of note, the last player to be recognized as the defensive player of the year while providing dynamic offensive play was Hakeem Olajuwon, who averaged 26.1 points in 1992-93 and 27.3 points in 1993-94. For the most part, DPOY winners are recognized as being defensive specialists rather than two-way superstars like Leonard.
Leonard’s defensive impact this season warrants consideration for DPOY. However, his considerable responsibilities on offense, plus the defensive performance of two other players this season leaves Leonard in third place at this point in the season.
- Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert has developed into a true defensive juggernaut. At 7-foot-1 with a 7-foot-9 wingspan, Gobert has the size and length to disrupt opponents at a high level on a nightly basis. He possesses the ability to guard opposing bigs one-on-one while simultaneously guarding the rim as a savvy backline defender.
This season, on 10.2 defended attempts, opponents are shooting 43.1 percent at the rim against Gobert, ranking him third among all big men.
You only need to watch one game to get a sense of just how disruptive Gobert is on defense. With good lateral mobility, Gobert is able to not just protect the rim but also meet wing players on the perimeter and stick with them as they attack the baskset.
As we can see in the clip, Gobert picks up Indiana Pacers forward Paul George on a switch and, while demonstrating coordinated footwork, tracks him from the top of the key to the rim where he blocks George’s shot. Few big men in the NBA could hope to make a play like this, but it’s relatively routine for Gobert.
For the season, Gobert is leading the league with 2.6 blocks per game. More important than blocks per game, Gobert’s defensive reputation and presence often prevents players from even trying to attack the rim altogether – a significant event that isn’t easy to track with statistics.
In this clip, Gobert defends a Stephen Curry dribble penetration. Curry seems intent on scoring himself, but because of Gobert’s presence, he attempts to throw a last second pass to the corner that results in a turnover.
What helps Gobert stand apart from other defensively-skilled big men is his positioning and discipline. Gobert always positions himself between his opponent and the rim and doesn’t bite on pump fakes as much as guys like DeAndre Jordan tend to.
Gobert recently showed off his overall skill set with a 16-point, 14-rebound and eight block performance in a losing effort to the Indiana Pacers on March 20. The eight blocks were a career high and Gobert nearly notched a rare triple-double with blocks.
Gobert is also a tireless worker on defense. On plays that other big men would simply give up on, Gobert consistently puts in the extra effort to stifle his opponents.
In this play, Gobert recognizes that Golden State Warriors center JaVale McGee is not a threat to score and that Thompson is looking to get a wide open corner three. Gobert recognizes this outcome early and then closes out on Thompson, resulting in a miss on what is usually an easy shot for Klay. Not many centers in the league would have noticed Thompson’s movement as quickly as Gobert, and even fewer would have made the effort to contest him at the three-point line.
The Jazz are fourth in the Western Conference Standings with a 43-28 record and would have home court advantage if the playoffs started today. Much of that success can be attributed to Gobert, as he has anchored Utah’s defense in the absence of Derrick Favors, who has missed a number of games this year due to injuries.
Utah is currently ranked third in the league in defensive rating, giving up 102.2 points per 100 possessions. However, with Gobert on the court, Utah is giving up just 99.8 points per 100 – a rating that would place them first overall in defense this season. His defensive impact is a constant and he has truly separated himself from other defensive centers this season.
Gobert has put together a season worthy of the Defensive Player of the Year award, though he may lose out to another player who has also been exceptional defensively this season.
- Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
Draymond Green continues to be the most versatile defensive players in the NBA. He has the on-ball defensive abilities of Leonard, some of the rim protection skills that bigs like Gobert provide and he constantly is manufacturing easy points by generating steals and deflections.
As shocking as it may seem, Green, like Gobert, has never won DPOY. Of note, Green and Gobert are ranked first and second respectively in defensive win shares, according to NBA.com, and second and first respectively in defensive real plus-minus, per ESPN.com.
Green, like Gobert and Leonard, has tremendous length and deceptive athleticism. Despite standing at just 6-foot-7, Green’s wingspan, athleticism and awareness on defense make him a surprisingly effective rim protector. Per NBA.com, on seven attempts at the rim, opponents are shooting 43.7 percent against Green, ranking him sixth amongst all big men. On a team lacking rim protectors outside of Kevin Durant, this particular skill is vital to the Warriors’ defense.
Beyond protecting the rim, Green contests 14 shots per game, which ranks him fifth in the league. Additionally, Green leads the league in steals at 2.1 per game despite playing predominantly at power forward. In fact, Gerald Wallace was the last non-guard to lead the league in steals in 2005-06. Green is also second in the league at generating deflections, which is arguably a better indicator of his defensive impact than his steals.
What makes Green’s brand of defense particularly effective is the rate at which it leads to easy points for the Warriors.
In this play, you can see Green’s superior awareness of where the ball is going and perfect timing to generate the steal, which leads to a wide open three-pointer for Curry (an extremely valuable shot, despite the fact that he missed on this particular play).
Additionally, Draymond’s defensive versatility is seen on just about every single defensive possession for Golden State.
In this play, Green first positions himself behind Gobert for a potential box out. Green then immediately picks up his own man and, while displaying excellent footwork, guards the larger Diaw one-on-one until successfully deflecting the ball, leading to a steal by Warriors guard Ian Clark.
Another example of this versatility can be seen on this particular play.
Green’s 8.2 rebounds per game are also notable since he often takes the ball himself and leads a fastbreak. Being able to run the break and initiate the offense quickly against a scrambling defense is a unique skill that is a significant weapon for Golden State and is made possible by Green’s ability to hit the defensive glass, as seen in the clip below.
Green sports a 15.4 overall net rating and a 99.1 defensive rating per 100 possessions, the best defensive mark among the Warriors’ key rotation players.
Green is the glue that holds Golden State’s elite defense together. From his weakside rim protection, to his post defense, to his deflections, and so on, Green is a constant terror on defense. Like Gobert, he has made these impactful plays constantly for his team this season and has positioned himself to be the front-runner for the Defensive Player of the Year award. Voters can’t go wrong by picking either Gobert or Green, but Green gets the slight edge here.
Middleton, Bucks Aiming To ‘Lock In’ As Season Comes To Close
Spencer Davies catches up with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.
Basketball Insiders had the chance to chat with Khris Middleton about the direction of the Milwaukee Bucks as the season comes to a close.
You guys won three out of four before you came into Cleveland. What was working during that stretch?
Just being us. Doing it with our defense, playing fast-paced offense. Just trying to keep teams off the three-point line. We haven’t done that. We didn’t do that [Monday] or two games ago, but it’s something we’ve just gotta get back to.
With the offense—it seems like it’s inconsistent. What do you think that’s got to do with mostly?
Just trying to do it by ourselves sometimes. Standing, keeping the ball on one side of the floor. We’re a better team when we play in a fast pace. And then also in the half court, when we move the ball from side-to-side it just opens the paint for everybody and there’s a lot more space.
For you, on both ends you’ve been ultra-aggressive here in the last couple weeks or so, does that have to do with you feeling better or is it just a mindset?
I’ve been healthy all year. Right now, it’s the end of the season. Gotta make a push. Everybody’s gotta lock in. Have to be confident, have to be aggressive. Have to do my job and that’s to shoot the ball well and to defend.
Have you changed anything with your jumper? Looking at the past couple months back-to-back, your perimeter shooting was below 32 percent. In March it’s above 45 percent.
I feel like I got a lot of great looks earlier this year. They just weren’t falling. Right now, they’re falling for me, so I have the same mindset that I had when I was missing and that’s to keep on shooting. At some point, they’re gonna go down for me.
Is knowing that every game at this point means more an extra motivator for you guys?
Definitely. We’re basically in the playoffs right now. We’re in a playoff series right now where we have to win games, we have to close out games, in order to get the seeding and to stay in the playoffs. Each game and each possession means something to us right now.
Is it disappointing to be in the position the team is in right now, or are you looking at it as, ‘If we get there, we’re going to be alright’?
I mean, we wish we were in a better position. But where we’re at right now, we’re fine with it. We want to make that last push to get higher in the seeding.
Lots of changes have gone on here. Eric Bledsoe came in two weeks into the season. You had the coaching change and lineup changes. Jabari Parker’s been getting situated before the postseason. How difficult does that make it for you guys to build consistency?
Yeah, it was tough at first. But I think early on we had to adjust on the fly. We didn’t have too many practices. There was a stretch where we were able to get in the film room, get on the court, and practice with each other more.
Now it’s just at a point where we’re adding a lot of new guys off the bench where we have to do the same things—learn on the fly, watch film. We’re not on the court as much now, but we just have to do a great job of buying in to our system, try to get to know each other.
Does this team feel like it has unfinished business based on what happened last year?
Definitely. Last year, we felt like we let one go. Toronto’s a great team. They’re having a hell of a season this year, but I feel like we let one go. This year’s a new year—a little add of extra motivation. We’ve been in the playoff position before, so hopefully, we learn from it when we go into it this year.
Would you welcome that rematch?
I mean, we welcome anybody man. We showed that we compete with any team out here. We can’t worry about other teams as much. We just have to be focused on us.
What has to happen for you guys to achieve your full potential?
Lock in. Just play as hard as we can, play unselfish, and do our job out there night-in, night-out.
NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense
The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors engaged in an offensive shootout on Wednesday that could be a playoff preview. The Cavs protected home court with a single-possession, 132-129 victory. Afterward, the Raptors spoke about the types of defensive adjustments the team needs to make as the postseason rapidly approaches.
“That’s how a playoff game would be,” said DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. “This is a team we’ve been playing against the last two years in the postseason. Understanding how we can tighten up things defensively, how to make things tougher for them [is key].
“[It’s] little small things that go a long way, and not just with them … with every team.”
Raptors coach Dwane Casey concurred with DeRozan that fine-tuning of the defense is needed. He also pointed out that, with young contributors such as center Jakob Poeltl and power forward Pascal Siakam on the roster, defensive experience against the league’s best player, LeBron James, is something they will have to gain on the fly.
“I don’t think Jakob Poeltl played against him that much, and Siakam,” said Casey. “This is their first time seeing it. I thought Jak and Pascal did an excellent job, but there are certain situations where they’ve got to read and understand what the other team is trying to do to them.”
Poeltl was outstanding, leading the bench with 17 points and tying for the team lead in rebounds with eight. Casey praised the diversity of his contributions.
“I thought he did an excellent job of rolling, finishing, finding people,” said Casey. “I thought defensively, he did a good job of protecting the paint, going vertical. So I liked what he was giving us, especially his defense against Kevin Love.”
Basketball Insiders previously noted how the Raptors have performed vastly better as a team this season when starting point guard Kyle Lowry is out of the game. Much of that is due to Fred VanVleet’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best reserve point guards. VanVleet scored 16 points with five assists and no turnovers against Cleveland. It’s also a reflection of how good Toronto’s perimeter defense has been up and down the roster.
According to ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, three of the NBA’s top 15 defensive point guards play for the Raptors. VanVleet ranks seventh while Lowry is 12th and Delon Wright is 14th. Starting small forward OG Anunoby ranks 16th at his position.
The Raptors also rank in the top five in offensive efficiency (third) and defensive efficiency (fifth). Having established an identity as a defensive team, especially on the perimeter, it’s perhaps understandable that Lowry was the one player in the visiting locker room who took the sub-standard defensive showing personally.
“It was a disgraceful display of defense by us and we’ve got to be better than that,” said Lowry. “We’ve got to be more physical. They picked us apart and made a lot of threes. We’ve got to find a way to be a better defensive team.”
Lowry continued the theme of fine-tuning as the regular season winds down.
“I think we’ve just got to make adjustments on the fly as a team,” said Lowry. “We can score with the best of them, but they outscored us tonight. We got what we wanted offensively. We’re one of the top teams in scoring in the league, but we’re also a good defensive team.”
Lowry was clearly bothered by Toronto’s defensive showing, but Casey downplayed the importance of a single regular-season game.
“We’ve got to take these games and learn from them, and again learn from the situations where we have to be disciplined,” said Casey. “It’s not a huge thing. It’s situations where we are that we’ve got to learn from and be disciplined and not maybe take this step and over-help here. Because a team like that and a passer like James will make you pay.”
While the Raptors continue to gain experience and dial in the fine defensive details, Casey was insistent that his players should not hang their heads over falling short against Cleveland.
“Hopefully our guys understand that we’re right there,” said Casey.
The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets tonight to open a three-game home stand that includes visits from the Clippers Sunday and the Nuggets Tuesday. After that, Toronto visits the Celtics March 31 followed by a return to Cleveland April 3 and a home game against Boston the next night. With three games in a row against the other two top-three teams in the East, the schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to add defensive polish before the playoffs begin.
NBA Daily: Jaylen Brown Set To Return For Celtics
The Celtics finally got some good news on Thursday. Jaylen Brown’s return is imminent.
Finally, some good news for the Boston Celtics.
Jaylen Brown is set to return to action.
Brown has been M.I.A. since sustaining a concussion during the team’s 117-109 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves back on March 8, but has traveled with the team to Portland and is expecting to return to the lineup on Sunday when the Celtics do battle with the Sacramento Kings.
As the Celts gear up for a playoff run, which they hope will result in them ending LeBron James’ reign atop the Eastern Conference, they’ve picked the wrong time to run into injury issues. Along with Brown, both Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart have each been conspicuous by their absences, and the team could certainly use all of their pieces as they attempt to enter the postseason on a high note.
Fortunately for Boston, with the Toronto Raptors leading them by 4.5 games in the standings and the Celts ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers by a comfortable six games, Brad Stevens’ team is enjoying the rare situation of having a playoff seed that appears to be somewhat locked in.
Still, with the team only able to go as far as its young rotation will carry it, Brown addressed the media on Thursday.
“I’m feeling a lot better. I’m just trying to hurry up and get back,” Brown said, as quoted by Celtics.com.
“I’m tired of not playing.”
Stevens is probably tired of him not playing, too.
As we head into the month of April, playoff-bound teams and conference contenders begin to think about playing into June, while the cellar-dwellers and pretenders begin to look toward the draft lottery and free agency.
What’s funny is that in the midst of the Raptors and their rise out East, the Celtics and their dominance has become a bit of a forgotten storyline. When Gordon Hayward went down on opening night, the neophytes from the Northeast were thought to be a decent team in the making whose ceiling probably wasn’t anywhere near that of the Cavs, the Raptors and perhaps even the Washington Wizards.
Yet through it all, with the impressive growth of Jaylen Brown, impressive rookie Jayson Tatum and the rise of Irving as a franchise’s lynchpin, the Celtics stormed out the games to the tune of a a 17-3 record. What made the strong start even more impressive was the fact that the team won 16 straight games after beginning the season 0-2.
Although they weren’t able to keep up that pace, they began the month of February having gone 37-15 and turned a great many into believers. With their spry legs, team-first playing style and capable leader in Irving, the Celtics, it was thought, were a true contender in the Eastern Conference — if not the favorite.
Since then, and after experiencing injuries to some of its key cogs, the team has gone just 11-8.
In the interim, it seems that many have forgotten about the team that tantalized the Eastern Conference in the early goings of the season.
Brown’s return, in one important respect, will signify a return to Boston’s prior self.
With Marcus Smart having recently undergone surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right thumb, he is expected to be out another five weeks or so, meaning that he’ll likely miss the beginning of the postseason.
As for Irving, although reports say that his ailing knee has no structural damage, everything the Celtics hope to accomplish begins and ends with him. FOX Sports 1’s Chris Broussard believes that it’s no slam dunk that Irving returns to action this season, but he’s in the minority. This team has simply come too far to not give themselves every opportunity to compete at the highest level, so long as doing so doesn’t jeopardize the long term health of any of the franchise’s cornerstones.
Make no mistake about it, the Celtics are far from a finished product. With their nucleus intact and flexibility preserved, they will have another offseason with which to tinker with their rotation pieces and plug away at building a champion.
But here and now, with what they’ve got, the Celtics are much closer than any of us thought they would be at this point.
And on Sunday, when Jaylen Brown rejoins his team in the lineup, to the delight of the Boston faithful, the Celtics will be that much closer.