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Defensive Player of the Year Watch

Who is the front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year? James Blancarte breaks down the candidates.

James Blancarte

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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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

 

James Blancarte is a writer for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney based in Los Angeles, California.

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NBA Daily: Georges Niang’s Big Break

After dominating the G-League for a year, Georges Niang has more than earned this big opportunity with the Utah Jazz, writes Ben Nadeau.

Ben Nadeau

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For Georges Niang, reaching professional stability was always going to be a tall order.

Even after four dominant seasons at Iowa State, the tweener forward was viewed as a draft risk. At 6-foot-8, the versatile playmaker has always scored in bunches but also struggled to find his place in the modern NBA. Despite excelling as a knockdown three-point shooter, the fundamentally sound Niang has bounced around the country looking for a long-term opportunity.

In the two seasons since he was drafted, Niang has played in 50 G-League games for three separate franchises and had his non-guaranteed contract waived twice.

As a summer league standout for the second straight offseason, Niang’s determined efforts officially paid off last week after he signed a three-year deal with the Utah Jazz worth about $5 million. Now with a fully-guaranteed contract under his belt for 2018-19, Niang has been eager to prove his worth both on and off the court — a newfound skill-set he happily attributes to Utah’s excellent system.

“In the Jazz organization, from top to bottom, they do a good job of nurturing guys and forming them into good leaders and things like that,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, it was really easy to transition to summer league, [I’m] really just trying to lead by example, not with just my words.

“And I think playing hard, being a good teammate and doing the right thing –I think those are three things that the Jazz really stand for.”

But his meandering path toward year-long job security wasn’t destined to end up this way — no, not at all.

Selected by the Indiana Pacers in the 2016 NBA Draft with the No. 50 overall pick, Niang was correctly projected as a hard-working, high-IQ contributor that could put up points on almost anybody. Unfortunately, following a low-impact rookie year with the Pacers — and some short stints with their G-League affiliate, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, as well — Niang was waived the ensuing summer. Shortly thereafter, Niang latched on with the Golden State Warriors, where he participated in training camp and four preseason games — but, again, he was waived before the season began.

With the Santa Cruz Warriors, Niang flat-out dominated the competition for months, up until he grabbed a two-way contract from Utah in January. In total, Niang played in 41 games between Santa Cruz and the Salt Lake City Stars in 2017-18, averaging 19.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.1 steals on 45.7 percent from deep over 33.9 minutes per game.

Once attached to Utah’s affiliate franchise, Niang averaged a team-high 22 points per game and finished the campaign as the 13th-best scorer in the G-League. On top of all that, Niang was both an All-Star and honored with a spot on the All-NBA G-League First Team at season’s end.

Although he would ultimately play in just nine games for the deep Western Conference roster, Niang was simply laying important groundwork for the days ahead.

This summer, Niang averaged 16.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists in three contests during Utah Summer League. Given the golden opening to impress his future would-be-employers, Niang kept things rolling in Sin City and posted similar numbers over five games. On the back of a 20-point, eight-rebound performance early on in Las Vegas, Niang embraced the chance to fight and compete for his team — five full days before the Jazz signed him to a guaranteed deal.

“It was a real physical game, but those are the games you want to play in during summer league,” Niang said. “You want to play in those types of environments, where every possession matters and you gotta make plays down the stretch — and I think we did a really good job doing that.”

Those scrappy aspirations have been a staple of Niang’s since his collegiate days at Iowa State, too. During an ultra-impressive senior year, Niang tallied 20.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game for the Cyclones, leading their roster to 23 wins and an eventual trip to the Sweet Sixteen. That season, Niang took home the 2016 Karl Malone Award as Division-I’s top power forward and finished with 2,228 points, the second-best mark in school history.

Any way you slice it, whether at college or in the G-League, Niang can play, the moment just needs to reveal itself — and maybe it finally has.

Of course, this new contract — one that’s only fully guaranteed in 2018-19 — doesn’t ensure Niang any playing time and he’ll have some stiff competition. Just to get on the court, he’ll need to squeeze minutes from Derrick Favors, Jae Crowder and Joe Ingles — a tough task in head coach Quin Snyder’s defense-first rotation. No matter what his role or obligations end up amounting to, Niang is ready to meet that challenge head-on.

“In the NBA, everyone has a role,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, obviously, things are gonna be peeled back and you’ll have a defined role. My role is just when I get the ball, and if I do, play-make for others or get guys open, defend multiple positions, play multiple positions on offense and knock down open shots.”

Although his past resume certainly speaks for itself, it’ll be up to Niang take his big break even further. But given his efficiency and execution at every other level, there’s little reason to doubt the forward now. Days before they signed Niang, he was asked if Utah was somewhere he could see himself for the foreseeable future — his response was precise and foreboding.

“I’d love to be here — what [the Jazz] stand for is what I’m all about. I’ve had a blast with all these guys and I’d love to keep it going.”

And now, he’ll get at least 82 more games to make his case.

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NBA Daily: The Carmelo Anthony Trade is a Rare Win-Win for All Involved

It is rare for a trade to be beneficial for all parties, but the Thunder-Hawks-76ers swap has the makings of a win-win-win situation.

Shane Rhodes

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The Big Three Era in Oklahoma City came and went rather quickly.

On Thursday, the Thunder reached an agreement to trade Carmelo Anthony and a protected 2022 first-round draft pick to the Atlanta Hawks for guard Dennis Schröder, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. As part of a three-team deal with the Philadelphia 76ers, the Thunder will also walk away with Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot while the Hawks and 76ers swap Mike Muscala and Justin Anderson.

It is rare for a trade to be beneficial for all parties, but the Thunder-Hawks-76ers swap has the makings of a win-win-win situation. Just as well, the trade is perhaps even more beneficial for the players involved.

While Anthony may have wanted to stay with Russell Westbrook and Paul George, the trade is more than beneficial for him. After the trade goes through, the Hawks plan to buyout Anthony’s contract and he will reportedly receive the entire $27.9 million he is owed next season. Even better still, Anthony is free to join any team he wants, whether it be the Houston Rockets and friend Chris Paul, the Los Angeles Lakers and friend LeBron James, or elsewhere.

With his money already in hand, Anthony could sign on the cheap as well, making negotiations with any franchise that much easier.

For the Thunder, clearing Anthony’s massive salary from their books was of paramount importance. Staring down a $150 million luxury tax bill, Sam Presti managed to move Anthony and improve the team or, at the very least, make a lateral move depending on how you look at Schröder. Even as they take back the remaining $46.5 million owed to Schröder, the Thunder will save more than $60 million next season alone. That makes the trade worth it for Oklahoma City all by itself.

Still, the move allowed them to fill a need, perhaps more important than the cash savings as they look ahead to next season. Schröder not only fortifies the Thunder bench but the point guard position behind starter Russell Westbrook as well; he is another athletic playmaker that Oklahoma City can play on the wing with confidence. And, after averaging a career-high 19.4 points per game to go along with 6.2 assists last season, Schröder provides the Thunder offense with more firepower to compete against the other top teams in the Western Conference, a necessity if they hope to make a long playoff run.

For Schröder, the move to Oklahoma City is just as beneficial for him as it is for the team. Schröder is no longer the starter (he was unlikely to be the starter in Atlanta with Trae Young in the fold), but he can still make an impact and now he can do so for a contender.

The Hawks, as they should be, are playing the long game here. They acquired Jeremy Lin, an expiring contract, from the Brooklyn Nets earlier this offseason. After drafting Young, their guard surplus afforded them the chance to move Schröder’s deal off their books, netting them a first-round pick in the process and opening up playing time for the Young right away.

While the pick is top-14 protected (the pick becomes two second rounders if it doesn’t convey in 2022, every asset counts as the Hawks will look to add talent through the draft for years to come. With the addition of the Thunder pick, the Hawks now are owed an extra three first-round picks between the 2019 and 2022 drafts, a benefit for the Hawks whether they use those picks or trade them for already established talent. Meanwhile, Anderson, 24, presents another intriguing, and more importantly, young, option alongside the core of Young, Kevin Huerter, John Collins and Taurean Prince.

Anderson will almost certainly receive more playing time in Atlanta as they figure out who and who can’t help the team. His time in Philadelphia was mired by injury and he never had the opportunity to show what he could do. So, whether they use him as an asset in a future trade or plan to keep him on the roster, Anderson, at the very least, will have the opportunity to show what he can do.

For the 76ers, Muscala is essentially insurance for the reneged deal with Nemanja Bjelica. Bjelica agreed to terms on a one-year deal with the team but the stretch-four never signed his contract and backed out of the deal. With him out of the picture along with losing Ersan Ilyasova, Muscala was one of the few remaining options for the 76ers in that specific, stretch-big role.

Muscala doesn’t have the same shooting chops that Bjelica has, but he is younger and might have more upside alongside Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and co. Last season, Muscala, in addition to career highs in points and rebounds, averaged a career-high 3.2 three-pointers per game and hit 37.1 percent of them. While he likely won’t see the playing time he saw in Atlanta, Muscala should easily slide into a role off the bench for the 76ers. Moving Anderson and Luwawu-Cabarrot clears a logjam on the wing as well and will afford more minutes to Markelle Fultz (when he is ready), T.J. McConnell and rookies Zhaire Smith and Furkan Korkmaz.

As it stands, this trade made sense for all parties involved, and that alone is reason enough to consider it a win all around. While things could certainly change and hindsight is 20/20, this deal is beneficial for all three teams right now and could positively impact all three squads both next season and beyond.

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NBA Daily: Grayson Allen Ready for NBA Challenge

Making it in the NBA alone is quite an impressive feat, which is why Grayson Allen is doing the best he can to prepare for the big stage.

Matt John

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Grayson Allen may not be the most hyped-up prospect to come out of this year’s draft, but he is one of the more experienced rookies coming into the league this season.

Allen spent four years learning under the tutelage of Coach K at Duke University while also playing with the likes of Brandon Ingram, Jayson Tatum, and Marvin Bagley III. He’s been through it all at the collegiate level, but he knows that if he’s going to make it in the pros, he’s going to have to adapt as quickly as possible.

“I have to set the tone for myself where I have to know playing in the NBA as a rookie, guys are going to be physical with you,” Allen said. “They’re going to come at you, they’re going to test you and see what you got. You’re gonna get beat. You’re gonna fail, but you gotta come right back at ‘em the next time.”

Since debuting in the summer league, Allen’s been the perfect storm for the Jazz. His shooting numbers have not been encouraging, but his numbers across the board have shown how impactful a player he can be. These have been his stat lines in both the Salt Lake and Las Vegas summer leagues.

July 2 vs. San Antonio: 11 points on 4/16 shooting including 2/6 from three, eight rebounds, seven assists
July 5 vs. Atlanta: 9 points on 2/13 shooting including 0/2 from three, six rebounds, eight assists
July 7 vs. Portland: 16 points on 6/17 shooting including 2/9 from three, six rebounds, six assists
July 19 vs. Miami: 17 points on 7/17 shooting including ⅕ from three, seven rebounds, three assists

Maybe it’s been the dry climate, or maybe it’s been the high Utah elevation that has caused Allen’s struggles shooting-wise, but the fact that his all-around game has shined despite his shooting woes should excite the Jazz. After his summer league play, Allen says the biggest adjustment he’s had to make offensively is acclimating himself with the pace of the game.

“Offensively, it’s a lot easier when you slow down,” Allen said. “I’m starting to see the space of the floor a lot better and finding the open guys. There’s still a few plays out there where I think I got a little antsy but it’s human nature and I’m trying to fight it right now. As a rookie playing in his first couple of games, I’m trying to fight that and play under control.”

On the other side of the ball, Allen says the biggest adjustment is the increased level of physicality in the pros.

“Defensively, it’s physical,” Allen said. “You gotta fight guys. You gotta get through screens. I mean, the bigs, they really set great screens, so you gotta be able to fight through that… If you’re tired on defense, they’ll find you.”

Allen knows that he needs to commit if he’s going to make it in the NBA, which requires eliminating all bad habits. In order to eliminate any habit that Allen has, which in his case is fatigue at the moment, Allen believes that he needs to be more mindful of himself when he’s physically drained.

“I try to be really self-aware of my habits when I get tired out there,” Allen said. “On defense, I have a habit when I’m tired, I stand up and my feet are flat. On offense, I’m not ready for the shot… I try to be really self-aware of that stuff so that in practice or in August, September, October, leading up to the regular season, I can have good habits when I’m tired because we got a short leash as a rookie. You don’t have many mistakes to make.”

In Utah, Allen will be playing for a team that exceeded all expectation last year and has a much higher bar to reach this season. He believes the summer the league should serve him well as he fights for minutes in the Jazz’ rotation.

“I’m joining a playoff team, so I gotta carve out a role with the guys they already have,” Allen said. “When I’m playing in summer league, I’m trying to play the right way. Don’t take too many tough shots, find the right guy, make the right pass.- Because when you come and play for Quin Snyder, that’s what he’s gonna want. He’s just gonna want you to play the right way.”

When Adam Silver announced that Utah was taking Allen with the 21st overall pick, the general masses laughed due to Utah, a state with a white-bread reputation, took a white player. Given that Allen just played four years of basketball at one of the best college basketball programs in the nation and will be starting his career playing for one of the most well-run organizations in the league, he may be the one laughing when it’s all over.

In other words, Grayson Allen playing in Utah could be quite the trip.

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