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Defensive Player of the Year Watch

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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.

 

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About James Blancarte

James Blancarte

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