This week, Basketball Insiders is taking a look at various positions among players in the NBA and ranking who is the best of the best. Our writers have previously used very specific guidelines to rank the best players by position in the NBA.
Today, we’re taking a look at the point guards. The floor generals. The magicians.
In some ways, it’s hard to assess who’s better than who when trying to rank point guards. That’s because a lot of factors go into what makes a point guard one of the best in the league. His playmaking, his shooting, his defense, his effectiveness, etc. It also depends on what his team asks of him.
Patrick Beverley won’t be trading shots with LeBron James in Game 7 in the NBA Finals because that’s not what he’s meant to do. He’s meant to get in his opponent’s face, make every hustle play on the floor, and establish a winning culture. Anything else is an added bonus. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is one of the most promising point guards in the league, but right now he’s not even the best point guard on his team because he’s not required to be right now.
It’s not just about how good a player can be. It’s also about how much he impacts winning. Anyone can put up flashy highlights or fill up a box score. If the team he’s playing for isn’t winning, then how good is he? Questions like these were why guys like Steve Francis fizzled early, why Kyrie Irving had skeptics in Cleveland before LeBron returned, and why D’Angelo Russell may never shake his doubters.
Trae Young is the perfect embodiment of this. Offensively, he already is one of the best all-around players in the league. Even at 21 years old, he’s already a wrecking ball, averaging a near 30/10 a night while constantly keeping opponents on their toes whenever the ball is in his hands. When he’s firing on all cylinders, he’s been impossible to stop.
So what’s the case against Young? Two things:
1. His team stinks. Atlanta is the second-worst team in the Eastern Conference at 20-47, only a half a game better than Cleveland. That’s not entirely his fault by any means, but the lack of wins behind his name currently brings his effectiveness into question.
2. His individual defense really, really stinks. Out of 503 NBA players, Young ranks dead last in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus. Not to mention, there’s a fair amount of distance between his DRPM (minus-3.12) and the next one after him (Michael Porter Jr at minus-2.9). As good as he is offensively, a lot of his contributions on that end get negated by his defensive ineptitude.
Not to fret, though. Young has plenty of time to develop his game on the other end of the court. Young’s short stature may prevent him from becoming a plus defender, but with enough time and patience, he can optimistically be good enough to not routinely be at the bottom of the barrel defensively from a statistical standpoint.
Nobody is questioning Trae Young’s talent at the moment. The only reason why (Spoilers!) he is not on this particular list is that we have yet to see if he’s a winning player. That can definitely change once he proves he can do just that. We’ll just have to wait until then to find out.
As for who will make this list, please note that what determines the top eight point guards in the league this season depends on how they fared this season. Not by reputation. In any other season, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and John Wall would more likely than not be mentioned on something like this, but since the three of them played a combined 25 games this year, they’ve had next to no influence on how things have turned out.
One last little tidbit before we begin- Point guards come in all shapes and sizes these days. Even though they’re much taller than the average floor general, guys like Luka Doncic and Ben Simmons are generally classified as point guards. You’d think guys like LeBron James and Nikola Jokic would be on here for that same reason since they are the focal point of their team’s offenses, but since they’re not classified as point guards, they won’t be on here. Now, let’s get to who is on here.
1. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
Most players who follow up a rookie season as seismic as Luka Doncic usually suffer somewhat of a sophomore slump. Derrick Rose did, and that was the year before he won MVP. Jayson Tatum did, and now he’s breaking out into a full-fledged superstar. Luka never needed that bridge to cross. When the Luka era arrived in Dallas, it arrived in full swing.
He’s averaging a near triple-double already – averaging a near 29/9/9 on 46/32/75 splits. He’s the best offensive player on the best offensive team in the league — and by a pretty fair margin too. We all thought Dallas was an up-and-coming team. We just didn’t know that was coming into effect as soon as possible. The Mavericks are already a playoff team with Luka leading the way in just his second season.
There are, of course, other factors. Dallas is a well-coached team with guys who know exactly what their roles are. Kristaps Porzingis has come along quite nicely as the season’s progressed. But they wouldn’t be anywhere near where if it weren’t for the Slovenian. Luka’s elite feel of the game — which doesn’t include a reliable three-point shot yet — is why Dallas amazingly is where they are now in such a short amount of time.
He is the reason why their offense is putting up historic numbers, and why this should be seen as just the beginning. Because of that, he’s earned the title of being the best point guard in the league.
There’s only one rookie in somewhat recent memory who took one major step further after he already proved that he was the real deal following his rookie year, and that was LeBron James. Putting Luka on that high of a pedestal this early in his career would seem foolish, but he’s already done so much already that it would arguably be even more foolish to not entertain the comparison.
2. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
Someone who has played as well as Lillard has this season does not deserve the fate that’s probably going to happen to both him and the Blazers. Injuries and replacing key players with bad fits have led to Portland looking on the outside in on the playoff race. It’s a shame because he’s playing at his absolute peak right now.
Dame Time has been taken to a whole new level this season, which didn’t seem possible knowing his reputation around the league. He has upped his scoring and assist numbers to almost 29 and 8 per game, respectively, while also increasing his efficiencies, as he’s put up his numbers on 46/39/89 splits.
In the month of January alone, Lillard averaged 34.1 points and 8.4 assists on 49/45/88 splits. In that time, there was a two-week stretch from late-January from to early February where Lillard looked like he was making a case for MVP. During that time, he was averaging 48.8 points, 10. 2 assists and even snagged 7.2 rebounds He was so unstoppable that his 36-point outing against Houston on Jan. 29 was the lowest scoring output he had in that stretch.
Even outside of that range, when Portland asked him to give more in light of what they lost, he has delivered for them. And yet, when all of this ends, it’s not going to matter. Lillard playing like a borderline MVP candidate can only make so much of a difference when you’re relying on Mario Hezonja and Caleb Swanigan to give you serious minutes.
It should get better next year when Jusuf Nurkic is healthy and Portland gets more help along the wing, but Golden State will be back too, and the rest of the competition in the Western Conference isn’t going to cut anyone else a modicum of slack. Lillard’s only a few months away from turning 30. At times like these, he has to ponder if Portland will get him where he wants.
3. Chris Paul, Oklahoma City Thunder
Between being dumped by the team that invested so much in him last summer, being thrown into what seemed like an infinite number of trade proposals all season, and above all else, being labeled as past his prime, you’d think this would be the season that broke Chris Paul. Little did we know, we were underestimating an all-time talent just itching to prove everyone wrong.
That’s exactly what’s happened. The Thunder’s surprising resilience after losing its two best players has been two of the better feel-good storylines to come out this season, and Paul’s been the one leading the charge. Who would have thought this far into the season that the Thunder, at 40-24, would actually be in striking distance of a top-four seed in the West?
Paul has not only been the best player on the team, but he’s been the alpha dog on the best five-man lineup that’s played at least 150 minutes together in the entire league. That sounds pretty good for a guy who was supposedly falling out of his prime.
It’s weird knowing that Paul made his first All-Star team since 2016, and it feels weird to say that he’s probably going to make his first All-NBA team since 2016, too. It’s mind-blowing that in that time, no one’s forgotten about how good he is. It’s just that injuries really have gotten in his way since the end of his days as a Clipper. That really puts things into perspective. We all knew prime Chris Paul still existed. It just took a season like this for us to acknowledge how good he still is.
There’s only one teensy problem: This Oklahoma City team isn’t championship material, and that’s a shame to see Paul’s efforts go to a team that’s not going to make serious noise. But this has been fun, right?
4. Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
Full disclaimer: Some moron thought the 2019-20 Toronto Raptors were going to be the least talented defending champion since the 2006-07 Miami Heat? All apologies to our friends north of the border for that take.
This has been a season full of teams that have exceeded expectations, and Toronto, despite being the reigning champs, might just be the premier example among all of them. There’s plenty of credit to go around between Pascal Siakam’s continued rise and Nick Nurse continuously proving himself as one of the NBA’s best coaches, but Kyle Lowry taking back the role he once had and running with it cannot go unnoticed.
Last year, his role was heavily reduced with Kawhi Leonard in the picture and Siakam taking a leap, but with more touches to go around, Lowry has gone back to his roots. Lowry’s putting up the best numbers he’s had since 2017, upping his points and assist average to almost 20/8 every single night, respectively. This while still being one of the league’s biggest pests on the defensive end, and he’s tied for most charges drawn this season with 30.
We knew Lowry had some juice left in his game, but not this much. When you factor that Toronto had to make up for the loss for Kawhi Leonard, is it more surprising that Chris Paul, who’s already regarded as an all-timer is doing what he’s doing at 34? Or that Lowry, someone with a lesser reputation, to say the least, is doing just about as much at the same age?
Lowry gets the nod over the next name on the list because he has less offensive talent around him, and yet his team is still right in the mix of the Eastern Conference playoff race. Here’s to hoping his playoff woes don’t come back as well.
5. Kemba Walker, Boston Celtics
Every once in a while, the NBA should come up with a team that consists of guys that make people think, “Thank heavens he’s on a much better team now!” If they did it this year, this is what it would probably look like.
Center – Kristaps Porzingis
Power Forward – Anthony Davis
Small Forward – TJ Warren
Shooting Guard – Tim Hardaway Jr.
Point Guard – Kemba Walker
Sixth Man – Jordan Clarkson
We all would be eagerly awaiting the day Devin Booker gets named to a team like this if it existed, but we’ve gotten off-base here. The point is, Kemba Walker, after fighting valiantly for a team stuck in mediocrity, is finally seeing his efforts be put to good use.
There may not be a player who couldn’t be happier to see his numbers drop than Kemba this season. With less usage and fewer minutes, Kemba’s scoring and assists have taken a noticeable dip. Yet no one seems to have a problem with that. Especially him. He’s gladly taken more of a complementary role next to Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Because of that, he’s on a team that’s on pace to win 55 games this year, easily the best of Kemba’s career.
He’s putting up the worst numbers he’s had since 2016, averaging 21 points on 42/38/87 splits, and yet, there’s no one second-guessing on bringing him in. That’s not just because he can put the ball in the bucket. It’s because Boston’s body language has done a complete 180 with him leading the way.
The Celtics look like they enjoy playing together again. They look like they have each other’s backs again. They look like they can get past whatever struggle they are going through. Kemba’s demeanor and role as the leader has a lot to do with why they don’t look anything like the trainwreck they were last year.
Putting up All-Star numbers as well as boosting the morale of one of the league’s most dysfunctional teams last year gets him a spot on this list.
6. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
It’s hard to ignore the strides that Simmons has made this season. Defensively, Simmons has become much smarter at using his physical advantages to become more disruptive on that end. He always had the tools to be an elite defender — and he’s never been a liability on that end — but now he has indisputably become one. Defensively, Simmons has become an all-around menace that should get him All-Defense honors this season.
It’s also hard to ignore the strides Simmons has not made this season. With the undeniable talent that he has, Ben Simmons should be a shoo-in for as a top-five point guard in the league whether Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, and John Wall are playing at full-strength or not. It’s just that the glaring holes are still there, and they are more glaring than ever.
Simmons had to know that with JJ Redick and Jimmy Butler both gone, Philly needed him to improve both as a shooter and as a scorer to compensate for losing both of them. He hasn’t come close to that, which has led to Philly’s offense falling badly through the cracks. The 76ers have the 17th-ranked offensive rating — 110.4 points per 100 possessions — and a fair amount of blame should be put on Simmons’ shoulders. His stagnated progress on the offensive end now has many wondering if he and Embiid have a limited ceiling together.
You know how we call such uniquely talented young starlets “unicorns?” Well, if Simmons is comparable to any sort of creature, whether fictional or nonfictional, he’s basically a Tyrannosaurus Rex. We all know how frightening T-Rexes are, but those tiny arms are just so laughable to look at. That’s Simmons’ problem. He’s got plenty of tools to make him the feared player in the NBA we all thought he would be, but if the tiny arms of his game — his absent jumper — don’t improve, he can’t reach his full potential as a generational talent.
7. Russell Westbrook, Houston Rockets
Sadly we won’t divulge too much into Westbrook because we’ve already talked about how Houston’s new team schemes have made it as close to a perfect team to put around Westbrook as anyone could imagine. The extra spacing he has now that he’s surrounded by all shooters will make it so much easier for him to live in the post.
Westbrook’s tenure in Houston didn’t start out great, which was what many of us thought was going to happen, but because he’s a man that will never take a play off, we all knew he wouldn’t give up. Daryl Morey knew this about Westbrook when he brought him in this past summer, so he ultimately decided to take the “Work smarter, not harder’ approach by trading Clint Capela for Robert Covington and overloading on wings
These haven’t sprung the best results, but Westbrook has the green light now. Since the beginning of January, he’s putting up almost 32 points a game on 52/31/75 splits. The best field goal percentage he’s had in a season is a tick over 45 percent, which he’s done only twice in his career.
No one knows what the future holds, but Houston’s doing everything it can to help Westbrook thrive. Even if this doesn’t work in the end, we’ll at least know that both sides tried.
8. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies
Remember when Memphis was trying to avoid rebuilding so that they didn’t have to worry about that first-round pick they owed Boston from the Jeff Green trade? And how that was last year?
This year was supposed to be the year they started fresh. If they did, they’ve done a bad job, because this season has been Memphis’ best all-around performance since 2017. The Grizzlies have been holding a playoff spot for a while now. That won’t mean much this season if and when the Lakers crush them in the first round, but leading your team as a rookie counts for a lot in the long-term because it gives the franchise hope as they start their next chapter. That’s what Ja Morant has done.
Seeing rookie point guards make the league take notice isn’t anything new — see Doncic, Luka — but what makes Morant stand out among others stems from his efforts leading to something substantial. Most impressive rookie point guards can dazzle, but if they are the best player on the team, then it doesn’t lead to much success-wise during their rookie season. Stats won’t do him justice — that usually happens with first-year guys — but Morant is the best player on his team, and this time, it’s translating into wins.
The last rookie point guard to do something like that was Derrick Rose. That should excite and scare Grizzlies fans at the same time. They have a kid special enough that they didn’t have to reminisce about Grit-and-Grind for one second this season. Here’s to hoping that this is the start of a long-lasting era, and not one cut short in its prime by injuries.
Admittingly, there’s a fair case that Trae Young, Jrue Holiday and Eric Bledsoe, among others, deserve the nod over Morant, but the story of Memphis’ hot-shot guard is too inspirational to leave him off of this list.
Making this list was hard because the league is filled with talented point guards. Should something like this come up next year, we could see an entirely different top eight. Everyone’s criteria are different when it comes to rankings, so let’s end this with a question.
Who would you rank as your top eight point guards?
NBA Daily: Can the Hawks Keep Up Their Strong Play?
Drew Maresca analyzes the Atlanta Hawks strong play and looks ahead at how they’ll fare in the final 16 games of the season.
This season’s condensed schedule has resulted in less time to assess teams and the transactions they made at the trade deadline or in the buyout market. So it’s understandable if you wrote off the Atlanta Hawks as the bust of 2020-21 – but make no mistake about it, the Hawks are surging.
As alluded to above, Atlanta began the year slowly. They started off 11-16. Trae Young played relatively well through that stretch, averaging 26.6 points, 9.3 assists per game and shooting 37.1% on three-point attempts – but the results just weren’t there.
And while you can debate if Young was a catalyst for or a victim of his team’s poor start, he bore the brunt of it. After he was named an All-Star in the 2019-20 season, he was left off the team this season, as the narrative around him has shifted to that of someone hunting for fouls who could be hurting the game more than he’s helping it.
Surprisingly, Atlanta decided to keep its core group together, opting to hang onto John Collins despite his butting heads on offensive philosophy with coach Lloyd Pierce and Young, separately. According to The Athletic’s Chris Kirschner and Sam Amick, Collins voiced displeasure in a January film session over the timing of certain shot attempts and a needed to get settled into offensive sets more quickly.
Rather than succumb to the trade rumors, the Hawks decided that Pierce was at fault and or lost the locker room. Per The Athletic’s Chris Kirschner, Sam Amick and David Aldridge, Young, Cam Reddish and other Hawks were reportedly on board with a potential change and so a move was made.
At the time it appeared shortsighted. But in hindsight, it was exactly what the Hawks needed.
While there are still questions to be answered around Collins and his long-term fit in Atlanta, especially since he’ll become a restricted free agent this Summer and little progress was made in negotiations last offseason, the Hawks are 16-6 under interim head coach Nate McMillian.
In fairness to Pierce, the Hawks are just beginning to get healthy. Danilo Gallinari and 2020 lottery pick Onyeka Okongwu recently returned from injuries, with the former playing a key role, averaging 13.4 points on 40.7% shooting from deep; Gallinari is back on the mend, though, with foot soreness.
But the Hawks were also without guard Bogdan Bogdanovic from mid-January until early March. And they are still without Reddish and De’Andre Hunter, both of whom are instrumental to the Hawks success.
Still, the Hawks have pushed through. Lou Williams, who was added via trade for Rajon Rondo at the deadline, should definitely help. Williams is a walking bucket and he’s matched his Clippers output through nine games with Atlanta (12 points, 3.5 assists and 2.0 rebounds per game.)
A significant result of their strong play is that Atlanta is currently tied for fourth in the Eastern Conference, meaning that the Hawks could realistically secure home-court for the first-round of the playoffs. But before the Hawks do so, there are some questions that need to be answered.
First up, how do the Hawks manage their rotation when they haven’t even seen lots of combinations of their best players on the floor together?
When healthy, the Hawks are incredibly deep. There are the presumed starters: Young, Bogdanovic, Kevin Huerter, Gallinari and Capela. And there’s the bench: Collins, Gallinari, Reddish, Hunter, Williams, Solomon Hill and Okongwu.
Remember, McMillian has only been the coach since March 2, Williams was just added in late March and Hunter hasn’t played since late January.
Coach McMillian has been around long enough to know that 12-man rotations simply don’t work in the playoffs. Unfortunately for the Hawks, they haven’t had nearly enough time to land on a starting lineup, let alone which players work best together.
Atlanta has just 16 games remaining to figure it out. And they can’t waste a single game.
And that brings us to a second challenge: while it is nearly impossible for the Hawks to overtake the 3rd-place Milwaukee Bucks, Atlanta is far from guaranteed the fourth seed. As previously mentioned they are tied with the Celtics, meaning they could just as easily find themselves in the fifth spot. And while the Hawks have the tenth-easiest remaining schedule, according to Tankathon.com, the Celtics possess the eleventh-easiest. And the Celtics are surging, too, having won seven of their last 10 contests.
But it’s not just Boston. the New York Knicks, Miami HEAT and Charlotte Hornets are all within striking distance, too. While Charlotte and New York have their own challenges ahead that make them less-than-likely to pass Atlanta, Miami’s fate is closely aligned with that of Victor Oladipo and his recently reinjured knee. If Oladipo returns quickly with little to no effects, the HEAT could surpass be problematic for the Hawks and a number of other Eastern Conference opponents.
And if you’re really cynical, you can focus on who Atlanta has beaten in its time under McMillan. Over the course of the 22 games in which McMillian has been interim head coach, 11 of the team’s 16 wins have come against sub-.500 opponents – and another three were against teams that are exactly .500.
Looked at differently, the McMillian-led Hawks have defeated just two winning teams, one of which was against the Anthony Davis-less Lakers in a contest in which LeBron James exited after just 11 minutes due to injury.
So kudos to Atlanta for turning around a season that easily could have went sideways. But there is much left for the Hawks, an untested team who’s beaten mostly teams that they should, to prove.
NBA PM: Defensive Player of the Year Watch
It’s clear at this point in the season that Rudy Gobert should be the Defensive Player of the Year. But is there any way another player could unseat him for the award?
The seventh edition of The Defensive Player of the Year Watch for Basketball Insiders is here! In this week’s ranking, there’s not much change beyond the addition of the formerly-injured Philadelphia 76ers star, Joel Embiid. It’s impossible to leave him off of this list and it should come as no surprise if he ends the year as both a contender for this award as MVP. Sure, he’d have to outplay Rudy Gobert, but he’s only a streak of lockdown games away.
As the last full month of games for the NBA season gets underway, it’s time to see who else’s elite defensive play has kept them in the running.
1. Rudy Gobert (Previous: 1)
The Utah Jazz center has been the clear frontrunner for a third career Defensive Player of the Year award, as well as his third in the last four seasons. There is no denying the fact that the Stifle Tower has been the focal point of the defense throughout their unprecedented run with the best record in the NBA. When Gobert is on the floor, it’s going to be hard for an opposing player to get an uncontested shot around the rim, and his presence is a factor night-in and night-out.
Coming off a strong month of March where he averaged 3.5 blocks per game, the Frenchman has tailed off a bit, averaging only 1.6 blocks per game midway through April. While this recent downward trend isn’t lessening his case, Gobert still holds the No. 2 spot with 2.8 blocks per game.
Diving deeper into the numbers is where Gobert really shines, however. His defensive rating is 102.3 this season, second to only Jazz teammate Mike Conley, per NBA Advanced Stats. He also finds himself third in defensive win shares with 0.166. It’s clear that Gobert is the leading candidate for another DPotY, even the likely winner barring any significant setbacks to his season.
Even the center is our clear frontrunner, Ben Simmons may say otherwise.
Ben Simmons comments on his Defensive Player of the Year race against Rudy Gobert: “I scored 42 points on him in Utah, and apparently I’m not a scorer.”
— Legion Hoops (@LegionHoops) April 13, 2021
2. Joel Embiid (Previous: N/A)
Returning from a left knee bone bruise, the 7-foot center has gotten right back to the elite level few others can match. In a matchup against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Embiid showed the NBA that he is back and out for blood. Over 27 minutes, Embiid totaled 27 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists and 4 blocks. The star took over in a short amount of time as the 76ers trounced the Thunder 117-93 – but his defensive impact should not be taken for granted.
Stacking up against the rest of the league, Embiid ranks in the top five in three major defensive categories: defensive win shares, defensive rating and blocks per game. Embiid is just behind Julius Randle in the defensive win shares statistic with 0.149, good enough for fifth in the NBA, per NBA Advanced Stats. In defensive rating, Embiid is also fifth with a rating of 104.6, just .1 off Marc Gasol.
If Embiid can raise these numbers more in line with Gobert, he may be able to steal the award. Think about it. Giannis Antetokoumpo was able to win the award after an unbelievable season in which he won the MVP – why can’t Embiid do it too?
3. Myles Turner (Previous: 2)
If not for the elite defensive play from Gobert and Embiid, Turner would be the de facto leader in the race. After being a rumored name on the trade market this past offseason, the decision to keep Turner in the fold has paid off for the Indiana Pacers. The league leader in blocks has managed to put together a great season on defense but the Pacers, and specifically Turner himself, have been hurt by injuries.
Where things stand right now, Turner has a sizeable lead in blocks per game with 3.5, 0.7 more than Rudy Gobert. It’s looking more and more likely by the day that Turner will once again be the leader in blocks in the NBA, a feat he also achieved in 2018-19.
While this is an outstanding feat for the young center, it won’t be enough to get him this coveted award – there’s always next season though.
4. Mike Conley (Previous: 3)
The Jazz floor general has made his impact felt this season on both ends of the floor following a down season. Many had written off Conley and bashed the Jazz for the trade as he just didn’t look like the same player, but he has completely turned that around. Needless to say, without Conley, it’s hard to imagine the Jazz having the success they have had this season. Together, Conley and Gobert have been a nightmare for opposing offenses as they constantly apply pressure to the ball.
But the advanced statistics are what truly put Conley’s season in perspective. In the defensive rating category, Conley has been the league leader for some time now. While it has fluctuated throughout the season, he has still managed to keep an incredible 100.9 defensive rating, per NBA Advanced Stats. He also ranks second in DWS with 0.171, just .02 off the league leader, LeBron James. Conley has also been very efficient in stealing the ball as he is tied for seventh with 1.3 steals per game.
If a guard were deserving enough for this award it would be Conley, but due to the play of the guys ahead of him, it doesn’t look like he will have the strength to win it.
5. Giannis Antetokounmpo (Previous: 4)
The Greek Freak has a had very underrated season on defense, if not overall. He hasn’t been the topic of the MVP conversation as he was the past two seasons, but his defensive presence in the paint is undeniable.
Antetokounmpo has averaged a stellar 1.1 steals and 1.3 blocks per game, all thanks to those incredible athletic abilities and length. He also ranks seventh in defensive win shares with a DWS of 0.139, per NBA Advanced Stats. His defensive rating of 106.6 also ranks in the top 15.
While the Bucks have looked like a contender out of the Eastern Conference this season – their franchise cornerstone won’t be named the winner of any awards this year.
Honorable Mention: Jimmy Butler (Previous: 5)
The leader of the Miami HEAT is putting together another elite defensive season. Currently, he is the league leader in steals per game with 2.1, a lead he has held steady for weeks now. Butler ranks seventh in defensive rating with a mark of 105.4, per NBA Advanced Stats. He also ranks sixth with a DWS of 0.148. But if the HEAT surge through the last stretch of the season, Butler could earn more consideration for this prestigious award.
As the last full month of the regular season takes off, it has been clear that the Utah Jazz have the frontrunner for the DPotY award – plus another major runner-up contender to boot.
Will anyone else be able to top Gobert’s defensive output this season? It doesn’t seem likely, but anything is possible in this crazy, ever-changing landscape.
NBA Daily: Is Mitchell Robinson’s Injury a Blessing in Disguise?
Drew Maresca explores what Mitchell Robinson’s injury means to the New York Knicks — this season and beyond.
The New York Knicks are right in the middle of a playoff push. They are currently in the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference and they appear to be in good shape to at least qualify for the play-in tournament, 6.5 games ahead of the 11th seeded Toronto Raptors.
The Knicks have remained in the playoff picture despite starting center, Mitchell Robinson, missing 23 of the team’s 55 games.
Most recently, Robinson exited a March 27 contest against the Milwaukee Bucks in the first quarter with a broken foot. Including the March 27 game against Milwaukee, New York has won five of their last 10 games without Robinson.
As recently as last season, Robinson was viewed as the team’s answer at center – and, along with RJ Barrett, the team’s only long-term building blocks. This take has aged badly given the progress made by Julius Randle and the success had by rookie Immanuel Quickley (and to a lesser degree, Obi Toppin.)
But in celebrating the team’s present, it’s fair to question their future – does New York’s success without Robinson mean he’s expendable?
The 2020-21 season has been challenging for Robinson, who already missed 15 games earlier this year with a broken right hand. Somewhat miraculously, the Knicks have continued their strong play without Robinson In total, New York is 13-11 without Robinson and just 15-16 with him.
The timing of the injury is apropos.
The Knicks and Robinson were expected to engage in contract discussions this offseason. They still have some time to figure out a path forward, but the injury makes an otherwise straightforward contract negotiation trickier. The Knicks possess a team option for Robinson in 2021-22 for $1.8 million, which is significantly below market value for a player of Robinson’s stature.
Robinson is averaging 8.3 points, 8.1 rebounds and (a career-low) 1.5 blocks per game. He’s also averaging a career-high 27.5 minutes per game, due — in part — to his ability to avoid fouls. Robinson averaged 3.2 fouls per game last season, fouling out of seven games. He’s down to 2.8 personal fouls per game this year and hasn’t fouled out of a single contest.
A long-term agreement appeared likely between the Knicks and Robinson prior to his (presumably) season-ending foot injury. Similarly skilled, albeit more polished, players have signed significant deals in the recent past. Clint Capella signed a 5 year/$90 million deal in 2018, which is higher than what most expected Robinson to fetch — but it probably would have been referenced in negotiations.
Following the injury, a smaller deal is likely — if at all. The Knicks will probably still pick up Robinson’s option, but they could either trade him or let him play out next season without an extension. And while the Knicks must decide if they’d like to prioritize Robinson, Robinson must decide how much of a discount, if any, he’s willing to accept from New York (or anyone.) Robinson just signed with his sixth NBA agent (Thad Foucher of the Wasserman Group) and he’s expected to chase some of the money he missed out on by skipping the 2018 NBA Draft Combine and falling into the second round.
But Robinson shouldn’t push too hard in negotiations as the Knicks can just as easily turn to someone on their current roster as his replacement — and it would cost them far less in guaranteed money.
Enter Nerlens Noel. Noel has been a pleasant surprise for president Leon Rose and Knicks’ fans alike. He’s averaging 5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game on the season; but he’s come off the bench for much of it, receiving just 23.1 minutes per game.
But even in limited time, Noel has had a major impact on the team’s defensive. He’s first in the NBA in defensive plus-minus (3.3), second in the percentage of the team’s blocked two-point field goal attempts (8.9%) and third in defensive win share (2.7).
And he’s been even better in Robinson’s absence. In his last 10 games, Noel is averaging 5.4 points, 7.4 rebounds and 2.7 blocks in 26.1 minutes per game.
Noel signed in New York for just one year/$5 million this past offseason. While that is cheap relative to other starting-caliber centers, he’s not doing anything he hasn’t done in the past. Noel is averaging fewer points, assists and steals per game while securing more blocks and essentially the same number of rebounds. So, if teams knew what Noel could do entering 2020-21, why would they pay him more next season for the same output? Unfortunately, free agency is a fickle beast and there’s no rhyme or reason as to why teams weren’t interested in like Noel last year — but the Knicks will likely have the upper hand in negotiations.
Ultimately, the Knicks’ desire to keep Noel shouldn’t influence their preference to re-sign Robinson. Remember, Robinson set the single-season record for field goal percentage last season (74.2%) and he averages greater than two blockers per game over his career. He’s an elite lob target, and he closes out on shooters better than just about anyone in the league.
Contract negotiations are a zero-sum game in which one party wins at the expense of the other. Robinson and the Knicks should enter into negotiations delicately. Robinson probably feels owed given his cumulative salary relative to his past performance, and the Knicks were probably hoping for a more concrete body of work, leading to more certainty around an offer.
The reality is that Robinson has struggled with injuries — this year and in previous seasons — and his game hasn’t developed significantly since his rookie season. He is also a very unique talent who should get even better with more time under coach Thibodeau.
So for the best possible outcome, all parties must concede.
The Knicks are best with both Robinson and Noel. As much as Robinson’s injury will hinder how far New York can go this season, it can be key in their future. If Robinson and Noel are amenable to the idea of returning at a slight discount, it can ensure their defensive excellence continues — and if it’s at the right number(s), it should allow for considerable financial flexibility to continue maneuvering.
And the Knicks haven’t been savvy maneuverers in a long time.