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NBA DPOY Watch 2019-20: Preseason Edition

Can Rudy Gobert three-peat or will another standout defender take his crown? According to Jack Winter, here’s where the Defensive Player of the Year race stands as the regular season fast approaches.

Jack Winter

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At long last, the preseason is finally in full swing, giving basketball fans limited time to process the NBA’s drastically-altered state of play before the 2019-20 season officially tips off in a couple of weeks.

But one dynamic that was left mostly unchanged by the wildest summer of player movement in league history? The race for Defensive Player of the Year, in which a handful of familiar candidates pace the preseason pack, followed by a group of hopefuls with long track records of dominant play on that side of the ball

With an emphasis on the likelihood for team success, among many other individual factors, this is how Defensive Player of the Year stacks up as the regular season fast approaches.

6. Patrick Beverley – Los Angeles Clippers

The Clippers have more defensive talent than any team in basketball.

Not since Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen swarmed for the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s has a team featured a more dangerous pair of wing defenders than Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. Ivica Zubac was one of the best rim-protectors in basketball last season after LA stole him from the other side of Staples Center, while Moe Harkless, JaMychal Green and Rodney McGruder provide Doc Rivers with even more individual and team-wide options defensively.

But if the Clippers live up to their ceiling as a top-three this season, the presence of Beverley is poised to be the biggest reason why – as much for the tone he sets on that end of the floor as his dogged, disruptive individual defense of opposing ball handlers and primary scorers.

Beverley’s ability to capably check star wings as well as guards will make it easier for Los Angeles to get by defensively early in the season as George recovers from double shoulder surgery, and later when it comes time for Leonard to rest. He probably won’t be the Clippers’ most impactful defender due to his size limitations, but given Beverley’s rare versatility and ironclad status as a team leader, don’t be surprised if he receives the lion’s share of credit for their success on defense this season.

5. Rudy Gobert – Utah Jazz

Gobert is the two-time defending Defensive Player of the Year, and finished second to Draymond Green in 2016-17. He’s still just 27, has maintained a relatively clean bill of health throughout his career and, maybe most importantly, the Jazz enter the season as one of a handful of teams with legitimate title aspirations. Don’t forget the team that’s long caused Gobert the most problems defensively — the Golden State Warriors — are a shell of the offensive juggernaut they’ve been in recent seasons, too.

But voter fatigue is real and Utah, after ranking first and second in defensive rating over the last two years, respectively, could slide down the rankings a bit following a summer roster overhaul. Bojan Bogdanovic is underrated defensively, but not quite as good as the departed Jae Crowder. The Jazz will miss Derrick Favors both for his ability to mostly hold up defensively playing next to Gobert, and his much-improved effectiveness as a rim-protector when shifting to center. Joe Ingles, who slipped a bit in 2018-19, is a year older and Dante Exum just can’t be counted on to stay healthy.

There’s a legitimate chance that Gobert renders those factors moot, leading Utah to another top-two finish in defensive rating and thus joining Dwight Howard as the only player in league history to win three straight DPOY awards. But if the Jazz’s relative lack of continuity and quality depth causes an adjustment period, Gobert’s candidacy will take a hit almost no matter how dominant he remains.

4. Anthony Davis – Los Angeles Lakers

Let’s just put it out there: The Lakers will be better defensively than many anticipate. LeBron James will coast regardless of his teammates’ pledges to hold him accountable and Dwight Howard, newly svelte, might very well be a liability on defense at this point in his career. But Los Angeles is huge and experienced, with multiple quality perimeter defenders, and arguably no player in basketball is more capable of erasing teammates’ mistakes than Davis.

Davis would rank higher on this list if the plan was to play him at center something close to full-time. In a way, it’s unfair that Davis’ unmatched defensive versatility for a game-changing rim-protector could hurt his DPOY chances. If Gobert was on a team that planned to use two mobility-challenged seven-footers in the rotation, for instance, his struggles to chase stretch 4s and switch onto guards without negative recourse would be a huge issue for Utah.

The Lakers don’t have that problem with Davis. Of course, he’s the one who publicly announced his desire to play power forward, too, a preference that will ripple through lineup constructions for the season’s duration. Like his trade demand from the New Orleans Pelicans last February erased his All-NBA consideration, that development factors into Davis’ likelihood of winning DPOY – given both his decreased defensive impact at power forward and the likely team-wide fallout of that reality.

It’s a testament to Davis’ incredible combination of length, quickness, explosiveness and sense of timing that he’s such a viable candidate anyway. In a vacuum, there’s a case to be made that he’s the best defensive player in basketball.

3. Giannis Antetokounmpo – Milwaukee Bucks

The ongoing chorus of James Harden defenders decrying Antetokounmpo’s MVP victory over the Houston Rockets superstar conveniently overlooks one significant aspect of his case. Antetokounmpo finished a strong second in DPOY last season, earning 20 more first-place votes than Paul George, even reaching the First Team All-Defense for the first time in his career too.

The Bucks could be even better on defense this season than a year ago, somehow, when they ranked first in defensive rating. Antetokounmpo’s on-court rating of 101.8 was Milwaukee’s best among nine players who notched at least 1,000 minutes during the regular season as well.

There’s a possibility the gap between his on- and off-court defensive ratings narrows a bit in 2019-20. Robin Lopez is a big upgrade over the Bucks’ previous backup centers, and another year in Mike Budenholzer’s system – with largely the same personnel – should lead to better communication and fewer breakdowns. Regardless, Antetokounmpo will be among the league leaders in combined steals and blocks again this season and continue to prove himself as not just an imminently looming, highlight-reel off-ball defender, but a switch-proof isolation stopper to boot.

2. Myles Turner – Indiana Pacers

After his gradual progress stalled in a disappointing 2017-18 campaign, Turner re-established himself as a key two-way building block for the Pacers last season. It wasn’t improvement offensively that sparked his early-career turnaround, but Turner suddenly developing into one of the most impactful defenders in basketball – and a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate for the foreseeable future.

He finished fifth in the voting last season, an impressive showing for a newcomer to the DPOY race that played in relative anonymity for a non-contender and rarely on national TV. The bet here is that he substantially improves on that showing in 2019-20, with the basketball world taking more appropriate notice of his all-around defensive influence.

Turner led the league in both blocks and blocks per game last season, but ranked ninth in defensive field goal percentage at the rim against among players who challenged at least five such shots. With another year of understanding and further increased mobility this season, that latter metric should more closely align with the former ones.

A potential mitigating factor: Indiana starting Domantas Sabonis upfront. Can the Pacers, a quiet third in defensive rating last season, duplicate that effort playing two traditional big men major minutes? There’s a reason to believe so, but none loom larger than Turner continuing to rise up the ranks of basketball’s truly elite defenders.

1. Joel Embiid – Philadelphia 76ers

It seems like Embiid’s time.

The Sixers’ status as one of the league’s best defenses has been tethered to his on-court presence since his abbreviated rookie season, never to a greater extent than in last year’s playoffs. Philadelphia’s defensive rating with Embiid on the floor during the postseason was 93.0, a number that vaulted all the way up to 120.1 when he was on the bench – a 27.1 point discrepancy that more than doubled Jimmy Butler’s second-highest mark on the team.

The 76ers signed Al Horford with that dynamic specifically in mind. They’ve been rotating in replacement-level backups for Embiid since 2016-17, and now have the luxury of sliding another elite defensive big man down to center when he’s sidelined by rest, injury or load management.

Embiid’s DPOY resumé could theoretically take a hit by Philadelphia proving much stingier when he’s not on the court. But this team has a chance to rank among the best defenses in modern NBA history in large part due to that possibility, one for which Embiid will undoubtedly receive the most credit should it come to fruition.

Horford is a far different defender than Embiid, too. Opponents’ share of shots from the restricted area ticked up 3.1 percent with Embiid on the bench last season, further evidence of his case as the league’s preeminent rim-protector. Expect a similar difference this year; Horford’s effectiveness as a defender is more about all-court versatility than sovereignty in the paint.

Embiid should also be more comfortable on those rare occasions when he’s tasked with stepping outside to the perimeter after losing 25 pounds over the offseason. No player in basketball over the past three years has come out of nowhere for more jaw-dropping weak-side and chase-down blocks. With improved mobility and overall conditioning, expect those highlights to come even more frequently in 2019-20.

Embiid has had an argument as the best defender in basketball for a while now but hadn’t quite reached the apex. The gap between them is negligible if he’s not already Gobert’s equal as a rim-protector, plus there’s ample reason to believe he isn’t done improving both physically and mentally.

There will be several extremely strong contenders for DPOY. When all is said and done, though, none will boast the blend of individual dominance and team success needed to best Embiid.

Also under consideration: Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors; Paul George, Los Angeles Clippers; Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors; Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics; Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic

Check back all season long for updates on Basketball Insiders’ Postseason Awards Watch. Even better, click here for the preseason MVP Watch.

Jack Winter is a Portland-based NBA writer in his first season with Basketball Insiders. He has prior experience with DIME Magazine, ESPN, Bleacher Report, and more.

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Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz

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We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.

With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.

The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old

Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.

He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.

Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.

Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old

Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.

He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.

Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.

Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old

Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.

He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.

One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.

Honorable Mentions:
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old

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Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards

Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.

Drew Maresca

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It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.

Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.

The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.

But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.

Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old

Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.

But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.

Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.

Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old

Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.

And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.

While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.

If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.

Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old

Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).

Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.

Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.

Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old

Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.

Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.

But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.

Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.

Honorable Mentions:

Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old

Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old

Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old

With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.

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NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups

With the two matchups going on today, Matt John examines the two teams who could be in the most trouble because of one of their individual stars for opposite reasons.

Matt John

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The second round of the NBA playoffs was hyped up to be one of the most entertaining we’ve had in years. So far, they haven’t fallen short of expectations. We knew that Houston and Los Angeles’ battle of opposite philosophies would make for some twists and turns. We knew that Boston and Toronto would duke it out in an Atlantic Division showdown. We knew that Miami would push Milwaukee to new heights. We didn’t really know if the Nuggets would give the Clippers a good series, but the fact that they have so far has made an intense postseason all the more gripping.

Anyway, today we’re getting two games from two series in completely opposite places. The Lakers and the Rockets will face off for the series lead, while the HEAT will try to finish off the Bucks once and for all. Below, we’re going to focus on two teams who have an individual star that either may be more flawed than we thought or one that may not be as flawed as we thought.

Bucks vs. HEAT: Giannis is great and all, but…

We all pretty much knew this was going to be a good series. We did not expect this.

The buzz surrounding Bucks v. HEAT was that Miami was going to make Milwaukee earn every win they got in this series. If that was the plan, then Miami has failed miserably, because until Khris Middleton went supernova on them on Sunday, Milwaukee had come up terribly short.

Let’s first give Miami the credit that they are due and more. With Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler alone, Miami was going to be a tough matchup for Milwaukee – but to see the Bucks all but roll over in this series is an unpleasant sight. Acquiring Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala has paid huge dividends and it’s showing. There are other factors involved, but Miami’s defensive efforts have limited Giannis to 21.8 points a game and that’s played a role in the HEAT being in the driver’s seat of this series.

Speaking of Giannis Antetokounmpo, this series has not been a good look for the Defensive Player of the Year. Especially since it looks like his second consecutive MVP (presumably) is right around the corner. So, to see both him and Milwaukee, once an unstoppable force without an immovable object in sight, get stopped by a sturdy but not immovable squad is saddening.

Nearly a year ago, Basketball Insiders compared these current Bucks to the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic from the late-2000’s/early 2010’s. To oversimplify things, both were contenders led by a superstar with a rare physique that made them tough to stop. To put the superstar in the best position, they surrounded them with playmakers and three-point shooters.

While the teams’ roster constructions weren’t exactly the same, their strengths as a team certainly were. Now we’re seeing the Bucks’ flaws just as we did the Magic 10 years ago. If you have the personnel to make the lone superstar uncomfortable, the team doesn’t function as well.

Giannis is near impossible to stop, but the one major flaw is that if you take away his ability to drive and force him into a jumper, he loses his rhythm. Even if his shot is on – never a guarantee – his opponents will let him beat them that way until he makes them pay. Hardly any team can pick on this, but the HEAT are one of them, and now they’re one win away from their first Eastern Conference Finals since LeBron James took his talents out of South Beach.

This ultimately is what puts Antetokounmpo below the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard for now. Those guys are rare physical specimens like him, but their elite games don’t revolve entirely around their natural gifts as he does or Dwight did. At 25 years old, there’s plenty of time for him to change that and, for all we know, he will, but to see him struggle at a time when the conference was supposed to run through him has ignited tons of questions.

Milwaukee’s technically not out yet, but they’ve shown their mortality against Miami. If this really is it for them, then they’ve got to find a quick fix for this problem because if they don’t, then the unspeakable may happen.

Lakers vs. Rockets: Westbrook has been bad and all but…

Shaking off the rust and recovering from a balky knee would be tough for anyone. For Russell Westbrook, it’s killing his productivity and, in turn, the Rockets’ playoff chances. He’s averaging 15.6 points on 39/16/47 splits with a most recent 10-point, 4-of-15 effort from the field which included seven turnovers and air balling wide-open threes sticking out like a sore thumb.

It also doesn’t help that he’s playing the Lakers of all teams. When Westbrook has been in, the Lakers have taken advantage of his shortcomings offensively and it shows both on the court and the stat line.

Most of Westbrook’s damage is hurting Houston on the offensive end. With the All-Star guard in the game, Houston is minus-13.7 with him on the court, the worst offensive rating on the team. The 12 turnovers he’s coughed up in this series probably have something to do with that.

With Westbrook’s struggles and his predecessor Chris Paul coming off of his best individual season since 2016, this, of course, has led to many second-guessing the swap last summer. Or let’s rephrase that: People have been second-guessing that trade since the moment it was announced and, in light of recent events, they’re piling on now more than ever.

Maybe they’re right. Even after playing in the NBA for over a decade now, Westbrook still hasn’t proven that he can control himself enough to reach his potential as a team player. We’ve seen glimpses. On the other hand, Paul showed that he can still pick apart defenses while holding his own on that end.

But replacing Paul with Westbrook was Harden’s idea. He didn’t want to play with Paul anymore and chose to play with one of his closest friends. You may think that the better fit is what’s best for the team, but we’ve seen the damage that can happen when your team’s best players have friction with one another. It hurt Utah this season. It hurt Boston last season. It destroyed the Lakers back in 2013. There’s no telling what it could have done to Houston this season.

Besides, we know that as bad as Westbrook has been, he’s capable of being better. Not a knockdown shooter, not even an efficient scorer, but he has done better in the past when the focus was on him. The more days he takes to shake off the rust from his knee, the more optimistic the Rockets ought to be.

The Rockets have to take the glass-half-full on this one because they don’t really have a choice otherwise.

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