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NBA Saturday: Is Thompson Worth a Max Contract?

Tristan Thompson is holding out for a max contract. Is he worth the steep price?

Jesse Blancarte

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The Cleveland Cavaliers and Tristan Thompson have been unable to reach terms on a new contract this offseason and with the 2015-16 season right around the corner, the situation is intensifying. Thompson and agent Rich Paul took a big gamble earlier this week by allowing the deadline to pass on accepting the Cavaliers’ one-year, $6.8 million qualifying offer. With the preseason underway and no contract signed between Thompson and the Cavs, the question of whether Thompson is worth the contract he is demanding is more relevant than ever.

Context is everything and determining what annual salary Thompson is worth is a bit complicated. First, by allowing the deadline to accept the qualifying offer to pass, Thompson and his agent sacrificed significant leverage. Now, Thompson does not have the option of playing on a one-year deal and entering next season’s free agency pool as an unrestricted free agent. Instead, if Thompson remains unsigned through March 1, he will still be a restricted free agent next offseason, which means that even if he receives a max-level offer sheet from another team, Cleveland can still match the offer and retain his services (while Thompson misses out on a full season of salary).

Secondly, with the salary cap set to explode after this season, players are earning more annual money than in years past. Paying someone like Kyle Singer $5 million a season is not a bad deal; it’s essentially the new baseline cost for a decent role player. However, paying someone like Enes Kanter a max-level annual salary is widely considered a not-so-good deal, considering his defensive limitations among other things. But in the NBA, bigs get paid, especially with the rising cap (see Ömer Aşık). Third, Thompson will likely play limited minutes this upcoming season with Timofey Mozgov starting at center, Kevin Love returning from a shoulder injury and Anderson Varejão recovering from a torn Achilles. Not to mention the fact that LeBron James just so happens to play power forward from time-to-time and is quite effective at the position.

Thompson and his agent are reportedly seeking a five-year, $94 million deal, which is the max Thompson is eligible to earn. The Cavaliers have reportedly held firm at five years, $80 million. For reference, here are some of the contracts that other notable restricted free agents agreed to this offseason:

Jimmy Butler: Five years, $94.3 million
Kawhi Leonard: Five years, $92.3 million
Draymond Green: Five years, $82 million
Reggie Jackson: Five years, $80 million
Enes Kanter: Four years, $70 million
Brandon Knight: Five years, $70 million
Khris Middleton: Five years, $70 million
Tobias Harris: Four years, $64 million

Thompson’s contract demand would place him right at the top of this list next to Jimmy Butler and just ahead of Kawhi Leonard. Butler averaged 20 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.8 steals last season, while shooting 37.8 percent from three-point range. Leonard averaged 16.5 points, 7.2 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 2.3 steals while shooting 34.9 percent from beyond-the-arc (and won the Defensive Player of the Year Award). By comparison, Thompson averaged 8.5 points, eight rebounds, 0.5 assists and 0.4 steals last season. Of course, Thompson didn’t play as many minutes per game as either Butler or Leonard, but even Thompson’s per-36 minute averages weren’t jaw dropping: 11.4 points, 10.8 rebounds, 0.6 assists and 0.6 steals. It should be noted that both Butler and Leonard are small forwards, whereas Thompson is a power forward (so it’s not a perfect comparison), but the idea is that these are the stats of the players that received the contract that Thompson is holding out for.

Draymond Green may be a more on point comparison for Thompson considering the fact that he also plays power forward. Green willingly signed for less than a max deal with the Golden State Warriors this offseason after averaging 11.7 points, 8.2 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.6 steals and shooting 33.7 percent from distance (and coming in second for Defensive Player of the Year). Green is known more for his defensive versatility, emotional leadership and overall impact than his raw box score numbers, but even his per game averages outpace Thompson’s.

The unfortunate truth for Thompson is that each of these players are more effective in terms of raw production. In fact, there are players that signed for significantly less money this offseason that compare relatively well to Thompson’s per game averages. For example, last season with the Los Angeles Lakers, per-36 minutes, Ed Davis averaged 12.8 points, 11.7 rebounds, 1.8 assists, one steal and 1.9 blocks and had a Player Efficiency Rating of 20. Davis outpaced Thompson in every single statistic per-36 minutes, including PER (Thompson had a 15.6 PER last season) and yet he signed a three-year, $20 million deal with the Portland Trail Blazers. And it is not as though there is some obvious distinction between Davis and Thompson that clearly explains the discrepancy in pay rate like age (Davis is just 26 years old), injury history, character issues or physical limitations.

To be fair to Thompson, it should be noted that box score statistics are a very small part of the overall equation in determining how good or important a player is. However, it is still important, especially in contract negotiations. Consider that Kanter is widely recognized as one of the worst defensive centers in the NBA and yet he secured a large contract based primarily on his notable per game averages. But while Kanter is a defensive liability, Thompson is active and versatile. He has shown a strong ability for containing pick-and-rolls and the mobility to check perimeter players on switches. He also showed potential as a rim protector in the playoffs last season. However, according to Seth Partnow’s Rim Protection statistics for Nylon Calculus, Thompson allowed opponents to shoot 52.5 percent at the rim last season, and registered -0.9 on points saved per-36 minutes, indicating that Thompson wasn’t much of a rim protector during the regular season. So while Thompson is an overall effective defensive player, he isn’t exactly Serge Ibaka.

What Thompson does excel at is offensive rebounding. Thompson grabbed 3.3 offensive rebounds per game last season, which is the fifth most in the league. His ability to gobble up missed shots is almost an offensive scheme on its own and forces other teams to concentrate on boxing him out, which at times prevents them from leaking out for easy transition points.

The problem is that Thompson’s ability to create second opportunities is arguably the most effective part of his offensive game considering his lack of range on his jump-shot. Thompson is also a very good finisher off of pick-and-rolls and is often the beneficiary of a Kyrie Irving or LeBron James lob at the rim. However, Thompson is unable to stretch the floor in any meaningful way and there’s little reason to believe he is going to extend his range any time soon.

Tristan Thompson 2014-15 Shot Chart

Tristan Thompson 2014-15 shot chart

As we can see from the chart above, Thompson’s offensive game is limited to scoring at or near the rim. This is similar to Ed Davis, who again signed for $20 million over three seasons.

Ed Davis 2014-15 Shot Chart

Ed Davis 2014-15 shot chart

Furthermore, here is the shot chart for Markieff Morris, a young power forward that is able to stretch the floor and is set to make just $8 million per season over the next four years.

Markieff Morris 2014-15 Shot Chart

Markieff Morris 2014-15 shot chart

Here we can easily see that Morris is a much more dynamic offensive player and can spread the court for his team. While Morris and Thompson are very different players and excel at different things, the point is that there are other young, talented power forwards that provide significant value, at or near the level of Thompson, and yet weren’t able to land anything close to the money the Cavaliers have already offered Thompson.

Between his rebounding, ability to guard pick-and-rolls, defensive intensity and athleticism, Thompson brings a lot of things to the Cavaliers that aren’t properly represented in traditional statistics. But even if we look toward an all-in-one metric that takes into account less tangible attributes to determine how valuable Thompson is on the court, the result is still the same. For example, Thompson had a Real Plus-Minus rating of just 0.86 last season, which ranked him 116th overall in the league. Put all together, the evidence doesn’t seem to justify giving a max deal to Thompson.

All of this is not intended to diminish how good Thompson is or how important he is to the Cavaliers. With Thompson, the Cavaliers are probably the favorites to the win the title this upcoming season (though the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs will have something to say about that). Without Thompson, the Cavaliers clearly fall behind the Warriors and would arguably be right in the mix with teams like the Los Angeles Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder and other second-tier contenders. There is a substantial difference between those two outlooks and that is probably what Thompson and Paul are banking on at this point. While Thompson certainly doesn’t want to see his team flounder on the court without him, there is value in his team showing vulnerability with him off the court. But even this approach is a significant gamble.

If Love comes back 100 percent healthy and starts to mesh with his Cavs teammates more effectively than last season, Thompson’s perceived value to the team could take a hit. This is especially true if Mozgov and Varejão combine with Love to make an effective frontcourt trio. The fact is that Thompson’s value was at its highest after the Finals when he was basically the Cavaliers’ second best player behind James. Without Love and Irving on the court, Thompson showed how dynamic he can be with a bigger role. But that role isn’t going to be there this season and Thompson’s ability to leave the Cavaliers for another team is all but gone at this point now that accepting the qualifying offer is no longer an option.

The Cavaliers have made a significant offer to Thompson and considering his past production, current limitations, what other comparable players have signed for this offseason and his limited role moving forward, it seems to be a fair one. Thompson is a gifted player and will keep improving, but even in the currently inflated NBA economy, it seems as though Thompson should put an end to this holdout and take the offer on the table.

Statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference. Shot charts courtesy of Stat Muse.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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Hungry HEAT Destined To Be Dark Horse In East

The Miami HEAT are off to a hot start at 9-3. Jordan Hicks details why this may actually be legitimate and why the HEAT have a chance to go deep in the playoffs.

Jordan Hicks

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After Jimmy Butler was acquired by the Miami HEAT this past offseason, everyone expected them to be a solid team in the Eastern Conference. They weren’t expected to go deep in the playoffs, and very few people had them pegged as one of the league’s elite teams. But 12 games into the season, the HEAT are 9-3…and they might be — dare we say — really, really good.

The crazy part about how their team is playing together is all the moving pieces that make it work. Butler is the leader of the team — both in general and in scoring — but he’s only averaging 18.4 points. They have six guys averaging double-digit points, another at 9.7 and three more all above 7 points per game.

As a team, they are number one in the league in field goal percentage, third in three-point shooting, fifth in assists per game and first in steals per game. They are tied with the Toronto Raptors for the fourth-best plus-minus.

Looking into more advanced statistics, they are fifth in the NBA in net rating, helped greatly by their current defensive rating of 101.2. They are second in the league in assist percentage and first in both effective and true field goal percentage.

Of their nine wins, two of them came on the road against the Milwaukee Bucks and the surprising Phoenix Suns, and another came at home in the complete demolition of the Houston Rockets. Their three losses were all the road against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers — three games you’d almost expect them to lose.

This isn’t a take that’s expecting you to believe the HEAT are the real deal based solely on their wins and losses up to this point in the season, but the fact they are completely taking care of business shows that Erik Spoelstra may be well on his way to one of his best head coaching seasons since the departure of LeBron James.

Just what is making this team so good? Let’s start by highlighting their stingy defense, the main driver behind their early-season success.

Butler is leading the entire NBA in steals with 2.8 per game. He is their leader on that end and a large part as to why they’re so successful. They are currently leading the NBA in steals as a team. This is great for a very obvious reason. It takes possessions away from the opposing offense and, in many cases, leads to an easy look in transition on the other end. The most efficient way to score is a wide-open dunk or layup, and fast breaks usually turn into that. The HEAT are averaging a tick under 10 steals per game, so that is plenty of looks their opponents won’t get off.

A huge breakout player for the HEAT this year is Bam Adebayo. Ever since his rookie year, you got the feeling he’d turn out to be solid, but his third season in the league finally feels like Adebayo’s time to shine. He’s averaging 13.9 points, 10.5 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks. Guess how many other players in the NBA are putting up a similar stat line? Just one. His name is Giannis Antetokounmpo, you may have heard of him before.

In a league that is being overrun with efficient scoring, the glue guy is a key piece to any championship team that often goes unnoticed. Take Draymond Green, for example. You remember Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and Klay Thompson, but Green played as big of a role as any of those guys in bringing rings back to Oracle. Adebayo has a chance to take an incredibly large leap this season, and some are even calling him an early candidate for the Most Improved Player award. No big deal, just HEAT-royalty Dwayne Wade.

Most impressive is where Adebayo currently sits in box plus-minus. This leaderboard is usually nestled with all the top players in the league, and Adebayo currently sits at No. 8. It’d be crazy if he stayed there all season, but the fact he’s up there already 13 games into the season is pretty impressive.

On the offensive end, things seem to be clicking on many different cylinders. As previously mentioned they have six, basically seven guys in double figures. Two of them happen to be rookies, and one of those rookies happens to be undrafted. That undrafted guy, Kendrick Nunn, is making a whole lot of noise.

He’s second in per-game scoring behind Rookie of the Year favorite Ja Morant, and he leads all rookies in steals per game. He’s first in made field goals and first in total steals, too. He leads all rookies in overall plus-minus. He’s second on the HEAT in points per game behind Jimmy Butler and second in steals per game, as well. He’s shooting well from the field as well as from behind the three, where he’s tied with Coby White for most threes made out of all rookies. He’s shooting the three at 38.4 percent which is killer for a rookie considering he’s shooting over six of them per game.

The other rookie standout, Tyler Herro, is averaging 13.3 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. He’s a great spot-up shooter, but is capable of creating his own looks, too. Of the rookies on the roster, he’ll likely be the better shooter in the long run, and he’s shown every bit of why he deserved to be drafted in the lottery at No. 13.

The HEAT have many other players contributing in diverse ways, some big and some small. Meyers Leonard is shooting over 60 percent from three on two attempts per night. Justise Winslow was pacing the team in nightly plus-minus before his concussion. Goran Dragic — a savvy veteran who is somehow glossed over in this group — is scoring 16 per game on very efficient marks. One could go on and on about all the talent this Miami team has deep on its roster.

Listen, there is still an eternity left before the playoffs start, and Jimmy Butler has shown previous incapabilities of putting the team first. But the HEAT seem to be off to an incredibly productive start. Most wouldn’t pencil them in as a championship team, but with all the parity in the league today, they absolutely have an argument to be considered the top dark horse.

The Miami HEAT have plenty of pieces to make a deep run in the playoffs. Apart from Butler, they are definitely lacking a superstar or two, but they make up for it with early-season continuity, solid coaching and overall execution on both ends of the floor. With all the talent on their roster at almost every poisition, don’t be surprised if the HEAT end up coming out of the East.

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NBA Daily: Philadelphia Castoffs Finding Success Elsewhere

After failing to make it with the Philadelphia 76ers, three players have stood out by gaining traction with new franchises as solid contributors. Chad Smith sheds some light on how these individuals have changed the narrative of their careers.

Chad Smith

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Trust The Process.

That was the slogan that the Philadelphia 76ers plastered on billboards and etched into the minds of their fans. They stressed patience to their fan base and were transparent about the entire plan. The tanking of not just games — but seasons — delivered the Sixers’ front office what they so desired: draft picks.

More valuable than cash considerations and better than expiring contracts, the draft picks offered an unknown quantity. Hope and potential for greatness were the selling points for their dynamic plan. It was easy to convince anyone and everyone that would listen. At the time, it appeared to be a solid plan, so long as everyone could stomach the losing.

While the exciting element of a draft pick is the unknown, that has also proven to be a double-edged sword. If selecting the right talent was easy, Michael Jordan would have never worn a Chicago Bulls uniform. Kevin Durant would have never played in Seattle and the Detroit Pistons probably would have rather had one of Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony or Chris Bosh instead of Darko Milicic.

Maybe that wasn’t the plan, though. Perhaps the plan was just to get as many bites out of the apple as possible and hope to strike gold on a couple of the picks. If indeed that was the plan, it would be difficult to argue that it didn’t work. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are already All-Star players and the faces of the franchise.

Philadelphia finally molded into a playoff team during the 2017-2018 season. The organization quickly went to work on tweaking the roster, trying to find the right pieces to fit this puzzle together. But outside of its two cornerstones over the past five years, there were three notable players that were labeled as busts or clearly were not going to make it with the Sixers. And many wondered if these guys would even still be in the league in the coming months.

These guys needed a fresh start. They needed a reset button on their careers. Now, they appear to be in the right environment with the right people bringing out the best in them. They have thrived in their new roles and, ultimately, have changed the narrative of their careers.

Markelle Fultz, Orlando Magic

The most obvious success story seems to be playing out right before our eyes. The Sixers selected Fultz with the No. 1 overall pick in 2017, but it turned sideways very quickly. After captivating college basketball fans at Washington, expectations were extremely high as he prepared for his rookie season.

The Orlando Magic have been starving for a star point guard for quite some time. They took a gamble on the 21-year old, and it is paying off in a big way. Fultz being used as a combo guard alongside a strong and youthful roster seems to be an ideal fit. He is getting to the basket and finishing strong. He is also knocking down his free throws (82 percent) and collecting steals (1.3 per game) at a high rate.

Heading into tonight’s game in Toronto, Fultz is averaging just under 11 points and 3.1 assists per game. He had an effective field goal percentage of 42 percent in his 33 total games as a member of the 76ers. Through 13 games this season, he’s upped that to 51.4.

Both Embiid and Simmons missed their entire first season in Philly and turned into All-Stars. This small sample size is just that, but things are definitely trending in the right direction for Fultz to develop into the caliber of player everyone thought he would be when he was drafted. The mental hurdle has been cleared, and his confidence seems to have been been restored.

Jahlil Okafor, New Orleans Pelicans

The 2015 NBA Draft had some exceptional talent. Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell went just before Okafor, but many people thought that was a mistake. While the former third overall pick won’t ever reach the same pinnacle as those two in his career, he has been a tremendous success story nonetheless over the past two years.

After three seasons of below-average production in Philly, Okafor was traded to the Brooklyn Nets where he was seeking a fresh start. His 26-game stint there did not yield positive results, and it appeared as though the promising big man’s future was near the end. In the summer of 2018, Okafor signed a minimum salary contract with the New Orleans Pelicans. He remains on a partially-guaranteed deal, but is outperforming that so far this season.

With so many athletic wings and a bevy of guards in New Orleans, Okafor has found the perfect role as the man in the middle. No longer seeming rushed, the big man is patient with the ball and has the ability to finish himself or find the open guy on the perimeter. He is much more efficient shooting the ball and is averaging 1.1 blocks per game.

Despite suffering an ankle injury that has him temporarily sidelined, Okafor has been playing well. With the absence of rookie sensation Zion Williamson, New Orleans has needed his solid play to keep the train rolling. He won’t be what many had envisioned him becoming after leaving Duke, but Okafor has carved out a nice role for himself in the league.

Richaun Holmes, Sacramento Kings

Another member of Philly’s 2015 draft class has found his opportunity in a different zip code. Despite playing 156 games for the Sixers, Holmes was never really given the opportunity to become a vital role player for the team. He started just 20 of those games and played less than 17 minutes a night. With so many injuries in Sacramento, that opportunity has come for him, and he has stepped up and excelled in his new role.

The overall numbers for Holmes have risen quite a bit, but the blocks are what stand out the most. Through 13 games this season, the active big man is averaging nearly as many blocks per game (1.4) as the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Rudy Gobert. He is averaging career-high numbers in virtually every statistical category.

The former second-round pick has always been known as an energy guy, and he is thriving off of that on this young and hungry Kings squad. His rebounding has been tremendous, especially on offense. Sacramento ranks in the top half of the league in second-chance points, largely due to Holmes being so active on the glass.

Whereas many of the trades that the 76ers executed involved more talent coming back in return, this one was different. Philly traded Holmes to the Phoenix Suns in the summer of 2018 for $1 million. Nearly a year later, Holmes signed a two-year deal with the Kings for $9.77 million. Consider that money well-earned by Holmes, and well spent by Sacramento.

For every Embiid and Simmons that comes along, there are guys like Michael Carter-Williams, Nerlens Noel and Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot. What is important for these guys is to embrace a fresh start and a different role with a new team.

By doing so, they can assure themselves of a future in the league as opposed to watching from the sidelines.

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NBA Daily: DPOY Watch – 11/19/19

A familiar name is back at the top of the Defensive Player of the Year rankings with established contenders and youthful upstarts nipping at his heels.

Jack Winter

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A month into the regular season, the race for Defensive Player of the Year remains fluid. Even as longtime contenders and preseason favorites further assert their will defensively, a group of position-less wings and dogged guards are making a major impact on that side of the floor, too.

More or less, it comes down to one simple question still: Can anybody dethrone Rudy Gobert and his tenacious, defensive unit-leading prowess?

Here’s where Defensive Player of the Year stands as December quickly approaches.

Honorable Mention: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks; Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics; Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors; Patrick Beverley, Los Angeles Clippers; Jevon Carter, Phoenix Suns

5. Jonathan Isaac – Orlando Magic

Only Anthony Davis has more combined steals and blocks than Isaac’s 45. His individual defensive performance against the Dallas Mavericks on Nov. 6, when he collected five steals and six blocks, is arguably the season’s most impressive.

Isaac, at 6-foot-11 with long arms and an increasingly sturdy frame, simply makes plays the vast majority of defenders can’t, even when the box score doesn’t recognize them. His activity, quickness and instincts routinely allow him to be two places at once defensively. He’s among the game’s most switchable defenders, and there may not be a better help-and-recover player in all of basketball.

It’s not just steals either as both blocks and the ever-important eye test support Isaac’s nascent case for Defensive Player of the Year.

Isaac is the Magic’s only starter with a negative net defensive rating. Better, Orlando — a franchise that goads opponents into more two-point jumpers than any team in the league — forces 5.4 percent more mid-rangers than average with Isaac on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass. He’s top-three in defensive field goal percentage allowed at the rim, too, an ode to both his mastery of verticality and penchant for highlight-reel blocks.

Isaac is realizing his potential as a game-changing, all-court defensive force in his third NBA campaign. He’s probably not a big enough name to garner legitimate consideration for hardware this season, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be worthy of it – or fail to emerge as a perennial DPOY candidate going forward.

4. Bam Adebayo – Miami HEAT

Adebayo’s modest on-off numbers defensively almost certainly aren’t what they would be if the HEAT weren’t subject to so many key contributors coming and going early in the season. Jimmy Butler missed the first three games of 2019-20, and Justise Winslow has been sidelined by a concussion since Nov. 7 after sitting out two earlier games due to back spasms. Derrick Jones Jr. has played in just four games while dealing with nagging groin and hip injuries.

Through it all, Adebayo has been the linchpin holding Miami together on defense. His rare versatility allows Erik Spoelstra to pair him with offensive-oriented bigs like Kelly Olynyk and Meyers Leonard upfront as well. Ultimately, the HEAT have been at their best defensively during the brief time he’s spent at center – a lineup configuration we’re more likely to see when Winslow and Jones return from injury.

Among the numerous attributes that make Adebayo special defensively is his equal penchant for highlight-reel plays and more unspectacular, nuanced ones, both of which make a major impact. He has a keen sense of timing and angles as a pick-and-roll helper, prodding at ball handlers with active hands while splitting the difference between them and the roller.

Adebayo isn’t an elite rim-protector and the statistics say as much. But preventing attempts around the rim is just as valuable as affecting them and the HEAT surrender 9.1 percent fewer shots in the restricted area with Adebayo on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass – the league’s second-biggest discrepancy among high-minute bigs.

As the season continues, don’t be surprised if Adebayo fades from the DPOY conversation. Miami is loaded with quality defenders, and his numbers-based case may grow accordingly thin as Spoelstra gets full use of his planned rotation. Adebayo’s influence, though, will remain obvious to anyone watching the HEAT regardless.

3. Joel Embiid – Philadelphia 76ers

The Sixers have quietly been among the league’s most disappointing teams, going just 3-5 after winning their first five games of the regular season. But don’t chalk those struggles up to Embiid, who has nipped at his turnover rate and made strides from beyond the arc while remaining Philadelphia’s defensive panacea.

On a roster stacked with stellar defenders like Al Horford, Ben Simmons and Josh Richardson, Embiid’s net on-off defensive rating of -11.3 is easily a team-best among regulars. His individual rim-protecting numbers are still lagging behind career norms, though team-wide data suggests Embiid has been as big a deterrent around the basket as ever.

Why? His rare blend of size, timing and understanding as the last line of defense, which Embiid puts on display in the clip below. Covering for multiple mistakes by Tobias Harris, he first cuts off Cedi Osman’s middle drive despite being in ICE position, then recovers for an effective contest at the basket when his teammate gets beaten backdoor.

The 76ers’ opponents have attempted 7.2 percent fewer shots at the rim with Embiid on the floor, while their accuracy on those tries dips 6.1 percent, per Cleaning the Glass. Also indicative of Embiid’s rippling influence in the paint is Philadelphia’s league-worst opponent free throw rate spiking nearly 10 points when he’s sitting.

Philadelphia is too talented defensively to be anything less than elite on that end for long. And when they inevitably rise the ranks in defense from ninth, Embiid will still be the biggest reason why.

2. Anthony Davis – Los Angeles Lakers

It says a lot about the Lakers’ enviable roster of proven defenders that their opponent shot profile doesn’t align with tenets of modern basketball. Los Angeles ranks 11th in preventing shots at the rim and 20th in preventing shots from deep, while forcing only an average rate of shots from mid-range.

But what should be a recipe for mediocrity has instead yielded the league’s top-ranked defense, a ringing endorsement of the Lakers’ personnel and Frank Vogel’s ability to get a veteran team to buy in on that side of the ball.

The presence of Davis, to be clear, doesn’t affect those numbers in an overtly-positive manner. Opponents shoot fewer threes when he’s on the floor, but take more shots from the restricted area. They don’t commit turnovers at a notably higher rate, either, and actually get to the line more often. Davis’ defensive rating is 99.1, the exact same as Los Angeles’ mark with him on the bench and just a hair lower than its season-long rating.

No matter. The Lakers’ wealth of defensive talent and commitment to the scheme shouldn’t affect Davis’ DPOY candidacy to the extent a similar dynamic might others.

The statistics are there, naturally, if that’s how you want to make Davis’ case. His 38 blocks lead the league by a comfortable margin, plus more steals than any other top-tier shot-blocker save Isaac and Andre Drummond. Opponents are shooting a laughably low and league-best 30 percent against him at the rim, interior supremacy buttressed by Los Angeles coaxing a far worse shooting percentage from the restricted area with him on the floor.

Davis is a physical outlier. Other elite rim-protectors, like Embiid and Rudy Gobert, just can’t do what he does across 94 feet.

That alone doesn’t make Davis the DPOY frontrunner — but combined with his sweeping all-around effect and the Lakers’ team-wide dominance, it certainly burnishes his resumé.

1. Rudy Gobert – Utah Jazz

Gobert was second on this list two weeks ago and fifth in our preseason rankings. The assumption was that the Jazz’s overhauled personnel, including a full-time deviation from playing another big next to him, would lead to a downturn in their team-wide defensive performance, thus weakening Gobert’s chances for another DPOY award.

Wrong.

Utah owns the league’s second-stingiest defense. Its entire system is based around the premise that Gobert is waiting in the paint to challenge any would-be penetrators, letting Royce O’Neal, Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell and more put pressure the ball in a way they otherwise wouldn’t feel comfortable.

The Jazz allow 6.9 percent fewer shots at the rim with Gobert in the game and accuracy on those attempts dips by 4.5 percent, per Cleaning the Glass. Their defensive rebounding percentage drops from a dominant 77.6 to 70.8 when he goes from the floor to the bench, with the added bonus of committing far more fouls in that scenario, too.

Gobert isn’t as versatile as Davis and less likely than Embiid to come out of nowhere for soaring weak-side blocks. But to suggest that his impact is limited to tangible and intangible rim-protection would also be remiss. It’s not often, for instance, that Karl-Anthony Towns gets embarrassed in isolation on consecutive possessions.

Look at Mitchell at the end of the clip above. No player in basketball is more prone to inspire his teammates and ignite home crowds by virtue of defense than Gobert. He plays with an arrogant edge that helps make his team’s whole greater than the sum its parts on that end — and it’s once again propelling Utah to the top of the league.

Gobert will face a steep challenge in joining Dwight Howard as the only players to ever win DPOY three times in a row. But as the first month of the regular season has made abundantly clear, any expectation he’d fall from consideration was foolish. For now, then, he’s the leader — but who might come for the back-to-back crown next?

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