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San Antonio Spurs 2016-17 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the San Antonio Spurs.

Basketball Insiders

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The San Antonio Spurs, and the NBA as a whole, said goodbye to future Hall-of-Famer Tim Duncan this offseason. Duncan was 39 years old throughout the majority of last season, but he was still one of the more effective defenders in the league for periods. Father Time finally started catching up to Duncan as he struggled to defend effectively against quicker and more athletic teams and it wasn’t apparent that things would improve moving forward.

With Duncan gone, the Spurs acquired Pau Gasol in free agency to pair alongside LaMarcus Aldridge in the frontcourt. Neither Aldridge nor Gasol can defend like Duncan could, but both are talented offensive players who should give other teams trouble on most nights. Other big men such as David Lee and Dewayne Dedmon were added as well. Now, it’s up to Gregg Popovich to do what he does best: take a collection of returning players and incoming players and get them to play like they’ve been teammates for years. If anyone can achieve this, it’s Pop. However, this will be the first time he will be doing so without his franchise big man serving as the focal point on both ends of the court.

Basketball Insiders previews the San Antonio Spurs’ 2016-17 season.

FIVE GUYS THINK

If any team in the Western Conference can challenge the Golden State Warriors in a seven-game series, I’d say it’s the Spurs. Gregg Popovich is one of the best coaches in the history of this sport, Kawhi Leonard is a freak of nature (on both ends of the court now) and LaMarcus Aldridge is a defender’s nightmare. As my colleagues mentioned, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have declined, but they aren’t asked to do nearly as much for this team anymore. One of the most impressive things about San Antonio’s roster, in my opinion, is their depth. In addition to the players mentioned above, they also have Danny Green, Pau Gasol, David Lee, Dewayne Dedmon (a sneaky-good signing), Kyle Anderson, Patty Mills and Jonathon Simmons as well as incoming youngsters Davis Bertans,  Livio Jean-Charles, Dejounte Murray and Patricio Garino. It’s sad to see Tim Duncan retire after his incredible career, especially because he was still capable of producing. But even without the future Hall of Famer, the Spurs are extremely talented, well-coached and deep. It’s also worth noting that Aldridge should be more comfortable and productive this year since he’s no longer getting acclimated to his new situation. His adjustment period wasn’t discussed much last season since he played well and the Spurs won so many games, but it’s very possible that Aldridge will be even better in 2016-17 since he’s more familiar with his teammates, coaches and system.

1st Place – Southwest Division

– Alex Kennedy

Even though Tim Duncan was Kirk-Douglas-old by the end of last season and understandably chose retirement over another 90+ games of the NBA grind, he’s not a guy a team just replaces. Honestly, Pau Gasol was about as good as San Antonio was going to do, and he’ll be a nice fit in the frontcourt alongside LaMarcus Aldridge. Duncan’s send-off also means this is Kawhi Leonard’s show now, but we’ve seen this transition coming for a year or two now. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are still around, and there are plenty of other typical Spurs roster components in the mix for 2016-17. They’ve got a young kid ready to break out in Kyle Anderson, an underrated-yet-universally-adored rookie in Dejounte Murray, a bargain-basement vet in David Lee and a couple of international lottery tickets who just couldn’t wait to give it a go with San Antonio. That sounds like the same recipe for success this team has been using so well for almost 20 years.

1st Place – Southwest Division

– Joel Brigham

Losing Tim Duncan is significant and I’m not sure Pau Gasol, at this stage in his career, addresses the biggest concerns for the Spurs. Gasol is a good passer and an intelligent all-around player, but a lot of his offensive work comes from midrange – an area where the Spurs are arguably generating too much of their offense. While there are concerns, this roster is proven and plays well together. Also, Gregg Popovich is adaptive and knows how to structure his systems to the personnel available to him. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are another year older, so rest throughout the season will be a priority. I’m expecting young players like Kyle Anderson and Jonathon Simmons take on even bigger roles this season. Despite losing Duncan and some other veterans, I expect the Spurs to be competing at the top of the Western Conference with the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers.

1st Place – Southwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

For the first time in nearly 20 years, the Spurs will head to training camp without Tim Duncan on the roster. While Duncan’s physical skills had already begun to erode, the future Hall of Famer marked an era of excellence and stability for the franchise and the transition period could get rough. However, the Spurs have an extremely strong infrastructure in place and forward Kawhi Leonard could be headed for superstardom. The club also signed veteran big man Pau Gasol over the summer and he’ll provide another strong offensive option in the paint alongside forward LaMarcus Aldridge. The talent level in San Antonio is still title contention worthy. Don’t sleep.

1st Place – Southwest Division

– Lang Greene

Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett all decided to leave us in the same offseason, and that makes me sad. I’m sure fans of the San Antonio Spurs are a bit more sad than I am, but the silver lining is that Pau Gasol will serve as the replacement for Duncan in the lineup. Gasol has always been a team-first guy. Although he’s a bit long in the tooth himself, he still sees the floor well and is a good post defender. I think he will fit right in with the Spurs and along with Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge, should help Gregg Popovich’s team win their sixth Southwest Division title over the past seven years. The biggest concern I would have for the Spurs would be at the point guard position. If something happens to Tony Parker, they could be sailing down the Riverwalk with no paddle. But since we cannot predict injuries and no other team in the division stacks up better against the Spurs than they did last year, I’d be wiling to bet that Leonard and Aldridge help these guys repeat, especially since they too had a legitimate shot of winning 70 games last year.

1st Place — Southwest Division

– Moke Hamilton

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Kawhi Leonard

Leonard was already the Spurs’ best all-around player and he’s now clearly the franchise’s most important player with Duncan out of the picture. Leonard has turned himself into a top-notch offensive player since he’s become a knock-down shooter from three-point range, a creator who can take opponents off the dribble and a strong finisher at the basket. Perhaps the next step for Leonard is turning himself into more of a playmaker from the forward position, but that is being nitpicky considering how good he already is. There are few players in the league who are as effective or efficient on offense as Leonard, who will likely be in the MVP discussion this upcoming season.

Top Defensive Player: Kawhi Leonard

Leonard has won Defensive Player of the Year two years in a row for a reason. With long arms, great footwork, unwavering discipline and solid instincts, Leonard is a menace on defense and makes life difficult for top-level players like LeBron James and Kevin Durant each time he faces them. Defense in the NBA continues to evolve, as players like Leonard and Draymond Green are able to guard players as fast as John Wall and as big as Blake Griffin. Leonard also ranks at the top of the league in most advanced metrics, finishing last season second in Defensive Win Shares and third in Defensive Rating. There was an argument that Duncan was the Spurs’ most important defensive player, but now it’s clear that Leonard is the Spurs’ most effective and important defender.

Top Playmaker: Tony Parker

While Parker may not register double-digit assists each night, he is still an effective playmaker for the Spurs. The Spurs’ movement-based, pass-happy offense is what generates open looks for the Spurs rather than a single ball-dominant playmaker. Parker could possibly average more assists per game if he played for another team, but Parker understands his role on offense and doesn’t try to do more than is required of him. Parker isn’t as quick as he used to be, but he’s still a tough cover when he attacks the rim, which is when he usually finds an open teammate on the perimeter.

Top Clutch Player: LaMarcus Aldridge

It’s not easy to peg any single player as the Spurs’ top clutch player. The Spurs scored 30.5 percent of their points from midrange in clutch situations last season (by far the highest mark in the league), which should come as a surprise considering how much of their offense was geared towards opening up shots from that distance. Whether it was Duncan, Leonard, Aldridge or Parker, the Spurs’ offense generally created opportunities for players to get a nice look at the end of games. While there are several choices here, we are going to go with Aldridge considering his offensive skill set, ability to operate in isolation and pick-and-pop situations, and his ability to get his shot off against just about any defender.

The Unheralded Player: Danny Green

Green had a down season in 2015-16 in just about every way imaginable. Whether it was due to injuries, adapting to playing with new teammates like Aldridge or the pressure of playing on a new contract, Green simply wasn’t himself last year. However, Green is still one of the better perimeter defenders in the NBA and he will need to be at his best, along with Leonard, for the Spurs to have a shot at slowing down the Warriors and other teams with talented scorers and shooters on the wings. Green also needs to get his three-point shooting back to his usual 40 percent range to spread the court for Aldridge and Gasol, who occupy the same areas on the court.

Top New Addition: Pau Gasol

With Duncan, Boris Diaw, David West and Boban Marjanović no longer on the team, the Spurs signed Gasol, David Lee and Dewayne Dedmon to shore up the frontcourt. Gasol is the most important player of the three considering the fact that he is effectively replacing Duncan. Gasol still has a good amount of skill left in his game even if the athleticism isn’t quite there anymore. His impact on the defensive end leaves a lot to be desired, so he is going to need to focus in on making the right rotations at the right time to ensure that he is getting proper help when necessary. Gasol and Aldridge are going to be key components for the Spurs this season, so the sooner they can develop chemistry and learn to play off one another, the better off the Spurs will be.

– Jesse Blancarte

WHO WE LIKE

1. Gregg Popovich

Popovich is widely regarded as the best coach in the NBA, and his resume backs that up. He has won five championships, three Coach of the Year awards (and he should have more) and 1,089 regular season games throughout his career. In the postseason, he has a 158-98 record. Perhaps most impressive is that Pop can win with various types of personnel and systems. Because of that versatility, he has thrived with grind-it-out, defensive-minded teams as well as fast-paced, offensive juggernauts. As long as Popovich is on the sideline, the Spurs will be a legitimate contender.

2. Kawhi Leonard

Leonard is one of the best overall players in the league, despite what Jason Terry may think about his game. Some have tried to peg him as a system player or the beneficiary of having so much talent around him, but it’s all nonsense. Leonard has kept his head down and worked hard to become one of the best overall players in the game. At age 25, Leonard is barely entering his prime and figures to keep improving.

3. LaMarcus Aldridge

Aldridge did a pretty solid job of integrating himself into the Spurs’ system last season. With Duncan gone, it will be up to him and Leonard to put this team on their collective shoulders and lead them to a deep playoff run. Aldridge may be 31 years old now, but his methodical game is still as sharp as ever. The real test for Aldridge will be trying to step into Duncan’s role on defense, which is something he may not be equipped to do (not many players are).

4. Manu Ginobili

Ginobili, 39, is entering his 14th NBA season. He has a ton of miles on his body and is not able to make some of the acrobatic and wild plays he used to when he was younger. But Ginobili goes all out and doesn’t care about age; he still plays with the same intensity and fearlessness as he did when he first entered the league.

– Jesse Blancarte

SALARY CAP 101

The Spurs opened up space under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap – trading Boris Diaw to the Utah Jazz – to ink Pau Gasol.  The team also used its $2.9 million Room Exception on Dewayne Dedmon, and re-signed Manu Ginobili via his Bird Rights.  Now over the cap, San Antonio has 14 guaranteed players, with four players vying for one open roster spot (Patricio Garino, Ryan Arcidiacono, Bryn Forbes and Ryan Richards.  Tim Duncan retired with $5.6 million in guaranteed salary, which the Spurs will pay out over the next three years at $1.9 million a season.

Next summer, San Antonio could near $26 million in space under a $102 million projected salary cap.  That assumes the team picks up the rookie-scale option on Kyle Anderson.  David Lee, who signed a two-year minimum contract, Gasol and Dedmon can all opt out of the second years on their respective deals.  If Gasol does not opt out, he’ll take up $16.2 million of that potential cap space.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

Defensive and offensive efficiency, coaching and chemistry are this team’s strengths. I know, that’s a lot of strengths. Last year, the Spurs held opponents to just 96.6 points per 100 possessions (best in the NBA) and scored 108.4 points per 100 possessions (third-best in the NBA). They were seventh in assist percentage, second in assist-to-turnover ratio, fourth in rebound percentage, second in effective field goal percentage and third in true shooting percentage. Simply put, this team was destructive last season and that doesn’t figure to change even with the loss of Duncan. There will be some drop off in a few areas, but Duncan’s role had already significantly diminished last year, so it shouldn’t be too big of a dip. It doesn’t seem to matter who happens to be playing for the Spurs in any given season, as Coach Popovich always manages to maximize his roster.

– Jesse Blancarte

WEAKNESSES

There aren’t many major weaknesses for this team; if anything, the team could struggle with injuries considering the age of their core players. Parker is 34, Ginobili is 39, Gasol is 36 and even Aldridge is now 31. The Spurs take an aggressive approach with resting players to avoid wearing them down before the postseason, but that doesn’t guarantee it won’t be an issue for this team. In addition to age and the risk of injuries, I think the loss of Boris Diaw will be felt more than some people expect. Diaw was a perfect fit for the Spurs, providing both underrated playmaking and defense. Gasol is the better player, but that doesn’t mean Diaw won’t be missed. Lastly, the loss of Duncan could be felt in the locker room as much as on the court. Duncan was the heart and soul of the franchise for two decades. Losing that shouldn’t be taken lightly. This team has an excellent foundation and other experienced veterans to help stabilize the team after the loss of Duncan, but it’s impossible to completely replace a legend.

– Jesse Blancarte

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can the Spurs overcome the juggernauts in the Bay Area?

If you haven’t heard, the Golden State Warriors won 73 regular season games last season and then added Kevin Durant this summer. Any team in the West that has hopes of making it to the NBA Finals has to get through the Warriors first and that includes the almighty Spurs. The Warriors were favored over the Spurs by many last season when Durant was still in Oklahoma City and Duncan was still in town.

The Spurs could conceivably take a step forward thanks to internal development from Leonard and improved chemistry from Aldridge, who enters his second season with the team. And if there’s any team that can push the Warriors in the West, it’s likely the Spurs considering their talent, the fact that Leonard is the perfect defender to guard Durant and since Popovich is one of the few coaches in the league savvy enough to find some schemes that could stunt the Warriors. It may look like a long shot at the moment, but the Spurs will have as good a shot as any team to put some pressure on the Warriors next season.

– Jesse Blancarte

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NBA Saturday: Kuzma Is The Main Attraction In Los Angeles

Kyle Kuzma, not Lonzo Ball, is the rookie in L.A. that is turning heads around the NBA.

Dennis Chambers

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Out in Los Angeles, there is a dynamite rookie first-round pick lighting it up for the Lakers, invoking memories of the days when the purple and gold had homegrown stars.

That’s Kyle Kuzma. He was the 27th pick in the NBA Draft. Twenty-five picks after Lonzo Ball, the rookie that first sentence would have presumably been about had it been written three months ago.

Ball’s early season struggles are well-noted. He’s missing shots at an all-time bad clip for a rookie, his psyche seems a bit rattled, and he isn’t having the impact most Lakers fans would have hoped he would from the jump.

All of that has barely mattered, though, in large part to the show Kuzma has been putting on just 16 games into the 2017-18 season. In Friday night’s loss to the Phoenix Suns, Kuzma put up 30 points and 10 rebounds for the Lakers, the most by an NBA freshman so far this year. That performance was Kuzma’s sixth 20-point game of the young season, another rookie best. And to top it all off, Kuzma was the first rookie to reach the 30-point, 10-rebound plateau since none other than Magic Johnson, back in February of 1980.

Kuzma’s path to the NBA was much different than Johnson’s, though, along with his rookie counterpart Ball. Those two prospects were highly-touted “superstar potential” guys coming out of the college ranks. Kuzma? Well, he was a 21-year-old junior out of Utah who didn’t make the NCAA Tournament his last year and was a career 30 percent three-point shooter as an amateur.

The knocks on Kuzma began to change during the NBA Draft process and came to a head for the Lakers when long-time scout Bill Bertka raved about his potential.

“He got all wide-eyed,” Lakers director of scouting Jesse Buss told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. “And he said, ‘If this guy isn’t an NBA player, then I don’t know what the f— I’m looking at.'”

The Lakers took a chance on the 6-foot-9 forward who had a rare combination of a sweet shooting stroke to accompany his low-post moves that seemed to be reminiscent of players 20 years his senior.

Fast forward from draft night to the Las Vegas Summer League, and everyone could see with their own two eyes the type of player Los Angeles drafted. The numbers were startling: 21.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 1.1 steals, and 48 percent from beyond the arc out in Sin City for Kuzma, all capped off by a Summer League championship game MVP.

Summer League stats should be taken with a grain of salt, but what Kuzma did in July was proved he belonged.

Through the first month of Kuzma’s rookie campaign, when the games are actually counting for something, all he’s continued to do is prove that his exhibition numbers in Vegas were no fluke.

After his 30-point outburst, Kuzma now leads all rookies in total points scored (yet still second in scoring average), is fourth in rebounds per game, third in minutes, and third in field goal percentage.

By all accounts, Kuzma is outperforming just about every highly-touted prospect that was taken before him last June, and sans a Ben Simmons broken foot in September of 2016, he would be in line for the Rookie of the Year award if the season ended today.

Following Wednesday night’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, head coach Brett Brown had more than a few nice things to say about Kuzma.

“He’s a hell of a rookie,” Brown told NBC Philly’s Jessica Camerato. “That was a great pick by them.”

Brown went on to commend Kuzma for being “excellent” Wednesday night, when prior to his game Friday against the Suns, Kuzma set a career-high by scoring 24 points.

For all of the praise and the scoring numbers Kuzma is bringing to the Staples Center, his Lakers team sits at just 6-10 on the season, and has been on the wrong end of a number of close games so far this year.

While that’s good for second in the Pacific division right now, behind only the Golden State Warriors, it isn’t likely that type of success (or lack thereof) will get the Lakers to the playoffs. So, despite all of the numbers and attention, Kuzma isn’t fulfilling his rookie year the way he had hoped.

“It is cool, but I’m a winner,” Kuzma told Lakers Nation’s Serena Winters. “I like to win, stats don’t really matter to me. I just try to play hard and I want to win.”

Few projected the type of impact Kuzma would have this early on in his career, and even fewer would have assumed he’d be outperforming the Lakers’ prized draft pick in Ball. But surprising people with his game is nothing new to Kuzma.

From Flint, Michigan, to Utah, to Los Angeles, Kuzma has been turning heads of those that overlooked him the entire time.

With one month in the books as the Los Angeles Lakers’ most promising rookie, Kuzma has all the attention he could’ve asked for now.

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Kelly Olynyk Strengthens the HEAT Bench

David Yapkowitz speaks to Kelly Olynyk about his early showing in Miami.

David Yapkowitz

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The past few years, Kelly Olynyk carved out a nice role for himself as an important player off the Boston Celtics bench. He was a fan favorite at TD Garden, with his most memorable moment in Celtic green coming in last season’s playoffs against the Washington Wizards in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

With Boston pushed to the limit and finding themselves forced into a Game 7, Olynyk rose to the occasion and dropped a playoff career-high 26 points off the bench on 10-14 shooting from the field in a Celtics win. He scored 14 of those points in the fourth quarter to hold Washington off.

He was a free agent at the end of the season, and instead of coming back to the Celtics, he became a casualty of their roster turnover following Gordon Hayward’s decision to sign in Boston. Once he hit the open market he had no shortage of suitors, but he quickly agreed to a deal with the Miami HEAT, an easy decision for him.

“It’s awesome, they got a real good culture here,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “The organization is great, the city is great, the staff from the top down they do a good job here.”

Olynyk was initially the HEAT’s starting power forward to begin the season. In their opening night game, a 116-109 loss to the Orlando Magic, he scored ten points, pulled down five rebounds, and dished out three assists.

The very next game, however, he found himself back in his familiar role as first big man off the bench. In that game, a win over the Indiana Pacers, Olynyk had an even stronger game with 13 points on 50 percent shooting from the field, including 60 percent from three-point range, eight rebounds, and four assists.

Throughout the first eight games of the season, Olynyk was thriving with his new team. During that stretch, he was averaging a career-high 11.4 points per game on a career-high 55 percent shooting from the field and 60. 8 percent from downtown.

“I’m just playing, I’m just playing basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “They’re kind of letting me just play. They kind of let us all just play. They put us in positions to succeed and just go out there and let out skills show.”

For a HEAT team that may not be as talented on paper as some of the other teams in the Eastern Conference, they definitely play hard and gritty and are a sum of their parts. Night in and night out, in each of their wins, they’ve done it off the contributions from each player in the rotation and Olynyk has been a big part of that. Through Nov. 16, the HEAT bench was seventh in the league in points per game with 36.6.

In a win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Nov. 5, Olynyk was part of a bench unit including James Johnson, Tyler Johnson, and Wayne Ellington that came into the game late in the first quarter. The score at that point was 18-14 in Miami’s favor. That unit closed the quarter on a 16-6 run to put the HEAT up double digits. After that game, head coach Erik Spoelstra recognized the strength of the HEAT bench.

“Our guys are very resilient, that’s the one thing you’ve got to give everybody in that locker room, they’re tough,” Spoelstra said. “This is all about everybody in that locker room contributing to put yourself in a position, the best chance to win. It’s not about first unit, second unit, third unit, we’re all in this together.”

In Boston, Olynyk was part of a similar group that won games off of team play and production from every guy that got in the game. They were also a tough, gritty team and Olynyk has recognized that same sort of fire in the HEAT locker room.

“It’s a group of hard-nosed guys that can really grind it out and play tough-nosed basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “We can go a lot of places. We just got to stick together and keep doing what we do. We can compete with anybody and we just got to bring it every single night.”

At 7-8, the HEAT currently sit outside the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. Olynyk has seen a bit of a decrease in playing time, and likewise in production. He’s right at his career average in points per game with 9.5, but he’s still shooting career-highs from the field (54 percent) and from three-point range (47.4).

It’s still very early, though, and only one game separates the 11th place HEAT from the 8th place Magic. The HEAT are definitely tough enough to fight for a playoff spot, especially with Olynyk around helping to strengthen their bench.

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Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 11/17/17

Spencer Davies updates the list of names to keep an eye on and who’s in contention for DPOY.

Spencer Davies

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We’re exactly one month into the season now, as the NBA standings have started to take shape headed into winter.

A couple of weeks ago, Basketball Insiders released its first Defensive Player of the Year Watch article to go in-depth on players that could compete for the prestigious award. Since then, there have been injuries keeping most of the household names out of the picture.

Guys like Rudy Gobert (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (ankle) have been or will be sidelined for weeks. Kawhi Leonard has yet to make his season debut recovering from a bothersome right quad.

While that isn’t the best news for fans and the league at the moment, it’s likely that those players will be just fine and return with the same impact they’ve always made. In the meantime, there are opportunities for others to throw their names in the hat as elite defenders. With new names and mainstays, here’s a look at six healthy candidates.

6) Joel Embiid

Trusting the Process in Philadelphia was worth the wait. As polished as the seven-footer is with the ball in his hands on offense, he might be even more dangerous as an interior defensive presence.

One of ten players in the NBA averaging at least a block and a steal per game, Embiid makes a world of a difference for in limiting opponents. Through 14 games, the Philadelphia 76ers are allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions with him playing. Furthering that, he’s the only one on the floor who dips the team’s defensive rating below 100 and has the second-highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating (3.03) in the NBA.

5) Kristaps Porzingis

Like Embiid, it’s been an incredible season for the one called The Unicorn. Before the season started, Porzingis stated it was a goal of his to accomplish three things—an All-Star game appearance, Most Improved Player, and Defensive Player of the Year.

So far, he’s on the right track. Outside of being the league’s third-highest scorer (28.9 points per game), the Latvian big man is hounding and deterring shot attempts nearly every time inside. According to SportVU data, Porzingis is allowing his opponents to only convert 35.1 percent of their attempts at the rim, which is the lowest by far among his peers seeing at least four tries per game. Oh, and when he’s off the floor, the Knicks have a 112.4 defensive rating, which is 9.3 more points per 100 possessions than with him on.

4) Nikola Jokic

At the beginning of the season, it looked like the same old story with the Denver Nuggets defense, but their intensity has stepped up on that end of the floor for the past couple of weeks. Playing next to new running mate Paul Millsap has taken some getting used to, but it seems like the two frontcourt partners have started to mesh well.

Though it might not have been the case a season ago, the Denver Nuggets are a net -12.4 per 100 possessions defensively without Jokic on the court as opposed to a team-best 100.1 defensive rating with him on. A huge knock on the Serbian sensation last year and before then was his inability to defend. He’s still got things to work on as a rim protector with his timing, but the progress is coming. He’s seventh in the league in total contested shots (168) and has been forcing turnovers like a madman. Averaging 1.6 steals per game, Jokic has recorded at least one takeaway in all but two games.

3) Draymond Green

In the first DPOY watch article, the Golden State Warriors had been better off defensively with Green sitting. That right there should tell you how much we can really put into data in small sample sizes. It’s changed dramatically since that point in time.

Without Green playing, the Golden State Warriors have a defensive rating of 105.4 as opposed to 98.4 on the same scale with him on the floor. His matchups are starting to grow weary of driving on him again, as he’s seen less than four attempts at the basket. Currently, in DRPM, he ranks eighth with a 2.60 rating.

2) Al Horford

The Boston Celtics are still the number one team in the NBA in defensive rating. Horford is still the straw that stirs the drink for Brad Stevens. If you didn’t see that watching that knockdown, drag-it-out game against the Warriors on Thursday, go back and watch it.

He has the highest net rating on the team among starters and is leading the team by altering shots and grabbing rebounds with aggressiveness we haven’t seen since he played for the Atlanta Hawks. Ranking fourth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus and in DRPM, Horford is continuing to make his presence felt.

1) DeMarcus Cousins

Dominance is the word to describe Cousins’ game. With a month-long absence of Gobert, he has a real chance to show fans and voters that his defensive side of him is no façade.

Next to his partner Anthony Davis, Boogie has kept up the physicality and technique of locking up assignments. The third and final member of this list averaging at least a block and steal per game, Cousins is at the top of the mountain in DRPM with a 3.13 rating.

The New Orleans Pelicans significantly benefit with him on the hardwood (102.3 DRTG) as opposed to him on the bench (112.7 DTRG). He’s one of six players in the league seeing more than six attempts at the rim, and he’s allowed the lowest success percentage among that group. He’s also contested 193 shots, which is the second-most in the NBA.

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