With the game of basketball speeding up and becoming more of an offensively driven sport, defensively skilled players seem to be under-appreciated, but that shouldn’t be the case.
In fact, as possessions increase and systems evolve, they should be put up on a higher pedestal for the tireless work they put in to try and put a stop to the opposition.
Though the rhetoric and debate surrounding who gets the Most Valuable Player Award is clearly the talk of the town, the Defensive Player of the Year award should garner some heavy attention as the season draws to a close.
There would be a much better shot for Anthony Davis to take home the DPOY award if the Pelicans were in the playoff picture, but that just didn’t happen this season. It’s not through any fault of his own, though, as he has literally carried them on that side of the floor (on/off per-100-possessions defensive rating: 102.5/110.8).
Davis is the only player on pace this season to average at least two blocks and a steal per game. His versatility and wingspan make it extremely hard on opponents, regardless of position.
The renaissance of the Miami Heat has a ton to do with how engaged Hassan Whiteside has been. Averaging 2.1 blocks per game, the 27-year-old does a fine job manning the middle for Erik Spoelstra and company.
Only three other players contest nine or more shots at the rim, as Whiteside does, and he is second to only Rudy Gobert in defended field goal percentage (47.3) using that scale.
It’s probably going against the grain to rank Kawhi Leonard this low on the list, but this season’s been more of an MVP case for the two-time DPOY winner more than one solely based on a single skill. While not much has changed on that end for Leonard, neither has it for the Spurs.
Knowing how talented he is on-ball and in the clutch especially (92.5 DRTG), you’d figure the Spurs would be statistically better as a team defensively with Leonard on the floor. But it’s actually the opposite since teams have begun isolating him away from more plays.
Even with that said, Leonard is the cornerstone of the Spurs, who rank first in the NBA in defensive rating (100.8). He’s still averaging 1.8 steals per game and always makes things difficult on whoever he’s matched up against.
In an interview with our own Ben Dowsett, Andre Roberson made it clear about how he feels about his stance among the defensive elite.
“Not to be cocky or anything, but I feel like I’m definitely one of the top defenders in the league right now,” Roberson told Basketball Insiders. “I do it a high level.”
He’s got a reason to have that confidence, brash or not. Since that interview in mid-February, Roberson has leaped into the top 30 in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus and established himself as the fifth-best small forward in that category. Only one of the players ahead of him logs more minutes than him, too.
Roberson also ranks among the best in the league in defended field goal percentage. Up there with centers and power forwards, opponents take over 12 shots per game on him. They only make 41.6 percent of them, which makes Roberson the best wing defensively using that scale.
The Thunder are a top 10 team in defensive rating, and a major reason, if not the biggest reason for that is Roberson’s lock-down mentality. When he’s not on the floor, Oklahoma City is giving up 108.4 points per 100 possessions as opposed to 103.3 with him on.
Roberson’s abilities have made him a top stopper in the league and it’s no longer a secret to anybody.
Ever since coming up shy of winning the prestigious accolade two years ago, Draymond Green has been on a mission to add the DPOY award to his list of accomplishments. This season he could very well do that.
The former Michigan State Spartan has been an absolute pest this year. His two steals per game is tied for the most in the league with John Wall, and he’s blocking 1.4 shots per game to boot.
In 75 games, Green has had the third-most field goals attempted on him per game (15.9) and his competition has converted just 40 percent of them. Seven of those tries every night have come at the basket, but only 3.1 of them have gone in. That’s one of the league’s top defended field goal rate at the rim among players seeing seven attempts or higher.
His defensive prowess on the perimeter shows as well. Green holds nearby opponents to under 30 percent, second to just LeBron James among those who see their opposition take at least four threes per game. It’s a telling statistic because whoever he guards hesitates to take contested threes.
During this 14-game winning streak, the Golden State Warriors top the NBA in defensive rating, yielding 98.4 points per 100 possessions. Green’s contributions are a huge reason why the Dubs are hitting their stride going into the postseason, and it could earn him the honor he’s been dead set on winning for years.
The Utah Jazz have been the sneakiest team in the entire NBA this year. Locked in for their first postseason appearance since the 2011-2012 season, it’s been a banner year for Quin Snyder’s group.
Utah has established itself at the top of the league defensively, allowing just 96.7 points per game to opponents on 44.2 percent from the field. The anchor of this bunch has been Rudy Gobert, or the “Stifle Tower.”
It’s really been a sensational year all-around for the 7-foot-1 Frenchman, as he’s really made a jump in just about all areas. It’s his natural skill protecting the paint, however, that supersedes just about every other player at his position.
From a traditional statistical standpoint, Gobert leads the league with 2.7 blocks per game. When you dig a little deeper than that, things get even more impressive. Using ESPN’s DRPM, he is the top dog in the league (6.03) by almost an entire point.
According to SportVU data, Gobert is the only player in the NBA to have over 10 field goals per game attempted on him within five feet of the basket (at the rim). His opponents only convert 43.3 percent of those tries, and that ranks Gobert at the top of the mountain in the entire league among those seeing six or more attempts.
If that’s not convincing enough, take the on the court versus off the court difference. With Gobert playing, Utah allows 100.2 points per 100 possessions. When sitting, that number skyrockets to 108.
Green was tabbed by the majority of writers to win the DPOY award this season, but the emergence of Gobert and how it has launched the Jazz into the middle of the Western Conference playoffs — with a record the franchise hasn’t seen since the days of Jerry Sloan– should be enough to alter that mindset.
Make sure to follow Basketball Insiders on Twitter at @BBallInsiders.