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Who Should the Lakers Take with the Seventh Pick?

The Los Angeles Lakers are drafting in the first round for the first time since 2009 and have a wide variety of options to consider.

Jesse Blancarte

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The Los Angeles Lakers are set to draft a player with a top-20 pick for the first time since picking Georgia Tech point guard Javaris Crittenton with the 19th pick in 2007. Back then, the Lakers were coming off a 42-40 season, and Kobe Bryant was demanding to be traded. However, the Lakers, as they seemingly always do, managed to trade for another star player (Pau Gasol), keep Bryant and turn the team around immediately.

Things are a little different this time, however. The Lakers are coming off their second-worst season in franchise history (27-55), Bryant is coming off of two major injuries over the last year, the new Collective Bargaining Agreement is more restrictive, the team is searching for a new head coach and the roster is in complete flux. The Lakers used a significant chunk of its cap space to sign Bryant on for two more seasons before calling it a career, and now the team is in an odd position where there is an urgency to win now, but to also build for the future when Bryant is gone.

The Lakers are constantly being linked to players like Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving and Carmelo Anthony, however, the Lakers lack the assets to execute a trade for these players. There are other teams that can make more competitive offers and have more complete rosters to compete with.

Fortunately for the Lakers, they have the seventh pick in the upcoming draft, which is loaded with talent. The Lakers were hoping to secure a top-three pick at the NBA lottery, but all the luck belongs in Cleveland these days when it comes to the lottery. The good news is that there will be solid options to pick from at seven.

Here we examine the players that are most likely to be available, and which would be the best choice for the Lakers as they rebuild their roster for next season, and the long-term.


1. Marcus Smart (Point Guard, Oklahoma State University, 19 years old)—

After having a very strong freshman season, and projecting as a top two pick in the 2013 draft, Smart decided to return for his sophomore season at Oklahoma State University. In his sophomore season, Smart posted 18 points, 5.9 rebounds, 4.8 assists, and 2.9 steals per game.

Smart is a strong, athletic and skilled player. He measured well at the NBA Combine, standing 6-3 ¼ in shoes, with a 6-9 ¼ wingspan and weighing in at 227 pounds. He uses his size and strength well in transition, and is very good at cutting into the interior of opposing defenses and finishing at the rim. His jump shot is a work in progress however (29.9 percent from beyond the arc), and it is something he will need to continue working on moving forward.

Also, Smart is a fiery competitor and will not back down from veteran guards on the defensive end. He has the physical tools to compete at a high level in his rookie season, and has room to develop into one of the most physical, imposing point guards in the league. In a league where almost every team has a standout point guard, the Lakers would do well to take on Smart, who is a nice package of ball-skills and physicality to contribute now, and the upside to become one of the best point guards in the league.

There is a question of character, however, as Smart shoved a Texas-Tech fan that was heckling him. While it is seemingly unfair to ask players to not respond in some way to the terrible things that fans sometimes say, it is simply unacceptable for a player to get into a physical altercation with a fan.

Still, Smart is a complete package, and with so many skilled point guards in the league today, the Lakers need a point guard to build around. With two seasons learning from Kobe Bryant, Smart could end up as a major asset for many years in Los Angeles, though he may be off the board by the time is their turn to pick.


2. Julius Randle (Power Forward, University of Kentucky, 19 years old)—

Randle is a versatile forward who showed a well-rounded skill-set in his one and only season at Kentucky. Randle averaged 15 points, 10.4 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.8 blocks and 2.5 turnovers per game.

When watching Randle play, it is easy to see why some have compared him to Memphis Grizzlies power forward Zach Randolph. Like Randolph, Randle is left-handed, can score the ball well around the rim, is a strong rebounder and has a good feel for the game. However, Randle is much more explosive and agile than Randolph. In fact, Randle is deceptively good in transition, a result of his above average ball-handling ability for a big man.

In addition, Randle’s combination of strength and quickness allows him to get to the rim often, and finish through contact. He is also very effective using pump fakes, and spin moves to get just enough space to get shots off around the rim against longer defenders. One of Randle’s most effective moves is when he fakes a spin to his left, and turns back to his right, finishing with a soft hook shot with his left hand. Again, there is a reason so many people compare his game to Randolph.

However, what separates Randle from Randolph is that his physical tools allow him to be a more effective defender. It took Randolph many years in the NBA to become an above average defender. Randle is not great on the defensive side of the court yet, but he has the physical ability to be much more effective than Randolph has been the majority of his career. Randle measured well at the NBA Combine, standing 6-9 in shoes, logging a 7-foot wingspan, and weighing in at 250 pounds. He is not a natural shot blocker, but Randle can body up big power forwards well, and still has a lot of room to improve with more experience.

This past season, the Lakers had Pau Gasol, Jordan Hill, Wesley Johnson, and Ryan Kelly take up the majority of minutes at power forward. Gasol may leave in free agency this summer, Hill made it clear he is open to joining another team as a free agent, Johnson was inconsistent, and Kelly had a promising rookie season, but is far from ready to take over as the starter at power forward. Randle would be a solid backup off the bench to fill in for Gasol (if he is signed to a new contract), or could compete as a starter throughout the season. There would be growing pains, but Randle is a relatively polished offensive player, and an all-around competitor. If Randle does drop and is available when the Lakers are up to pick, they would be getting a big time prospect, and a big man to start building around in the future.


3. Noah Vonleh (Power Forward/Center, Indiana University, 18 years old)—

Vonleh is another promising big man. He has good size and a massive wingspan that helps him on both sides of the court. In his one and only season at Indiana, Vonleh posted 11.3 points, nine rebounds, and 1.4 blocks per game.

Offensively, Vonleh has a developing and promising game. He is effective on the interior, showing the ability to finish well around the rim, even when defenses are swarming him. He also can run the court fairly well. He also attacks the offensive glass aggressively, often getting second chance points on put-backs around the rim. In addition, he can stretch the court and make shots from beyond the arc. While this isn’t the focal point of his offensive game, it can be a major weapon on the next level. Chris Bosh added three point range as a way to help spread the floor for LeBron James and Dwayne Wade so they could attack the rim. With solid mechanics, and more practice, Vonleh should similarly be able to spread the floor in the NBA.

Defensively, Vonleh can psychically match up with strong opponents, and can alter and block a lot of shots. He doesn’t jump extremely high, but his long arms make him tough to to score around. He has the strength to body up bigs down low, and the mobility and length to disrupt interior passing lanes.

With no big man to currently build around, the Lakers would be getting a big man with huge offensive and defensive potential. Despite his three point range, and underrated ball skills, Vonleh is still very raw. As he gets more experience, he will likely become a more skilled defender, and put more pressure on defenses with his interior scoring ability. However, it may be unrealistic to expect him to make a significant difference for his team in his rookie season as he will struggle at times against NBA size and length. Still, Vonleh is an investment for the future, and could fill in off the bench in his rookie season.

4. Aaron Gordon (Small Forward/ Power Forward, Arizona, 18 years old)—

Any conversation about Aaron Gordon tends to start with his athleticism. At the NBA Combine, Gordon measured 6-7 ½ without shoes (likely 6-8 ½ to 6-9 with shoes), logged a 6-11 ¾ wingspan, and weighed in at 221 pounds. In his one and only season in Arizona, Gordon registered 12.4 points, eight rebounds, two assists, and one block per game.

Gordon is an elite athlete. He has a quick first step, is very explosive, and is very effective at catching and finishing lobs at the rim. This is why Gordon draws some comparisons to Blake Griffin, who is also an elite athlete at the forward position.

Gordon uses his athleticism effectively on both sides of the ball. He uses his quickness to stay in front of wing players, and has the size and strength to body up bigs in the post. This versatility is especially valuable since Gordon still needs to add a little weight to really be able to guard some of the bigger front court players in the NBA. Still, Gordon works hard on defense, and is surprisingly good at contesting shooters on the perimeter. In addition, Gordon is a very strong rebounder. He relies on his athleticism a little too much, sometimes missing easy box-outs, but he competes hard on the glass.

Offensively, Gordon is a weapon in transition. He runs the floor well and often leads the break himself, either finishing at the rim, or setting up a teammate. Also, he is an underrated ball handler, which allows him to drive the ball from perimeter to the rim in halfcourt situations. While his jump shot is not a major weapon yet, Gordon is a hard worker and will likely develop more consistency rather quickly.

One of the questions surrounding Gordon is what position he projects to play long-term at the next level. He is not a good enough shooter yet to play small forward, but has the ball skills and work ethic to potentially someday. However, Gordon may find that his natural position is at power forward and look to add more weight in order to bang down low with the bigger power forwards and centers in the league.

Gordon would be an especially good fit for the Lakers long term. He is a hard worker, very young, has huge upside, is a good team defender and is unselfish. He doesn’t have the length of Vonleh, or the same scoring touch around the rim as Randle, but Gordon has the athleticism and work ethic to one day be one of the best two-way forwards in the league. When Blake Griffin joined the Los Angeles Clippers, his relentless work ethic rubbed off on the other young players around him, especially DeAndre Jordan.

If the Lakers decide to rebuild through the draft, as more teams are doing these days, Gordon would likely lead the young core by example, and would motivate his teammates to work as hard as he does, similar to Griffin. Gordon is the most likely of the players mentioned so far to be available at seven.

5. Dario Saric (Small Forward/Power Forward, Cibona (Adriatic League), 20 years old)—

Saric is an international player with great versatility. At 6-10, Saric is a gifted offensive player, and has a natural feel for the game. He currently plays for Cibona of the Adriatic League. This season he averaged 16.7 points, 9.7 rebounds, and 3.2 assists. Cibona won the league championship, led by Saric, who won MVP of the finals.

Saric is a good ball-handler, allowing him to lead fast breaks, and break down defenses from the perimeter in halfcourt sets. He has an improving jump shot and post-game, which altogether makes him one of the most intriguing prospects in the draft.

In addition, Saric is a good passer, often setting up his teammates for easy finishes at the rim. He has shown flashes of point-forward potential in the NBA, which is often a huge asset for teams (think of the impact Andre Iguodala and Danilo Gallinari often have as play-makers).

Where Saric may have problems in the NBA is on the defensive side of the court. Saric does not currently have the strength to stop the bigger forwards in the NBA, and may struggle against some of the quicker wings. Still, Saric has good timing and always competes hard defensively. He uses his length to contest shots and crash the boards. However, Saric played at power forward a lot this year, and it is difficult to envision him slowing down the better post players like Zach Randolph, Tim Duncan or Blake Griffin.

If the Lakers select Saric at seven, it will be an investment for the future. It is unclear when Saric will actually make the move to the NBA, but the long-term payoff could be huge. With pro level experience, a great feel for the game, and a huge variety of skills, Saric could be a major piece in the near future.


Wild Card: Dante Exum (Point Guard/ Shooting Guard, Australian Institute of Sport, 18 years old)—

Dante Exum would be at the top of this list if it were at all likely that he would be available when the Lakers pick. However, the further we move through the draft process, the more it seems like Exum is likely be a top-five pick.

At the NBA Combine, Exum measured in at 6-6 in shoes, with a 6-9 ¼ wingspan. His size is solid for a shooting guard, and excellent for a point guard. While he can play both positions, teams are focusing on his future potential at the point guard position.

Exum has shown that he can get to the rim and finish using his length and athleticism. Exum said he tries to mimic Derrick Rose in the way he attacks the rim, which should excite general managers. In addition, Exum is a solid passer, often setting up teammates by putting pressure on opposing defenses by attacking the basket to create opportunities. He is perhaps most dangerous when he is leading the fast break, as he can either use his athleticism to finish at the rim, or dump off to a teammate under the basket.

Also, Exum’s defensive potential is huge. He needs to add more muscle to his thin frame, but that will happen naturally as he physically matures. His length and athleticism will allow him to stay in front of the quicker point guards, and body-up the bigger ones.

If Exum drops, which is looking less and less likely, the Lakers need to pick him. He would be a major piece to build around moving forward, and would likely end the rumors about the Lakers making a play for Kyrie Irving. Some project that Exum could one day be the biggest star to come out of this draft, which is saying a lot with players like Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid, and Jabari Parker in the mix. With Kobe Bryant set to retire soon, the Lakers need to swing for the fences to find the next big star in Los Angeles, and Exum may be the best shot at that, if he falls in the draft.

The Lakers have a lot of options heading into the draft, including trading the pick for an established star, if the opportunity presents itself. However, the Lakers need to start preparing for the long-term and life after Kobe, as winning a championship in the next two years does not seem realistic. As of now, Smart and Randle seem like the best case scenarios for the Lakers. Both are big time prospects that can contribute now, and be cornerstones for the Lakers moving forward. After that, Vonleh, Gordon and Saric are nice pieces that could become big time players in the future. Exum is the dream scenario, but it just does not seem likely that he stays on the board long enough to land in Los Angeles. Fortunately for the Lakers, whoever they pick will likely have a big impact now, or in the near future.

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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NBA Daily: 76ers Should Look To Shake Milton For Point Guard Duties

With Ben Simmons out for an extended period, the Philadelphia 76ers will need to rely on a committee of potential ball-handlers to fill those minutes. Quinn Davis looks at one of those candidates and why he should get the bulk of that responsibility.

Quinn Davis

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During the Philadelphia 76ers’ first practice following the All-Star break, Ben Simmons felt some discomfort in his back. The team initially listed him as questionable for their game against the Brooklyn Nets before ruling him out after a pre-game warmup.

The official designation at the time was back tightness, a seemingly short-term nuisance. Concerns were further alleviated when Simmons was listed as probable for a showdown against the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday before starting that game.

Sixers fans’ halcyon lasted no more than five minutes, as Simmons was sent to the locker room early in the Bucks game. He was quickly ruled out for the remainder of the game and reports followed saying that Simmons would be given an MRI on Sunday.

On Tuesday, it was announced that Simmons had suffered a nerve impingement and would be re-evaluated in two weeks. The actual timeframe for his return to action will likely not be decided on until that re-evaluation.

With Simmons out for an extended period, the team will need contributions from an ensemble cast of ball-handlers. Brown was asked before the game about his decision on who will take the lion’s share of those duties. He answered that it will be “by committee,” citing Josh Richardson, Alec Burks, Shake Milton and Raul Neto as possible candidates.

Out of those four, Milton may be the best option. His combination of point guard skills and three-point shooting make him a good candidate to play with the starters as he did Monday against the Hawks.

Milton’s start was not the only surprise, as Al Horford was also moved back in the starting lineup after being relegated to the bench just before the All-Star break. The decision was prudent as that group got off to a hot start and powered the Sixers to a 41 point first quarter.

Milton was asked after the game about the conversation that preceded his starting nod.

“There was no conversation,” Milton said. “He just came in and slapped my name on the board, that’s how I found out.”

Milton was then asked whether there was any specific preparation for the role.

“No, but it’s my job to be ready for whatever the team needs me to do, I feel comfortable on the ball, I feel comfortable off the ball. When someone goes down, and you don’t want to see injuries, but it’s next man up.”

Milton looked prepared enough, albeit against one of the league’s worst defenses. In 26 minutes, he tallied 7 points, 5 rebounds and 6 assists while tying for a team-high plus-21.

While Milton is a riskier play than veterans Burks and Neto, he has a clear advantage in upside. He has shown an improved ability to get to the rim this season and has flashed nice passing ability in tight spaces.

One of the keys to running the offense while Simmons is out will be the ability to get the ball to Joel Embiid on time and on target.  Here, the Sixers run one of their more frequently used plays with Richardson setting the screen for Embiid to roll to the rim. The Hawks get caught up on the screen, Milton recognizes that Embiid has sprung free and makes the pass. It’s a tad high, but Embiid hauls it in and gets the layup.

The Sixers also like to run dribble handoffs with their star center. None have perfected it as JJ Redick did in the previous two seasons, but Milton could be useful in this action. This was not on display Monday night, but they have run it with Milton earlier in this season. Here is an example from an earlier contest against the Hawks last month.

Damian Jones jumps out to contest the shot, so Milton finds the rolling Embiid for the dunk.

The obvious caveat here is that both of the above clips were from games against one of the league’s worst defenses. Milton will face more resistance against other teams who will not allow Embiid to get a wide-open role to the rim, leaving Milton with the task of either driving or hitting the pull-up jumper.

His proficiency in those plays will certainly be a factor in his playing time. His passing overall is solid and maybe the best out the Sixers’ backup guard contingent. He can read defenses well thanks to his experience as a point guard through college and in his time in the G League. If he begins to flash close to the pull-up scoring ability of Burks, he will quickly rise to the top of this group.

On the other side of the ball, Milton has held his own. He came into the season with defense being one of his most apparent weaknesses, but he has worked to improve on that end and was tested on Monday against some solid offensive players. While Milton isn’t close to the defender that Simmons and Richardson are, his length and effort level can make him serviceable on that end.

Milton was even tasked with guarding Trae Young for brief periods. Young can make any defender look silly, but Milton managed to play him tight. In this play, he does a good job of sticking with Young around the screen and recovering to block the floater.

Of course, things are a little easier when a player of Embiid’s caliber is patrolling the paint. The perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate has been upping his defensive intensity the last few games, and on the above play makes Trae Young think twice about going all the way to the basket or attempt the lob.

Basketball Insiders asked Brown after the Hawks game about the confidence he has in Milton’s defense.

“He comes in and plays as if he belongs,” Brown said. “He can guard better than I originally thought. He’s got some legit point guard thinking in his psyche and I think he can guard multiple positions.”

And, further, on his defensive improvement:

“Just having a year being around players who are as good as they are,” Milton stated. “When you’re going up against guys like these every day, it forces you to get better and it forces you to work harder.”

Given the success in Philadelphia’s first game, Milton will likely stay as the starter. With Simmons out for an extended period, Brown should stick with him in that spot to foster some chemistry between the young guard and Embiid.

If Milton continues to play well, he could carve out a role for when Simmons returns to the lineup. It’s certainly possible that a tightened playoff rotation leads to Richardson being the only guard on the floor when Simmons sits. If Brown feels more ball-handling is needed, though, it will likely come down to Milton and Burks for that spot.

Burks has the edge in experience, which is usually one of the biggest factors in rotation decisions come April. Burks also is a proven scorer out of the pick-and-roll, an area where the Sixers lack. With that said, Milton’s all-around play could be more valuable for a team with two stars that he will likely be sharing the court with.

There is time for those decisions, though. For now, the Sixers will need to find a way to go on a run and secure home-court without their star point guard.

Taking a chance on Milton’s upside may be their best shot.

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NBA Daily: Samanic, Johnson Impressing With Austin Spurs

David Yapkowitz speaks with two young San Antonio Spurs standouts, Luka Samanic and Keldon Johnson, about their time in Austin with the G League.

David Yapkowitz

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For rookies starting their NBA careers in today’s league, their journey is a little bit different than in the past.

In prior years, rookies who weren’t in the rotation immediately were often buried on the bench and relegated to garbage time minutes. It could be a frustrating and difficult situation for players used to being team focal points in college or high school.

What’s changed within the past decade is the way NBA teams have used the G League. The G League has grown tremendously to the point where almost every NBA team has its own affiliate. The New Orleans Pelicans became the 28th team to have an affiliate this season with the Erie Bayhawks, leaving only the Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers without a G League team.

More and more NBA teams have begun using their G League affiliates to get their young players playing time and development that they wouldn’t receive by staying the entire season with their NBA parent club.

One team that has taken full advantage in recent years of having a G League affiliate is the San Antonio Spurs. When the Columbus Dragons of the then NBA D League relocated to Austin, Texas, they were purchased by the Spurs and renamed the Austin Toros. They’ve since changed their name to the Austin Spurs.

Throughout their team history, Austin has had several call-ups to the NBA, and San Antonio has used its affiliate to get young players seasoning and development. Within the past five years, Kyle Anderson, Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Lonnie Walker, all Spurs first-round draft picks, saw extensive time in the G League as rookies.

Coming into this season, San Antonio had two first-round picks, Luka Samanic and Keldon Johnson, who didn’t figure to be in the rotation right away. To this point, Samanic has yet to suit up for San Antonio and Johnson has played in only four games. Both have spent the majority of their time in Austin.

Samanic was an intriguing prospect with a bit of a versatile skill set when the Spurs made him the 19th overall pick in last summer’s draft. He can score in the paint, handle the ball a bit and has improving range on his jump shot.

A native of Croatia, Samanic played professionally in Slovenia and Spain before declaring for the 2019 NBA draft. As a youth, he participated in the Adidas EuroCamp, an NBA pre-draft camp, and he had a few Division 1 schools monitoring him. He opted to play professionally while preparing for the NBA.

He’s spent the entirety of his rookie year thus far in Austin, where he’s been adjusting to the American pro game.

“It’s much different. I go from game-to-game and we practice a lot so that’s made it easier,” Samanic told Basketball Insiders. “Being with this group has helped me a lot, too. Just being more physical, coming here and adjusting to the physicality.”

In 31 games with Austin, Samanic is putting up 15.3 points per game on 43.6 percent shooting from the field to go with 7.6 rebounds. He’s had several double-doubles and after struggling a little bit early in the season, seems to have found a bit of a rhythm. He’s shooting only 31.9 percent from three-point range on the year, but in January, he was at 34 percent.

He credits the staff in Austin with helping his game and getting him adjusted to NBA style play. He knows that this season is mostly about development in Austin, but he does have the goal of making a difference for San Antonio by next year.

“I can bring the same things I bring to Austin. Whatever [Gregg Popovich] needs me to do, I’ll do,” Samanic told Basketball Insiders. “I just want to adjust as much and as quick as possible. Get experience and then next year, I’m trying to be in the rotation in San Antonio.”

In Johnson’s case, he’s been brought up to San Antonio for a few games here and there, but has also spent the majority of his rookie season with Austin. He was a highly-touted prospect at Oak Hill Academy and played only one season at Kentucky before declaring for the NBA draft.

Once projected to be a lottery pick, Johnson has the ability to be an impact player on the wing. He can put the ball on the floor and attack the rim. He has a strong inside game too and has the tools to be an effective perimeter defender. He’s shown flashes in the G League of why he was considered to be a steal when the San Antonio grabbed him with the 29th pick.

He, too, credits the G League with helping him adjust to the NBA level and is confident he can contribute to San Antonio’s rotation if needed.

“I think the main things are pace and just staying in shape. Getting up down, getting my body right and eating right,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “Just playing hard and playing defense. Everything else will come in time. As long as I can be myself and do what I know I can do, I’ll be fine.”

Johnson has been one of the top standouts for Austin this season. He’s started in 29 of the 30 games he’s played in the G League and put up 20 points per game while shooting 52.3 percent from the field, 5.8 rebounds and 2.4 assists. The one area he stands to improve upon is his outside shooting, as he’s only converting on 23.3 percent of his long-range attempts.

He was recently named to the Western Conference mid-season All-G-League team and if his performances are any indication, the Spurs could have another diamond in the rough on their hands. So far, he’s been impressed with the level of competition he’s faced up against in the G League. He knows that since he has an NBA contract, he’s getting everyone’s best shot night in and night out.

“I think it’s everything you can ask for. You’re playing against great players, night in and night out,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “You don’t get to take days off. Everybody is grinding, they’re hungry, we come in and they’re ready to play. You’ve got to be ready every night.”

The G League regular season ends next month, but Austin is one of the top teams in the league and could be playing into mid-April in the G League Finals. Johnson will likely be assigned to Austin for the duration of their playoff run, making next season his opportunity to get minutes in San Antonio.

For now, he’s continuing to work on his game and be ready for whenever his name should be called upon.

“I just want to get better and be the best Keldon Johnson I can be,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “Throughout my rookie season, just staying consistent is the main thing. Just get better honestly, that’s my main goal.”

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NBA Daily: DPOY Watch — 2/25/20

Robert Covington’s off-ball disruption, the Philadelphia 76ers’ revamped rotation and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s unsurpassed individual dominance highlight this edition of Defensive Player of the Year watch. Jack Winter dives in.

Jack Winter

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The regular season is over two-thirds finished, and the playoffs start in 53 days.

Unsurprisingly, the front of the Defensive Player of the Year race has remained largely stagnant as 2019-20 enters its final stretch. But there’s ample time for movement among the obvious top-four candidates, with factors like injuries, lineup changes and even overall team performance poised to play a large part in the inevitable shuffle.

Here’s where Defensive Player of the Year watch stands as spring quickly dawns.

Notable Defenders

Robert Covington – Houston Rockets

The league’s stingiest small-ball lineups have never played all that small.

The bygone Golden State Warriors, at least before adding Kevin Durant, routinely doled out crunch-time lineups absent a defender taller than 6-foot-8. The length and physicality of Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes and Klay Thompson allowed the Warriors to switch across positions with near impunity.

But a quartet of like-sized defenders didn’t give the Death Lineup its name or defensive effectiveness. Golden State’s ability to compensate for limitations provided by the presence of Stephen Curry and a collective lack of height is what made the team’s closing five special, a reality best explained by the off-ball genius of all-time defenders like Green and Iguodala.

The Houston Rockets, embracing small-ball like no team ever before, don’t possess a single defender at that exalted level of historical greatness. Just two of Mike D’Antoni’s top-eight players, in fact, are considered an objective plus on that side of the ball irrespective of surrounding circumstances. But the Rockets’ downsized defense has held up well thus far regardless, and Robert Covington’s rare, all-court impact as a help defender is arguably the biggest reason why.

Covington, 11th in deflections per game this season, was credited with three blocks in his new team’s convincing road win over the Utah Jazz on Saturday. The film reveals just how large those blocks loomed to the game’s outcome — and how unlikely they would have been for most any other 6-foot-8 wing challenging Rudy Gobert at the rim.

Covington is often mislabeled as a traditional stopper. He’s certainly a better option checking superstar alpha dogs than an average wing and boasts the versatility to guard pretty much anyone without being consistently exploited.

The real scope of Covington’s influence extends to All-Defense levels, though, because of his imminent penchant for disrupting action away from the offense’s initial point of attack. That’s a trait especially valuable for a team like Houston, whose switch-heavy scheme inevitably lends itself to double-teams and a losing numbers game on the backside of the play.

Through six games, the Rockets’ defensive rating with Covington on the floor is a team-best 102.5, a hair worse than the Milwaukee Bucks’ league-leading mark. They’re allowing nearly 20 points per 100 possessions more when he sits, easily the highest discrepancy on the roster.

Those numbers portray Covington as a more valuable defender than is realistic. Not even basketball’s best rim-protectors make that big a singular difference all by themselves. Still, they’re telling of Covington’s unique defensive worth to Houston and indicative of the game-changing off-ball plays – whether highlight-reel or barely-noticed – he makes on a nightly basis for basketball’s smallest defense.

The Philadelphia 76ers’ New Rotation

Good on Brett Brown for making the necessary change that confirms Philadelphia’s odd-ball offseason was a mistake.

There might be a world in which Joel Embiid and Al Horford thrive playing together, owning the paint on both ends, exploiting mismatches from the inside out and affording ball handlers ample space to operate with canny screens and dribble hand-offs. But this one definitely isn’t it, not with Ben Simmons cramping the floor by refusing to shoot outside the paint and Horford’s three-ball falling at a rate well below career norms.

The theoretical silver lining, even if it’s one you have to squint to see, is that the Sixers aren’t taking anything off the table by moving one of their best players to the bench. Embiid is almost a top-five defense unto himself. The hope is that negative fallout defensively from replacing Horford with a wing like Furkan Korkmaz or Glenn Robinson III proves minimal, while additional spacing and off-dribble dynamism on the other end juices an offense that’s lagged far behind its talent level all season long.

Fortunately for Philadelphia, there’s ample evidence supporting the viability of those assumptions. The Sixers have defended at a league-best level with Embiid on the court whether Horford plays next to him or not, surrendering equal effective field goal percentages of 50.2. Their offensive rating spikes from a putrid 98.9 to an average 108.8 when Embiid mans the middle sans Horford, with the former’s true shooting percentage bumping nearly four points to just below the hallowed 60 percent threshold. Philadelphia remains elite defensively with Horford at center, too, surrendering 104.8 points per 100 possessions, a number that would rank third in the league overall.

Obviously, the real test for the Sixers’ revamped rotation – which is still very much in flux even before accounting for Simmons’ back injury, by the way – will come in the playoffs. But this team was always built more for the postseason than 82-game grind, and Philadelphia proved last spring that it’s more than comfortable knocking jaws in a half-court series.

Should that prove the case again, don’t be surprised if Brown reverts to relying on units featuring both Embiid and Horford. Either way, what a luxury that the Sixers’ in-season about-face prompts little to no concern about their ability to hold up defensively.

Giannis Antetokounmpo – Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks don’t play a single negative defender.

Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez deserve All-Defense consideration. No team in the East has a better collection of versatile, experienced wing defenders than Khris Middleton, Wesley Matthews and Marvin Williams. The defensive bona fides of George Hill, Robin Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova need no explanation. Donte DiVincenzo has quietly become one of the most disruptive perimeter defenders in the league. Pat Connaughton’s 2.5 percent block rate this season ranks sixth among all guards since 2010.

Mike Budenholzer and his staff deserve immense credit. No defense in the NBA is more connected than Milwaukee’s, moving in perfect sync on the flight of the ball and letting questionable shooters launch wide-open from deep while protecting the rim at all costs.

But the above personnel’s unrelenting symbiosis and commitment to scheme isn’t what takes the Bucks’ defense from the top of the league to historical greatness. Giannis Antetokounmpo, of course, owns that distinction all by himself.

It’s not always easy for the naked eye to deduce Antetokounmpo’s defensive value. He’s rarely tasked with shutting down his team’s top offensive threat, instead primarily used as an omnipresent deterrent away from the ball. But no matter who Antetokounmpo is guarding, they’re noticeably hesitant to attack him.

Gobert leads the NBA in contested shots per game with 20.5, while Pascal Siakam ranks 20th by averaging 14.4 contested field goal attempts. Jonathan Isaac, another multi-positional defensive monster, is 52nd in that category. Antetokounmpo, by contrast, finds himself outside the top-100 in contested shots per game.

Don’t be fooled by his lackluster standing there relative to other dominant defenders, though. As the New Orleans Pelicans’ young franchise players learned earlier this month, going at Antetokounmpo is such a losing proposition that it’s best avoided altogether.

Is any other player in basketball capable of meeting Zion Williamson at the mountaintop and coming down left standing, let alone completely swallowing Brandon Ingram one-on-one in the same game? No way.

Antetokounmpo is a shoo-in for his second consecutive MVP. The case for his first Defensive Player of the Year award is nearly as strong, even if it’s much less discussed.

Defensive Player of the Year Rankings

5. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

4. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers

3. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

2. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Honorable Mention: Kawhi Leonard, LA Clippers; Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics; Robert Covington, Houston Rockets; P.J. Tucker, Houston Rockets; Bam Adebayo, Miami HEAT; Toronto Raptors – Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, O.G. Anunoby

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