Five Things In Play?: Today’s NBA AM will be more notebook-like as we hit on the five topics making noise in the NBA.
Bledsoe And The Suns: Phoenix Suns guard Eric Bledsoe grabbed some headlines last week when he told a local TV station in Alabama that he felt like the Phoenix Suns were using restricted free agency against him.
While the tone and connotation of the comment seemed negative, it’s hard to say that getting a $12 million per year contract offer is somehow unfair when the rules don’t require it.
The truth of the matter is that while Bledsoe and his camp were seeking a maximum contract from the Suns, the Suns didn’t feel like he was going to command that on the open market and were right. Most teams in the NBA knew that had they tendered an offer in the $13 to $14 million range, the Suns would likely match it anyway, so Bledsoe did not get an offer sheet.
Sources close to the Suns have said privately they expected Bledsoe back either on a new deal or after he signs the qualifying offer they issued worth just over $3.7 million (the caphold is $6.56 million).
If Bledsoe passes on the Suns’ current offer said to be in the neighborhood of $48 million and signs the qualifying offer, he would become eligible for unrestricted free agency next summer in 2015; he would also gain the right to veto any trade.
Sources say there continues to be ongoing dialogue toward a deal and there is some sense that the Suns might increase their offer slightly; there has also been talk that Bledsoe’s camp might agree to a short-term deal that gets Bledsoe into free agency again inside the next three seasons.
A few teams have inquired about a sign-and-trade for Bledsoe, mostly at the urging of his camp. However, the Suns seemed less than interested, according to one team that inquired.
While Bledsoe is arguably one of the top free agents left on the board, it does not look like Philadelphia, who is sitting on $23 million in cap space, is going to set the price for Bledsoe, meaning the best offer on the table is from Phoenix.
There has been some talk that Milwaukee, who could get to roughly $13 million in possible space, has interest in Bledsoe, but sources say they are only interested if they can obtain him in a sign-and-trade and offload some unwanted salary in the deal.
Monroe And The Pistons: Much like Bledsoe, Detroit Pistons big man Greg Monroe finds himself without a market. Sources close to the process say there continues to be ongoing dialogue with the Pistons and that they do want to ink Monroe to a new deal.
The problem for the Pistons is that Monroe and his camp are not overly thrilled with the idea of signing a long-term deal at what they perceive to be less than market valuation.
Much like Bledsoe there is a sense that a deal is going to be reached eventually, the question becomes for how much and how long? The Pistons obviously want to lock Monroe in for as long as they can, especially if they can keep the number in the $10-$12 million per year range.
Monroe’s camp wants a short-term deal or a player option so he can hit the unrestricted market if he agrees to a lower dollar deal.
There is no urgency to get anything done on either Monroe or Bledsoe’s part, especially if it’s a “compromise” deal.
The Pistons have listened to sign-and-trade proposals, which have really gone nowhere, mainly because the Pistons do value Monroe immensely and would want a sizable return in exchange for a deal.
Also like Bledsoe, the Sixers do not seem willing to set a price for Monroe using their cap space, so the Pistons are clearly in the driver’s seat.
While having Monroe and Bledsoe sitting unsigned seems like a negative, both have offers they could accept at any time; however both gain nothing in agreeing to a deal now, except to close the door on their options.
There had been some reports that the PSuns had considered an offer sheet for Monroe, however what the Suns were said to be considering would have been a deal in the $11 million per year range, which would be matched by Detroit.
The only way for Phoenix to get substantially more space would be to rescind their qualifying offer to Bledsoe, which would make him an unrestricted free agent.
There are currently four teams with meaningful room under the salary cap – the 76ers ($23.076 million), the Suns ($11.49 million), the Orlando Magic ($7.45 million) and the Utah Jazz ($6.18 million).
Timberwolves and Love: If you are looking for closure on the Minnesota Timberwolves and Kevin Love you better pull up a chair, because it’s going to be awhile.
There is zero urgency on the part of the Minnesota Timberwolves to make a deal. That does not mean they won’t agree to something, but what’s coming out of the process is that while Wolves’ president Flip Saunders and company have their favorites in the various proposals being talked about, they are still playing the bidding game with prospective teams.
Sources close to Love have said they were urging people to dial back the “Cleveland or else” message and that while Love seems open to all three of the situations being seriously considered – Cleveland, Golden State and Chicago, he is not willing to commit long-term to any of them as a first action. The ideal action is to hit free agency in July and ink a new long-term deal. The team that trades for him can give him the biggest financial package since they will have his Bird rights.
The Wolves, for their part, are weighing two concepts: The future, which a Cleveland package that includes Andrew Wiggins would win that argument hands down and the present, which a Chicago or Golden State offer that includes Warriors guard Klay Thompson or Bulls forward Taj Gibson would likely win out.
It has been ten seasons since the Wolves made the postseason and there is a real desire on the part of ownership and management to compete for a playoff berth this year, hence why a deal with Cleveland hasn’t been consummated.
The question for the Wolves is would they genuinely be a postseason contender adding players like Gibson and Doug McDermott or David Lee and Thompson to the roster, and the answer is maybe.
However, if the Wolves bet on the future potential of Wiggins, they would surely be stepping backwards and conceding a rebuild, that is the crux of the debate for the Wolves.
The Bulls are reported to have put a deadline on their offer, as they do not want this discussions dragging into training camp, so at least on one front there is a sense of urgency. However, until all the teams involved put the Wolves on the clock, there doesn’t seem to be closure coming, at least not in the immediate future.
Expanding All-Star Weekend: Last week the South Florida Sun Sentinel’s Ira Winderman reported that the NBA was looking into the feasibility of a weeklong All-Star break.
Before we get crazy on this topic keep in mind the current All-Star break begins on Friday with players reporting back on Monday, so in essence four days, so what’s being considered is adding three days to that.
To achieve this, the NBA is looking at giving each team an additional back-to-back game to create the space in the schedule to accommodate the extra three days.
In 2011, the NBA scrambled to create a 66 game season that rolled substantially further into June than ever before, as a result the NBA discovered there was a lot more flexibility in their existing arena arrangements than expected and this has brought to the table all kinds of new discussion points, expanding the All-Star break being just one of them.
The NBA is said to be weighing proposals that would move the NBA Draft from the end of June into the first week of July, and move the start of free agency back potentially a full week. This would also move Summer Leagues back and have the NBA potentially having events or activity into August.
The current NBA schedule has a ton of marquee events jammed together from the NBA Draft Combine, to the NBA Finals, to the NBA Draft then to free agency – all happening right after each other.
The belief is the NBA wants to add some time between events to maximize them, and to create a yearlong calendar. The more the NBA is front and center, the better it is for business on every front, including ticket sales.
The expanded All-Star weekend schedule is not locked in yet, however it does appear the NBA is trying to see if it’s feasible for the upcoming season.
The other changes mentioned are still very much in the discussion phase, but clearly on the radar.
The New TV Deal: Much has been made about the possibilities of massive economic expansion in the NBA tied to on-going TV rights negotiations. While all parties involved are keeping these talks close to the vest there are a few things that have come out as these discussions have taken place.
It seems ESPN/ABC and Turner Sports will renew with the NBA, although there are some things that look like they may change.
There is a sense that the NBA Finals will be split up among ESPN/ABC and Turner, giving Turner potential the mid-week games, while ESPN/ABC gets the weekend games.
The current rights package pays the NBA some $940 million per year, with Turner paying some $445 million per year with ESPN/ABC paying and estimated $485 million. Those figures are expected to almost double in a new deal with some estimates pegging the new deals to be worth $1.2 to $1.4 billion annually.
The wrinkle that may really drive the value up is a third partner. There has been considerable talk that Fox Sports 1 may be closing in on securing a rights deal for what insiders are calling NBA Saturday, which is a package of Saturday night games, which could add an additional $250 to $300 million to the total.
There has also been some talk that a new rights package may also include domestic expansion options, should the NBA decide to make that move.
It’s important to take all expansion talk with a grain of salt, but J Bruce Miller a Louisville attorney, who is leading the charge to land a NBA team in Louisville wrote a substantial post for a Facebook campaign geared around bringing the NBA to Louisville. In the letter, Miller immediately denounces the idea of expansion in the immediate future, citing the ongoing mess with the Clippers, however implies that after the Donlad Sterling mess is resolved, potential expansion into new markets could add new value to the TV deal and that Seattle and Louisville are on the radar.
Again, take all expansion talk with a grain of salt.
NBA sources have warned that expansion domestically is something of a pipe dream, mainly because what gets put in terms of an expansion fee is usually never greater than what a new member team takes out of the pie, and that given how long it takes a team to ramp up sales and revenue generation, expansion simply puts one more mouth at the table that usually does not carry its own weight.
Given what a new share of the TV deal could be worth, the existing 30 owners may not be willing to share the wealth to the expand the league, but it does seem like there could be some language in the new TV deal to allow for it and that’s a huge first step.
Up Close With Darington Hobson: The Milwaukee Bucks selected Darington Hobson with the 37th pick in the 2010 NBA Draft, while his NBA career never got going due to a nasty hip injury, Hobson is back on the NBA radar having just finished summer league with the Toronto Raptors and is hoping to find his way to a NBA training camp in September.
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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.
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.
— DWade (@DwyaneWade) November 17, 2019
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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