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NBA AM: Defensive Player of the Year Watch

Rudy Gobert has become the clear frontrunner to win this award as injuries sidelined Lebron James and Joel Embiid. Is there anyone else with a realistic shot to win it?

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Coming to you is the sixth edition of Basketball Insiders’ Defensive Player of the Year Rankings. In this edition, Lebron James’s stock took a big hit due to his right-ankle sprain, as well as Joel Embiid who had a bone bruise in his left knee. While Lebron is expected to miss a few weeks, Embiid has finally returned after missing the past 10 games. Before suffering injuries, both of these players were balling out, with their names in both the DPotY conversation as well as the MVP conversation. Now with the time they have missed with injuries, it is pretty unlikely that they capture these awards barring any unforeseen circumstances. There’s always next season though. Anyways, on to the sixth DPotY ranking for the 2020-21 season!

1. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz (Previous: 1)

The Utah Jazz center, the frontrunner for this award, has kept himself in the lead with his play as of late. The defining moment for his run at this award came since the last edition of these rankings on Mar. 22. On this date, Gobert had a monster game. In 33 minutes, Gobert shot 9/11 from the field contributing to his 21 points, 10 rebounds and an absurd 9 blocks. The Chicago Bulls looked lost on the court with Gobert in the game and ended up getting killed by the Jazz, 120-95. The nine blocks for Gobert are a career-high and, to this point, this game was the one that made him the clear favorite for this award.

For the whole month of March, Gobert averaged 3.7 blocks per game to greatly improve his season numbers up to 3.0. He still ranks second in the league in that category, behind Indiana Pacers center, Myles Turner. The Stifle Tower has been on a tear this season guarding the rim and anchoring the Jazz defense. He currently sits at second in defensive rating with a rating of 101.5, second to his teammate Mike Conley. That duo has been a nightmare for other teams this season as well as earning the Jazz the best record in the NBA. The two are also in the top three for defensive win shares, Gobert with a DWS of 0.171, making a massive impact on opposing offenses whenever he’s on the court. 

Ranking in the top three in defensive rating, defensive win shares and blocks per game this season, Gobert has dominated his way to the top spot in our rankings for the last three releases. If Gobert is not already going to be the unanimous pick for the award, he will be if the Jazz’s momentum carries throughout the remainder of the season.

2. Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers (Previous: 5)

The league leader in blocks per game has continued his dominance thus far into the season earning himself a higher spot in the rankings. A Mar. 26 matchup with the Dallas Mavericks was a display of his outstanding ability to guard the basket finishing the contest with seven blocks. The Pacers have struggled this year, but keeping Turner seems to have been a sound choice by management as he has proved he is a defensive juggernaut. 

As previously mentioned, Turner leads the league in blocks with an insane 3.5 blocks per game. He has led the league in blocks throughout most of the season, but the other statistics and the Pacers on-and-off tendencies contributed to his movement in these rankings. Turner ranks in the top-20 in the advanced defensive statistics with a defensive rating of 107.4 and a DWS of 0.117, per NBA Advanced Stats. Notably, as well, he averages just under a steal per game. If he could somehow raise this a little more he might get more widespread consideration for this award.

Watch out for Turner as the season progresses, any improvement by the Pacers may boost his chances of winning this award. 

3. Mike Conley, Utah Jazz (Previous: Honorable Mention)

The Utah Jazz point guard has been a very stable part of their ascension in the standings, especially on defense. When Conley is out on the floor opposing guards have to always be on their toes and watch where they’re passing the ball because Conley’s ball-tracking skills on steals have been on point all year. The Jazz look like a completely different team in the second year of the Conley acquisition and the fit with the first-time All-Star has been much better.

The thing that has gotten Conley so much love in the DPotY rankings has been the impact he has made on winning for the Jazz. For most of the season now, he has been the leader in defensive rating with a 100.0 rating. To go along with this, he is also the leader in defensive win shares with 0.178, per NBA Advanced Stats. It is clear that when Conley is on the floor his presence is always felt on defense. He also is tied for seventh in the league with 1.4 steals per game. Conley could very well win the award when it comes down to it, but he has been a bit outshined by his teammate Gobert, so it would come as more of a surprise considering no guard has won it in 25 years too.

4. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks (Previous: 3)

On the season Giannis Antentokounmpo is averaging 1.3 blocks per game to go along with 1.1 steals per game. While these numbers aren’t insane, the impact he makes on the defensive side of the floor is not always represented in the box score. He has a stellar defensive rating of 106.6, good enough to rank 16th in the league, per NBA Advanced Stats. Combine that with a DWS of 0.137 that has him eighth in the NBA. If Antetokounmpo can propel his numbers as well as the Bucks defense in the second half of the season, he could find himself higher in the rankings.

Thanks to injuries that have taken out the other three favorites for a lot of games, Antetokounmpo has a realistic shot to win both MVP and DPotY in the same season, two years in a row. The Milwaukee Bucks are currently the third seed in the Eastern Conference, only a few games behind the Nets and Philadelphia 76ers who are at the top of the standings. If they make a push for the top spot in the conference expect Antetokunmpo’s name to be at the top of the award conversations.

5. Jimmy Butler, Miami HEAT (Previous: N/A)

After leading the Miami HEAT to the NBA Finals in the bubble, Jimmy Butler has finally started to get hot this season. The HEAT have had a rough go of things this year, as they currently sit under .500, but they got very unlucky with missing players due to COVID and injury. With improved play from their leader to go with the addition of Victor Oladipo, the HEAT once again are a real threat in the East. 

Butler’s impact on defense has been huge this season, as he leads the league with 2.0 steals per game. He’s always looking to jump passing lanes while he locks up his opponent compiling his steal numbers. Butler’s impact on defense is also so immense that he has a defensive rating of 105.0 while ranking fourth in the league in defensive win shares with 0.149, per NBA Advanced Stats. As the heat continues to rise in Miami, watch out for Butler and the crew as they attempt to rise back up in the eastern conference.  

Honorable Mention: Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers (Previous: N/A)

While teammate and the clear frontrunner for MVP, Joel Embiid, had been out due to injury, Ben Simmons came in and asserted himself in the team leader role. Simmons is known to be a gaudy-lockdown defender, always making the opposing players work for their points and that has again been a theme this year for him. He ranks fifth in the NBA in steals per game with 1.5, as well as being tied for fifteenth in defensive win shares with 0.126, per NBA Advanced Stats. With Embiid back in the fold, Simmons can continue to terrorize opposing guards while not having to worry about the back-end of the floor with the superstar center holding it down.

This group of players has been putting on a show this year defensively. While the list doesn’t have as much star power because of injuries to Lebron James and Joel Embiid, it is still a competitive one. Stay tuned for the seventh edition of these rankings right here on BasketballInsiders.com!

 

Dylan Thayer is a Contributing Writer for Basketball Insiders, and a Sport Management student in the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst.

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Jazz offering Mike Conley $75 million over next three years

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According to veteran NBA reporter Marc Stein, the Utah Jazz are preparing to offer point guard Mike Conley a three-year, $75 million contract to remain with the team. Of course, the exact amount is a ballpark figure. Stein stated, “Utah has made retaining Mike Conley its top priority, league sources say, and is preparing a three-year offer said to be in the $75 million range.” The 14-year NBA veteran is a significant piece to the Jazz’s championship window, playing alongside superstar teammates, such as center Rudy Gobert and guard Donovan Mitchell. He helped the Jazz finish their regular season with the league’s best record of 52-20 (.722).

Utah went on to defeat the Memphis Grizzlies in five games in the first round of the playoffs. Though, the team lost four games to two in the conference semifinals against the Los Angeles Clippers. In the 2020-21 NBA season, Conley averaged 16.2 points, 3.5 rebounds, and six assists per game in 51 games started. Then, in the postseason, he averaged 15.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 7.7 assists per game. The 33-year-old also shot 44.4 percent from the field in the regular season. Last season, the 2007 fourth overall pick earned his first NBA All-Star selection.

On July 6, 2019, the Grizzlies traded Conley to the Jazz for Grayson Allen, Darius Bazley, Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver, and a 2020 first-round pick. Furthermore, the Jazz can still trade Bojan Bogdanovic and Joe Ingles this offseason, if they wanted to improve their current salary cap situation. Referencing Spotrac’s 2021-22 cap holds, Mike Conley’s cap figure is $39,344,900. Cap holds are for pending free agents. Conley earned $34,504,132 last season.

The team’s current luxury tax space is $11,173,027. In addition to the aforementioned cap figures, Mitchell and Gobert have a combined cap figure worth 51.34 percent of the team’s total salary cap. These two players’ contracts alone are consuming a huge chunk of the team’s cap. Plus, on November 23, 2020, Mitchell signed a contract extension with Utah. He is set to earn $28,103,550 next season. On December 20, 2020, Gobert signed a five-year, $205 million extension with the organization. He will earn $35,344,828 next season and $38,172,414 in the 2022-23 season.

However, if the team were to still trade Bogdanovic and possibly Ingles as well, this would clear up an additional 25.68 percent of the team’s salary cap. Bogdanovic’s future guaranteed cash amount total is $19,343,000. They are contributing role players who play together well with the team’s big three, but re-signing the most valuable players is the team’s main objective this offseason. Jazz general manager Justin Zanik might contemplate trading role players who are not worth their asking price. Competitive teams in both conferences have to trim the fat at some point.

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Jazz agree to trade Derrick Favors, first-round pick to Thunder

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First reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Utah Jazz are trading power forward/center Derrick Favors and a first-round pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder for a future second-round pick. The goal here was to help reduce their tax bill. While the six-foot-eight Georgia native does not possess any notable NBA awards or honors on his basketball résumé, in the 2020-21 NBA season, Favors averaged 5.4 points, 5.5 rebounds, and a field goal percentage of 63.8 percent. The 11-year NBA veteran also recorded a free throw shooting percentage of 73.8 percent last season.

The 2020-21 Thunder finished 27-50 (.306), ranking 14th overall in the Western Conference. They could use another first-round pick. Plus, per ESPN’s Bobby Marks, this trade will put Utah $13 million below the luxury tax. On November 24, 2020, Favors signed a three-year, $29.2 million contract with the Jazz. Favors is set to earn $9,720,900 next season. This is the second time in his career he has left the Jazz.

He played with them from the 2010-11 season to the 2018-19 season, before he was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans on July 7, 2019 for a 2021 second-round pick and a 2023 second-round pick. For the 2022-23 season, he has a player option of $10,183,800. The Jazz plan to also re-sign Mike Conley, so this was somewhat of a drastic move to help clear up cap space. On July 6, 2019, Conley was traded by the Memphis Grizzlies to the Jazz, in exchange for Grayson Allen, Darius Bazley, Kyle Korver, and a 2020 first-round pick.

Moreover, scoring-wise, the 33-year-old point guard has not lived up to his performances from his last few seasons on the Grizzlies, but the Jazz need all the help they can get. Jazz general manager Justin Zanik will make it a top priority to re-sign Conley here soon. Conley earned $34,504,132 in the 2020-21 season.

According to Spotrac, Conley has a cap figure of $39,344,900. Center Rudy Gobert and shooting guard Donovan Mitchell have a combined percentage of 47.61 percent of Utah’s total salary cap. On December 20, 2020, Gobert signed a five-year, $205 million extension with the team. He will earn $35,344,828 next season.

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Wizards, Lakers agree to Russell Westbrook and Three-Player Trade Deal

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The Los Angeles Lakers have agreed with the Washington Wizards to acquire Russell Westbrook in a three-player trade, sending Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and the No. 22 pick in Thursday’s 2021 NBA Draft to the Wizards. According to ESPN, the Wizards are also giving up their 2024 and 2028 second-round picks as well. During last night’s draft, at pick No. 22, the Lakers sent Wildcats’ center Isaiah Jackson to the Pacers via the Wizards. At pick No. 15, the Wizards drafted Gonzaga forward Corey Kispert. In the second round, at pick No. 31, the Milwaukee Bucks traded NBA G League player Isaiah Todd to the Wizards via the Pacers.

On Thursday, Harrell decided to pursue his $9.7 million player option for next season. Yesterday, rumors surfaced across social media regarding a possible Lakers-Kings trade involving Harrell. Despite the outlandish predictions and mindless speculation from fans over these last couple of days, this trade move could work out great for both teams. Having said that, one person’s prediction is as good as anyone’s. The Lakers needed an accurate shooter. Westbrook might not be the missing piece.

Additionally, Westbrook is a 9-time NBA All-Star and three-time assists leader. In his MVP season back in the 2016-17 season, over the course of 81 games, he averaged a career-high 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds, 10.4 assists, and 1.6 steals per game. On Twitter, Westbrook tweeted, “I’m blessed to have been a part of such a stand up organization. It didn’t take long to make a home in DC, and I will forever be grateful and appreciative of my experience with the organization. Thank you!”

In the 2020-21 NBA season, Caldwell-Pope averaged 9.7 points, 2.7 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game in 67 games started for the Lakers. The 28-year-old shooting guard will make $13 million next season. As for Kuzma, in 68 games played last season, he averaged 12.9 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game. Kuzma is set to earn $13 million next season. For Harrell, in 69 games played last season, he averaged 13.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 1.1 assists per game. The six-foot-seven power forward/center is also a six-year player. Instead of having one or two notable super stars, the Wizards having several contributing players might work out better in their favor.

Last season, in 65 games played in his only season spent on the Wizards, Westbrook averaged 22.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 11.7 assists. The 32-year-old point guard finished the 2020-21 season with 38 triple-doubles, ranking first in the league and second highest in his own playing career. Westbrook also surpassed Oscar Robertson last season for the most all-time assists; Robertson accumulated 181 triple-doubles in 14 seasons. Now, the two-time NBA scoring champion has 184 career triple-doubles, the most all-time for any player. Furthermore, this is Westbrook’s fourth team in his NBA career.

He is the fifth former MVP in league history to play on four different teams over the course of four seasons or less, adding to the existent list of Bob McAdoo, Allen Iverson, Shaquille O’Neal, and Derrick Rose. Moreover, on December 2, 2020, Westbrook was traded by the Houston Rockets to the Wizards for John Wall and a 2023 first-round draft pick. He is set to earn $44.2 million in the upcoming season. His player option for the 2022-23 season is $47 million. This trade deal will not be official until August 6th.

Per Bovada’s NBA Futures odds, the Lakers now have +300 odds of winning their eighteenth championship in the 2021-22 season. This is a move from 4/1 odds before the trade, leaping the Milwaukee Bucks and Golden State Warriors, and they now have the second best odds behind the Brooklyn Nets (+250). Westbrook also has the best odds of leading the league in assists next season, with first place odds showing EVEN. He is ahead of James Harden (+150), Trae Young (+450), and Luka Doncic (+600). With +6600 odds, he also ranks 19th in the NBA for next season’s MVP odds, trailing Lakers’ teammates such as James (+1200) and Davis (+2800).

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