Defensive Player of the Year, it’s clear by now, will be won by one of the four candidates who were earmarked as favorites for the award coming into the regular season. But as the injury bug nags and his mismatched team continue underperforming expectations, Joel Embiid is falling from the front of the pack.
Where does that leave his main competition? A clear cut above the rest of the league’s defenders but fighting tooth and nail for positioning at the top of the race. Here’s where Defensive Player of the Year stands as the All-Star break dawns.
Jayson Tatum – Boston Celtics
The specifics behind Tatum’s breakout season have been far different than anticipated, and even betray the most common justifications for his first All-Star berth.
The Celtics’ wing has indeed shouldered a heavier offensive burden than ever before, posting a career-high usage rate on par with Kemba Walker’s while doing far more work as a primary ball-handler. The results are per-game stats and nightly flashes of high-level playmaking that suggest Tatum has taken a major step forward offensively – one that forecasts the imminent superstardom his staunchest believers have always seen coming.
But it’s Tatum’s development on the other end, though, that’s loomed just as large to the Celtics far surpassing preseason expectations in 2019-20. On a team littered with engaged, quality defenders who move in perfect sync, Tatum’s ability to disrupt opposing offenses away from the ball has played a major part in Boston cementing itself as a top-five defensive outfit.
He’s not as versatile as Marcus Smart, as adept at staying in front of ball-handlers as Jaylen Brown, nor as sturdy as Gordon Hayward. But Tatum is a cagey, long-armed menace as a help defender, routinely garnering steals and deflections from the weak side and opportunistically jumping passing lanes in the open floor. Like Smart, his ears perk up on scram switches, ready to create a turnover.
Tatum’s new sense of aggression defensively has more recently been manifested in isolation, too. Devin Booker isn’t embarrassed like this very often.
Tatum tops the Celtics in net defensive rating and ranks second in the NBA in defensive real plus-minus – the type of numbers befitting a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate. That’s a bridge too far for a wing defender of Tatum’s impactful yet limited scope.
But he’s proven his worth as an integral cog for one of the league’s stingiest defenses regardless and deserves All-Defense consideration because of it.
Royce O’Neale – Utah Jazz
In a vacuum, O’Neale would be an indispensable part of Utah’s starting five. But Joe Ingles’ season was resuscitated when he again began playing most of his minutes next to Rudy Gobert, and Quin Snyder’s assertion that the Jazz’s championship hopes rest with Mike Conley reaching his ceiling means he’s best suited as a starter, too.
But with a tightened jumper and exuding the confidence of a player who knows he belongs, O’Neale has emerged as the league’s latest three-and-D archetype – not to mention one of Utah’s most important two-way pieces – despite his recent shift to the bench. At 6-foot-4 and a sturdy 226 pounds with long arms, O’Neale is his team’s resident stopper, checking the opposition’s most dangerous perimeter player from the likes of Damian Lillard to Kawhi Leonard.
There just aren’t many defenders in basketball with O’Neale’s combination of quick feet, natural strength and active hands. He’s a pest in every sense of the word, with the natural physicality and dogged demeanor to play far bigger than his size. Just ask Nikola Jokic and Luka Doncic, both of whom recently fell victim to O’Neale’s brash, forceful defensive approach in crunch time.
O’Neale won’t get any Defensive Player of the Year chatter and may not even receive any All-Defense votes. Rudy Gobert is so dominant that it’s tough to separate the impact of his teammates from that of his own. But the Jazz’s defensive personnel this season is objectively inferior to years past, while O’Neale has played a more crucial role in maintaining Utah’s longstanding integrity on that end than any player on the roster other than Gobert.
Jazz teammates, coaches, fans and opponents know just how effective O’Neale is defensively. Here’s hoping the former undrafted free agent is eventually subject to the league-wide acclaim his standout defensive chops warrant.
Rudy Gobert – Utah Jazz
Gobert is making it impossible to refrain from highlighting his defensive prowess on a bi-weekly basis.
The two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year is best known for lording over the paint, blocking shots, affecting others and preventing more. But he made a concerted effort over the offseason to expand the limits of his defensive ability, working hard to improve his later mobility so he could stick with smalls on the perimeter when Utah is forced into switches.
Gobert’s mind-bending recovery block on Dorell Wright in the clutch against the Dallas Mavericks on Jan. 25 is one of the most impressive single defensive efforts of the season. What’s more amazing is that it doesn’t stand far apart from similar plays he’s made recently when tasked with corralling ball handlers beyond the arc.
Utah has pretty much exclusively switched Gobert onto guards this season late in close games. Its scheme still calls for him to serve as the last line of defense between the ball and the basket, but don’t be surprised if Snyder veers from that time-honored plan in certain matchups come playoff time.
Over halfway through this season, though, it’s clear he’s better equipped than ever to step out on the floor and effectively slide his feet with ball handlers.
Defensive Player of the Year Rankings
5. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
4. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
3. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
1. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
Honorable mention: Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics; Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers; Bam Adebayo, Miami HEAT; Kawhi Leonard, LA Clippers; Marc Gasol, Toronto Raptors; P.J. Tucker, Houston Rockets; Kris Dunn, Chicago Bulls; Jakob Poeltl, San Antonio Spurs
Grizzlies trade Jonas Valanciunas to Pelicans for Eric Bledsoe, Steven Adams
According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Andrew Lopez, the New Orleans Pelicans are shipping guard Eric Bledsoe, center Steven Adams, the Nos. 10 and 40 picks of the 2021 NBA Draft, and two future first-round picks to the Memphis Grizzlies for center Jonas Valanciunas and the Nos. 17 and 51 picks of this week’s upcoming draft. So, the Pelicans are giving up the Lakers’ 2022 first-round pick. Valanciunas, the 29-year-old veteran center, averaged 17.1 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 1.8 assists per game in 62 games played throughout the 2020-21 season. He also shot 59 percent from the field. The seven-foot Lithuanian also ranks fourth overall in true shooting percentage (.616) among active players. On July 11, 2019, Valanciunas signed a three-year, $45 million contract with the Grizzlies. He is set to earn $4 million next season.
Additionally, in 71 games played last season, Bledsoe averaged 12.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 3.8 assists. The six-foot-one guard also shot 42.1 percent from the field in the 2020-21 season. On November 23, 2020, as part of a four-team trade, Bledsoe and Adams were traded to the Pelicans from the Oklahoma City Thunder, along with two future first-round picks and the right to swap two additional first-round picks. Last season, in 71 games played, Bledsoe averaged 12.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 3.8 assists. His field goal percentage was 42.1 percent as well. The 11-year veteran is set to earn $18,125,000 in the 2021-22 season. Before he was traded to New Orleans, on March 4, 2019, the guard signed a four-year, $70 million extension. He earned his first All-Defensive second-team selection in the 2019-20 season.
The Grizzlies and Pelicans have agreed on a trade to send Jonas Valanciunas, 2021 Nos. 17 and 51 picks to New Orleans for Steven Adams, Eric Bledsoe, 2021 picks Nos. 10 and 40 and a protected 2022 first-round pick via the Lakers, per @wojespn pic.twitter.com/q7ZoqzpJjt
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) July 26, 2021
Moreover, in 58 games played last season, Adams averaged 7.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game. The six-foot-eleven center ranks fifth among active players for effective field goal shooting percentage (.591). The eight-year veteran also ranks third in offensive rebounding percentage, with an active statistic of 14 percent. On November 23, 2020, the same day Adams was traded to the Pelicans, he signed a two-year, $35 million extension. For next season, he is projected to earn $17,073,171. To add to this trade news, the Grizzlies and Pelicans are swapping second-round picks in this year’s draft, too. Referencing NBA.com’s “Consensus Mock Draft” article, with the No. 10 pick of the draft, the Pelicans were originally expected to draft either Josh Giddey or Davion Mitchell at this number. However, plans have now changed.
From ESPN’s Bobby Marks, the trade will not be finalized until August 6th, and this is because of the annual salaries of these said players. Free agency will begin on August 2, 6:00 p.m. (EST). Furthermore, per Spotrac’s 2021-22 NBA salary cap table, next season’s luxury tax threshold is $136,606,000. The team’s current available luxury tax space is $22,555,195. The Pelicans and Grizzlies have a salary cap maximum of $112,414,000. Brandon Ingram, Bledsoe, and Adams had a combined cap percentage of 39.2 percent. Considering that Bledsoe and Adams are traded away, this will clear up $35,198,171 of dead cap space.
Yesterday, CBS Sports reported the news pertaining to Lonzo Ball’s desire to remain in New Orleans. With extra cap space, the team is expected to re-sign the 23-year-old guard. Likewise, for the Grizzlies, the teams has a luxury tax space of $37,019,952. Their current cap space is $8,321,229. As stated before, the transactions have not yet been finalized. The Grizzlies’ outgoing cap is now $14 million, but from the contracts of Adams and Bledsoe, they are bringing in $35,198,171.
NBA Trade Rumors: Jazz considering trade offers for Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles, Royce O’Neale, and No. 30 pick of the 2021 NBA Draft
Per one interesting announcement from Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer, the Utah Jazz are open to trading forward Bojan Bogdanovic, forward-guard Joe Ingles, small forward Royce O’Neale, and the No. 30 pick of the 2021 NBA Draft. Fischer stated, “The Utah Jazz are known to be one of the few teams actually searching to move playoff-tested talent. Retaining Mike Conley is an offseason priority, sources said, and the Jazz have held numerous discussions with teams around the league about offloading salary to create for Conley in free agency.” Point guard Mike Conley is set to become a free agent this offseason. Though, general manager Justin Zanik will aim to re-sign the 33-year-old guard in the coming weeks. Conley earned $34.5 million in the 2020-21 season.
“League personnel most often mention Joe Ingles as the Jazz wing to watch, and Bojan Bogdanovic and Royce O’Neale are also considered available for trade as Utah narrows its focus towards building a contender around Donovan Mitchel. The Jazz are also open to discuss trading their No. 30 pick, sources said.” In the 2020-21 season, in 72 games played, Bogdanovic averaged 17 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game. On May 1, 2021, in the team’s 106-102 victory over the Toronto Raptors, the six-foot-seven Croatian scored a season-high 34 points, shooting 12-for-22, and he finished his performance with four rebounds and four assists as well. On July 7, 2019, he signed a four-year, $73 million contract with the Jazz.
In 67 games played last season, Ingles averaged 12.1 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 4.7 assists per game. The six-foot-eight forward is set to earn $14 million in the 2021-22 season. Plus, among the mentioned players, Royce O’Neale has contributed the least. In 71 games played last season, he averaged seven points, 6.8 rebounds, and 2.5 assists. On January 19, 2020, the forward signed a four-year, $36 million extension with the team. He will earn $8.6 million next season. According to The Athletic, in the team’s seventh workout for draft prospects, they viewed Quentin Grimes, David Duke, Matt Mitchell, and a few other players. In the first round, if the team chooses not to draft any of the players they are holding workouts for, the organization will trade the No. 30 pick.
Just for a reminder, retrieved from Spotrac, the 2021-22 NBA luxury tax threshold is $136,606,000. Utah’s active roster cap is $133,284,695, the maximum cap is $112,414,000, and the current cap space is $72,990,215. Furthermore, center Rudy Gobert currently has the highest guaranteed contract on the team. On December 20, 2020, Gobert signed a five-year, $205 million extension with the organization. Gobert is set to earn $35.3 million in the coming season, whereas Donovan Mitchell will earn $28.1 million. Gobert and Mitchell combined consume 47.6 percent of the team’s salary cap. For the upcoming 2021-22 season, the Jazz have a guaranteed total of $129,719,453. Based on the team’s future outlook, the Jazz will have to make a trade or two in order to retain their star players. This should go without saying.
NBA Analysis Network reported a few days ago that a potential Jazz-Knicks trade target is Bojan Bogdanovic. Greg Patuto proposed the Knicks receiving Bogdanovic, while the Jazz would receive Kevin Knox II, and the Nos. 19 and No. 32 picks of the 2021 NBA Draft. Now, this could still happen at some point during this draft week, but then again, sports bettors and fans alike understand that these news reports could be just rumors. The most intelligent, unforthcoming general managers know not to leave bread crumb trails for the media, especially leading into the offseason. They will do everything necessary to protect their foolproof plans.
Raptors, Pacers, Timberwolves, Kings, and Cavaliers among teams showing interest in Ben Simmons
According to Jake Fischer of Bleacher Report, five teams have shown interest in pursuing Ben Simmons from the Philadelphia 76ers. Fischer reported, “Cleveland, Indiana, Minnesota, Sacramento, and Toronto all showed interest in acquiring the runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year.” Furthermore, the teams are wanting Simmons to change position from point guard to forward. “Multiple executives from those teams, when contacted by Bleacher Report, mentioned their excitement at incorporating Simmons as a play-making forward—not at the point guard position he’s played in Philadelphia.” The six-foot-eleven guard averaged 14.3 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 6.9 assists in the 2020-21 NBA season. This might sound fine for a young rookie, but as a five-year player, these aforementioned statistics were career lows.
However, the 25-year-old also earned his third NBA All-Star selection and second All-Defensive first-team selection last season. After a less than mediocre performance in his third postseason of his NBA career, the majority of 76ers’ fans would agree that it’s now time for Simmons to have a change in scenery. With a regular season record of 49-23 (.681), the No. 1 ranked 76ers in the Eastern Conference entered the conference semifinals as favorites over the Atlanta Hawks. Leading into this series, some NBA analysts were predicting Philadelphia to prevail four games to two. The 2016 first overall pick was expected to limit Trae Young in scoring and rally his team from point deficits, but none of this ever manifested.
Raptors, Wolves, Cavs, Pacers and Kings have all showed interest in acquiring Ben Simmons, per B/R's @JakeLFischer
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) July 25, 2021
Pertaining to postseason averages, Simmons had a playoff series-low of 9.9 points and 6.3 rebounds per game in the conference semifinals against the Hawks. This lackluster showing proved to be a more significant downfall for the superstar, considering Simmons had only five points, eight rebounds, and 13 assists in Game 7 versus the Hawks. In the 2019-20 season, he averaged 2.1 steals per game, leading all other players in the league. Moreover, Simmons currently ranks sixth in the NBA for active player triple-doubles (32). With a total of 32 career triple-doubles, he ranks 13th on the all-time list, tied with Clippers’ guard Rajon Rondo.
On July 16, 2019, Simmons signed a five-year, $169.65 million contract extension with the 76ers. He is set to earn $30.5 million in the 2021-22 season. Among these teams interested in Simmons, Cavs’ Kevin Love has the fourth largest contract guarantee of $91.4 million. Love is due to earn $31.3 million next season, and the 13-year veteran’s contract consumes 26 percent of the team’s salary cap. He could be traded this offseason. Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns has a contract guarantee of $130.8 million. The 25-year-old Wolves center will earn $31.6 million in the upcoming season.
Plus, Kings’ 2017 first-round pick De’Aaron Fox has a guaranteed contract of $171.1 million. Fox will earn $28.1 million next season. To add to that, Raptors’ Pascal Siakim has a contract guarantee of $131.4 million. Not to mention, reported by Yahoo Sports via trade rumors yesterday, the Golden State Warriors are a potential trade partner for Toronto. The Warriors could make a move on Siakim, clearing up space on the Raptors for Simmons. Per Spotrac, the 2021-22 season cap maximum is $112,414,000. In the coming weeks, one of these said five teams might make a substantial trade offer to the 76ers’ organization that they cannot refuse.
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