In the season’s early going, a familiar cast of characters has emerged in the race for Defensive Player of the Year. In a league increasingly reliant on versatility and the implementation of pace and space, though, some new candidates have emerged, as other, position-less defenders have a greater opportunity than ever to force their way into the conversation.
So, with that said, here’s where the Defensive Player of the Year race stands two weeks into 2019-20.
Honorable Mention: Jonathan Isaac, Orlando Magic; Al Horford, Philadelphia 76ers; Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors; Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers; Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers; Dwight Howard, Los Angeles Lakers
5. Joel Embiid – Philadelphia 76ers
Call it an honorary spot in the season’s earliest Defensive Player of the Year rankings.
Embiid, to be clear, has played in only half of Philadelphia’s six games after being suspended for tussling with Karl-Anthony Towns. His 76 total minutes played is less than half that of every other player on this list. It’s only fair to mention, too, that opponents are shooting 69.6 percent at the rim against Embiid, making him one of the least effective rim-protectors in the NBA so far. The small sample size plays a huge factor there, obviously, and Embiid has been among the league’s elite in that regard every season of his career.
More importantly, the eye test and other on-off defensive data confirm what we thought coming into 2019-20: Health provided, Embiid will be a favorite for Defensive Player of the Year all season long.
Embiid, despite shedding some weight this season, remains a mountain as a post defender and looms larger as a weak-side shot-blocker than arguably any other player in basketball.
The 76ers rank sixth in defensive rating, and surrender just 85.0 points per 100 possessions with Embiid on the floor – an easy team-low among regulars, both for the season’s duration and dating back to his suspension. Philadelphia also gives up fewer shots at the rim and opponents shoot worse from there when he’s on the floor, per Cleaning The Glass.
Just as telling of his sweeping impact on a team overflowing with defensive talent, Philadelphia has been far stingier with Embiid on the court and Horford on the bench than vice versa, too.
Embiid’s case is incomplete due to his suspension, and despite the weight loss, he’s still struggled to defend in space after switches. But given his track record and the available evidence, scant as it may be, Embiid seems well on his way to another season worthy of Defensive Player of the Year.
4. Giannis Antetokounmpo – Milwaukee Bucks
The highlight-reel plays speak for themselves. There isn’t a more threatening chase-down artist in transition than Antetokounmpo, and his impossibly-long arms and opportunistic instincts allow him to wreak havoc in the half-court, jumping passing lanes for steals and challenging shots as a helper.
Even a basketball layman, casually watching the action, could understand just how devastating he is as a defender.
But it’s the more nuanced influence that separates Antetokounmpo from other non-centers who rack up steals, blocks and deflections with ease. At 6-foot-11 with a wingspan 7-foot-3 or longer, most players simply refuse to challenge him when an opportunity to do so presents itself, letting his teammates get back in position to avoid further defensive rotations. While Milwaukee’s scheme doesn’t readily permit switching, the inevitable scrambles that result from ball and player movement mean Antetokounmpo regularly guards multiple players on a single possession.
None of them have much interest in challenging him, either.
Antetkounmpo would be higher on this list if the Bucks weren’t quietly struggling, relative to expectations, defensively. They currently rank 13th in defensive rating, and barely fare better when excluding garbage time.
But Milwaukee has played a relatively tough schedule over the season’s first two weeks, and is relying on the same system that helped it finish first in defense a year ago. As time propels Milwaukee up the defensive rankings, expect Antetokounmpo’s case for Defensive Player of the Year to grow even stronger.
3. Bam Adebayo – Miami Heat
The HEAT have quietly been a top-10 defensive unit in each of the past three seasons, indicative of Erik Spoelstra’s schematic success and the franchise’s overarching identity of effort and hard work.
But, in 2019-20, Miami finally has the defensive personnel worthy of its strategy and ethos, a reality Adebayo embodies on a nightly basis.
Entrenched as a starter for the first time in his career, Adebayo is an early Most Improved Player frontrunner due to his increased playmaking responsibilities offensively. But it’s the other end of the floor where the fourth-year big man has made his presence felt most, and where the HEAT seem primed to emerge as one of the stingiest teams in the league because of it.
Adebayo isn’t a traditional rim-protecting force a la Embiid, nor an all-court defensive terror like Antetokounmpo. Instead, he’s something in between, a wing in a center’s body with a motor that never stops who can legitimately check all five positions.
Adebayo served as the HEAT’s primary defender of Russell Westbrook during his team’s blowout win over the Houston Rockets on Sunday, and also flashed his unparalleled switching chops while matching up with James Harden and Eric Gordon. His game-saving chase-down block on Eric Bledsoe in a comeback win over the Bucks is the season’s most memorable defensive play to date.
The HEAT own the league’s fourth-best defensive rating entering Tuesday’s tilt with the Denver Nuggets, and allow 6.8 fewer points per 100 possessions with Adebayo on the floor compared to the bench. Opponents’ rate of shots at the rim dips 6.1 percent with him in the lineup, per Cleaning the Glass, the biggest discrepancy owed to any player listed.
Miami, with the exception of Philadelphia, possesses as much top-tier defensive talent as any team in basketball with Adebayo, Jimmy Butler and Justise Winslow. But, two weeks into the regular season, it’s clear Adebayo is the engine behind the HEAT’s dominance on that side of the ball.
2. Rudy Gobert – Utah Jazz
So much for the notion that the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year’s candidacy for a third straight trophy would be mitigated by his team pivoting away from old-school lineups. Utah’s embrace of a four-out style, in fact, has actually made Gobert’s case even stronger.
The Jazz have the league’s second-ranked defense through seven games despite replacing Derrick Favors with Bojan Bogdanovic and shirking two-big quintets altogether. Though it actually defends better with Gobert off the floor, a testament to Quin Snyder’s schematic and motivational brilliance, Utah still permits 5.8 percent fewer shots at the rim with him manning the middle, per Cleaning the Glass.
That’s an especially important stat, as the Jazz’s success defensively hinges on manipulating the opposing team’s shot profile. They allow fewer shots at the rim than any team but Milwaukee and rank sixth in opponent’s three-point rate, leading teams to take a league-high proportion of mid-range jumpers.
No player in basketball accounts more for his team’s defensive identity than Gobert. The Jazz funnel everything his way, confident penetrators and finishers will be spooked by the looming threat of one of the best rim-protectors of all time. LeBron James, for instance, normally doesn’t resort to 16-foot floaters with a head of steam toward the rim, and Anthony Davis normally doesn’t feel the need to dribble into a fadeaway jumper after grabbing an offensive rebound directly under the basket.
Dwight Howard is the only player to ever win three consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards. Despite mitigating contextual circumstances, it’s now obvious Gobert has a great chance of becoming the second.
1. Anthony Davis – Los Angeles Lakers
Easily overlooked due to how clunky a pair of traditional big men has made the Lakers’ offense is what that look does for them on the other side of the floor. Los Angeles’ defensive rating is a league-best 96.3, and its 52.1 percent shooting allowed at the rim ranks second, per NBA.com. Lineups featuring Davis and Howard boast a 77.9 defensive rating, comfortably lowest among the team’s most oft-used tandems.
Howard deserves immense credit for his role in pushing the Lakers’ defense to the top of the NBA. Los Angeles has been substantially better on that end with him next to Davis than JaVale McGee too, evidence of his much-improved engagement and overall understanding of defensive rotations.
But the numbers, almost as much as the eye test, make clear that Davis is the single biggest source of Los Angeles’ excellence on defense. His defensive rating in 65 minutes played without Howard and McGee is 97.3, barely above the Lakers’ season-long mark, and the opposition has shot a mind-blowing 19 percent against him at the rim, lowest in the league among qualified players.
Both of those numbers, and certainly the latter one, are likely to rise as the season progresses. But, finally in the national spotlight, vying for a title as co-star to arguably the greatest player ever, Davis seems more committed to defense on a play-by-play basis than ever, frequently leading to the type of jaw-dropping plays only he and a select few others can dream of making.
Despite the loss to the rival LA Clippers on opening night, Davis put on a personal show defensively that voters should remember when it comes time to cast ballots during awards season.
Even more than Antetokounmpo, who lags behind him as a pure shot-blocker, Davis stands apart defensively. There’s no other defender in basketball like him, and if the season’s early going is a harbinger of what’s to come, Davis could very well win his first Defensive Player of the Year award in his first campaign with the Lakers.
Of course, this list has the qualifier of a small sample size. Over the course of the season, these rankings are subject to change, whether because of an unexpected competitor, an injury to an expected candidate or otherwise.
That said, make sure to stay tuned for the rest of the Basketball Insiders award watches, and keep on the lookout for future updates throughout the season.
NBA Daily: Raptors’ Thomas Patiently Perseveres
It took a tight family, two years in Spain and a broken finger, but Matt Thomas’ chance to showcase his shooting on the biggest stage might be finally just around the corner.
Matt Thomas’ long-awaited break was disrupted by a more literal break. After the shooting guard spent two years impressing in the Liga ACB in Spain, Thomas’ first season with the Toronto Raptors was supposed to be his chance to prove himself NBA-ready.
And as the Raptors suffered injury after injury in November, that chance looked like it could grow into a full-blown role, if only on a temporary basis.
“He’s shown he can play at this level, where we can come out there and run stuff for him and he can do work,” Toronto head coach Nick Nurse said. “He’s a really good team defender; he’s much better defensively than maybe people give him credit for.”
Instead, Thomas joined the walking wounded with a broken finger, the first injury to force him to miss extended time in his professional career.
“Anytime you’re injured, it’s hard,” Thomas said. “As a competitor, I want to be on the court, especially we had so many injuries. There was a big opportunity on the table for a first-year guy like myself.”
Thomas had hit 14-of-26 threes at that point, 53.8 percent, already arguably the best shooter on the Raptors’ roster, albeit in limited minutes. The Iowa State product was making the most of his break until his break.
He had waited for it since finishing his four-year career in Ames and Thomas seemed on the verge of reaching the NBA right away in 2017. He spent that Summer League with the Los Angeles Lakers, knowing the Raptors were keeping a close eye. In time, though, Valencia beckoned, a tough decision for someone exceptionally close with his family. Up until that point, the closeness had been as literal as figurative, with Iowa State a four-hour drive from Thomas’ hometown of Onalaska, Wisconsin.
“I wanted to spread my wings and get out of my comfort zone a little bit,” Thomas said of his two years in Spain where he averaged 13.3 points and shot 47.2 percent from deep. “The distance is tough. The time change is the other thing. It’s a 7-to-8 hour time difference, so you really have to coordinate when you’re going to talk to people.”
That was frustrating for a brother intent on keeping up on his sister’s college career, now a senior at the University of Dubuque. Moreover, it was an even bigger change for a family that had been tight-knit since Thomas lost his father in fifth grade.
Thomas’s mother, brother and sister did manage to visit him in Spain, but watching games stateside is obviously much easier. At least, in theory. When the Midwestern winter dumped five inches of snow on the highways between the Target Center and his hometown about 2.5 hours away, that recent trek to see him became that much tougher.
Nonetheless, about four dozen Thomas supporters filled a section above the Raptors’ bench. They were most noticeable when Nurse subbed in the sharpshooter with just a minute left in the first half.
“It’s special because I have a really good support system,” Thomas said. “I’ve had that my entire life . . . It’s just really special to have so many people make the trip, especially given the weather conditions. I was talking to one of my cousins from Iowa; he was driving 30 on the highway. He got here in six hours, it would normally take maybe three.”
If anyone could understand that Midwestern stubbornness, it would be Nurse, himself from just four hours south of the Twin Cities. When asked why his fan club was not as vocal as Thomas’, Nurse joked his was stuck “in a snowdrift somewhere in Carroll County, Iowa.”
It might not have been a joke.
Nurse did not insert Thomas just to appease his loyal cheering section. The end of half situation called for a shooter — he had gone 7-of-18 in his four games after returning from the broken finger. Of players averaging at least two attempts from beyond the arc per game, Thomas leads Toronto with a 46.7 percentage.
“It’s too bad that he was one of the guys out when we had everybody out because he could have logged some serious minutes,” Nurse said. “Now he gets back and everybody’s back and he kind of gets filtered in.”
That close family, that time in Spain, that broken finger and now that filtering in have all been a part of Thomas getting a chance to prove himself in the NBA.
If he has to wait a bit longer before seeing serious minutes, so be it.
The Raptors did, after all, give him a three-year contract. He has time on his side.
Who The NBA’s Top Road Warriors?
Jordan Hicks takes a look at the teams boasting the top-five road records in the league and breaks down what makes them so good away from home.
Winning in the NBA is not easy by any means — but a victory on the road is almost more valuable than one at home. Maybe not as far as standings are concerned, but road wins are harder to come by in the league. Being able to get victories away from home can shoot your team up the standings faster than anything else.
Each year there are new teams that impress. Whether it’s expected franchises such as those led by LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard — superstars with historically great track records, rosters that must do so to meet lofty expectations. But there are always surprise newcomers such as the Miami HEAT or the Dallas Mavericks, too. Either way, a large chunk of those aforementioned team’s success relies heavily upon their ability to get wins on the road.
Who are the best road warriors this year? What teams are posting the highest records away from their home cities at the halfway point? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the top five teams in that realm, plus points to certain reasons they may be finding success.
No. 1: Los Angeles Lakers (19-4)
This first one should come as no surprise. For one, they are led by LeBron James. Secondly, they are co-led by Anthony Davis. Do you even need a third reason?
Listen, everyone thought the Lakers would be good. But did anyone think they’d be this dominant and click this fast? Honestly, high-five if so. But it’s not just those two that are doing all the work. Players like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are thriving, Dwight Howard is having a mini-resurgence, Kyle Kuzma is playing for his roster spot and Rajon Rondo is still dishing dimes at a high rate – though not as high as King James.
LeBron is averaging 26 points, 10.9 assists and 8.4 rebounds on the road, almost a triple-double. Davis is just behind scoring-wise at 25.9 points and almost a double-double with 9.2 rebounds. Kuzma is shooting 47.2 percent from the field and scoring just over 15 a game and, most surprisingly, leading the team in plus-minus at a plus-7.1.
With multiple road-wins against the Mavericks — and one each over the Miami HEAT, the Utah Jazz, and the Denver Nuggets — what’s not to appreciate? The Lakers appear to be the clear front runner in the Western Conference and their impressive road record is a large reason why.
No. 2: Milwaukee Bucks (18-4)
On top of the road-win totem with the Lakers sits the Milwaukee Bucks. They’ve been every bit as dominating as the Lakers, which is helped, in part, to the much-weaker bottom of the Eastern Conference. But this by no means is a knock on their talent level. Just like the Lakers are the current kings of the West, the Bucks are dominating the East.
Giannis Antetokounmpo appears ready to secure his second consecutive MVP award. He’s even more dominant than he was last year and he’s finally shooting the three at a respectable clip.
While Antetokounmpo’s numbers seem to be pretty steady overall when compared to his road numbers, Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton both see a bump in production when playing away from their home arena. Although the Bucks have an insanely-impressive point differential of plus-13.8 at home, it dips to just plus-11.4 when they play on the road. This is a true testament to their consistency as they travel.
The Bucks appear to lack the road-win resume that the Lakers bolster, but with solid wins against the Los Angeles Clippers and Houston Rockets, they can clearly take care of business against evenly-matched opponents.
No. 3: Dallas Mavericks (14-5)
By far and large the biggest surprise this NBA season has been the Mavericks. A few smart people probably had them penciled in as a surprise eighth-seed, but it’s almost a guarantee no one had them in as a playoff lock as early as December.
The reason they’re playing so well? Luka Doncic. He’s only half an assist away from averaging a triple-double on the road and he’s scoring more to boot. In fact, the Mavericks are averaging just 115.1 points at home compared to a whopping 118.6 on the road.
What’s even crazier is the fact that Dallas’ offensive rating while on the road not only leads the NBA — it’s over four full points greater than the Lakers at No. 2. The gap between them and second place is as big as the space between Los Angeles and the eleventh-ranked team.
The Mavericks boast quite the slate of road wins including the Nuggets, Lakers, Bucks, Rockets and Philadelphia 76ers. Yes, you read all those names right. One thing is for certain, the Mavericks will be a nightmare for whoever has to play them in the playoffs – regardless of seeding.
No. 4: Toronto Raptors (14-7)
You would think that after Kawhi Leonard’s departure that the Raptors would have slightly folded, but they’ve almost picked up right where they left off. Sure, Leonard’s absence was going to leave some sort of void, but it’s amazing just how well Toronto has fared this season.
They boast the second-best road defense with a rating of 102.7, just behind the Bucks. They also have the fourth-best net rating away from home.
The three-headed monster of Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry has been as effective on the road as it has been at home. Thanks to the ever-improving play of Siakam, Toronto should comfortably find themselves with home-court advantage come playoff time. They might not have what it takes to repeat as champions, but they’re absolutely going to make life tough for whomever they end up facing.
Solid road wins against the Boston Celtics and Lakers certainly look impressive on the resume, but they’ll need to continue to improve as a unit if they want to make any noise in the playoffs.
No. 5: Denver Nuggets (13-7)
The Nuggets are having an interesting season. Gary Harris hasn’t been playing well at all, Jamal Murray hasn’t been turning heads either, but Nikola Jokic is still feasting on any opposing center thrown his way.
The biggest surprise so far? The stellar play of second-year rookie Michael Porter Jr. He’s only averaging about 15 minutes per game but, on the road, he’s scoring 8.3 points per game on 56 percent from the field and 51.6 percent from three. His NBA sample sizes aren’t quite big enough yet, but it’s becoming more and more clear just how good he’ll become.
Despite no one else on the roster improving much from last season, the Nuggets still find themselves in the upper-echelon of the Western Conference — and their stellar road play is a major reason. With solid road-wins against the Lakers, Mavericks and Indiana Pacers, the Nuggets are primed to finish the second half of the season strong. If Porter Jr. continues to improve and see expanded minutes, Denver could turn into a real threat out west.
All the teams on this list have been pretty impressive up to this point in the season, but there is still a long way to go. Will the Bucks or Lakers get dethroned as the road warriors of their respective conferences? Only time will tell.
But if one thing is certain in the NBA, road wins are no “gimmes,” regardless of opponent. The above teams all deserve their rightful spot on this midseason list. How many will remain come April?
The Next Frontier in Basketball: Results-Based Mindfulness
Jake Rauchbach outlines how firing and rewiring the brain’s neuro-networks via Brain-Based Training – Player Development is the next frontier in basketball.
The mind cannot tell the difference between what’s being experienced in real life and what is deliberately being visualized within the constructs of the mind. High-Performers have intuitively known this.
Science is now showing this. The brain has the ability to affect physiology and improve motor skill sets without lifting a finger.
For example, through visualizing desired outcomes, a person can rewire new neuro-networks (or pathways) in the brain, requisite for acquiring optimal motor function skills. This is based upon contemporary brain-based research.
The implications of these developments on the player development and performance space could be massive. Before we dive further into how, let’s first cover some foundational brain mechanics.
The Brain’s Neuro-Networks
According to some of the latest Epigenetic and neuroscience work by Dr. Joe Dispenza, the brain is comprised of a multitude of neuro-networks.
Neuro-networks are informational highways that transfer both information and commands. These networks are wired and rewired based upon our most consistent habits and behaviors.
According to Dispenza, people can upshift physiology, performance and career success through applying High-Performance Mindfulness techniques that rewire the brain’s neuro-networks.
Employing consistent visualization helps to fire and/or rewire these neuro-networks to more efficiently execute the specific task at hand. Additionally, employing leading-edge High-Performance methods takes this one step further by supercharging the process.
The current player development landscape generally leaves out likely the most important element of unlocking human potential and high-performance, the impact that systematically firing and rewiring neuro-networks in the brain has on statistical improvement.
This approach is much like honing muscle memory in a very specific, supercharged way, weeding out unproductive subconscious programs while installing productive programs, having the effect of boosting physiology, focus and, of course, performance.
Probably the most leading-edge and powerful way to do this is through the implementation of Brain-Based – Player Development methods. These methods can be applied for performance optimization and in the injury recovery process. More on performance in a minute, but first, let’s look at the recovery piece.
High-Performance Mindfulness for Injury Recovery
According to Dr. Milo Sewards, Head Orthopedic Surgeon of Temple University Athletics, one of the biggest areas that is left unaddressed during the rehabilitation process is the unhealed psychosomatic element. This is especially true after players are cleared to physically play.
“Players have to be able to clear that final mental hurdle that prevents them from being able to get back to not just participating but performing,” Sewards says.
According to Dr. Sewards, tools like this are a powerful way to address these issues.
“I have seen some incredible things happen, some efficacy with these techniques, and getting some guys back from injuries with these techniques back to a very high level of performance,” he says. “I would love to see all of this take off and be widely accepted.”
High-Performance tools addressing the mental hurdles that Dr. Sewards mentions above have been shown to quickly and effectively eliminate leftover psychosomatic elements from past injuries, but that is not all.
Take, for example, a study published in the Journal of Neurophysiology in 1992, where three test groups were used. Group No. 1 employed five, one-hour physical workout sessions per week for four weeks to improve arm strength. The second group just mentally rehearsed the same arm exercise that Group 1 did, without physically lifting a finger. Control groups did not exercise their arm or mind.
As you would expect, at the end of four weeks, Group 1 exhibited a 30% increase in muscle strength. But get this, the group that purely mentally rehearsed the exercise without any physical training, displayed a 22% increase in muscle strength!
Fascinating stuff, right? Another study, performed by Harvard researchers, took a group and divided it in half. One group practiced a five-finger piano exercise, two hours a day for five days. The other group’s members mentally rehearsed the exercise as if they were sitting at the piano without physically moving their fingers in any way.
Brain scans of both groups after the exercise revealed that they created a significant amount of neural activity. The group’s brain scan that only visualized the outcome was very similar to the group that had physically rehearsed.
There is big-time relevance here in regards to helping players improve.
Science continues to show that there are tangible improvements and progression taking place through Rep’ing the mind in a very specific way.
Optimizing Load Management
Efficient workflows are valued over old paradigm, sheer workload routines like never before. This is part of the reason why Load Management has become a priority. Career longevity and injury prevention have moved to the center.
Brain Psychology Player Development, that allows players the chance to improve on-court performance and physiology without increasing repetition of physical wear and tear, is an extremely valuable organizational asset.
Methods that optimize mental focus, emotional dissonance and statistical performance, without increasing the physical load on the body, are at a premium. For these reasons, combined with the scientific efficacy mentioned above, there could be a perfect storm brewing for massive market disruption.
The work-harder-for-longer model of player development is not resonating with the players as it once did. Combine this with leading-edge techniques shared within coming online, and the standard practices of improving basketball performance could change quickly. Players such as Aaron Gordon, LeBron James, Kevin Love and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson are infusing their routines with mind-based methods.
Considering that very few teams currently employ these methods in a systematic or customized fashion, there exists a HUGE opportunity for those forward-thinking organizations.
Optimizing On-Court Statistical Performance
High-Performance – Player Development Coaches have been showing that these methods influence on-court statistics upwards.
Case studies showing 10%, 20%, 30% and sometimes 40% improvement in the same season, have become routine and commonplace for the professional, national team and college players who trust and employ these processes.
Both players highlighted below experienced improvement in no less than five statistical areas in the course of the same season after implementation of mind-based methods. Here are examples of players describing how this work positively affected their game:
FIBA Cup, Daequan Cook: https://vimeo.com/361200434
FIBA Cup Captain, Tal Dunne: https://vimeo.com/322145121
For players and teams looking to gain a distinct edge in the development & performance space, the most efficient way to do this is through employing systematic processes that fire and rewire subconscious neuro-networks and produce high-performance.
Mind-based methods have been shown time and time again to facilitate this.
Based on growing empirical evidence, results and social proof, the next frontier in basketball could be mind-body methods that unlock performance.