With the New Year fast approaching, it’s time to check in once again on our Defensive Player of the Year Watch series on Basketball Insiders.
Though there is no distinct winner for the award just yet, there has been some separation created in the race in the past couple of weeks.
6. Kristaps Porzingis
“The Unicorn” deserves plenty of love for the season he’s putting together for the New York Knicks as they seek to make the playoffs for the first time in five seasons. By now we’re all aware of what he’s accomplished as the face of the franchise in the Big Apple, but it’s been an all-around approach that’s really helped him make the next step towards superstardom.
Currently, Porzingis is one of eight players seeing 15 or more field goal attempts per game, and he holds the second-lowest defended field goal percentage among that group, with opponents only converting 41 percent of their shots. Statistically speaking, he’s also been the best rim-protecting big man in the NBA as well. According to tracking data, he’s blocked as many shots as he’s allowed in the restricted area. Tack on his average of over two blocks per game and that’s more than enough reason to put him on this list.
5. Joel Embiid
It’s been a tough week for Embiid against his fellow centers in the paint. For starters, Christmas Day wasn’t kind to him as Enes Kanter put up 31 points and 22 rebounds for the Knicks in 36 minutes—21 of those were scored and nine of the boards were taken down while he was on the floor. On Thursday, the damage wasn’t as obvious, but Jusuf Nurkic was able to have his way with him in the post and also recorded a double-double en route to a Portland Trail Blazers victory.
The Philadelphia 76ers are in a rut as of late. They’ve dropped 10 out of their last 12 games and are four games under .500. With that being said, Embiid missed five of those and played in the two contests they won. He’s paramount to the success of that team and is still having a great campaign defensively, recording the highest differential in defended field goal percentage and field goal percentage in the league. The 7-foot center still ranks in the 97th percentile in defensive rating (PHI DRTG is -11.9 with him off) according to Cleaning The Glass.
4. Draymond Green
The reigning DPOY award winner from last season is quickly moving up the ranks. Averaging over a steal and a block per game, Green is in full swing for the Golden State Warriors as the defensive mastermind he’s been for the majority of his career. He’s got some competition on his own side, as you’ll read down this list, but the job he’s done can’t be overlooked.
The Warriors are the number one team in defensive rating, allowing just 102.2 points per 100 possessions. They’re also at the top of the NBA in opponent effective field goal percentage at a lowly 48.7 percent. They wouldn’t be there without his contributions, and there’s sufficient evidence to back that up. In ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus, Green has a 3.37 rating which is the best in the league with his workload of 30 minutes or higher per game. Using another example, Basketball Reference’s Defensive Box Plus-Minus puts him in second place behind Andre Drummond with a 3.3 rating.
3. Paul George
It’s extremely tough to decide who the better defender is on the Thunder. Between Andre Roberson—who has been mentioned on this list previously—and George, it’s almost a toss-up. Both guys are extremely talented on that end of the floor, but considering how one is doing this in his first year with a brand new team and in a new environment, that narrows it down it a little.
George’s reputation as one of the best two-way players in basketball precedes itself, but his hustle and consistency as a defensive juggernaut are what makes him such a threat. Right now, PG-13 is at the top of the mountain with two-and-a-half steals per game. He has 161 deflections on the season, which is a league-high by far. To top all of that off, he’s runner-up in the NBA in loose balls recovered (61) to his teammate Russell Westbrook. Oklahoma City has been a top three defensive team this year and he’s been a big reason why.
2. Anthony Davis
As said in this series before, the New Orleans Pelicans don’t have a particularly good track record as a team that prevents its competition from scoring. That being said, one should shudder to think where that team would be without Davis on the court. His presence is so meaningful to them that their defensive rating dips by -13.4, which puts “The Brow” in the 98th percentile as specified by CTG.
To this point, Davis has had 11 games with three blocks or more. Most recently against the Brooklyn Nets, he swatted a season-high six shots in addition to putting up a 33-point, 11-rebound double-double to lead the Pelicans to their third straight victory. He’s the only player in the NBA who is averaging over two blocks and a steal per game. The fact that he’s one of eight players seeing over 15 attempts against him per game and is at the top of the list (40.6 DFG%) is also telling.
1. Kevin Durant
The second Warriors forward on this list is perhaps the most deserving among this field of candidates. Being the focal point of a team without its All-Star point guard, Durant has been nothing short of spectacular. Not only has he taken on the responsibility as the primary scorer, but he’s also been an absolute monster as an individual defender. That’s been the case with and without Stephen Curry on the floor, too.
So where do we start? How about the fact that Durant shut down LeBron James on Christmas. In 34 minutes—excluding the egregious foul fiasco in the final moments of the game—The King was held to 33.3 percent from the field, turned the ball over six times, and made only five field goals with the reigning NBA Finals MVP on the floor.
That’s one of many examples of how elite he’s been. In isolation possessions (min. 35), Durant has held his opponents to 7-for-29 on such attempts, which equates to a league-low 24.1 percent and puts him in the 94th percentile according to NBA.com. His defended field goal percentage is the best in the league among those contesting at least 12 shots per game, and he’s averaging over two blocks per game to boot.
Time and time again he’s come up huge when Golden State has needed him most, and that’s why Durant should be atop the list when it comes to discussing DPOY as it stands now.
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