It’s the beginning of December and we’re about one quarter into the NBA’s calendar year.
Thus far here on Basketball Insiders, twice we’ve highlighted names to watch out for when it comes to Defensive Player of the Year. Injuries have still kept the big-name contenders such as Rudy Gobert and Kawhi Leonard out of the picture, but at the same time, they’ve given other players an opportunity to receive the spotlight.
Let’s take a look at some fresh names included in our third installment of our DPOY Watch series.
6) Josh Richardson
Detailed on Basketball Insiders in an exclusive interview just a few days ago, the third-year wing is a definite bright spot for the Miami Heat as they try to combat the temporary loss of Hassan Whiteside.
Regarding individual defense, Richardson has held opponents to a lowly 36.2 percent success rate, which is the best in the NBA among those attempting at least 10 field goals per game. In addition, the Heat’s defensive rating is a -13.7 without him on the floor, a number that puts the 24-year-old in the 97th percentile according to Cleaning The Glass (all stats from here on courtesy of CTG unless otherwise specified).
5) Ben Simmons
Our last edition of the DPOY Watch mentioned one half of the Philadelphia 76ers duo Joel Embiid, so why not show some love to the other guy? It’s understood that he is a rookie and he likely won’t win the award, but the defensive intangibles we’ve seen from Simmons have been much more advanced than your average first-year player.
Ranking first in Defensive Real Plus-Minus (2.38) and Defense Box Plus-Minus (3.9) amid point guards by a wide margin, the 6-foot-10 Aussie hasn’t taken long to establish himself as a two-way threat in this league.
4) Luc Mbah a Moute
Remember this summer’s prediction about the Houston Rockets moving away from being one-dimensional? It’s becoming true. There have been quite a few blowouts, but that doesn’t take away from how great the team has been defensively. In fact, it should only support the argument.
As specified by CTG, the Rockets are the fifth best defensive team (103 DTRG) in the NBA. No, there hasn’t been a head coaching change. This is the same Mike D’Antoni-led group. They’re still almost impossible to guard. The only difference now is they’ve added pieces to fluster their competition as well. One of those players is Mbah a Moute.
Although he comes off the bench, the veteran forward has arguably been Houston’s most effective defender. When Mbah a Moute is on the court, the team allows fewer than 100 points per 100 possessions. If he’s off the floor, the Rockets DTRG balloons to 107.7.
3) Anthony Davis
The New Orleans Pelicans don’t have the best defense in the world because of their lack of wings, but they’re smack dab in the middle of the league with a 106.5 DTRG. And it would be an entirely different story if DeMarcus Cousins and Davis weren’t in the paint deterring every shot attempt in sight.
We’ve already given props to Boogie multiple times in this watch series, so let’s have a look at the impact The Brow has for this group. Firstly, the Pelicans are -14.8 points per 100 possessions worse defensively when Davis is off the floor. Their defensive rating is 102.4 in the opposite case. The discrepancy is in the 98th percentile. Furthermore, he’s one of 12 players in the NBA who is averaging at least a point and a steal per game.
The volume of shots Davis is seeing per game is telling, too. Opponents are averaging 14 shots on a nightly basis against him, but are only converting on 39.2 percent of those attempts, a number that places at the top of the league in regards to those defending the same amount of tries.
2) Eric Bledsoe
Almost a month ago, the Phoenix Suns traded the disgruntled point guard to the upstart Bucks. It took a week or so for him to get settled in with his new ball club, but—outside of Giannis Antetokounmpo—he’s already become the most important player on the team.
In 10 games with Milwaukee, the muscular 6-foot-1 guard is locking up his opposition. A perfect example of that would be Thursday’s battle with Damian Lillard. In the 27 minutes he was on the floor against the Portland Trail Blazers All-Star, Bledsoe held him to 38.5 percent from the field and forced five turnovers. If you look at the way he limited John Wall and Reggie Jackson in those matchups, you’d find similar success.
If that’s too small of a sample size, take something like this: Bledsoe has the best defensive rating on the team. Using CTG statistics, the Bucks are allowing 96.5 points per 100 possessions with him playing. When he’s sitting, that DTRG rises by 20.5. It’s a net difference that is in the 100th percentile. It’s that kind of impact that has Milwaukee ranked in the top 10 defensively over the last two weeks.
1) LeBron James
One month ago, having James on this list would have been laughable. The Cleveland Cavaliers were the second-worst defensive team in the NBA to only the lowly Phoenix Suns. It was a rocky beginning for the well-seasoned group—until they got their legs under them and began to dominate that end of the floor.
While the second unit has been responsible for the majority of the team’s success, it’s been James who has been tasked with the toughest of assignments, but he’s welcomed the challenges with open arms, especially in the clutch.
It started at Madison Square Garden against Kristaps Porzingis, whom the Cavaliers held to 31 percent with James on the floor before making a huge comeback. Then there was a matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers, where Blake Griffin only made one shot out of eight attempts in the fourth quarter and was limited to 32 percent from the field overall.
What might be even more astounding is he was equally as great against guards. Refer to when Kemba Walker was having his way in Cleveland one week ago during the first half. Tyronn Lue went to James starting in the third quarter and he absolutely stifled him, holding the Charlotte Hornets dynamo to 18.2 percent from the field and zero points in the final period. You can even use Thursday night as an example, when Dennis Schroder was scorching hot for the Atlanta Hawks until LeBron became responsible for him.
He is tied for best defender in the fourth quarter among those seeing at least three attempts per game, restricting his opponents to a 32.7 field goal percentage.
He’s blocking shots. He’s contesting shots. He’s lurking in the passing lanes. He’s getting steals. If this continues throughout the season, and it makes sense to suspect it will, James should certainly be in the conversation as the league’s top defender.
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