With the season winding down and the playoffs taking shape, things are starting to get tight in the NBA. Approaching April, individual award discussions are going to pick up steam, so let’s get back in Defensive Player of the Year talk.
The field has thinned down a bit with the final stretch in tact, but there are plenty of names to pay attention to.
6) Al Horford
Despite all the injuries and whatever kind of adversity has been thrown their way this year, the Boston Celtics are still at the top of the mountain in defensive efficiency. They’re allowing 103.2 points per 100 possessions and an effective field goal percentage of 49.3 percent. Both figures are the lowest in the league, according to Cleaning The Glass.
Horford has been a leader all season long at both ends and has played with starters, bench players and reserves. He’s third among centers in contested three-pointers (229), ranks sixth on NBA Math’s Defensive Points Saved scale (135.68) and is eighth in Basketball Reference’s Defensive Box Plus-Minus (3.1).
5) Kevin Durant
The reigning Finals MVP is averaging just a hair under two blocks and nearly a steal per game, but those numbers aren’t telling the real story about Durant’s defensive prowess this season. In the fourth quarter, opponents are shooting just 32.8 percent against him overall, which is the top defended field goal percentage in the league. Translation: You don’t want to see this guy in crunch time on either side of the floor.
On a wider scale, the opposition takes 12.4 shots per game against him and he’s allowing just 41.4 percent of those to be successful. That’s good for fourth-best regarding players who see the same amount of the attempts.
4) Jrue Holiday
The New Orleans Pelicans are lobbying to get their teammate some attention when it comes to DPOY, so we’re here to oblige. It’s not just because of those desires. It’s because it’s warranted. Let the individual defensive metrics support the evidence.
When Holiday is off the floor, the Pelicans allow 10.3 more points per 100 possessions than with him on. Their opponent’s effective field goal percentage increases by four percent and turnover percentage decreases by 1.6 percent. Those figures put the 27-year-old guard in the 98th, 96th, and 84th percentiles respectively, as specified by Cleaning The Glass.
Holiday is quite literally the lone backcourt player in the NBA seeing at least 14 attempts per game. Among that crowd, Holiday ranks sixth in defended field goal percentage (43.3), which is a better figure than eight other big men and Tobias Harris. For that reason, it makes sense why he’s the fifth best point guard in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus.
3) Anthony Davis
It goes without saying the impact that Anthony Davis has had on the NBA this year. In the second half of the season, without DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans has taken off and is right in the thick of things getting prepared for the postseason. He won’t win it, but Davis is playing at an MVP level and could be vying for a DPOY award if the momentum keeps going.
Starting with your traditional statistics, it’s easy to make an argument for Davis. He’s the only player in the NBA who’s averaging 2.5 blocks and 1.5 steals per game. The Brow is far and away the leader in total rejections as well, recording 170 already to this point.
Remember what we previously mentioned regarding Holiday’s 14 opponent attempts per game? Davis is taking on the second-highest average amount of tries in the league (16.4) and has held the opposition to a stifling 40.7 defended field goal percentage, which is the best in the league by far.
Post All-Star break, the Pelicans superstar has turned it up even more in protecting the paint as well, limiting his matchups to 51.4 percent at the rim. It’s the lowest conversion rate in the league, as specified by Second Spectrum.
2) Joel Embiid
The Process caught an unfortunate break this week, but it’s just a small bump in the road for somebody who’s easily been the most consistent and dependable defender in the entire association this year. What Embiid has done this year on both ends is nothing short of spectacular.
The Philadelphia 76ers’ defensive rating of 104.8 is the third lowest among all teams and he’s a vital reason why that’s the case. Using CTG, the team allows only 100.6 points per 100 possessions when Embiid is playing. While he’s on the bench, that number decreases to 109.7. Both of those statistics rank him in the 97th percentile.
Defending over 14 field goal attempts per game, Embiid yields the fewest field goal makes (5.8) and lowest field goal percentage differential (-7.9) among those who see the same frequency.
His defensive impact on the interior goes without saying as well. There are 18 players in the league—some hurt, some not—who have seen at least five attempts within five feet or less. Embiid has the best defended field goal percentage (52.4) in this group and is only behind Kristaps Porzingis in the category.
1) Rudy Gobert
The Utah Jazz were on the outside looking in during mid-January. With an 18-26 record and teams in the Western Conference continuing to get better around them, it didn’t look so good for their chances to play past the regular season.
Enter Rudy Gobert, and the Jazz have been absolutely lethal. They are 24-7 since his return from injury. They have skyrocketed up the statistical ranks and into the playoff picture. Most of this has been in part to the Stifle Tower’s presence.
Utah has shot up to the second-best defensive rating in the NBA at 103.9 points per 100 possessions, per CTG. They allow the least average amount of points in the paint (41.6) and fast break points (9.7).
Their opponent’s effective field goal percentage is a lowly 48.2 percent, which is the worst in the league from January 19th on. In the same time frame, the Jazz’s defensive rating is 97.7 in that 31-game sample according to NBA.com, which is by leaps and bounds the best efficiency on that end in the league.
Individually, Gobert’s tear is well documented. On the floor, Utah allows 99.4 points per 100 possessions this year, which ranks in the 98th percentile as specified by CTG. With him off the floor, Utah’s defensive rating dips to 107.7.
As pointed out by NBA.com’s David Aldridge, the Jazz have a five-man group headed by Gobert that completely shuts teams down. Between Jae Crowder, Joe Ingles, Donovan Mitchell, Ricky Rubio and him, they allow just 80.1 points per 100 possessions. Minimum 100 minutes of floor time together, that is easily the lowest in the whole association.
Despite the disadvantage of playing fewer minutes than his peers, Gobert’s defensive metrics are right up there with some figures at the very top of the mountain. For example, the French big man leads everybody in DRPM (5.11), ranks second in DPBM (4.5), and has saved the fifth-most points (140.26) according to NBA Math.
There’s a reason that the Jazz are back in contention. If Gobert plays out the rest of the season, he’ll end up at 56 games played, but it’s hard to argue against him as the top candidate for DPOY honors—especially if Utah makes it into the playoffs.
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