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Defensive Player Of The Year Watch

Spencer Davies lists six names to keep an eye on that have a legitimate chance at contending for DPOY.

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About two weeks into the NBA season, there have been plenty of players who have made their mark defensively. Some of the faces have been familiar, but the others are stepping their games up.

Otto Porter Jr. is leading the league in steals per game. Rookie forwards Jonathan Isaac and O.G. Anunoby are causing opponents trouble with their length. Backups such as Kyle O’Quinn, Lucas Nogueira, and Josh Huestis have done a tremendous job making their presences felt.

It’s obviously too early to pick an actual winner for the Defensive Player of the Year award, but there are some names to keep an eye on throughout the year that have a legitimate chance at contending for it.

Here’s a list of six players who are in the picture as of now.

6) Draymond Green

The reigning Defensive Player of The Year has to be on this list, right?

Green’s impact on the Golden State Warriors on both ends is well known. His ability to get stops game-in and game-out is what makes his presence so valuable for them. If you want evidence, go back and see what happened on opening night against the Houston Rockets.

At the tail end of the third quarter, the Warriors were ahead 101-88 when Green suffered a knee strain and had to exit. Houston outscored Golden State 34-20 in the fourth and spoiled one for the home team at Oracle Arena.

It’s one of eight games, but it shows what he means to his squad. Statistically, he’s still averaging a block and a steal per game despite not having the best defensive rating early on.

5) Kevin Durant

Green has plenty of competition in defending his honor, including on his own team.

We’re all aware of how great Durant is with the ball in his hands, but in the last couple of years, he’s truly been a menace on the other side of the floor. He’s got the length and reach to pester every player he guards, which usually results in an errant pass or an ill-advised shot attempt.

Allowing 106.3 points per 100 possessions, Golden State hasn’t hung their hat defensively as much as usual so far. But when Durant has been off the floor, they’ve given up a team-high 112.6 points using the same scale. Among starters, he’s the only one that statistically betters the Warriors’ overall defensive rating while on the court.

Durant ranks second in the NBA in blocks per game (2.4) and has contested the fourth-most amount of shots (107) to this point. If this keeps up, he could have another accolade to add to his collection.

4) Al-Farouq Aminu

As one of the more surprising defensively sound teams in the NBA, the Portland Trail Blazers are off to a good start. They rank ninth in defensive rating (100.3), fifth in opponent three-point field goal percentage (32.1) and fourth in opponent fast break points per game (7.7).

A vital reason for their success is the outstanding play of Aminu. With a wingspan stretching to almost seven feet and three inches, the veteran forward has length and size that bothers every player he faces. He’s able to guard one through four and that versatility is huge for Terry Stotts, especially in today’s type of league.

Through eight games, the veteran forward is averaging 1.3 blocks and nearly a steal per game. In those, Aminu is seeing over five attempts per game against him coming six feet or less—only 46.3 percent of those shots have been successful.

Without Aminu on the floor, Portland suffers significantly, allowing up 15.4 more points per 100 possessions and a team-high defensive rating of 108.9. Unfortunately for them, they’re going to have to figure out how to survive on that end without him for a couple of weeks, because he just went down with an ankle sprain.

3) Al Horford

With brand new pieces and a slew of young talent leading the charge, the Boston Celtics are one of the top defensive teams in basketball.

Collectively, Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Horford have done an excellent job of forcing their opponents to take tough shots and haven’t budged on individual challenges.

Horford has arguably been the most important piece of this puzzle. As the most experienced player of the bunch, his leadership on the floor and impact defensively is translating to the rest of the team.

Averaging close to a block and a steal per game, Horford is making an all-around difference on that end. He’s tied for the fifth-most contested shots in the NBA with 99 and has prioritized crashing the glass with more aggressiveness to make sure nobody gets extra opportunities.

Without Horford, the Celtics’ defensive rating skyrockets to 105.4 as opposed to 90 when he’s playing. The discrepancy is by far the highest on the team, which is why he deserves more credit than he’s gotten.

2) DeMarcus Cousins

It’s been a treat to watch Boogie go to work this season. Over the summer he slimmed down and worked on getting in better shape. You’re seeing the results of that in front of your very eyes.

Let’s just forget the dominance as a scoring threat and his strength as a whole. Let’s not focus on the ridiculous ball-handling skills for a man his size. Instead, how about we dive into the season he’s having as a lockdown defender?

The New Orleans Pelicans are not the best in that department. Aside from Cousins and Anthony Davis being the twin towers underneath, they don’t have much size to stop the outside threats. They run a three-guard set—in which Jrue Holiday is absolutely paramount—that is often a mismatch most opponents take advantage of.

Bigs are then forced to take the one-on-one challenge often with players that are quicker than them. Cousins has accepted that challenge and is passing the test with flying colors.

In protecting the paint, Cousins is not only contesting these shots, but he’s picking his opponents’ pockets at the same time. He’s stolen the ball 17 times, which is tied with Andre Drummond for most in the league among big men.

According to NBA.com, only 46.9 percent of attempts against Cousins in the paint are successful. Ranking among players that have seen at least 40 such shots this season, that is the lowest conversion percentage in the league. Oh, and he’s also swatted 18 of those.

In the early going, Cousins is the lone player in the NBA who is averaging two steals and two blocks per game. As far as the league’s concerned, he’s playing like an MVP candidate right now. Davis is usually the one who gets the rightful attention as a defensive threat, but currently, it’s Boogie’s world in The Big Easy.

1) Rudy Gobert

Last year was so close. It was a neck-and-neck battle with Green through the entire season for the NBA’s most prestigious award as a defender. After just missing out on the honor in 2016-17, it’s Gobert’s time to shine.

When Gordon Hayward signed with the Celtics, many believed the Utah Jazz would have trouble staying afloat in an upgraded and heavily crowded Western Conference. Losing the scoring and effort on both ends of the floor was a huge blow.

But Gobert has continued to lead this team as not only an efficient scorer inside but also as the most intimidating interior defender in the NBA. It’s no surprise considering how dominant he’s been for the past few years, but he is constantly getting better with each season.

According to Basketball-Reference, Gobert ranks first in defensive win shares (0.7) and second in the NBA in defensive box plus-minus (5.8). Among starters and players averaging over 30 minutes per game, he’s at the top of the DBPM list.

He’s denying everything in sight as per usual, leading the league in blocks with 23 in eight games. That’s the highest average (2.9 per game) in the game. Because of Gobert’s presence down low, the Jazz are allowing 37.5 points in the paint per game, which is the third-least in the league.

The 7-foot-1 Frenchman’s leadership has Utah only allowing 96.3 points per 100 possessions as a team. It’s good for the third-best defensive rating in the NBA. They’ve held their opponents to a 43.2 field goal percentage as well.

The numbers tell the story, but Gobert’s influence on this Jazz ball club goes beyond the box score. If he keeps this up—and his reputation wouldn’t indicate anything otherwise—the Jazz could be in a position to make the postseason for the second straight year.

Spencer Davies is a Deputy Editor and a Senior NBA Writer based in Cleveland in his third year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past five seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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