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NBA AM: Defensive Player of the Year Watch

Rudy Gobert has become the clear frontrunner to win this award as injuries sidelined Lebron James and Joel Embiid. Is there anyone else with a realistic shot to win it?

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Coming to you is the sixth edition of Basketball Insiders’ Defensive Player of the Year Rankings. In this edition, Lebron James’s stock took a big hit due to his right-ankle sprain, as well as Joel Embiid who had a bone bruise in his left knee. While Lebron is expected to miss a few weeks, Embiid has finally returned after missing the past 10 games. Before suffering injuries, both of these players were balling out, with their names in both the DPotY conversation as well as the MVP conversation. Now with the time they have missed with injuries, it is pretty unlikely that they capture these awards barring any unforeseen circumstances. There’s always next season though. Anyways, on to the sixth DPotY ranking for the 2020-21 season!

1. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz (Previous: 1)

The Utah Jazz center, the frontrunner for this award, has kept himself in the lead with his play as of late. The defining moment for his run at this award came since the last edition of these rankings on Mar. 22. On this date, Gobert had a monster game. In 33 minutes, Gobert shot 9/11 from the field contributing to his 21 points, 10 rebounds and an absurd 9 blocks. The Chicago Bulls looked lost on the court with Gobert in the game and ended up getting killed by the Jazz, 120-95. The nine blocks for Gobert are a career-high and, to this point, this game was the one that made him the clear favorite for this award.

For the whole month of March, Gobert averaged 3.7 blocks per game to greatly improve his season numbers up to 3.0. He still ranks second in the league in that category, behind Indiana Pacers center, Myles Turner. The Stifle Tower has been on a tear this season guarding the rim and anchoring the Jazz defense. He currently sits at second in defensive rating with a rating of 101.5, second to his teammate Mike Conley. That duo has been a nightmare for other teams this season as well as earning the Jazz the best record in the NBA. The two are also in the top three for defensive win shares, Gobert with a DWS of 0.171, making a massive impact on opposing offenses whenever he’s on the court. 

Ranking in the top three in defensive rating, defensive win shares and blocks per game this season, Gobert has dominated his way to the top spot in our rankings for the last three releases. If Gobert is not already going to be the unanimous pick for the award, he will be if the Jazz’s momentum carries throughout the remainder of the season.

2. Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers (Previous: 5)

The league leader in blocks per game has continued his dominance thus far into the season earning himself a higher spot in the rankings. A Mar. 26 matchup with the Dallas Mavericks was a display of his outstanding ability to guard the basket finishing the contest with seven blocks. The Pacers have struggled this year, but keeping Turner seems to have been a sound choice by management as he has proved he is a defensive juggernaut. 

As previously mentioned, Turner leads the league in blocks with an insane 3.5 blocks per game. He has led the league in blocks throughout most of the season, but the other statistics and the Pacers on-and-off tendencies contributed to his movement in these rankings. Turner ranks in the top-20 in the advanced defensive statistics with a defensive rating of 107.4 and a DWS of 0.117, per NBA Advanced Stats. Notably, as well, he averages just under a steal per game. If he could somehow raise this a little more he might get more widespread consideration for this award.

Watch out for Turner as the season progresses, any improvement by the Pacers may boost his chances of winning this award. 

3. Mike Conley, Utah Jazz (Previous: Honorable Mention)

The Utah Jazz point guard has been a very stable part of their ascension in the standings, especially on defense. When Conley is out on the floor opposing guards have to always be on their toes and watch where they’re passing the ball because Conley’s ball-tracking skills on steals have been on point all year. The Jazz look like a completely different team in the second year of the Conley acquisition and the fit with the first-time All-Star has been much better.

The thing that has gotten Conley so much love in the DPotY rankings has been the impact he has made on winning for the Jazz. For most of the season now, he has been the leader in defensive rating with a 100.0 rating. To go along with this, he is also the leader in defensive win shares with 0.178, per NBA Advanced Stats. It is clear that when Conley is on the floor his presence is always felt on defense. He also is tied for seventh in the league with 1.4 steals per game. Conley could very well win the award when it comes down to it, but he has been a bit outshined by his teammate Gobert, so it would come as more of a surprise considering no guard has won it in 25 years too.

4. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks (Previous: 3)

On the season Giannis Antentokounmpo is averaging 1.3 blocks per game to go along with 1.1 steals per game. While these numbers aren’t insane, the impact he makes on the defensive side of the floor is not always represented in the box score. He has a stellar defensive rating of 106.6, good enough to rank 16th in the league, per NBA Advanced Stats. Combine that with a DWS of 0.137 that has him eighth in the NBA. If Antetokounmpo can propel his numbers as well as the Bucks defense in the second half of the season, he could find himself higher in the rankings.

Thanks to injuries that have taken out the other three favorites for a lot of games, Antetokounmpo has a realistic shot to win both MVP and DPotY in the same season, two years in a row. The Milwaukee Bucks are currently the third seed in the Eastern Conference, only a few games behind the Nets and Philadelphia 76ers who are at the top of the standings. If they make a push for the top spot in the conference expect Antetokunmpo’s name to be at the top of the award conversations.

5. Jimmy Butler, Miami HEAT (Previous: N/A)

After leading the Miami HEAT to the NBA Finals in the bubble, Jimmy Butler has finally started to get hot this season. The HEAT have had a rough go of things this year, as they currently sit under .500, but they got very unlucky with missing players due to COVID and injury. With improved play from their leader to go with the addition of Victor Oladipo, the HEAT once again are a real threat in the East. 

Butler’s impact on defense has been huge this season, as he leads the league with 2.0 steals per game. He’s always looking to jump passing lanes while he locks up his opponent compiling his steal numbers. Butler’s impact on defense is also so immense that he has a defensive rating of 105.0 while ranking fourth in the league in defensive win shares with 0.149, per NBA Advanced Stats. As the heat continues to rise in Miami, watch out for Butler and the crew as they attempt to rise back up in the eastern conference.  

Honorable Mention: Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers (Previous: N/A)

While teammate and the clear frontrunner for MVP, Joel Embiid, had been out due to injury, Ben Simmons came in and asserted himself in the team leader role. Simmons is known to be a gaudy-lockdown defender, always making the opposing players work for their points and that has again been a theme this year for him. He ranks fifth in the NBA in steals per game with 1.5, as well as being tied for fifteenth in defensive win shares with 0.126, per NBA Advanced Stats. With Embiid back in the fold, Simmons can continue to terrorize opposing guards while not having to worry about the back-end of the floor with the superstar center holding it down.

This group of players has been putting on a show this year defensively. While the list doesn’t have as much star power because of injuries to Lebron James and Joel Embiid, it is still a competitive one. Stay tuned for the seventh edition of these rankings right here on BasketballInsiders.com!

 

Dylan Thayer is a Contributing Writer for Basketball Insiders, and a Sport Management student in the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst.

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