The regular season is almost officially halfway finished.
Injuries have left several early-season mainstays on this list sidelined for varying periods of time, affecting their candidacy. Teams like the Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz and Chicago Bulls have already been subject to significant vacillations on defense for better, worse or both. Through it all, a handful of teams led by surefire Defensive Player of the Year contenders have further cemented their status as the stingiest defensive units in basketball.
Here’s where DPOY Watch stands as teams cross the midpoint of 2019-20.
Jonathan Isaac – Orlando Magic
Pour one out for Isaac.
The third-year forward hyperextended his left knee in a win over the Washington Wizards on New Year’s Day. Though he avoided the need for knee surgery, hopes that Isaac would be able to return in the coming months were dashed when the Magic applied for a Disabled Player Exception last week, effectively ending his season.
Orlando should be better equipped than any team in basketball to handle the loss of a multi-positional defensive monster like Isaac. But Al-Farouq Aminu is out until April at the earliest after undergoing surgery to repair a torn meniscus, and first-round pick Chuma Okeke – another long, defensive-minded forward – is spending 2019-20 in the G-League while recovering from a torn ACL he suffered in college.
Absent the wing depth that was so extensive it seemed like a problem during the preseason, the Magic could very well take the type of step back defensively without Isaac that puts their playoff expectations in jeopardy.
Odds are that Orlando’s cushion in the standings is big enough to ward off that disappointment, however. The final on-off numbers didn’t paint Isaac as the all-encompassing elixir his block and steal totals and the eye test did, either. The Magic were actually a hair stingier with him on the bench, and Isaac’s presence didn’t negatively affect opponents’ frequency or accuracy at the rim, per Cleaning the Glass.
For now, ignore that noise and focus on the unbelievable physical tools and innate instincts that Isaac brings to the floor defensively. He gets from place to place as quickly as any defender in basketball, routinely using his length and anticipation to blow up actions as a helper. Isaac’s ever-broadening shoulders suggest it’s only a matter of time until he has the strength to hold up one-on-one against oversized superstar wings, too.
Isaac may never be an objective plus offensively. But at 22, he’s already one of the most unique, versatile and disruptive defenders in the game, a status that easily makes up for his deficiencies on the other end.
Wendell Carter – Chicago Bulls
The Bulls have slid defensively after rising to a top-10 outfit just before Christmas. Their struggles on that end of late can be at least somewhat chalked up to opponents shooting better on easy shots. Chicago ranks dead last in expected effective field goal percentage based on shot location, per Cleaning the Glass, a damning indictment of its hyper-aggressive scheme.
But the Bulls’ recent defensive lapse is also no doubt a symptom of Carter’s absence. He’s missed the last four games, not including a Jan. 6 loss to the Dallas Mavericks when he suffered a high right ankle sprain early in the third quarter. Chicago is 1-3 since Carter went down, with a porous 114.2 defensive rating.
That small sample size aligns with season-long data and what the film makes clear. Carter, with long arms, quick feet and an advanced understanding of mapping the floor on defense, is the Bulls’ only interior defender suited to his team’s throwback system. His plus-5.5 net defensive rating is a team-high, while Chicago’s defensive rebounding rate and opponent free throw rate both trend steeply the wrong direction with Carter on the bench.
The Bulls’ inconsistency has been among the season’s most profound disappointments. Many expected them to make the leap to broad-scale competence in 2019-20. But no matter how Chicago’s short and long-term future unfolds, fans can take solace from the fact that Carter is already an impact defender at just 20 years old.
Just imagine how effective he could be going forward when surrounded by superior defenders too. But, for now, he is the centerpiece of a defense that helps the Bulls’ appear better than the sum of its parts.
Rudy Gobert – Utah Jazz
The Jazz have won 14 of their last 15 games since a home loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Dec. 9. Now 27-12, they’re tied for second in the Western Conference with the Denver Nuggets after beginning the season 13-11.
History says we should have seen Utah’s midseason surge coming. Head coach Quin Snyder’s team has rebounded from disappointing starts in each of the last three seasons. The San Antonio Spurs have long received widespread credit for propping up their record by taking care of business against inferior foes, but the Jazz are their equal when it comes to beating opponents they should. Only one of their victories during this season-changing binge, for instance, has come against a team above .500.
It’s easy to assume that defense has been the source of Utah’s turnaround, but its league-best offense over the past month owns that distinction. Why does Gobert deserve mention here, then? After the numbers began waning in mid-November, the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year has once proven he’s the Jazz’s individual defensive panacea.
Utah’s defensive rating with him on the floor over the last 15 games is 101.9, six points lower than the team-wide mark. The Jazz’s defensive rating spikes all the way 118.6 when he goes to the bench, with opponents’ free throw rate and offensive rebounding rate ballooning. Most telling of his sweeping overall influence? Utah’s effective field goal percentage allowed jumps from 47.2 percent with Gobert in the game to 56.3 percent when he’s sidelined.
The Jazz have many questions to answer about re-integrating Mike Conley whenever he’s able to return from injury. Those answers will decide most how viable they are as contenders come spring. What’s already obvious, though, is that Utah’s defense will remain elite because Gobert is the exceedingly rare defender that can serve as a system on that side of the ball all by himself.
Defensive Player of the Year Rankings
5. Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics
4. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
3. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
2. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Honorable Mention: Bam Adebayo, Miami HEAT; Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers; P.J. Tucker, Houston Rockets; Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic; Brook Lopez, Milwaukee Bucks; Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
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