We made a commitment earlier this month to highlight players and teams who receive less due for their defensive prowess than top-tier contenders for Defensive Player of the Year. But a pair of odds-on favorites complicated things with two of the most dominant individual defensive performances of the season, warranting the in-depth analysis we pledged to give to others.
Maybe that won’t be the case going forward. As Joel Embiid and Rudy Gobert proved last week, though, it’s an approach easier said than maintained.
These are the defenders who caught our eye recently, followed by your regularly-scheduled DPOY rankings.
The Philadelphia 76ers signed Al Horford last summer with Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks specifically in mind. No player in basketball made life harder on the reigning MVP when matched up with him one-on-one over the past couple seasons than Horford. There’s no stopping a player of Antetokounmpo’s all-time caliber, of course, but Horford at least proved that limiting his influence on a semi-consistent basis is possible.
It turns out that Horford isn’t even his new team’s most viable defender of Antetokounmpo, though. That distinction goes to Joel Embiid, whose defensive performance in Philadelphia’s blowout victory over Milwaukee on Christmas could very well prove a deciding factor in votes he earns for Defensive Player of the Year.
Antetokounmpo won’t miss seven threes every time he faces the Sixers. His career-worst 8-of-27 shooting is an outlier. But Embiid’s combination of length, strength and mobility in short spaces frustrated Antetokounmpo to an extent as jarring as it is potentially telling.
Milwaukee will continue playing at an objectively higher level than Philadelphia over the regular season’s remainder. But it might be a tossup should these teams meet in the playoffs regardless, and Embiid’s status as the league’s preeminent Giannis-stopper is the biggest reason why.
The Denver Nuggets have slipped a bit defensively as Nikola Jokic rounds into shape on the other end. They still rank fifth in defensive rating on the season at large, but allowed 110.6 points per 100 possessions over the past two weeks, per Cleaning the Glass, a mediocre mark.
The Nuggets settling into their less surprising status as a merely above-average defensive outfit makes it all the more crucial to highlight the impact of Paul Millsap – especially because he’s missed four games this month with knee and quad injuries.
Even at 34, he remains one of the smartest and most disruptive defenders in the NBA. Denver gives up 10.6 points per 100 possessions with Millsap in the game, the biggest discrepancy in basketball among regular rotation players. It forces more turnovers, grabs more defensive rebounds and permits fewer attempts from the restricted area with him on the floor.
Millsap is almost never out of position, always looming in passing lanes with his 7-foot-2 wingspan. If there’s a loose ball around Millsap, it’s safe to say he’ll be the one to end up with it.
There are tens of NBA defenders flashier than Millsap. Jerami Grant is among them, and he’s better equipped to guard superstar wings at this point in their respective careers. But the Nuggets’ starters aren’t far stingier defensively with Millsap at power forward by accident.
His more subtle brand of effectiveness won’t garner him Defensive Player of the Year votes, or maybe even All-Defense consideration. Millsap is Denver’s most important defensive player, though, and it’s not particularly close.
The Utah Jazz are surging after four losses in five games left them at a mediocre 13-11 in early December. They’re 8-1 since, a stretch that included five road games and was capped off by an impressive, comeback victory over the LA Clippers at Staples Center on Saturday night.
Utah’s improvement this month, though, hasn’t been on defense. Top-10 offense is driving its play of late, a problematic long-term development considering its come with the struggling Mike Conley nursing a nagging hamstring injury. But that’s an issue for Quin Snyder’s team to sort out upon his return.
How the Jazz are playing now is the manner in which many assumed they would be championship contenders before the season tipped off. They’re 11th in defensive rating over the past two weeks, per Cleaning the Glass, with Rudy Gobert’s sweeping impact taking a hold befitting his status as the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year.
Utah’s defensive rating during that timeframe jumps from 102.4 to 119.7 with Gobert on the bench, a similar discrepancy owned by other starters. But it’s Gobert’s whose influence has loomed largest regardless, and not always in the most obvious ways.
Late in the Jazz’s win over the Portland Trail Blazers last week, he forced the ball from Damian Lillard’s hands to prevent a would-be game-tying three, then immediately rotated to render Carmelo Anthony’s try moot.
Gobert isn’t always so effective when sliding his feet on the perimeter. If he was, Utah would more commonly veer from its ultra-conservative pick-and-roll coverage. But Gobert has clearly taken small strides in that regard this season, progress that could pay major dividends in potential playoff matchups that exposed his defensive limitations in years past.
Defensive Player of the Year Rankings
5. Jonathan Isaac – Orlando Magic
4. Anthony Davis – Los Angeles Lakers
3. Rudy Gobert – Utah Jazz
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo – Milwaukee Bucks
1. Joel Embiid – Philadelphia 76ers
Honorable Mention: Bam Adebayo, Miami HEAT; Paul Millsap, Denver Nuggets; Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors; Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics; Kawhi Leonard, LA Clippers; Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
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