Defensive Player of the Year, it’s clear by now, will be won by one of the four candidates who were earmarked as favorites for the award coming into the regular season. But as the injury bug nags and his mismatched team continue underperforming expectations, Joel Embiid is falling from the front of the pack.
Where does that leave his main competition? A clear cut above the rest of the league’s defenders but fighting tooth and nail for positioning at the top of the race. Here’s where Defensive Player of the Year stands as the All-Star break dawns.
Jayson Tatum – Boston Celtics
The specifics behind Tatum’s breakout season have been far different than anticipated, and even betray the most common justifications for his first All-Star berth.
The Celtics’ wing has indeed shouldered a heavier offensive burden than ever before, posting a career-high usage rate on par with Kemba Walker’s while doing far more work as a primary ball-handler. The results are per-game stats and nightly flashes of high-level playmaking that suggest Tatum has taken a major step forward offensively – one that forecasts the imminent superstardom his staunchest believers have always seen coming.
But it’s Tatum’s development on the other end, though, that’s loomed just as large to the Celtics far surpassing preseason expectations in 2019-20. On a team littered with engaged, quality defenders who move in perfect sync, Tatum’s ability to disrupt opposing offenses away from the ball has played a major part in Boston cementing itself as a top-five defensive outfit.
He’s not as versatile as Marcus Smart, as adept at staying in front of ball-handlers as Jaylen Brown, nor as sturdy as Gordon Hayward. But Tatum is a cagey, long-armed menace as a help defender, routinely garnering steals and deflections from the weak side and opportunistically jumping passing lanes in the open floor. Like Smart, his ears perk up on scram switches, ready to create a turnover.
Tatum’s new sense of aggression defensively has more recently been manifested in isolation, too. Devin Booker isn’t embarrassed like this very often.
Tatum tops the Celtics in net defensive rating and ranks second in the NBA in defensive real plus-minus – the type of numbers befitting a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate. That’s a bridge too far for a wing defender of Tatum’s impactful yet limited scope.
But he’s proven his worth as an integral cog for one of the league’s stingiest defenses regardless and deserves All-Defense consideration because of it.
Royce O’Neale – Utah Jazz
In a vacuum, O’Neale would be an indispensable part of Utah’s starting five. But Joe Ingles’ season was resuscitated when he again began playing most of his minutes next to Rudy Gobert, and Quin Snyder’s assertion that the Jazz’s championship hopes rest with Mike Conley reaching his ceiling means he’s best suited as a starter, too.
But with a tightened jumper and exuding the confidence of a player who knows he belongs, O’Neale has emerged as the league’s latest three-and-D archetype – not to mention one of Utah’s most important two-way pieces – despite his recent shift to the bench. At 6-foot-4 and a sturdy 226 pounds with long arms, O’Neale is his team’s resident stopper, checking the opposition’s most dangerous perimeter player from the likes of Damian Lillard to Kawhi Leonard.
There just aren’t many defenders in basketball with O’Neale’s combination of quick feet, natural strength and active hands. He’s a pest in every sense of the word, with the natural physicality and dogged demeanor to play far bigger than his size. Just ask Nikola Jokic and Luka Doncic, both of whom recently fell victim to O’Neale’s brash, forceful defensive approach in crunch time.
O’Neale won’t get any Defensive Player of the Year chatter and may not even receive any All-Defense votes. Rudy Gobert is so dominant that it’s tough to separate the impact of his teammates from that of his own. But the Jazz’s defensive personnel this season is objectively inferior to years past, while O’Neale has played a more crucial role in maintaining Utah’s longstanding integrity on that end than any player on the roster other than Gobert.
Jazz teammates, coaches, fans and opponents know just how effective O’Neale is defensively. Here’s hoping the former undrafted free agent is eventually subject to the league-wide acclaim his standout defensive chops warrant.
Rudy Gobert – Utah Jazz
Gobert is making it impossible to refrain from highlighting his defensive prowess on a bi-weekly basis.
The two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year is best known for lording over the paint, blocking shots, affecting others and preventing more. But he made a concerted effort over the offseason to expand the limits of his defensive ability, working hard to improve his later mobility so he could stick with smalls on the perimeter when Utah is forced into switches.
Gobert’s mind-bending recovery block on Dorell Wright in the clutch against the Dallas Mavericks on Jan. 25 is one of the most impressive single defensive efforts of the season. What’s more amazing is that it doesn’t stand far apart from similar plays he’s made recently when tasked with corralling ball handlers beyond the arc.
Utah has pretty much exclusively switched Gobert onto guards this season late in close games. Its scheme still calls for him to serve as the last line of defense between the ball and the basket, but don’t be surprised if Snyder veers from that time-honored plan in certain matchups come playoff time.
Over halfway through this season, though, it’s clear he’s better equipped than ever to step out on the floor and effectively slide his feet with ball handlers.
Defensive Player of the Year Rankings
5. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
4. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
3. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
1. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
Honorable mention: Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics; Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers; Bam Adebayo, Miami HEAT; Kawhi Leonard, LA Clippers; Marc Gasol, Toronto Raptors; P.J. Tucker, Houston Rockets; Kris Dunn, Chicago Bulls; Jakob Poeltl, San Antonio Spurs
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