At long last, the preseason is finally in full swing, giving basketball fans limited time to process the NBA’s drastically-altered state of play before the 2019-20 season officially tips off in a couple of weeks.
But one dynamic that was left mostly unchanged by the wildest summer of player movement in league history? The race for Defensive Player of the Year, in which a handful of familiar candidates pace the preseason pack, followed by a group of hopefuls with long track records of dominant play on that side of the ball
With an emphasis on the likelihood for team success, among many other individual factors, this is how Defensive Player of the Year stacks up as the regular season fast approaches.
6. Patrick Beverley – Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers have more defensive talent than any team in basketball.
Not since Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen swarmed for the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s has a team featured a more dangerous pair of wing defenders than Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. Ivica Zubac was one of the best rim-protectors in basketball last season after LA stole him from the other side of Staples Center, while Moe Harkless, JaMychal Green and Rodney McGruder provide Doc Rivers with even more individual and team-wide options defensively.
But if the Clippers live up to their ceiling as a top-three this season, the presence of Beverley is poised to be the biggest reason why – as much for the tone he sets on that end of the floor as his dogged, disruptive individual defense of opposing ball handlers and primary scorers.
Beverley’s ability to capably check star wings as well as guards will make it easier for Los Angeles to get by defensively early in the season as George recovers from double shoulder surgery, and later when it comes time for Leonard to rest. He probably won’t be the Clippers’ most impactful defender due to his size limitations, but given Beverley’s rare versatility and ironclad status as a team leader, don’t be surprised if he receives the lion’s share of credit for their success on defense this season.
5. Rudy Gobert – Utah Jazz
Gobert is the two-time defending Defensive Player of the Year, and finished second to Draymond Green in 2016-17. He’s still just 27, has maintained a relatively clean bill of health throughout his career and, maybe most importantly, the Jazz enter the season as one of a handful of teams with legitimate title aspirations. Don’t forget the team that’s long caused Gobert the most problems defensively — the Golden State Warriors — are a shell of the offensive juggernaut they’ve been in recent seasons, too.
But voter fatigue is real and Utah, after ranking first and second in defensive rating over the last two years, respectively, could slide down the rankings a bit following a summer roster overhaul. Bojan Bogdanovic is underrated defensively, but not quite as good as the departed Jae Crowder. The Jazz will miss Derrick Favors both for his ability to mostly hold up defensively playing next to Gobert, and his much-improved effectiveness as a rim-protector when shifting to center. Joe Ingles, who slipped a bit in 2018-19, is a year older and Dante Exum just can’t be counted on to stay healthy.
There’s a legitimate chance that Gobert renders those factors moot, leading Utah to another top-two finish in defensive rating and thus joining Dwight Howard as the only player in league history to win three straight DPOY awards. But if the Jazz’s relative lack of continuity and quality depth causes an adjustment period, Gobert’s candidacy will take a hit almost no matter how dominant he remains.
4. Anthony Davis – Los Angeles Lakers
Let’s just put it out there: The Lakers will be better defensively than many anticipate. LeBron James will coast regardless of his teammates’ pledges to hold him accountable and Dwight Howard, newly svelte, might very well be a liability on defense at this point in his career. But Los Angeles is huge and experienced, with multiple quality perimeter defenders, and arguably no player in basketball is more capable of erasing teammates’ mistakes than Davis.
Davis would rank higher on this list if the plan was to play him at center something close to full-time. In a way, it’s unfair that Davis’ unmatched defensive versatility for a game-changing rim-protector could hurt his DPOY chances. If Gobert was on a team that planned to use two mobility-challenged seven-footers in the rotation, for instance, his struggles to chase stretch 4s and switch onto guards without negative recourse would be a huge issue for Utah.
The Lakers don’t have that problem with Davis. Of course, he’s the one who publicly announced his desire to play power forward, too, a preference that will ripple through lineup constructions for the season’s duration. Like his trade demand from the New Orleans Pelicans last February erased his All-NBA consideration, that development factors into Davis’ likelihood of winning DPOY – given both his decreased defensive impact at power forward and the likely team-wide fallout of that reality.
It’s a testament to Davis’ incredible combination of length, quickness, explosiveness and sense of timing that he’s such a viable candidate anyway. In a vacuum, there’s a case to be made that he’s the best defensive player in basketball.
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo – Milwaukee Bucks
The ongoing chorus of James Harden defenders decrying Antetokounmpo’s MVP victory over the Houston Rockets superstar conveniently overlooks one significant aspect of his case. Antetokounmpo finished a strong second in DPOY last season, earning 20 more first-place votes than Paul George, even reaching the First Team All-Defense for the first time in his career too.
The Bucks could be even better on defense this season than a year ago, somehow, when they ranked first in defensive rating. Antetokounmpo’s on-court rating of 101.8 was Milwaukee’s best among nine players who notched at least 1,000 minutes during the regular season as well.
There’s a possibility the gap between his on- and off-court defensive ratings narrows a bit in 2019-20. Robin Lopez is a big upgrade over the Bucks’ previous backup centers, and another year in Mike Budenholzer’s system – with largely the same personnel – should lead to better communication and fewer breakdowns. Regardless, Antetokounmpo will be among the league leaders in combined steals and blocks again this season and continue to prove himself as not just an imminently looming, highlight-reel off-ball defender, but a switch-proof isolation stopper to boot.
2. Myles Turner – Indiana Pacers
After his gradual progress stalled in a disappointing 2017-18 campaign, Turner re-established himself as a key two-way building block for the Pacers last season. It wasn’t improvement offensively that sparked his early-career turnaround, but Turner suddenly developing into one of the most impactful defenders in basketball – and a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate for the foreseeable future.
He finished fifth in the voting last season, an impressive showing for a newcomer to the DPOY race that played in relative anonymity for a non-contender and rarely on national TV. The bet here is that he substantially improves on that showing in 2019-20, with the basketball world taking more appropriate notice of his all-around defensive influence.
Turner led the league in both blocks and blocks per game last season, but ranked ninth in defensive field goal percentage at the rim against among players who challenged at least five such shots. With another year of understanding and further increased mobility this season, that latter metric should more closely align with the former ones.
A potential mitigating factor: Indiana starting Domantas Sabonis upfront. Can the Pacers, a quiet third in defensive rating last season, duplicate that effort playing two traditional big men major minutes? There’s a reason to believe so, but none loom larger than Turner continuing to rise up the ranks of basketball’s truly elite defenders.
1. Joel Embiid – Philadelphia 76ers
It seems like Embiid’s time.
The Sixers’ status as one of the league’s best defenses has been tethered to his on-court presence since his abbreviated rookie season, never to a greater extent than in last year’s playoffs. Philadelphia’s defensive rating with Embiid on the floor during the postseason was 93.0, a number that vaulted all the way up to 120.1 when he was on the bench – a 27.1 point discrepancy that more than doubled Jimmy Butler’s second-highest mark on the team.
The 76ers signed Al Horford with that dynamic specifically in mind. They’ve been rotating in replacement-level backups for Embiid since 2016-17, and now have the luxury of sliding another elite defensive big man down to center when he’s sidelined by rest, injury or load management.
Embiid’s DPOY resumé could theoretically take a hit by Philadelphia proving much stingier when he’s not on the court. But this team has a chance to rank among the best defenses in modern NBA history in large part due to that possibility, one for which Embiid will undoubtedly receive the most credit should it come to fruition.
Horford is a far different defender than Embiid, too. Opponents’ share of shots from the restricted area ticked up 3.1 percent with Embiid on the bench last season, further evidence of his case as the league’s preeminent rim-protector. Expect a similar difference this year; Horford’s effectiveness as a defender is more about all-court versatility than sovereignty in the paint.
Embiid should also be more comfortable on those rare occasions when he’s tasked with stepping outside to the perimeter after losing 25 pounds over the offseason. No player in basketball over the past three years has come out of nowhere for more jaw-dropping weak-side and chase-down blocks. With improved mobility and overall conditioning, expect those highlights to come even more frequently in 2019-20.
Embiid has had an argument as the best defender in basketball for a while now but hadn’t quite reached the apex. The gap between them is negligible if he’s not already Gobert’s equal as a rim-protector, plus there’s ample reason to believe he isn’t done improving both physically and mentally.
There will be several extremely strong contenders for DPOY. When all is said and done, though, none will boast the blend of individual dominance and team success needed to best Embiid.
Also under consideration: Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors; Paul George, Los Angeles Clippers; Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors; Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics; Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic
Check back all season long for updates on Basketball Insiders’ Postseason Awards Watch. Even better, click here for the preseason MVP Watch.
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