Just like the Most Valuable Player race I touched on last week, this year’s field for Defensive Player of the Year is as wide open as we’ve seen in a long time. A few of the usual suspects have had less of an impact than in other years; names like Dwight Howard or the two most recent winners in Joakim Noah and Marc Gasol have all seen their contributions lessen somewhat for various reasons. Some newcomers have crashed the party as well, and growing common understanding of just what makes a defender truly valuable may be contributing in some ways to an award that, at this point, could still have several names on it.
Before we dissect the race, though, there’s one large elephant in the room that needs discussing: the case of DeAndre Jordan. Bandied about by many as the apparent frontrunner for the award after finishing third last year, Jordan is absolutely having a great two-way season as one of the most important pieces on a Western Conference contender. But to be clear right away, not only is Jordan thoroughly undeserving of the DPOY award, even considering him among the five or so most realistic candidates is an absolute slap in the face to a number of far more impactful defensive players.
Consider first some team context. The Clippers are almost exactly league average as a per-possession defensive team, ranking 15th in the league per NBA.com. This isn’t a death sentence to a DPOY candidate by itself (one of our top five candidates below plays for a team that’s slightly worse than this for the season), but the player in question had better be something quite impressive on the defensive end to warrant inclusion if his team isn’t among the league’s top 10 or so. Here’s the thing, though: Jordan isn’t that impressive as a defender. Blocks are nice, but they have an unfortunate tendency to often overrate defenders given the fact that, until recently, they were one of the only available statistical measures of a player’s impact.
This is what’s happening here, and a particularly egregious case of it at that. The largest piece of evidence? Jordan’s own team is better defensively when he sits on the bench than when he plays. That’s right, the Clippers allow a 103.7 rating with DeAndre and a 102.3 rating when he’s off the floor.
There’s always noise in these sorts of figures, but in this case there isn’t nearly enough static to overcome the simple idea that his own team defends more effectively without him while all of his realistic “competition” for DPOY sports firmly positive on/off splits. In fact, the context may damn him even further. A strong bench can often mess with these numbers – think Rudy Gobert coming off the bench for Utah last year and much of this one, skewing other Jazz bigs’ figures in the process – but this couldn’t be further from the case in L.A. The Clippers have likely the worst bench of any contender in the league, and Jordan’s primary backups this year have been the likes of Spencer Hawes and Glen Davis. Sure, Jordan plays more minutes against opposing stars, but so does every other realistic DPOY candidate, all of whom anchor lineups that blow DeAndre’s defensive figures out of the water.
Metrics like RPM, which factor in elements like teammate and opponent context to give a decent snapshot of a player’s impact independent of his surroundings, agree emphatically. Jordan barely even cracks the top 20 for DRPM at his position, checking in 19th among centers and just 51st among the entire league, trailing such defensive luminaries as Lavoy Allen, Kyle O’Quinn and Robert Sacre. There can be flaws with these metrics as a tell-all indicator of a player’s performance, but such a low rating for a supposed candidate for league’s best defender has to raise some alarm bells (for reference, Jordan also graded out far more positively in DRPM last season).
As for his supposed “rim protection,” actual data here finds him badly lacking compared with truly elite interior defenders. There are 79 players who defend at least five shots at the rim per game, according to SportVU data, and Jordan allows just the 37th-lowest efficiency among them, at 49.3 percent. Per figures calculated by Seth Partnow that incorporate added SportVU elements like contest rate and minute totals, Jordan is exactly average compared with the rest of the league’s big men at preventing points at the basket: he “saves” precisely 0.0 points per-36-minutes with his interior defense relative to the average big, a worse number than guys like David Lee and Amar’e Stoudemire (figures through March 1).
In reality, Jordan is a supremely talented guy who just isn’t all that good at the finer points of defense. His positioning is routinely awful, and he can be goaded into the air by any reasonable pump-fake as he pursues a highlight-reel swat. His rotations are mediocre at best, and he often devolves into a wild ball of confusion when Chris Paul leaves the court for brief periods (the two get almost all of their playing time together, but the Clips sink to bottom-five defensive levels during the 210 minutes Jordan has played without CP3).
A breakdown of the league’s flawed voting system that often incentivizes voters to pump up guys in their local markets – and even more often includes voters who clearly don’t watch games outside these markets – is for another time, but Jordan winning or even coming close to the DPOY award should by all means incite a sweeping condemnation of the process. These honors may be trivial to some, but they’re a big part of player legacies and guys in the league care. Allowing a thoroughly undeserving candidate the honor ahead of truly worthy ones just based on block totals or a bunch of shameless campaigning from a player’s coach would be really unfortunate. Here’s hoping those involved in the voting do their due diligence and select a more meritorious option.
With that out of the way, let’s get to the deserving names. A rapid-fire look at those who just missed the cut:
Marc Gasol: He remains a wonderful all-around player and perhaps even a fringe MVP candidate, but Memphis’ D hasn’t relied on him alone nearly as much as in previous years.
Tony Allen: Allen is a monster, but he only plays just over 25 minutes a night. It’s tough for any wing to crack the top five, and the one who does here plays more minutes (and has missed fewer games) with a similar impact on an even better defense.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist: See above, though MKG has missed even more games (17).
Hassan Whiteside: He’ll be here next year if he plays the full season and doesn’t go nuts on anyone.
Anthony Davis: Unibrow does his best to drag an awful Pelicans squad along defensively, but he’s not quite the individual force the others on this list are yet. He’s also missed 12 games, which might be the determining factor in keeping him off.
Kawhi Leonard: The toughest omission by far. Missing 18 games dooms him; he’d very likely be among the top five if he’d been healthy all year.
Please remember that this list is generally subjective, especially this year. Several of the names above have extremely compelling arguments not only as candidates, but as winners. It truly is wide open this season. Let’s get to it.
5. Rudy Gobert
The Stifle Tower is the rare exception to the above-noted guidelines regarding players on below-average defensive teams due to some extenuating circumstances and, of course, his own incredible impact on every Jazz defensive possession. He struggled somewhat to find consistent playing time in the season’s first two months amid a crowded frontcourt where his raw offensive game kept him from high volume, averaging just over 15 minutes a game in November and just under 22 in December. The Jazz were excellent defensively in these minutes, of course, but they came primarily versus bench units and not in large enough quantities to be on the radar for this award.
Around the turn of the new year, though, the Rudy renaissance began. A couple brief injuries allowed Gobert to enter the starting lineup and he seized the opportunity, dominating even elite bigs down low and altering entire opponent playbooks just with his presence. He did return to bench duty for a period but his minutes stayed up, including plenty of time with and against starting units, and with the departure of Enes Kanter at the trade deadline he now sits firmly in a starter’s role, posting a 30-plus minute average since.
The results for his team have been stunning, to say the least. This is a Utah group that, through December 31, was 27th in the league in per-possession defense. Since then, corresponding with Rudy’s ascension? An incredible turnaround – from January 1, the Jazz are the NBA’s sixth-best defense, and since February 1, they’re the league’s top unit. It’s a small sample still, to be sure, but since Kanter’s departure over the All-Star break, Utah is posting a defensive efficiency figure (88.9) that would easily rank as the best since the 1996-97 season, the first for which NBA.com tracks such numbers.
Gobert isn’t the only factor contributing to their remarkable uptick, but he’s absolutely the key galvanizing effect. Partnow’s rim protection figures cited above rate him as the most effective in the league by a comfortable margin, saving 4.16 points per-36 compared with second-place Andrew Bogut at 3.24, without a single other player over 3.00. Opponents shoot just 54.5 percent in the Restricted Area when he’s on the floor compared with 62.4 percent when he sits, and the 38 percent he allows when specifically defending shots at the rim is easily the best in the league among high-volume interior defenders.
Opponents are forced to change their entire game plans to account for his mere presence, and are often unable to do so effectively. He learns new skills at an incredible rate and is already countering many of these adjustments teams are making, and is in fact likely a more realistic candidate for Most Improved Player with Jimmy Butler’s recent injury. He has very little shot of actually winning DPOY given Utah’s standing defensively (19th) and overall (they’ll miss the playoffs), but his work absolutely deserves recognition here.
4. Tim Duncan
Full disclosure: to this eye, any of the remaining four names could basically be organized in any order without much complaint. But how great would it be for Duncan, who’s been among the best overall defensive players at his position for 15-plus years but has never won the award, to finally take it home in what may be his twilight season?
He remains at fourth in part because of Leonard, who would likely be here in Tim’s place were it not for the 18 games he’s missed. The Spurs have been above-average defensively with Duncan in regardless of Kawhi’s status, but are only truly elite with Leonard and, conversely, don’t suffer as much when Leonard plays without Duncan.
But games played absolutely matters, and Duncan has been a remarkably steadying presence for a Spurs team that may have lost a step on offense and absolutely needs his contributions on the other end. He’s fourth in the entire league for DRPM and first among guys who have played at least 50 games. His age keeps him from the elite levels of rim protection – 16th in Partnow’s metrics as of March 1 – but he grows craftier seemingly every minute, posting a career-high in per-minute steals at 38 years old. He’s another who’s unlikely to win in reality due to a lack of hype and a coach and GM who would never lower themselves to campaigning for an award, but he’s a wonder to watch and has put the Spurs on his back defensively for much of the year.
3. Andrew Bogut
The theme of games missed is a large one in this year’s race – Bogut and Leonard could easily be No. 1 and 2 in this ranking had both not missed double-digit games (and if both didn’t have teammates who make a drastic impact of their own). But the Aussie was the early front-runner and may still be for some.
He gets a short section here because his candidacy is directly tied to another player we’ll break down below, but know that a healthy remainder of the season for Bogut could easily see him take home the hardware. He leads DRPM with a comfortable cushion, is one of the league’s top rim protectors and has on/off splits that showcase the degree to which the Warriors depend on him. The Dubs remained the top defense in the league in his absence, which is a big part of him dropping to No. 3 here, but he’s as heady a defender as they come, a guy who knows all the tricks in the book. He’s never caught napping or taking plays off, and may be the single most influential defender in the game when healthy.
2. Khris Middleton
Milwaukee has undergone a remarkable transformation, flipping what was the league’s second-worst per-possession defense a year ago into what’s been the second-best unit so far this season. They’ve done it with largely the same roster, even despite the loss of a former DPOY candidate at center in Larry Sanders.
Middleton is the engine that makes it all go, and he’s having a thoroughly under-appreciated season. The Bucks go from what would easily be the league’s best defensive mark when he’s on the floor to around league average when he sits, among the largest on/off splits of any high-volume wing defender. He’s ninth overall for DRPM and first at the shooting guard position, ahead of noted stoppers like Andre Iguodala and Andre Roberson. Opponents do literally everything worse while he plays: they take fewer field-goal attempts and shoot a lower percentage from every distance, shoot fewer free-throws and turn the ball over more frequently.
Middleton’s versatility and durability are what separate him from a few of the wings mentioned earlier – he’s played the most minutes of any realistic wing candidate and has missed the fewest games. He’s also almost likely the most adaptable, capable of guarding four positions with a high degree of effectiveness. He combines with the rest of the length on Milwaukee’s roster to form an imposing switch-happy unit that dampens pick-and-roll attacks, with the Bucks ranking first overall for per-possession defense against P&R ball-handlers, per Synergy, and well above-average against roll men also. But it really stands out how much things tend to collapse without Middleton; only Jared Dudley has even remotely comparable on/off figures, and the dependence here leans heavily in Middleton’s direction. He gets runner-up honors for a really impressive breakout season defensively.
1. Draymond Green
Versatility has become among the most coveted traits for a high-level stopper as the league continues its emphasis on pick-and-rolls, and there’s no more adaptable defender in the game than Green. His presence and ability to literally guard all five positions enables Golden State to employ many of the same tactics as Milwaukee, only with even more flexibility. There are a number of occasions where the Dubs can switch every single potentially threatening action on the floor without giving up a huge mismatch anywhere, and Green is the fulcrum that makes it possible.
Separating his performance defensively from Bogut’s is tough, but there are a few telltale signs. First, of course, is the gap in games and minutes; Green hasn’t missed a single contest and has played just short of double the minutes Bogut has. He’s split his time reasonably evenly between units that contain Bogut and those that don’t, and the Warriors’ overall defensive performance is nearly identical in these two situations.
In an interesting twist, Bogut-sans-Green lineups have actually been markedly better defensively than those featuring both or just Green, but here’s the rub: those units have played so few minutes that they’re tough to assess fully, and even tougher to use as a factor in Bogut’s favor when determining who is more valuable. Bogut has played just 170 minutes on the year while Green sits, compared with near-four-figure totals for each of the other variations involving the two. It’s hard not to put more stock in the 1,009 minutes Green has played on his own, a big sample over which the Warriors have maintained their league-best defensive figure.
Consider a statement from Dubs coach Steve Kerr this week on minutes with Green at center, which Golden State utilizes regularly. Kerr indicated that these groups are defending at an 87.5 per-100 pace (these figures aren’t available publicly, but could be easily enough tracked by a team), a ludicrous figure that in part showcases just how valuable Draymond is. That the Warriors can afford to play a 6’7 guy at center and juice their offense to frightening levels with a five-out attack while playing intensely suffocating defense at the same time is a scary proposition for the rest of the league.
He’s remarkably strong for his size and among the best in the game at leveraging his weight perfectly. One would expect teams to attack him frequently in the post when the Dubs downsize and place him at center, but a combination of his incredible compete level and a Warriors scheme that does a great job shading him help has kept this from being the case at all. Green has defended just 33 finished post possessions all year, per Synergy data, under five percent of the total plays he’s faced. He’s holding opponents to an obscenely low figure in this small sample (27.8 percent shooting with over a 35 percent turnover rate), which is part of the reason there are so few, but his ability to deny entry passes and front bigger guys without being pushed around is paramount as well. The Warriors allow the second-lowest per-possession efficiency in the post in the NBA, once again a truly remarkable feat for a team playing serious minutes with a 6’7 center.
That’s only the big end of the spectrum. Green is quick with an extraordinary wingspan (measured 7’1.25 at the 2012 combine), and has the wits and impeccable footwork to check all but the very quickest guards effectively. He spends at least a few seconds here and there on all five positions likely every single game, this while maintaining the league’s sixth-best DRPM figure.
In the end, there are others with a reasonable case, but no single player brings as much value while simultaneously allowing his team so much defensive flexibility. Green can play in huge lineups down to miniscule ones, and while it’s only a tangential part of the award, his offensive skills and range allow him to remain on the court for big minutes regardless of his teammates. He’s been fully healthy and a rock for the league’s best defense, and takes home this writer’s Defensive Player of the Year award.
Who do you think deserves this season’s Defensive Player of the Year award? Leave your thoughts in a comment below.
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