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The Real NBA All-Star Team: The East

Nate Duncan constructs the most effective real team for the All-Star game. Today, he builds the East.

Nate Duncan

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With the All-Star reserves to be announced on Thursday, the annual controversy over the rosters is about to be in full swing. But the game itself is an exhibition with little intensity until the final few minutes. All-Star selections serve their purpose of commemorating the best players of a given (half) season and allowing fans to see their favorite players. But what if there were something really at stake? What would the best possible real team assembled from each conference look like?

While it may seem overly simplistic, the philosophy of team-building can be summarized in a similar but more detailed version of the team ratings on a video game. A team should be constructed not merely to get as many of the best players on one squad, but so that the overall roster (and best lineups) get as close to the maximum on all the possible elements of team quality as possible.

Those key elements, in as much brevity as possible:

Offense:
Shooting, both off the catch and the dribble
Passing
Dribbling/slashing
Finishing at the rim, both off the dribble and passes from others
Foul-drawing
Postups
Offensive rebounding
Turnover avoidance
Cuts
Transition offense
Screening

Defense:
Individual containment
Rim-protection
Pick-and-roll defense (bigs)
Help defense
Steals
Perimeter shot contesting
Post defense
Defensive rebounding
Transition defense
Overall energy

Some of these are obviously more important than others. For example, a total lack of shooting can kill an offense no matter what other strengths you have. Some, like post defense, are more niche but can still kill a team, as the Toronto Raptors found to their chagrin in the playoffs a year ago. Nevertheless, the goal will be to construct teams and lineups that max out the meters on all of these attributes as much as possible.

Not only is it essential to acquire players with incredible strength, but to avoid players with weaknesses the other team can attack. The most easily exploited weaknesses are lack of shooting (by the standards of his position), post defense or pick-and-roll defense. In this incredibly high-level game, even the slightest weakness in key areas could kill a team.

Last week, we looked at the West’s “real All-Star team.” At first blush, it is immediately clear how much weaker the East is, especially at the big positions.  The good news is, the East features the best smallball power forward in history.

Starters

Point Guard: Kyle Lowry.  Point guard is perhaps the East’s deepest position, with Lowry, John Wall, Kyrie Irving, Jeff Teague and Derrick Rose all worthy of consideration.  But as with the West, a point guard who can shoot is paramount to punish teams for going under the pick and roll.  That leaves Lowry* and Irving as the two main candidates to start.  Lowry is a far better distributor and defender than Irving, especially when he doesn’t have to carry such a load offensively.  Plus his bulldog strength and competitiveness make him tough to post up on switches.

*Lowry is shooting only 33 percent on threes this season, but has had to take a lot of bad ones this year as the primary impetus of Toronto’s offense with DeMar DeRozan out.  He’s been over 36 percent the previous four years.

Shooting Guard: Jimmy Butler.  Butler has cooled after a hot start from the field, but he still gets to the line a ton and merits at least a closeout from beyond the three-point line.  He is used to playing without the ball and can provide some points off cuts and the offensive glass.

More importantly, the Bulls’ shooting guard is really the only premium wing defender in the East who is also elite offensively.  Butler is not a perfect option due to the fact that he is not a great shooter, but we need someone who can guard on the wing.

Small Forward: Carmelo Anthony.  Here is where the pickings for the East start to get a bit slim versus their counterparts in the West.  The Anthony of the past two years would be a far worthier pick as a starter, but with recent knee problems and the onset of his 30s that player may be gone forever.  And he has never really defended at even an average NBA level at either small or power forward. Nevertheless, who else are you starting on the wing?*  Dwyane Wade can’t shoot threes and is no great shakes as a defender either.  DeRozan is too inefficient and also doesn’t shoot threes.  Kyle Korver might be the best competition.  He is a better team defender, although he cannot bang with power forwards to the extent Anthony can.  And Korver is not going to be an asset defending one-on-one either.  This spot is Anthony’s by default, although it is quite possible the team would end up playing a little better with Korver on the floor. The East definitely misses Paul George, who would be the obvious pick here with his two-way play.

*I am including both shooting guards and small forwards here, since Butler can play either wing spot.

Power Forward:  LeBron James.  James has played little at the four in Cleveland with Kevin Love anchoring that spot and unable to move up to center.  But memories of what he and the HEAT were in Miami persist.  Despite his much publicized weight loss over the summer, James still has the heft and activity to battle post players when needed.  And he and Carmelo on the floor together means the opposition must either downsize or risk a mismatch with their power forward against either of them.

After a rough stretch to begin the season, James is looking like the game’s best player again since resting for two weeks.  Playing him at power forward with adequate shooting around him is the best way to negate the West’s massive advantage up front.

Center:  Chris Bosh. With all this offensive firepower, the East center would ideally be someone who can finish pick and rolls at an elite level while protecting the rim and defending pick and rolls and postups.  Unfortunately, the East does not really possess such an established player.  Al Horford and Chris Bosh come the closest. Both have been a part of good defenses, but neither has the size or length to be truly elite on that end.  They also can stretch defenses with their shooting, but they aren’t elite at dunking lobs and sucking the defense in on pick and rolls either.

Nevertheless, it probably comes down to these two.  Andre Drummond may be the ideal sort of player eventually, but he isn’t good enough on defense yet.  Bosh is probably the pick to start because of his superior length and legitimate three-point range, but Horford will also get plenty of time.

Backup Bigs:

Al Horford: Horford might be the best two-way big man in the East.  Although he is still a bit undersized as a center, he has the strength to defend postups against all but he largest behemoths. He knows where to be and how to execute the system, as evidenced by Atlanta’s excellent defense this year.  And Horford’s elite midrange jump-shooting can help spread the floor for others.  If Bosh cannot hold up on the boards with this small starting lineup, Horford could end up seeing the lion’s share of the playing time.

Paul Millsap:  Millsap has grown into a better defender than many think after developing a bad reputation in Utah playing next to Al Jefferson.  He also can drill three-pointers and get to the basket off the dribble.  Millsap is not a perfect player due to his lack of length and explosion, but the East bigs are not exactly overflowing with explosive athletes.

Hassan Whiteside:  Yes, really.  Many will say this is an overreaction to a few good weeks, but it must be remembered this is an end-of-the-bench spot on this team.  It seems unlikely Whiteside is the star-type player he has looked like of late, but if he is he provides exactly what this team needs defending the basket while finishing pick and rolls and offensive rebounds at the hoop.  Why not spend the last roster spot on the flier that Whiteside can provide something the team lacks?

Andre Drummond: The logic on Drummond is similar to that of Whiteside: another flier trying to find this squad’s Tyson Chandler.  Drummond has not yet shown the ability to impact the game defensively the way even Whiteside has in his short career, but he has the physical tools.  What’s more, we know he can be a great weapon in pick and rolls offensively, and is a monster on the offensive glass.  I am quite comfortable spending the last two roster slots on wild cards to see if we can find someone to play the role this team really needs.  Without such a player, the team is likely going to devolve into trying to outscore the West.

Why not?

Pau Gasol:  Gasol simply isn’t athletic enough to play effectively in a game like this.  While he has been a revelation at around $7 million per year with the points and rebounds he is putting up, he lacks the athleticism to defend other than in the immediate basket area (where he has been solid).  He also is not a good enough defensive rebounder.  While post scoring might be welcome on this team, Gasol is only effective in that role against subpar defenders.  Zach Lowe did a nice job further outlining some of Gasol’s weaknesses in his All-Star piece today.

Joakim Noah:  Noah would probably be the starter for if we were picking the squad this time last year. At his peak, his ability to protect the rim and switch pick and rolls would be precisely what the squad needed on defense.  That Noah has been largely absent this year though as he works back from a knee injury. More importantly, Noah is now a total liability offensively, shooting 44 percent and a mere 51 percent in the basket area.*  Teams don’t even guard him, and that’s not going to fly on this team.

*The NBA average is around 60 percent.

Al Jefferson: Big Al just isn’t mobile enough defensively, and this team is not going to need his relatively inefficient shot-creation in the post with the firepower on the rest of the roster.

Kevin Love:  Love doesn’t make this team for the same reason he isn’t a great fit with James in Cleveland. The East will likely function best with James at the four, and Love will get destroyed defensively at the five.  While his shooting and passing would be a nice weapon, Millsap provides many of the same things with a more well-rounded skillset on defense.

Nikola Vucevic:  He is nowhere near a good enough defender to merit inclusion on this team.

Backup Wings:

Kyle Korver: The potential author of the league’s first 50/50/90 season gets a spot due to his shooting gravity.  He is a near perfect complement to the weapons on this squad offensively, although he lacks the abilities to punish teams that switch onto him off the dribble and will never be much of a one-on-one defender due to his athletic deficiencies.

DeMarre Carroll:  This squad is going to need someone who can play wing stopper when Butler goes out or gets in foul trouble as he does on occasion.  Carroll is one of the few East wings who meets that definition and can still drain threes at a solid rate. He is one of the most underrated players in basketball, although his inclusion on this team speaks as much for the East’s lack of two-way wings as it does for his own prowess.

Why not?

Dwyane Wade:  What Wade is doing at his age should not be discounted; he has carried the HEAT offensively.  But his old man game does not work as well against the best defenders, he can’t shoot threes and isn’t much of a defender any longer.  Without the ball in his hands, Wade does not add enough to this team even with his “ghost cuts.”

Bradley Beal:  The hype on Beal has always gotten a bit ahead of what he is actually doing on the court.  While he is shooting a blistering 44 percent from three-point range, he is no Korver in terms of gravity.  While he is probably a little quicker than Korver, it is not like he is asked to be a stopper for Washington right now.  Korver and Carroll are just a little better at what this team needs.  In a couple of years time, Beal would have a much better shot.

DeMar DeRozan:  His main skills are handling in pick and roll and creating long twos. That has value for his NBA team, but he is too inefficient and not a good enough defender to get a serious look as a role-playing backup wing because of how little value he provides without the ball in his hands.

Backup Point Guard:

John Wall:  Wall is one of the best players in the East, and might be the best defender among point guards at this point.  He will be the best passer on the team with the possible exception of James. Wall is also tall enough to slide to the two defensively but play point on offense, which he must do since he isn’t a good enough shooter to play off the ball.  A two point guard lineup with he and Lowry could be effective if the East wants to push the pace. It is a concern that teams will play off him and dare him to shoot, but he’s so much better as a distributor than the other point guard candidates that he needs to be on the team.

Kyrie Irving: The Cavs point guard gets the last spot due to his shooting ability.  If Lowry needs a break and the opponent successfully dares Wall to shoot (or James is handling the ball), Irving can make the defense pay from downtown or get to the basket, where he’s markedly improved his finishing this year. While his defense is lacking, he has at least improved his effort on that end.

Why not?

Jeff Teague:  Teague is having a wonderfully efficient season.  But he just is not quite as dynamic with the ball in his hands as Irving and Wall, lacking the former’s shooting ability and the latter’s vision.  His lack of a particular elite skill sinks him here.

Derrick Rose: Rose is showing flashes of his old self more and more.  He is getting to the basket with greater ease (though still struggling to finish) and starting to hit enough threes to keep the defense honest.  Unfortunately, he still is not efficient enough that you want him taking away opportunities from the great players on this team–he will need to start getting to the line a lot more to approach that level.  What’s more, Rose’s defense has slipped from his pre-injury level, although he has shown flashes.  Rose may get back to All-Star level by the end of the year, but for now he shouldn’t be on this team.

Who wins?

The West would be a big favorite. They have better point guards, better shooting, more two-way players on the perimeter and, most importantly, far more defense at the basket.  The East’s only hope is to force the West into going small with James at power forward, but even then the West’s superior defensive versatility and their ability to deploy Howard, Davis or Cousins (who the East will have to double team) as the lone big man would be a massive advantage.

 

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst and attorney. He writes regular features for Basketball Insiders and chats weekly at 11 Eastern on Tuesdays.

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Hungry HEAT Destined To Be Dark Horse In East

The Miami HEAT are off to a hot start at 9-3. Jordan Hicks details why this may actually be legitimate and why the HEAT have a chance to go deep in the playoffs.

Jordan Hicks

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After Jimmy Butler was acquired by the Miami HEAT this past offseason, everyone expected them to be a solid team in the Eastern Conference. They weren’t expected to go deep in the playoffs, and very few people had them pegged as one of the league’s elite teams. But 12 games into the season, the HEAT are 9-3…and they might be — dare we say — really, really good.

The crazy part about how their team is playing together is all the moving pieces that make it work. Butler is the leader of the team — both in general and in scoring — but he’s only averaging 18.4 points. They have six guys averaging double-digit points, another at 9.7 and three more all above 7 points per game.

As a team, they are number one in the league in field goal percentage, third in three-point shooting, fifth in assists per game and first in steals per game. They are tied with the Toronto Raptors for the fourth-best plus-minus.

Looking into more advanced statistics, they are fifth in the NBA in net rating, helped greatly by their current defensive rating of 101.2. They are second in the league in assist percentage and first in both effective and true field goal percentage.

Of their nine wins, two of them came on the road against the Milwaukee Bucks and the surprising Phoenix Suns, and another came at home in the complete demolition of the Houston Rockets. Their three losses were all the road against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers — three games you’d almost expect them to lose.

This isn’t a take that’s expecting you to believe the HEAT are the real deal based solely on their wins and losses up to this point in the season, but the fact they are completely taking care of business shows that Erik Spoelstra may be well on his way to one of his best head coaching seasons since the departure of LeBron James.

Just what is making this team so good? Let’s start by highlighting their stingy defense, the main driver behind their early-season success.

Butler is leading the entire NBA in steals with 2.8 per game. He is their leader on that end and a large part as to why they’re so successful. They are currently leading the NBA in steals as a team. This is great for a very obvious reason. It takes possessions away from the opposing offense and, in many cases, leads to an easy look in transition on the other end. The most efficient way to score is a wide-open dunk or layup, and fast breaks usually turn into that. The HEAT are averaging a tick under 10 steals per game, so that is plenty of looks their opponents won’t get off.

A huge breakout player for the HEAT this year is Bam Adebayo. Ever since his rookie year, you got the feeling he’d turn out to be solid, but his third season in the league finally feels like Adebayo’s time to shine. He’s averaging 13.9 points, 10.5 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks. Guess how many other players in the NBA are putting up a similar stat line? Just one. His name is Giannis Antetokounmpo, you may have heard of him before.

In a league that is being overrun with efficient scoring, the glue guy is a key piece to any championship team that often goes unnoticed. Take Draymond Green, for example. You remember Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and Klay Thompson, but Green played as big of a role as any of those guys in bringing rings back to Oracle. Adebayo has a chance to take an incredibly large leap this season, and some are even calling him an early candidate for the Most Improved Player award. No big deal, just HEAT-royalty Dwayne Wade.

Most impressive is where Adebayo currently sits in box plus-minus. This leaderboard is usually nestled with all the top players in the league, and Adebayo currently sits at No. 8. It’d be crazy if he stayed there all season, but the fact he’s up there already 13 games into the season is pretty impressive.

On the offensive end, things seem to be clicking on many different cylinders. As previously mentioned they have six, basically seven guys in double figures. Two of them happen to be rookies, and one of those rookies happens to be undrafted. That undrafted guy, Kendrick Nunn, is making a whole lot of noise.

He’s second in per-game scoring behind Rookie of the Year favorite Ja Morant, and he leads all rookies in steals per game. He’s first in made field goals and first in total steals, too. He leads all rookies in overall plus-minus. He’s second on the HEAT in points per game behind Jimmy Butler and second in steals per game, as well. He’s shooting well from the field as well as from behind the three, where he’s tied with Coby White for most threes made out of all rookies. He’s shooting the three at 38.4 percent which is killer for a rookie considering he’s shooting over six of them per game.

The other rookie standout, Tyler Herro, is averaging 13.3 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. He’s a great spot-up shooter, but is capable of creating his own looks, too. Of the rookies on the roster, he’ll likely be the better shooter in the long run, and he’s shown every bit of why he deserved to be drafted in the lottery at No. 13.

The HEAT have many other players contributing in diverse ways, some big and some small. Meyers Leonard is shooting over 60 percent from three on two attempts per night. Justise Winslow was pacing the team in nightly plus-minus before his concussion. Goran Dragic — a savvy veteran who is somehow glossed over in this group — is scoring 16 per game on very efficient marks. One could go on and on about all the talent this Miami team has deep on its roster.

Listen, there is still an eternity left before the playoffs start, and Jimmy Butler has shown previous incapabilities of putting the team first. But the HEAT seem to be off to an incredibly productive start. Most wouldn’t pencil them in as a championship team, but with all the parity in the league today, they absolutely have an argument to be considered the top dark horse.

The Miami HEAT have plenty of pieces to make a deep run in the playoffs. Apart from Butler, they are definitely lacking a superstar or two, but they make up for it with early-season continuity, solid coaching and overall execution on both ends of the floor. With all the talent on their roster at almost every poisition, don’t be surprised if the HEAT end up coming out of the East.

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NBA Daily: Philadelphia Castoffs Finding Success Elsewhere

After failing to make it with the Philadelphia 76ers, three players have stood out by gaining traction with new franchises as solid contributors. Chad Smith sheds some light on how these individuals have changed the narrative of their careers.

Chad Smith

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Trust The Process.

That was the slogan that the Philadelphia 76ers plastered on billboards and etched into the minds of their fans. They stressed patience to their fan base and were transparent about the entire plan. The tanking of not just games — but seasons — delivered the Sixers’ front office what they so desired: draft picks.

More valuable than cash considerations and better than expiring contracts, the draft picks offered an unknown quantity. Hope and potential for greatness were the selling points for their dynamic plan. It was easy to convince anyone and everyone that would listen. At the time, it appeared to be a solid plan, so long as everyone could stomach the losing.

While the exciting element of a draft pick is the unknown, that has also proven to be a double-edged sword. If selecting the right talent was easy, Michael Jordan would have never worn a Chicago Bulls uniform. Kevin Durant would have never played in Seattle and the Detroit Pistons probably would have rather had one of Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony or Chris Bosh instead of Darko Milicic.

Maybe that wasn’t the plan, though. Perhaps the plan was just to get as many bites out of the apple as possible and hope to strike gold on a couple of the picks. If indeed that was the plan, it would be difficult to argue that it didn’t work. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are already All-Star players and the faces of the franchise.

Philadelphia finally molded into a playoff team during the 2017-2018 season. The organization quickly went to work on tweaking the roster, trying to find the right pieces to fit this puzzle together. But outside of its two cornerstones over the past five years, there were three notable players that were labeled as busts or clearly were not going to make it with the Sixers. And many wondered if these guys would even still be in the league in the coming months.

These guys needed a fresh start. They needed a reset button on their careers. Now, they appear to be in the right environment with the right people bringing out the best in them. They have thrived in their new roles and, ultimately, have changed the narrative of their careers.

Markelle Fultz, Orlando Magic

The most obvious success story seems to be playing out right before our eyes. The Sixers selected Fultz with the No. 1 overall pick in 2017, but it turned sideways very quickly. After captivating college basketball fans at Washington, expectations were extremely high as he prepared for his rookie season.

The Orlando Magic have been starving for a star point guard for quite some time. They took a gamble on the 21-year old, and it is paying off in a big way. Fultz being used as a combo guard alongside a strong and youthful roster seems to be an ideal fit. He is getting to the basket and finishing strong. He is also knocking down his free throws (82 percent) and collecting steals (1.3 per game) at a high rate.

Heading into tonight’s game in Toronto, Fultz is averaging just under 11 points and 3.1 assists per game. He had an effective field goal percentage of 42 percent in his 33 total games as a member of the 76ers. Through 13 games this season, he’s upped that to 51.4.

Both Embiid and Simmons missed their entire first season in Philly and turned into All-Stars. This small sample size is just that, but things are definitely trending in the right direction for Fultz to develop into the caliber of player everyone thought he would be when he was drafted. The mental hurdle has been cleared, and his confidence seems to have been been restored.

Jahlil Okafor, New Orleans Pelicans

The 2015 NBA Draft had some exceptional talent. Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell went just before Okafor, but many people thought that was a mistake. While the former third overall pick won’t ever reach the same pinnacle as those two in his career, he has been a tremendous success story nonetheless over the past two years.

After three seasons of below-average production in Philly, Okafor was traded to the Brooklyn Nets where he was seeking a fresh start. His 26-game stint there did not yield positive results, and it appeared as though the promising big man’s future was near the end. In the summer of 2018, Okafor signed a minimum salary contract with the New Orleans Pelicans. He remains on a partially-guaranteed deal, but is outperforming that so far this season.

With so many athletic wings and a bevy of guards in New Orleans, Okafor has found the perfect role as the man in the middle. No longer seeming rushed, the big man is patient with the ball and has the ability to finish himself or find the open guy on the perimeter. He is much more efficient shooting the ball and is averaging 1.1 blocks per game.

Despite suffering an ankle injury that has him temporarily sidelined, Okafor has been playing well. With the absence of rookie sensation Zion Williamson, New Orleans has needed his solid play to keep the train rolling. He won’t be what many had envisioned him becoming after leaving Duke, but Okafor has carved out a nice role for himself in the league.

Richaun Holmes, Sacramento Kings

Another member of Philly’s 2015 draft class has found his opportunity in a different zip code. Despite playing 156 games for the Sixers, Holmes was never really given the opportunity to become a vital role player for the team. He started just 20 of those games and played less than 17 minutes a night. With so many injuries in Sacramento, that opportunity has come for him, and he has stepped up and excelled in his new role.

The overall numbers for Holmes have risen quite a bit, but the blocks are what stand out the most. Through 13 games this season, the active big man is averaging nearly as many blocks per game (1.4) as the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Rudy Gobert. He is averaging career-high numbers in virtually every statistical category.

The former second-round pick has always been known as an energy guy, and he is thriving off of that on this young and hungry Kings squad. His rebounding has been tremendous, especially on offense. Sacramento ranks in the top half of the league in second-chance points, largely due to Holmes being so active on the glass.

Whereas many of the trades that the 76ers executed involved more talent coming back in return, this one was different. Philly traded Holmes to the Phoenix Suns in the summer of 2018 for $1 million. Nearly a year later, Holmes signed a two-year deal with the Kings for $9.77 million. Consider that money well-earned by Holmes, and well spent by Sacramento.

For every Embiid and Simmons that comes along, there are guys like Michael Carter-Williams, Nerlens Noel and Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot. What is important for these guys is to embrace a fresh start and a different role with a new team.

By doing so, they can assure themselves of a future in the league as opposed to watching from the sidelines.

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NBA Daily: DPOY Watch – 11/19/19

A familiar name is back at the top of the Defensive Player of the Year rankings with established contenders and youthful upstarts nipping at his heels.

Jack Winter

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A month into the regular season, the race for Defensive Player of the Year remains fluid. Even as longtime contenders and preseason favorites further assert their will defensively, a group of position-less wings and dogged guards are making a major impact on that side of the floor, too.

More or less, it comes down to one simple question still: Can anybody dethrone Rudy Gobert and his tenacious, defensive unit-leading prowess?

Here’s where Defensive Player of the Year stands as December quickly approaches.

Honorable Mention: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks; Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics; Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors; Patrick Beverley, Los Angeles Clippers; Jevon Carter, Phoenix Suns

5. Jonathan Isaac – Orlando Magic

Only Anthony Davis has more combined steals and blocks than Isaac’s 45. His individual defensive performance against the Dallas Mavericks on Nov. 6, when he collected five steals and six blocks, is arguably the season’s most impressive.

Isaac, at 6-foot-11 with long arms and an increasingly sturdy frame, simply makes plays the vast majority of defenders can’t, even when the box score doesn’t recognize them. His activity, quickness and instincts routinely allow him to be two places at once defensively. He’s among the game’s most switchable defenders, and there may not be a better help-and-recover player in all of basketball.

It’s not just steals either as both blocks and the ever-important eye test support Isaac’s nascent case for Defensive Player of the Year.

Isaac is the Magic’s only starter with a negative net defensive rating. Better, Orlando — a franchise that goads opponents into more two-point jumpers than any team in the league — forces 5.4 percent more mid-rangers than average with Isaac on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass. He’s top-three in defensive field goal percentage allowed at the rim, too, an ode to both his mastery of verticality and penchant for highlight-reel blocks.

Isaac is realizing his potential as a game-changing, all-court defensive force in his third NBA campaign. He’s probably not a big enough name to garner legitimate consideration for hardware this season, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be worthy of it – or fail to emerge as a perennial DPOY candidate going forward.

4. Bam Adebayo – Miami HEAT

Adebayo’s modest on-off numbers defensively almost certainly aren’t what they would be if the HEAT weren’t subject to so many key contributors coming and going early in the season. Jimmy Butler missed the first three games of 2019-20, and Justise Winslow has been sidelined by a concussion since Nov. 7 after sitting out two earlier games due to back spasms. Derrick Jones Jr. has played in just four games while dealing with nagging groin and hip injuries.

Through it all, Adebayo has been the linchpin holding Miami together on defense. His rare versatility allows Erik Spoelstra to pair him with offensive-oriented bigs like Kelly Olynyk and Meyers Leonard upfront as well. Ultimately, the HEAT have been at their best defensively during the brief time he’s spent at center – a lineup configuration we’re more likely to see when Winslow and Jones return from injury.

Among the numerous attributes that make Adebayo special defensively is his equal penchant for highlight-reel plays and more unspectacular, nuanced ones, both of which make a major impact. He has a keen sense of timing and angles as a pick-and-roll helper, prodding at ball handlers with active hands while splitting the difference between them and the roller.

Adebayo isn’t an elite rim-protector and the statistics say as much. But preventing attempts around the rim is just as valuable as affecting them and the HEAT surrender 9.1 percent fewer shots in the restricted area with Adebayo on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass – the league’s second-biggest discrepancy among high-minute bigs.

As the season continues, don’t be surprised if Adebayo fades from the DPOY conversation. Miami is loaded with quality defenders, and his numbers-based case may grow accordingly thin as Spoelstra gets full use of his planned rotation. Adebayo’s influence, though, will remain obvious to anyone watching the HEAT regardless.

3. Joel Embiid – Philadelphia 76ers

The Sixers have quietly been among the league’s most disappointing teams, going just 3-5 after winning their first five games of the regular season. But don’t chalk those struggles up to Embiid, who has nipped at his turnover rate and made strides from beyond the arc while remaining Philadelphia’s defensive panacea.

On a roster stacked with stellar defenders like Al Horford, Ben Simmons and Josh Richardson, Embiid’s net on-off defensive rating of -11.3 is easily a team-best among regulars. His individual rim-protecting numbers are still lagging behind career norms, though team-wide data suggests Embiid has been as big a deterrent around the basket as ever.

Why? His rare blend of size, timing and understanding as the last line of defense, which Embiid puts on display in the clip below. Covering for multiple mistakes by Tobias Harris, he first cuts off Cedi Osman’s middle drive despite being in ICE position, then recovers for an effective contest at the basket when his teammate gets beaten backdoor.

The 76ers’ opponents have attempted 7.2 percent fewer shots at the rim with Embiid on the floor, while their accuracy on those tries dips 6.1 percent, per Cleaning the Glass. Also indicative of Embiid’s rippling influence in the paint is Philadelphia’s league-worst opponent free throw rate spiking nearly 10 points when he’s sitting.

Philadelphia is too talented defensively to be anything less than elite on that end for long. And when they inevitably rise the ranks in defense from ninth, Embiid will still be the biggest reason why.

2. Anthony Davis – Los Angeles Lakers

It says a lot about the Lakers’ enviable roster of proven defenders that their opponent shot profile doesn’t align with tenets of modern basketball. Los Angeles ranks 11th in preventing shots at the rim and 20th in preventing shots from deep, while forcing only an average rate of shots from mid-range.

But what should be a recipe for mediocrity has instead yielded the league’s top-ranked defense, a ringing endorsement of the Lakers’ personnel and Frank Vogel’s ability to get a veteran team to buy in on that side of the ball.

The presence of Davis, to be clear, doesn’t affect those numbers in an overtly-positive manner. Opponents shoot fewer threes when he’s on the floor, but take more shots from the restricted area. They don’t commit turnovers at a notably higher rate, either, and actually get to the line more often. Davis’ defensive rating is 99.1, the exact same as Los Angeles’ mark with him on the bench and just a hair lower than its season-long rating.

No matter. The Lakers’ wealth of defensive talent and commitment to the scheme shouldn’t affect Davis’ DPOY candidacy to the extent a similar dynamic might others.

The statistics are there, naturally, if that’s how you want to make Davis’ case. His 38 blocks lead the league by a comfortable margin, plus more steals than any other top-tier shot-blocker save Isaac and Andre Drummond. Opponents are shooting a laughably low and league-best 30 percent against him at the rim, interior supremacy buttressed by Los Angeles coaxing a far worse shooting percentage from the restricted area with him on the floor.

Davis is a physical outlier. Other elite rim-protectors, like Embiid and Rudy Gobert, just can’t do what he does across 94 feet.

That alone doesn’t make Davis the DPOY frontrunner — but combined with his sweeping all-around effect and the Lakers’ team-wide dominance, it certainly burnishes his resumé.

1. Rudy Gobert – Utah Jazz

Gobert was second on this list two weeks ago and fifth in our preseason rankings. The assumption was that the Jazz’s overhauled personnel, including a full-time deviation from playing another big next to him, would lead to a downturn in their team-wide defensive performance, thus weakening Gobert’s chances for another DPOY award.

Wrong.

Utah owns the league’s second-stingiest defense. Its entire system is based around the premise that Gobert is waiting in the paint to challenge any would-be penetrators, letting Royce O’Neal, Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell and more put pressure the ball in a way they otherwise wouldn’t feel comfortable.

The Jazz allow 6.9 percent fewer shots at the rim with Gobert in the game and accuracy on those attempts dips by 4.5 percent, per Cleaning the Glass. Their defensive rebounding percentage drops from a dominant 77.6 to 70.8 when he goes from the floor to the bench, with the added bonus of committing far more fouls in that scenario, too.

Gobert isn’t as versatile as Davis and less likely than Embiid to come out of nowhere for soaring weak-side blocks. But to suggest that his impact is limited to tangible and intangible rim-protection would also be remiss. It’s not often, for instance, that Karl-Anthony Towns gets embarrassed in isolation on consecutive possessions.

Look at Mitchell at the end of the clip above. No player in basketball is more prone to inspire his teammates and ignite home crowds by virtue of defense than Gobert. He plays with an arrogant edge that helps make his team’s whole greater than the sum its parts on that end — and it’s once again propelling Utah to the top of the league.

Gobert will face a steep challenge in joining Dwight Howard as the only players to ever win DPOY three times in a row. But as the first month of the regular season has made abundantly clear, any expectation he’d fall from consideration was foolish. For now, then, he’s the leader — but who might come for the back-to-back crown next?

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