Defense wins championships, the basketball adage goes. Unfortunately for fans, defense and DPOY standing are the hardest facets of the game to measure when it comes to on-court metrics.
There are simply too many factors to consider when coming up with an assessment of a player’s defense. For instance, team defense and individual defense are two very different things, while teams can also have off shooting nights regardless of how the defense responds to their attack. Team success, athleticism, versatility, all of these things influence how competent a defender can be on that end.
It’s precisely for this reason that the Defensive Player of the Year race isn’t as clear-cut as, say, Most Improved Player or Most Valuable Player. The former generally has year-after-year production as its primary basis, while fans tend to focus on team success and individual domination for their MVP picks. Things aren’t that simple for DPOY candidates.
This year’s Defensive Player of the Year chase is all over the place. The past three or four winners of the award are all candidates, and it feels as though the race is more stacked than ever. Even beyond the obvious contenders, a slew of dark horse candidates could very easily win the award. As basketball became a more perimeter-oriented game within the association, so too did the need for elite perimeter defenders arise. Here are our picks for this year’s DPOY.
DPOY Favorite: Ben Simmons (76ers)
Simmons probably has the strongest case out of anyone on this list at the moment. Much of his argument has to do with his development. He’s slowly proving wrong the narratives that followed him after he infamously gave up the Kawhi Leonard baseline jumper that sent the Sixers home. Where he was once docile and lethargic on that end of the floor, he’s turned it up by way of defensive intensity, and the results speak for themselves.
Consider what the numbers say about how he’s fared against his matchups so far across playing positions, per NBA’s (very flawed) matchup data. Forwards are scoring just 46-of-121 (38%) when Simmons is the lone defender on them. There isn’t much of a dropoff against guards, who are 93-of-219 (42.5%) against Simmons. Centers are 8-of-16 (50%).
His individual matchups are where you really start to see his versatility. He can hold guards like Russell Westbrook and Donovan Mitchell to 38.9% (7/18) and 38.1% (8/21) shooting, respectively. But he can also hold bigger forwards like Pascal Siakam to just 29.4% field goal efficiency on 5/17 shooting.
Philadelphia also holds the best record in a wildly competitive Eastern Conference, and he remains perhaps the only player who can genuinely guard one through five consistently and without significant dropoff.
At this point, we’d be surprised if Simmons didn’t run away with it by season’s end.
Halftime on TNT pic.twitter.com/gPgCpjiTrN
— NBA (@NBA) February 26, 2021
DPOY Contender: Rudy Gobert (Jazz)
Gobert already won DPOY twice before. Luckily for the Utah faithful, the Stifle Tower has shown little signs of slowing down since then. The Jazz put the entire league on notice with their dominant brand of team basketball this season, and fans ought to take note of Gobert’s defensive contributions to his team’s success.
Gobert is an imposing presence in the paint, and even just knowing he’ll be there to meet shots at the rim is enough to make opposing slashers second-guess their decisions on offense. He’s one of the best shot blockers in the league and his combination of size and length allows him to constantly bother shots even without getting his hands on the ball. His dominance on that end translates in the advanced stats as he leads the league in defensive win shares.
Say what you want about his offensive skill set (or lack thereof), but his play of the defensive end has translated to winning basketball for the Jazz. His net +13.5 and 102 defensive rating lead the surging Utah Jazz, where he’s also #1 in win shares.
Even more impressive: his 2.5 defensive win shares, a statistic which estimates the number of wins a player produces for his team due to his defensive ability, lead the entire NBA.
He’s not just a lanky guy with long arms anymore. Rudy Gobert is an excellent basketball defender, and certainly one worthy of yet another DPOY selection.
The Stifle Tower is open for business
— #RingerNBA (@ringernba) July 27, 2020
Myles Turner (Pacers)
If Gobert is among the league’s best shot blockers, he still has a ways to go to reach the prolific rim protection that Myles Turner brings to the table. Turner is the best rim protector in the league, bar none.
His league-leading blocks per game (3.4) and block percentage (9.3%) are evidence of how much he has come into his own as a defender. His block per game average is also a number not reached before since Hall of Famer Alonzo Mourning. That was way back in 1998-99.
One knock against him may be that his defense hasn’t led team success just yet. With Turner as their defensive centerpiece, the Indiana Pacers still give up 111.2 points per 100 possessions, good for 13th in the league in defensive efficiency. His 1.8 defensive win shares are only seventh in the NBA, behind players like Julius Randle, Joel Embiid, and even Nikola Jokic. He’s an excellent shot-blocker, but he doesn’t have the speed to consistently defend on the perimeter just yet.
It’s possible to lead the league in shot-blocking and still not make an All-Defensive team, as Turner knows all too well. After all, that’s exactly what happened to him when he averaged a league-best 2.7 blocks per game just two seasons ago.
But in the same way as Gobert, though, just knowing that Turner is there to meet opposing scorers at the rim is enough to alter shots. It’s entirely possible he walks away with the award. A historic shot-blocker is as good a choice as any for the league’s best defender. Pacers fans know this well: Turner is easily a DPOY contender.
— Indiana Pacers (@Pacers) January 25, 2021
Dark horse: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks)
If you’re noticing a trend here, there’s a reason for that. Hulking but lanky, switchable bigs are immensely valuable commodities in the association today and it’s not hard to see why.
Enter the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in Giannis Antetokounmpo. Already the reigning MVP has led the Milwaukee Bucks to what might have been the most efficient defensive unit of all time. He might be the best help defender in the league as evidenced by his eleventh-ranked 1.4 blocks per game. He’s just a decimal point away from the top ten in this regard.
He’s also mobile enough to switch onto wing players if need be, a strategy not employed enough by head coach Mike Budenholzer. As a center, Giannis blocks 4.0% of shot attempts from opposing teams. His overall 1.9% block percentage is in the 91st percentile of shot blockers in the league.
Off his defensive contributions alone, Antetokounmpo also contributes at least 2.1 wins to the contending Bucks. He’s third in the league in that category.
Yet for all Giannis’ efforts, Milwaukee’s defense as of late has been porous instead of malleable. They continue to oscillate between the league’s 8th and 11th ranked defense after being the most efficient defensive unit for two years in a row. To be sure, this has a lot to do with Budenholzer’s experiments with switching and blitzing, coupled with the effects of defensive anchor Brook Lopez starting to age on that end of the floor.
Owing to voter fatigue, he’s likely not winning the MVP for the third year in a row. But another DPOY plum is certainly possible for the Greek Freak.
Honorable DPOY mentions
Bam Adebayo should have a section of its own, but a selection for him doesn’t seem likely until the Miami Heat get back to where they were a season ago. Bam’s case hinges on the fact that he is one of the only players in the league capable of shutting down elite inside talent like Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo. He has a blend of size and athleticism that’s perfect for today’s league, much like the past few mentions.
Lonzo Ball has always been a competent defender, but he’s really starting to separate himself from the rest of the pack this year. He brings excellent size and athleticism to the point guard position, and he’s managed to shine even playing next to another hyper-defensive guard in Eric Bledsoe.
He may not be a candidate playing next to Turner, but T.J. McConnell is quietly leading the league in steals per game while being the only guard who’s top ten in DBPM. Jrue Holiday and Dejounte Murray have similar arguments with the Bucks and Spurs.
After winning DPOY for two years in a row, Kawhi Leonard is a perennial contender for the league’s best defender. He plays next to other top defenders, but he has all the right tools and smarts to be a defensive stopper on that end of the floor.
It would be a basketball sin not to mention Draymond Green, too. He’s a big part of why the fledgling Warriors have a top ten defense in the league. His +2.6 defensive box plus/minus is good for third in the league. He’s still among the league’s best defenders, but he has looked a step slow in past years with the end of the Golden State dynasty.