“If anybody else gets that award, we need to have an investigation.”
Clippers coach Doc Rivers clearly thinks his center, DeAndre Jordan, is the favorite for defensive player of the year. Averaging ridiculous rebound and block totals, Jordan has a good shot, but is far from the favorite, as other candidates – both at the rim and on the perimeter – have (probably more) compelling cases. Doc, consider this the investigation.
3. Kawhi Leonard, Small Forward, San Antonio Spurs
DREB: Defensive Rebounds per game (ESPN); STL: Steals per game (ESPN); BLK: Blocks per game (ESPN); DRPM: Defensive Real Plus-Minus (ESPN); DRAT: Defensive Rating (Basketball Reference); DWS: Defensive Win Shares (Basketball Reference); DBPM: Defensive Box Plus-Minus (Basketball Reference)
A perimeter player hasn’t won Defensive Player of the Year since The Artest Formerly Known as Ron took home the award in 2004. Kawhi Leonard, though, defending Finals MVP and blossoming star for the Spurs, might be the best perimeter defender since (with all due respect to Tony Allen, who probably deserves that title). Take it from LeBron himself, in a video that I love so much I post it over and over:
Don’t worry, LeBron – you’re not alone. Any player in the NBA would be disenfranchised to see Kawhi as their matchup, and for good reason. He leads the league in steals per game, and somehow, as a small forward, is 8th in DBPM (4 of the top 20 aren’t big men) and 2nd in Defensive Rating (5 of the top 20). It seems you can’t really even dribble in Leonard’s vicinity if you don’t wanna give him the ball. Here’s a look at Leonard’s defense in Game 3 of last year’s Finals, where he forced the King to commit a Finals-record 7 turnovers:
He’s got an incredible sense of anticipation, one of the biggest parts of getting steals, as evidenced by this steal on Linsanity:
Look at how he uses that anticipation to cut off Luol Deng’s driving lanes in this clip from Leonard’s rookie year:
Alongside being one of the top on-ball defenders in the NBA, he’s an incredible defensive playmaker off the ball, where he shows his sort-of-radar that allows him to track down opponents’ passes, sometimes even before they happen. Check out this short but sweet compilation from a guy who apparently likens Kawhi to Alien:
No matter where he is on the court, Leonard can affect the game defensively, and his combination of size, strength, quickness, and awareness give him all the makings of the most fearsome wing defender of a generation. Whether or not he wins DPOY this year, he’ll likely be on the ballot for years to come.
2. Draymond Green, Power Forward, Golden State Warriors
RFG%: Rim Field Goal Percentage Allowed (Nylon Calculus); CNT%: Contest Percentage (Nylon Calculus); PS: Points Saved per game (Nylon Calculus)
At just 6-foot-7, shorter than most small forwards, Draymond Green has been a defensive monster at the power forward for the Warriors this season. Tops in the league in both defensive rating and defensive win shares is impressive, and considering his stature, his steal and block numbers are nearly as noteworthy. Green is extremely versatile, and his ability to do it all defensively (guard both the perimeter and post; help at the rim; grab defensive boards) is one of the biggest reasons Golden State has been the best team in the NBA. Coach of the Year candidate Steve Kerr’s decision to continue to start Green over David Lee (though Lee’s injury was the original reason for the move) is a largely contributing factor to Kerr’s consideration for that award.
As a power forward, Green is no liability checking guards, and the size versatility of the wings for Golden State (Andre Iguodala 6’6″; Green, Klay Thompson, & Shaun Livingston 6’7″; Harrison Barnes 6’8″) allows Coach Kerr to employ a lot of switching defensively. Take a look at how Green hounds MVP candidate James Harden, even past the three-point line:
This sort of versatility gives the Warriors the ability to hedge hard on all screens and rotate defense around in an effort to swarm the ball. Note that Golden State is tops in the NBA in effective field goal percentage allowed.
Just as guards feel (incorrectly) they can break Green down off the dribble, big men often lick their lips when they see the smaller Green in the post. It usually doesn’t go as well as they hope:
Even the announcer underestimates Green, saying “I would go to Millsap and just let him do his thing; he’s got a smaller guy on him.” Many teams don’t realize just how effective Green is defensively, and his ability to spread the floor on offense (.346 three-point percentage) makes him one of the league’s most valuable players, well worthy of the max contract that at least one team will offer him this summer.
Tim Duncan, Power Forward, San Antonio Spurs
After all these years, Duncan is still one of the best defensive players in the league. He’s 3rd in Defensive Real Plus-Minus and, at 38 years old and despite averaging less than 30 minutes per game, is 9th in blocks per game at 1.87. However, other players have had bigger impacts.
Serge Ibaka, Power Forward, Oklahoma City Thunder
Ibaka is one of the best rim protectors in the NBA, as he’s been his whole career. He’s 2nd in field goal percentage allowed at the rim, and is relatedly 3rd in blocks per game. However, the advanced metrics don’t love him, as he’s 20th in DRPM and doesn’t show up in the top 20 in any of Basketball Reference’s Defensive Rating, Defensive Win Shares, or Defensive Box Plus-Minus, indicating he may not be quite valuable enough on defense to deserve this award.
DeAndre Jordan, Center, Los Angeles Clippers
Sorry, Doc. Jordan is an elite rebounder and shot blocker, but most of his rebounds are either on the offensive end or stolen from teammates (the Clippers’ defensive rebounding rate barely moves from 76.4 percent to 74.6 percent when he goes to the bench). Though he’s fifth in blocks per game, Jordan’s RFG% of 0.491 ranks 42nd, below less reputable big man defenders like Cody Zeller, David Lee, and Luis Scola. Furthermore, he ranks an ugly 58th in DRPM, 22nd among centers.
Anthony Davis, Power Forward, New Orleans Pelicans
The Brow is clearly already one of the best defenders in the NBA, as evidenced by his ridiculous 2.93 blocks per game (leads the league). At 22 years old, and with the offensive impact he’s had this year for New Orleans, it’s amazing he ranks among one of the top 10 defenders in the Association (in the 5-15 range in all of Basketball Reference’s defensive metrics), but his low volume – he’s missed 14 games this season – and room for improvement keep him just outside the top 3.
1. Rudy Gobert, Center, Utah Jazz
22-year old French 7-footer (7-foot-2, to be exact) Rudy Gobert isn’t called the Stifle Tower for nothing. In just his second year in the league, Gobert has distinguished himself as one of the league’s defensive stalwarts, and to statheads like myself, might already be the best rim protector in the league.
His block numbers are impressive enough, fourth in the league at 2.31 per game, but Gobert’s value defending shots goes well beyond the times he gets a hold of one. He leads the league in both opponent’s field goal percentage at the rim and points saved per game, and those two are definitely related.
Look at this example, where Chris Bosh receives the pass relatively open at the elbow, but Gobert’s rush causes him to hesitate:
Gobert’s closeout is successful, and Bosh is forced to enter a triple threat stance:
After a couple of jab steps, Bosh forces up the jumper, but with a perfect contest from Rudy:
Bosh, of course, misses. Gobert can frustrate big men looking to get their shots up when in man coverage, but is equally frustrating with his unreal help ability. Look at this moment from the same game, where Bosh throws a pass in to Udonis Haslem, who has solid post position and a mismatch against swingman Joe Ingles:
Bosh, and his matchup, are almost 20 feet out of the paint when the pass is thrown. Gobert sees the mismatch immediately, and rushes to help as Haslem makes the move to push Ingles out of his way:
Gobert then shows his incredible athleticism to somehow, from behind, swat Haslem as if the 6-foot-8, 235-point big man were a child:
Gobert can single-handedly end offensive plays. On the very next possession, guard Shabazz Napier drives into the paint and sees the Stifle Tower move over to help:
Napier makes the right play, delivering the bounce pass on time to his big man open on the baseline.
Haslem knows Gobert is good enough that he’ll turn and contest the shot, so he opts for the reverse layup:
Not to be, though, as Gobert delivers a familiar end to the Heat’s possession:
Gobert’s quickness, height, and athleticism give him all the tools to be an ideal rim protector, but it’s his awareness, unparalleled for a guy who’s only a year removed from legally drinking a bruskie (in the US, of course – Rudy’s been enjoying legal drinks in France for a long time). He can put on an entire rim protecting clinic over the course of a single game, whether it’s on-ball, helping baseline, or even keeping up with a guard on the run. Look at his wide variety of swats in this game against the Clippers:
It’s amazing LA coach Doc Rivers didn’t take notice.
From a glance at his season stats above, it seems the only knock on Gobert’s defensive game is his defensive rebounding, where he ranks 26th in the league. However, Gobert’s averaged just 24.6 minutes per game this season: when you extrapolate his defensive rebounding to a per-36 minute basis, the total leaps from 5.9 to 8.6. The Jazz have been on fire recently, and it’s no coincidence that this run coincides with more minutes for the Tower. With volume, his rebounding ability has blossomed, as he’s averaging a ridiculous 16.2 boards per game in March (where the Jazz are 8-2). A glance at his game-by-game stats will open anyone’s eyes wide. Rudy’s got a good shot at both Most Improved Player and DPOY, and if he keeps his play up, could be the favorite for both.
by Derek Reifer, Northwestern University