NBA Defensive Player of the Year: Who Should You Bet to Win DPOY?

NBA Defensive Player of the Year: Who Should You Bet to Win DPOY? article feature image

Pictured: Rudy Gobert goes for a block against Victor Wembanyama. (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)

The start of this season, defensively, has been really, really weird. The top-five teams (all rankings in this article come from in the NBA are Minnesota, Boston, Orlando, Houston and Minnesota. On the other hand, if you look at the Defensive Player of the Year odds, Houston and Orlando have zero players in the top 20, while Jrue Holiday (+2300) and Chet Holmgren (+2100) — the best for Boston and Oklahoma City — are both outside the top five.

On the other hand, players like Victor Wembanyama, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez and Joel Embiid are all within the top 12 in odds on FanDuel, yet none of their teams are playing defense at a top-10 level.

How much emphasis should we be placing on early season defense? What should we expect going forward?

In 2013, voters began to reassess the Defensive Player of the Year Award. Between 2004 to 2012, only two DPOY winners played for a top-two defense. But starting in 2013, when Marc Gasol won, every single winner has played for a top-two defense.

So, I took a look at where every team was defensively through 20 games over the past 11 seasons, and compared that to how those teams finished the season. This season, each team has played roughly 20 games, so we are comparing from a similar point.

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Some stats from 20 games in over the past 11 seasons:

  • Jaren Jackson Jr. is the only winner who played for a team outside the top 10 in defense at this point in the season (Memphis was 17th). However, Jackson's season started on November 15th after he missed games due to injury. Every other winner’s team was top 10 defensively at this point, and seven of the 11 were top five.
  • Of the 22 teams that were top two at this point, nine finished in the top two. If we narrow it down by proximity to the best team, teams that were within half a standard deviation of the best defense finished in the top two 37.5% of the time and in the top three 46% of the time. This year, only Minnesota, Boston and Orlando are within half a standard deviation.
  • 85% of the teams that were top five in defense at this point finished the season in the top 10. Additionally, just over 50% were in the top five at the end of the year.
  • Only six teams that were more than 1.25 standard deviations away from the best defense in the NBA finished inside the top two. Only one team that was more than 2.25 standard deviations away finished in the top two. For context this season, nine teams are within 1.25 and 20 are within 2.25.
  • Of the four factors, in many ways, effective field goal percentage against was the least likely to hold up. For example, teams that were top three in EFG% at this point finished in the top three 42% of the time. Every other factor was at least 48%.
  • Defenses that are propped up by a lower percentage on 3s often fall off as 3-point percentages tend to normalize. Teams that were top 10 in EFG% and top-10 defenses after 20 games finished in the top 10 58% of the time, but that drops to 49% if we limit it to teams that were in the top 10 in 3-point percentage against.
  • On the other hand, of the 12 defenses that were top-10 overall but allowing a bottom-10 3-point percentage, 11 of them finished top 10 (including 2020 Milwaukee and 2014 Chicago, which both had the DPOY winner). The only defense that didn't — the 2022 Chicago Bulls — who lost its second-best defensive player, Lonzo Ball, to the season. If you look at the teams that were top 10 overall and bottom half in 3-point percentage, 80% finished top 10 at the end of the year, and 30% finished top three (2018 Utah also qualifies here, when Rudy Gobert won DPOY).
  • Rim percentage against works the opposite way. Top-10 defenses and rim percentages at this point finished as top-10 defenses 74% of the time. Five of the past 11 winners fit into this category. Additionally, only one winner has played for a team with a bottom-10 rim percentage at this point in the season and that was Marcus Smart, a guard. San Antonio, Miami, Toronto and New York are all bottom-10 in rim percentage right now.

When looking at the Defensive Player of the Year Award, the past 11 winners have all been under 29 years old. They also all played for a top-12 defense the previous season. And with the new games requirement, they will need to play at least 65 games this season.

Also, even though Smart won two years ago, a guard is unlikely to win. Finally, the past 11 winners all played for teams that finished top six in effective field goal percentage against.

So, who is benefitting from great 3-point shooting against this season? And who has great rim protection?

Houston, Los Angeles (Clippers) and Minnesota all have top-10 defenses that are partially driven by teams shooting about 34% from 3 against them (the league average is 37%). Houston and Los Angeles really stick out as being somewhat fraudulent as teams are shooting well against them at the rim, which is more likely to hold up. Minnesota, on the other hand, is one of the best teams at defending the rim. Meanwhile, Cleveland, Memphis and Orlando are all allowing teams to shoot bottom-10 marks from 3, but top-10 marks at the rim.

With almost 20 games per team, I think we should be able to get an accurate enough picture of which teams have a good chance to finish in the top two on defense. Here are the five teams I think are most likely to finish in the top two and what that means for their Defensive Player of the Year outlook (current defensive rank in parenthesis):

  • Boston (2): Boston’s defense is really, really good. Some people liked Kristaps Porzingis early as a sneaky pick, but don’t be fooled. Porzingis has been really good, but people who watch know that this team defends with more of a collaborative effort.
  • Minnesota (1): Gobert is the face of this defense and the favorite for this award. Teams are shooting terribly from 3 against Minnesota, but the overall shot profile suggests a strong defense. Gobert has been really good, but the advanced stats don’t love him. We also haven’t had a winner over 29 for 15 seasons, and I remain nervous about his ability to stay healthy. The Timberwolves have also fouled at a bottom-five rate for three years and are top three this season.  I think regression is coming.
  • Orlando (3): The Magic’s defense is legit. On a nightly basis, they are just playing too many good defensive players. However, I don’t think they have a real candidate as Jalen Suggs is the only player with odds and he just isn’t good enough. I think Franz Wagner will get some notice at some point, but I’m not sure when. And he doesn’t have the raw stats to stand out.
  • Cleveland (7): Cleveland struggled at the start of the season, but is up to eighth defensively. If the 3 rate against the Cavaliers drops, they will probably move up toward the top two. They fit many of the patterns and many of their players have played well, but Evan Mobley sticks out.
  • Oklahoma City(5): Oklahoma City is holding teams to low shooting percentages from everywhere. Adding Holmgren has allowed the guards to cause more turnovers and get in opponents' faces. I like the Thunder less than the four above teams, but this defense looks legit. Holmgren is the best candidate, but a rookie hasn't won this award and it seems unlikely that the streak will be broken.

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Overall, there aren’t a lot of great candidates. In fact, there are really only two viable options from the teams above: Gobert and Mobley.

There are six other players, with short odds, whose names have been hovering around this conversation for the past few seasons. However, I don't believe in these guys and I'll explain why:

  • Anthony Davis (+600): My primary worry here is health. The Lakers' defense is eighth in the NBA and driven by a low foul rate. Davis has been a beast at the rim and in the short midrange, even if the rest of the defense isn’t as great. On the other hand , he's older and hasn’t been quite as spry as in years past. He has probably the third-best chance of winning the award this season, and therefore makes sense as the second favorite, but between the overall team concerns, his not-as-great play, and his injury history, it has to be a pass.
  • Bam Adebayo (+1600): Miami is 18th in defense, and top 10 in every factor except EFG% against. Adebayo isn't a great rim protector and his defensive impact stats just aren’t as high. I think Adebayo is an amazing defender, but with the added offensive burden and the shooting against, I'm just not sure he'll get his due.
  • Jaren Jackson Jr. (+1700): Jackson took a while to come on last year, and maybe with Ja Morant coming back, everything will click for Memphis. The Grizzlies have has slowly climbed up to 10th on defense and will probably finish in the top 10. Jackson's offensive burden has been higher, which has limited his defensive impact. I do think these odds (+1700) are a little too long, but the defensive markers that helped him last year just aren't there this year.
  • Brook Lopez (+1700)/Giannis Antetokounmpo(+2500): Milwaukee is 21st on defense, but with a new coach and no dominant defensive guard, the Bucks can't really move up, and I don't think either of these two should be considered real candidates.
  • Joel Embiid (+2500): It’s still early, but Philadelphia has been great with its bench and less good with the starters. As a result, Embiid hasn’t had as big of a defensive impact. The 76ers are a good bet to finish right around 10th defensively, but not much higher.
  • Mitchell Robinson (+4000): The Knicks are ninth on defense. The Knicks' defense is thriving on fantastic rebounding (first in the NBA) and a low foul rate (third). They also have a center in Isaiah Hartenstein who is holding teams to 63% shooting at the rim while he's on the floor. Robinson, on the other hand, can be bet at +4000 on some books. Robinson is a nice player, but he's far from the type of player who wins Defensive Player of the Year.

All this leaves us with are Gobert and Mobley.

Rudy Gobert: Gobert is 31 years old and the lowest odds for him now are +200.

The Case Against: While I think Gobert is a singular defensive force, it's hard to ignore the trends in terms of age over the past 11 seasons. During that time, only three players have finished top four in DPOY voting at 29 or above (Brook Lopez last year, Draymond Green twice (at 30 and at 32) and Gobert when he was 29). That 2022 Utah team, when Gobert was 29, was fourth in defense 20 games in and was holding opponents to the fourth-worst percentage from 3. As that normalized, the defense fell and finished ninth. Something usually gets in the way of older playerswinning, whether it's a younger player impressing more, injuries, voter fatigue, or simply that the player isn't at his physical peak anymore.

The Case For: Minnesota has the best defense in the NBA and is almost 1.8 points per 100 possession better than anyone else. Since 2003, the team that has had the best defense through the first 20 games has finished in the top five 90% of the time. Here are those finishes by number:
1st: 7 times
2nd: 6 times
3rd: 3 times
4th: 2 times
5th: 2 times

If Minnesota finishes in the top two, Gobert probably wins around 70% of the time.

Ultimately, I'm waiting on Gobert at +200. His rebounding is down and I think there's a good chance the odds will get better at some point. I'd rather wait until that point to make a move.

Evan Mobley: Mobley, on the other hand, has seen his odds drop to +1200. Teams are 11 points worse against the Cavaliers on defense when Mobley is on the floor. He also has good rim protection numbers and the Cavaliers' defense is steadily climbing. He is third in Def EPM on Dunksandthrees.

The Cavaliers started the season slowly, but I still believe in them, especially defensively. I’ve been watching Mobley's numbers all season and think this price is too long. He's been the second-best defensive player this season, right behind Gobert, but his odds don't reflect that. If Cleveland's defense gets up into the top two, I think Mobley could win against almost any other candidate. I give him around a 14% chance, which would give him the second-best odds. Mobley is a great value at +1200, so I'll put a half unit on him at BetRivers and would bet it down to +900.

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Nick Sterling
Apr 23, 2024 UTC