Moore: Where the NBA Defensive Player of the Year Race Stands With 6 Weeks to Go
USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27), Indiana Pacers center (33), Oklahoma City Thunder forward Paul George (13).
- The NBA's Defensive Player of the Year feels like a wide-open race with Thunder superstar candidate Paul George (-250) leading the way and Rudy Gobert (+300) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (+1200) not too far behind.
- Matt Moore sifts through the contenders and pretenders for 2019's top defender.
The voters aren’t going to get Defensive Player of the Year wrong.
More precisely, they can’t get DPOY wrong because they can’t get it right, either. That’s not on them; I’m not suggesting I know who DPOY should be. My argument is that it’s impossible for us to accurately judge this award, especially in 2019.
Now more than ever before, defense is dictated by system and buy-in. You can be the best one on one defender in the league but if you’re not able to help down and disrupt a drive, or if you’re not aware of the closeouts you need to make to help a teammate who helped another, you’re not impactful.
Blocks and rebounds used to be the building block of DPOY, now, in 2019, we have metrics and video to let us see how often a player chases a block only to let his man score, and how often rebounds are a product of pace or systemic things like who is tasked with rebounds on missed free throws.
We’re smarter now. We’re just not smart enough. ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus attempts to calibrate for who players share the floor with and against, but the formula is weighted in non-public ways that, like many catch-all stats, favor certain players. Pure defensive rating doesn’t factor in who a player plays with and doesn’t account for the failures of a team around a player, nor does it separate a player’s failures on an otherwise good defensive unit.
Synergy’s individual defensive data only accounts for individual possessions resulting in a shot or turnover. If a defender breaks in front of a screen corrals the ball-handler, and pressures him into giving the ball up, that information isn’t accounted for. The same goes for NBA.com’s matchup data, which, like Synergy, often wrongly attributes who was the actual defender in question.
And no, the eye test doesn’t do the job either. Think about how many possessions a player averaging 35 minutes per game is going to defend. Wisened scribes will relate how a player “shut down” a fellow superstar, or a specific play or stretch where the player was dominant.
But on a night when the story is something else, when the player wasn’t great, but the other team also just missed a ton, that gets lost. You can’t remember every rotation made, every missed 3-pointer ran-off, every deflection where the player and a teammate both got a hand on it.
When it comes to defense, there’s somehow simultaneously too much information to track with your eyes and not enough to process with your mind. It’s honestly why social media helps a fair amount. It creates a crowdsource where if enough people notice a player’s performance it starts to gain steam.
But that’s just as susceptible to bubble thoughts as other fields. If a team is adamantly promoting a player as a quality defender, and one influencer notes that traction along with a specific sequence they’ve noticed, it can radically change the perception of the player.
Better work is done on DPOY than Sixth Man of the Year, which has failed to move beyond “Who scores the most off the bench?” but DPOY is much more of an imperfect award by the very nature of what it is trying to reward. Even the questions are complex.
Is it enough just to be the best on-ball defender? Is it enough to be the player who clearly makes the biggest difference if you don’t rebound? That said, there’s still a decision to be made. Here are some early thoughts on DPOY.
*Odds via DraftKings
His matchup data is excellent, he’s 79th percentile in individual defense via Synergy, the Pelicans give up 2.6 points more per 100 possessions with him on the bench.
He’s always guarding the toughest perimeter threat and he has marquee performances against Paul George and others. Unfortunately, his defensive rating would only be 13th or so league-wide, and the Pelicans’ biggest liability this season has been defense.
It’s not Holiday’s fault, he’s a great defender, but he’s also an example of how unfair it is, that you’re held to the standard of how the defense plays around you. Holiday hasn’t impacted his team enough (even if it’s not on him) to warrant inclusion.
Only six guys in NBA history have averaged at least 15 boards, one steal per game and 1.5 blocks per game. Drummond is on pace to do it for the second time, the only player to have multiple seasons with those numbers. If this were 2002, Drummond would be a lock. But it’s not, and the Pistons’ defense is bad, giving up over 108 points per 100 possessions, with Drummond on the floor.
That’s 4.2 points worse than when he’s on the bench. He’s 39th percentile via Synergy and below 50th percentile covering the pick-and-roll. He matches the eye test, but doesn’t cover for teammates’ mistakes, doesn’t intimidate at the rim and can’t handle guards on switches.
Drummond puts up incredible numbers, and production does matter (he also ranks 11th in deflections). But he’s not talked about like Rudy Gobert for a reason. The impact just isn’t there.
DEFINITELY IN THE CONVERSATION
Smart is best described as a maniac. He’s all over the place and his impact plays for the Celtics are evident. He’s tied with Kyrie Irving for charges drawn for Boston, leads the Celtics in deflections and is third for contested shots on the team.
But honestly, aren’t those figures kind of disappointing, in relation to the expectation of him? Don’t you expect him to be a leader in charges and deflections?
You also have to throw in that the defense is actually 1.9 points better with him on the bench. Smart gets tagged with most of the best assignments and his defensive rating is still under 105, which is why he’s on this list but there’s not enough there to get him into the top of the conversation.
Embiid hasn’t been as good this season defensively. Teams are spacing him out of the paint more. But the 76ers’ defense goes to absolute garbage without him.
The Sixers are 6.5 points better per 100 possessions with Embiid on the floor, and that’s a difference from a stellar 102.5 to a horrible 109. His defensive rating is ninth-best among players playing at least 25 minutes a game for 40 games or more.
In defending the pick-and-roll this season, Embiid is only 49th percentile. Around the basket, though, opponents are only shooting 55%, seventh best in the league among qualifying players.
Here’s an odd one: opponents average the same number of attempts at the rim per 36 minutes (21) with Embiid on-court as they do with him off. And they shoot fiver percentage points better at the rim with him on-court.
This obviously is not about Embiid, he’s a great rim protector. But given all the evidence and the eye test, he falls just short.
THE TOP TIER
I was skeptical of Turner at first. He’s been great this year, but DPOY??
Then I really started to look at it.
The Pacers allow the fewest points per game in the league. Among players playing 25 minutes or more per game for 40 games or more Turner ranks fifth in defensive rating.
He’s 91st percentile in individual defense this season via Synergy Sports. Opponents are shooting 8.6 percentage points worse inside six feet with Turner defending, and 3.5 percentage points worse overall. That latter figure is better than even Gobert.
On non-post-ups opponents are shooting 38.5% against Turner, who is in the 91st percentile for points per possession allowed around the rim.
The Pacers give up six more shots at the rim per 36 minutes with Turner on the bench. Throw in leading the league in blocks and making a tangible impact to boot, and Turner is absolutely on this list and a strong candidate.
Honestly, I have to get into the weeds to find a reason not to go with Giannis.
- Best individual defensive rating in the league (minimum 40 games and 25 minutes). He and teammate Malcolm Brogdon are the only players with those thresholds holding opponents under 100 points per 100 possessions, and this is in a season where defensive ratings have gone bonkers.
- Opponents shooting 6.5 percentage points worse overall vs. Giannis including 9.4 percentage points worse inside 6 feet and 2.2 percentage points worse from 3-point range
Like it is with the MVP race, Giannis’ best argument is built on the team’s success. He’s got the best defensive rating on the best defensive team in the league. That’s a pretty strong argument.
Once you get into the weeds it gets tougher. One thing that stands out on film is Giannis’ struggle to contain guards on switches. That’s reflected in the Synergy data, which has him at 38th percentile guarding opponents in pick and roll coverage as the big defender (as in, not guarding the ball-handler, being the guy whose man is screening). He’s only 44th percentile giving up a 49% effective field goal percentage on jump shots.
So the question becomes, if he’s the most impactful, but not the most complete, which matters more? Should George’s complete versatility count for more in the modern NBA? Is Gobert’s physical presence most valuable defensively? Is it Turner’s impact given he doesn’t have the reputation Gobert does? Is it Giannis’ help defense and ability to just erase opponents?
It remains a difficult choice.
You know the drill.
Best rim protector in the league, by reputation.
- 11th best defensive rating (minimum 40 games, 25 minutes per game)
- Opponents shoot 9.6 percentage points worse at the rim via NBA.com with Gobert defending (best of any candidate outside of Antetokounmpo, who defends fewer possessions)
- Anchors the No. 4 defense in points allowed
- Ranks fifth in blocks per game (2.2)
He’s just a monster.
An interesting note: Opponents shoot three fewer attempts at the rim per 36 minutes with Gobert on court vs. off, the best among the three rim protectors (Embiid, Turner) on this list.
But they also shoot 32.9% better with him on the court, which is odd, and probably a sign of how often opponents pull Gobert away from the rim. It also seems notable that Gobert is only 49th percentile in guarding in the pick-and-roll this season.
The biggest argument against Gobert is his limited versatility. He’s good, not great, vs. switches. You can scheme him out with a stretch five and he has very little counter; he can’t recover to or from the corner vs. a guy like Brook Lopez for example. He remains fundamentally maybe the most impactful defensive player just by his presence.
- Leads the league in steals
- Top five in deflections
- Defensive rating 6.5 points better per 100 possessions with him on the floor
- Opponents shoot 2.7 percentage points worse including 3.8 percentage points worse from 3-point range
- 90th percentile in overall defense including 89th vs. the pick and roll and 82nd vs. spot-up weapons.
George is the most complete DPOY candidate. If you put more value on perimeter defense, which you should in the modern NBA, George is absolutely the guy. He’s also the player who most often just takes over a game defensively.
As of now, the best play is a big bet on George with a hedge on Antetokounmpo. With six weeks to go, there’s a lot more to figure out.