The Defensive Player of the Year award is evolving. But in a good way.
The best way to judge a players’ defensive prowess is by watching his contributions game in and game out. But media members are busy people, so it’s not easy for them (or anyone) to watch every team in the league on a consistent basis.
They used to be limited mostly to steal numbers, block numbers and players’ reputation to make their choices. Now, they have a plethora of numbers at their fingertips, if they choose to use them. Statistics like Defensive Real Plus-Minus, opponent field-goal percentage, on-off splits, team and individual defensive ratings and play type statistics have brought a new, positive wrinkle to the discussion.
For example, there was a stretch of 12 years between the 1991-92 and 2002-03 seasons where 10 of the DPOYs ranked top two in the league in blocks per game. That hasn’t been the case in any of the past six years, however.
If the 2015-16 season had transpired even just a few years ago, Hassan Whiteside (3.7 blocks per game) would’ve taken home the top defensive honors for leading the league by a whopping 1.4 swats per contest. He was third in the voting last season, though, I thought he deserved even a few places lower.
Keeping in mind that steals and blocks have more to do with defensive playmaking, and with knowledge of all the other metrics, let’s dive into which players have the best shot at winning Defensive Player of the Year in 2016-17.
Honorable mention: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (Charlotte Hornets), Tony Allen (Memphis Grizzlies), LeBron James (Cleveland Cavaliers), Andre Iguodala (Golden State Warriors), Chris Paul (Los Angeles Clippers), Paul Millsap (Atlanta Hawks), Avery Bradley (Boston Celtics), Danny Green (San Antonio Spurs), Andrew Bogut (Dallas Mavericks), Andre Roberson (Oklahoma City Thunder), Jimmy Butler (Chicago Bulls), Paul George (Indiana Pacers), Joakim Noah (New York Knicks), Anthony Davis (New Orleans Pelicans), Justise Winslow (Miami Heat), Nerlens Noel (Philadelphia 76ers), Dante Exum (Utah Jazz)
5. DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles Clippers
2015-16 relevant per-game statistics: 10.3 defensive rebounds, 0.7 steals, 2.3 blocks, played for No. 6 defense, made team 1.6 points per 100 possessions better defensively while on floor
People have been debating the actual effectiveness of Jordan’s defensive prowess for years. On one side, there are some who think his gaudy rebound and block totals, along with his remarkable athleticism, make him the most impactful defender in the game. Others believe his mediocre foot speed and occasionally poor technique in the paint are reasons that he’s merely above average as a stopper overall.
As is often the case, the actual answer lies somewhere in the middle.
Jordan is one of the top defenders in the game, but he does have clear flaws in his technique. He’s gotten better, but the classic mistakes of taking bad angles on screens, overhelping to chase blocks and falling for pump fakes still get him sometimes.
DJ is still awesome as a stopper, though. Along with Chris Paul and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, he’ll lead a strong Clippers defense with his intimidating paint presence.
Projected 2016-17 relevant statistics: 10.0 defensive rebounds, 0.7 steals, 2.2 blocks, plays for No. 9 defense, makes team 2.3 points per 100 possessions better defensively while on floor
4. Hassan Whiteside, Miami Heat
2015-16 relevant per-game statistics: 8.6 defensive rebounds, 0.6 steals, 3.7 blocks, played for No. 9 defense, made team 0.9 points per 100 possessions worse defensively while on floor
Whiteside is an even more polarizing version of Jordan. Talking to most Heat fans (and Whiteside himself), you would’ve thought him getting third in Defensive Player of the Year voting last season was the biggest travesty in the history of the league. However, 79 of the 130 award voters didn’t even have him in their top three.
Whiteside’s rim protection is even more devastating than Jordan’s, but he’s still working on the rest of his game. For someone his size, he can get bullied by big bodies relatively easily, and he’s a habitual victim of shot fakes.
— Joey (@furfari) April 17, 2016
Remember, he was out of the league for two whole seasons before the 2014-15 campaign, so it’s fair to expect more improvement from Whiteside. However, he’s still a tier below the very best defenders in the game. A likely worse season from the Heat should also cause some voters to go with other options.
Projected 2016-17 relevant statistics: 8.8 defensive rebounds, 0.7 steals, 3.3 blocks, plays for No. 12 defense, makes team 1.1 points per 100 possessions better defensively while on floor
3. Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
2015-16 relevant per-game statistics: 7.8 defensive rebounds, 1.5 steals, 1.4 blocks, played for No. 5 defense, made team 11.8 points per 100 possessions worse defensively while on floor
Is Green ready to finally break through as the Defensive Player of the Year after two close second-place finishes to Kawhi Leonard? He probably is, especially with a reduced offensive role, but I’m not sure many voters will look his way for the No. 1 spot.
Green could suffer from a similar problem for DPOY that teammates Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant will experience in the MVP voting: Voters usually don’t prefer selecting guys who have A LOT of help, no matter how good they are.
For example, last year, Green had the assistance of Andrew Bogut, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston and Klay Thompson, all considered some of the best defenders in the league at their positions. Stephen Curry, Harrison Barnes and Festus Ezeli have average to above-average defensive reputations. Those were the top eight minute-getters from last season — though Green’s on-off splits were excellent, wouldn’t you have expected a defensive ranking higher than No. 5 for that rotation?
In 2016-17, Green’s lost some of those core defenders, but he’s gained Kevin Durant, Zaza Pachulia and David West, all of whom are solid on that end. If Draymond is going to snag the DPOY, I think the Warriors will have to be in contention for the top defensive ranking in the league.
For that to happen, Golden State will have to frequently resist the urge to let its guard down defensively in the blowouts inevitably headed its way. Unfortunately, I don’t know if the team will be challenged quite enough for Draymond to have the credentials for the award.
Projected 2016-17 relevant statistics: 7.5 defensive rebounds, 1.4 steals, 1.5 blocks, plays for No. 4 defense, makes team 8.6 points per 100 possessions better defensively while on floor
2. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
2015-16 relevant per-game statistics: 5.5 defensive rebounds, 1.8 steals, 1.0 blocks, played for No. 1 defense, made team 4.6 points per 100 possessions worse defensively while on floor
Voter fatigue is a real phenomenon. It won’t be the only reason Leonard doesn’t three-peat as DPOY, but it will be a contributing factor.
2016-17 will be a very important season for the 25-year-old star now that Tim Duncan is gone. Was Timmy’s leadership the thread that kept everything in place on defense, or is Kawhi able to reprise The Big Fundamental’s role somewhat capably?
Leonard may eventually become that vocal leader, but he’ll need some time to transition into that role. For the 2016-17 season, he’ll continue to lead mostly by example with plays like this.
San Antonio should take a step back as a whole from its landslide No. 1 defensive ranking from the 2015-16 season, though. With Duncan’s smarts and leadership gone and with below-average stoppers in Pau Gasol and David Lee joining the squad, the Spurs should be an elite, but not world-beating, defense.
That leaves some room for another anchor on a better point-preventing squad to swoop in the award.
Projected 2016-17 relevant statistics: 6.0 defensive rebounds, 1.9 steals, 1.1 blocks, plays for No. 3 defense, makes team 3.3 points per 100 possessions better defensively while on floor
1. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
2015-16 relevant per-game statistics: 7.5 defensive rebounds, 0.7 steals, 2.2 blocks, played for No. 7 defense, made team 2.8 points per 100 possessions worse defensively while on floor
A slow start prevented Gobert from being the Defensive Player of the Year two seasons ago, but he ended with a bang. The Jazz posted a league-best (by far) 94.8 defensive rating after the All-Star break with the Stifle Tower leading the charge.
In 2015-16, injuries kept him out of 21 games and limited his mobility when he was playing. The Jazz were just seventh in defensive efficiency.
If Utah is even decently healthy as a squad this season, it should make a huge jump on that end. George Hill joins the team from Indiana and Dante Exum will make his return from injury. Both guards are long and extremely tenacious defending at the point of attack, which will make life easier for Gobert protecting the rim.
The narrative of Utah “surprisingly” jumping to first in defensive efficiency (it shouldn’t surprise you if you know the team) will help Gobert’s case in 2016-17, but he’s also the best rim protector in the NBA, judicious as to when/how he contests shots and surprisingly mobile.
Oh yeah, he’s also 7’2″ with a 7’8.5″ wingspan and a 9’7″ standing reach. Sorry Kawhi and Draymond, but a healthy Gobert is the favorite for DPOY next season.
Projected 2016-17 relevant statistics: 7.5 defensive rebounds, 1.4 steals, 1.5 blocks, plays for No. 1 defense, makes team 3.5 points per 100 possessions better defensively while on floor