In the season’s early going, a familiar cast of characters has emerged in the race for Defensive Player of the Year. In a league increasingly reliant on versatility and the implementation of pace and space, though, some new candidates have emerged, as other, position-less defenders have a greater opportunity than ever to force their way into the conversation.
So, with that said, here’s where the Defensive Player of the Year race stands two weeks into 2019-20.
Honorable Mention: Jonathan Isaac, Orlando Magic; Al Horford, Philadelphia 76ers; Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors; Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers; Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers; Dwight Howard, Los Angeles Lakers
5. Joel Embiid – Philadelphia 76ers
Call it an honorary spot in the season’s earliest Defensive Player of the Year rankings.
Embiid, to be clear, has played in only half of Philadelphia’s six games after being suspended for tussling with Karl-Anthony Towns. His 76 total minutes played is less than half that of every other player on this list. It’s only fair to mention, too, that opponents are shooting 69.6 percent at the rim against Embiid, making him one of the least effective rim-protectors in the NBA so far. The small sample size plays a huge factor there, obviously, and Embiid has been among the league’s elite in that regard every season of his career.
More importantly, the eye test and other on-off defensive data confirm what we thought coming into 2019-20: Health provided, Embiid will be a favorite for Defensive Player of the Year all season long.
Embiid, despite shedding some weight this season, remains a mountain as a post defender and looms larger as a weak-side shot-blocker than arguably any other player in basketball.
The 76ers rank sixth in defensive rating, and surrender just 85.0 points per 100 possessions with Embiid on the floor – an easy team-low among regulars, both for the season’s duration and dating back to his suspension. Philadelphia also gives up fewer shots at the rim and opponents shoot worse from there when he’s on the floor, per Cleaning The Glass.
Just as telling of his sweeping impact on a team overflowing with defensive talent, Philadelphia has been far stingier with Embiid on the court and Horford on the bench than vice versa, too.
Embiid’s case is incomplete due to his suspension, and despite the weight loss, he’s still struggled to defend in space after switches. But given his track record and the available evidence, scant as it may be, Embiid seems well on his way to another season worthy of Defensive Player of the Year.
4. Giannis Antetokounmpo – Milwaukee Bucks
The highlight-reel plays speak for themselves. There isn’t a more threatening chase-down artist in transition than Antetokounmpo, and his impossibly-long arms and opportunistic instincts allow him to wreak havoc in the half-court, jumping passing lanes for steals and challenging shots as a helper.
Even a basketball layman, casually watching the action, could understand just how devastating he is as a defender.
But it’s the more nuanced influence that separates Antetokounmpo from other non-centers who rack up steals, blocks and deflections with ease. At 6-foot-11 with a wingspan 7-foot-3 or longer, most players simply refuse to challenge him when an opportunity to do so presents itself, letting his teammates get back in position to avoid further defensive rotations. While Milwaukee’s scheme doesn’t readily permit switching, the inevitable scrambles that result from ball and player movement mean Antetokounmpo regularly guards multiple players on a single possession.
None of them have much interest in challenging him, either.
Antetkounmpo would be higher on this list if the Bucks weren’t quietly struggling, relative to expectations, defensively. They currently rank 13th in defensive rating, and barely fare better when excluding garbage time.
But Milwaukee has played a relatively tough schedule over the season’s first two weeks, and is relying on the same system that helped it finish first in defense a year ago. As time propels Milwaukee up the defensive rankings, expect Antetokounmpo’s case for Defensive Player of the Year to grow even stronger.
3. Bam Adebayo – Miami Heat
The HEAT have quietly been a top-10 defensive unit in each of the past three seasons, indicative of Erik Spoelstra’s schematic success and the franchise’s overarching identity of effort and hard work.
But, in 2019-20, Miami finally has the defensive personnel worthy of its strategy and ethos, a reality Adebayo embodies on a nightly basis.
Entrenched as a starter for the first time in his career, Adebayo is an early Most Improved Player frontrunner due to his increased playmaking responsibilities offensively. But it’s the other end of the floor where the fourth-year big man has made his presence felt most, and where the HEAT seem primed to emerge as one of the stingiest teams in the league because of it.
Adebayo isn’t a traditional rim-protecting force a la Embiid, nor an all-court defensive terror like Antetokounmpo. Instead, he’s something in between, a wing in a center’s body with a motor that never stops and can legitimately check all five positions.
Adebayo served as the HEAT’s primary defender of Russell Westbrook during his team’s blowout win over the Houston Rockets on Sunday, and also flashed his unparalleled switching chops while matching up with James Harden and Eric Gordon. His game-saving chase-down block on Eric Bledsoe in a comeback win over the Bucks is the season’s most memorable defensive play to date.
The HEAT own the league’s fourth-best defensive rating entering Tuesday’s tilt with the Denver Nuggets, and allow 6.8 fewer points per 100 possessions with Adebayo on the floor compared to the bench. Opponents’ rate of shots at the rim dips 6.1 percent with him in the lineup, per Cleaning the Glass, the biggest discrepancy owed to any player listed.
Miami, with the exception of Philadelphia, possesses as much top-tier defensive talent as any team in basketball with Adebayo, Jimmy Butler and Justise Winslow. But, two weeks into the regular season, it’s clear Adebayo is the engine behind the HEAT’s dominance on that side of the ball.
2. Rudy Gobert – Utah Jazz
So much for the notion that the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year’s candidacy for a third straight trophy would be mitigated by his team pivoting away from old-school lineups. Utah’s embrace of a four-out style, in fact, has actually made Gobert’s case even stronger.
The Jazz have the league’s second-ranked defense through seven games despite replacing Derrick Favors with Bojan Bogdanovic and shirking two-big quintets altogether. Though it actually defends better with Gobert off the floor, a testament to Quin Snyder’s schematic and motivational brilliance, Utah still permits 5.8 percent fewer shots at the rim with him manning the middle, per Cleaning the Glass.
That’s an especially important stat, as the Jazz’s success defensively hinges on manipulating the opposing team’s shot profile. They allow fewer shots at the rim than any team but Milwaukee and rank sixth in opponent’s three-point rate, leading teams to take a league-high proportion of mid-range jumpers.
No player in basketball accounts more for his team’s defensive identity than Gobert. The Jazz funnel everything his way, confident penetrators and finishers will be spooked by the looming threat of one of the best rim-protectors of all time. LeBron James, for instance, normally doesn’t resort to 16-foot floaters with a head of steam toward the rim, and Anthony Davis normally doesn’t feel the need to dribble into a fadeaway jumper after grabbing an offensive rebound directly under the basket.
Dwight Howard is the only player to ever win three consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards. Despite mitigating contextual circumstances, it’s now obvious Gobert has a great chance of becoming the second.
1. Anthony Davis – Los Angeles Lakers
Easily overlooked due to how clunky a pair of traditional big men has made the Lakers’ offense is what that look does for them on the other side of the floor. Los Angeles’ defensive rating is a league-best 96.3, and its 52.1 percent shooting allowed at the rim ranks second, per NBA.com. Lineups featuring Davis and Howard boast a 77.9 defensive rating, comfortably lowest among the team’s most oft-used tandems.
Howard deserves immense credit for his role in pushing the Lakers’ defense to the top of the NBA. Los Angeles has been substantially better on that end with him next to Davis than JaVale McGee too, evidence of his much-improved engagement and overall understanding of defensive rotations.
But the numbers, almost as much as the eye test, make clear that Davis is the single biggest source of Los Angeles’ excellence on defense. His defensive rating in 65 minutes played without Howard and McGee is 97.3, barely above the Lakers’ season-long mark, and the opposition has shot a mind-blowing 19 percent against him at the rim, lowest in the league among qualified players.
Both of those numbers, and certainly the latter one, are likely to rise as the season progresses. But, finally in the national spotlight, vying for a title as co-star to arguably the greatest player ever, Davis seems more committed to defense on a play-by-play basis than ever, frequently leading to the type of jaw-dropping plays only he and a select few others can dream of making.
Despite the loss to the rival LA Clippers on opening night, Davis put on a personal show defensively that voters should remember when it comes time to cast ballots during awards season.
Even more than Antetokounmpo, who lags behind him as a pure shot-blocker, Davis stands apart defensively. There’s no other defender in basketball like him, and if the season’s early going is a harbinger of what’s to come, Davis could very well win his first Defensive Player of the Year award in his first campaign with the Lakers.
Of course, this list has the qualifier of a small sample size. Over the course of the season, these rankings are subject to change, whether because of an unexpected competitor, an injury to an expected candidate or otherwise.
That said, make sure to stay tuned for the rest of the Basketball Insiders award watches, and keep on the lookout for future updates throughout the season.