As the regular season nears its two-month mark, several top-tier defenders have clearly separated themselves from the pack of others who also deserve consideration for All-Defense honors. And unsurprisingly, the same names who dominated the voting for Defensive Player of the Year last season are likely to again a year later.
Bi-weekly checkups on the resumes of those luminaries have grown ever redundant as the season’s sample size broadens. Rather than assessing their play again in the form a re-shuffled top-five, Defensive Player of the Year Watch will now dive deeper into other players and teams whose awesome defensive play justifies some portion of the spotlight. As normal, players under consideration and those leading the race for DPOY will be included, too.
There’s much more to highlight in NBA defense than the top-tier defenders whose devastating effectiveness even casual fans have come to grasp. This is our attempt to shine a light on those developments.
The Toronto Raptors
The Raptors are 3-4 in their last seven games, but their quality of competition makes that record far more palatable than it seems on the surface. Toronto’s losses over that stretch came to the Miami HEAT, Houston Rockets, Philadelphia 76ers, and LA Clippers – four of the league’s top-seven teams in terms of wins. Defense isn’t what let the Raptors down in any of those losses, either.
They rank third in defensive rating even after that difficult stretch, per Cleaning the Glass, and it has grown increasingly difficult to discern who warrants the most credit for Toronto’s play on that side of the ball.
Raptors head coach Nick Nurse certainly deserves praise for his team’s unyielding connectivity. Pascal Siakam is a chameleon who covers more ground defensively than all but a handful of players in basketball, while OG Anunoby might be Toronto’s stoutest defender one-on-one. Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet play far bigger than their respective sizes. Marc Gasol, back-line quarterback, leads the Raptors in net defensive rating by a considerable margin. Norman Powell, Terence Davis, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and Chris Boucher all offer varying defensive strengths off the bench.
The best way to explain Toronto’s collective dominance on defense, unsurprisingly, is watching it in action. Look at how many actions are thwarted by multiple defenders, primary and helper, during the Raptors’ final two defensive possessions of their hard-fought win over the Chicago Bulls last week.
The national story of Toronto’s season so far has been about Siakam’s second breakout. He should get MVP votes at season’s end, and team-wide narratives are more easily distilled by focusing on one player. Regardless, it’s the Raptors’ defense that has kept them viable as Eastern Conference contenders even after the departure of the reigning Finals MVP.
The best wing defender of his generation no longer occupies the role befitting a Defensive Player of the Year. The Clippers normally stash Leonard away from primary ball handlers and dangerous scorers, letting Moe Harkless play stopper while saving Leonard’s energy for offense – and the postseason.
As disruptive as Leonard is as an off-ball defender, there’s a limit to the effectiveness of non-bigs as helpers. Leonard isn’t a rim-protector, and LA doesn’t ask him to function as the last line of defense at the basket. That reality, coupled with the Clippers’ decision to ease his burden as an individual defender, simply renders him less impactful than other plays in consideration for DPOY.
But Leonard still might be the most feared individual defender in basketball, and he’s still collecting highlight-reel steals that support that reality on a nightly basis. There’s just no other player in the league who can pull off a sequence like this.
LA’s defensive rating dips by nearly 12 points with Leonard on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass, an easy team-high. Lineups without him that feature Paul George have a defensive rating of 105.9; units including Leonard but not George boast a defensive rating of 96.6.
Leonard, much thicker, a bit slower, and several years older, is a long way from his peak of winning back-to-back DPOY awards. But he’s still the most influential defender on a team stacked with as much defensive talent as any in basketball, and remains capable of the jaw-dropping plays that initially propelled him to prominence.
Jimmy Butler is the HEAT’s best and most valuable player. It’s not particularly close. But no player on Miami’s roster is more directly responsible for his team’s two-way schemes and overall stylistic ethos than Adebayo.
Freshly minted as Eastern Conference Player of the Week, he’s finally receiving the nationwide acclaim he’s been due all season – but mostly for offense. Where Adebayo remains most indispensable to the HEAT is on the other end. His combination of quickness and strength might be truly unmatched in today’s league, a trump card Miami uses to its utmost advantage by sticking Adebayo wherever strategic and random circumstances dictate.
There are plenty of numbers indicating the sweeping impact of Adebayo’s versatility. The HEAT’s top-10 defensive rating dips by nearly seven points with him on the bench, a team-high, and they allow far fewer free throws and shots at the rim when he’s on the floor. It’s that confluence of eye test and analytical support that makes Adebayo a mainstay in this space.
But what’s keeping him from competing for its top spot is the opposite takeaway from the same dynamic. Miami ranks dead last in opponent field goal percentage from the restricted area, which should be a damning indictment of its best rim-protector. Offensive players shoot a below-average 61.5 percent when Adebayo challenges them at the rim, and there are just far too many times when he doesn’t affect a shot he should.
The film jumps off the screen otherwise, and it’s not like Adebayo has some traditional rim-protecting role. The HEAT even get a bit stingier at the rim when he’s in the game, too.
Regardless, that shortcoming continues to keep him from legitimate DPOY contention – for now. But if the empirical and statistical evidence improves, that’s bound to change.
Defensive Player of the Year Rankings
5. Jonathan Isaac – Orlando Magic
4. Bam Adebayo – Miami HEAT
3. Joel Embiid – Philadelphia 76ers
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo – Milwaukee Bucks
1. Anthony Davis – Los Angeles Lakers
Honorable Mention: Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz; Paul Millsap, Denver Nuggets; Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors; Kawhi Leonard, LA Clippers; Marc Gasol, Toronto Raptors; Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics; Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers; Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons