Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart, the leading defender on the NBA’s leading defense, believes he is the Defensive Player of the Year. So, too, does Mikal Bridges, the Phoenix Suns‘ fourth-year wing and the franchise’s top NBA All-Defensive candidate.
But, based on the award’s history, it’s unlikely either of the league’s premier defensive stoppers will win it.
In the 39 times the Defensive Player of the Year has been awarded since its inception during the 1982-83 season, one point guard has won it: Hall of Famer Gary Payton, in 1996, behind a league-leading 2.9 steals per game.
Shooting guards have won it another five times, but none since Michael Jordan in 1988, as that position claimed the award five of the first six years it was handed out.
Centers have won the award a whopping 25 times, while three power forwards who patrol the paint — Kevin Garnett, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Draymond Green — have claimed the honor. Small forward Kawhi Leonard won the award in 2015 and 2016, but he and Ron Artest in 2004 are the only non-big men to win the award in the last 25 years.
Those statistics don’t sit well for a player such as Smart, who feels the league, instead of honoring the best defensive player, rewards the best kind of defensive player.
“I’m not taking anything from the bigs,” Smart told ESPN. “A vital part of the game is protecting the paint. But, as guards, we do a lot more before [our man] gets to the paint. … Contesting the 3, contesting pullups, making sure he doesn’t get to his spots.”
Smart is one of several contenders for this year’s award. And while Bridges is also getting consideration, most of the choices — as is the case every year — are big men, from Antetokounmpo to Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert to Memphis Grizzlies forward Jaren Jackson Jr. to Miami Heat center Bam Adebayo, to name a few.
All of that presents a couple of questions: Can perimeter players win Defensive Player of the Year in today’s NBA? And, more importantly, should they?
‘The most important position on the floor’
Gobert had just folded his 7-foot-1 frame into a courtside seat inside Boston’s TD Garden when his favorite topic of conversation came up.
Gobert has won Defensive Player of the Year three times in the past four seasons and, if he wins his fourth it will put him in a tie with Hall of Famers Dikembe Mutombo and Ben Wallace for the most all-time. So, naturally, his ears perked up when he was asked whether guards should be considered for the league’s most prestigious defensive honor.
“I think small ball impacts who has the most impact on their team,” Gobert said before his Jazz faced the Celtics on March 23.
“There’s a lot of very good guards, very good defensive guards. … It can be hard, sometimes, for people to understand, but when I come into the game, I’m worried about the team. I think sometimes we get too focused on the individual matchup.”
“[Centers] call out all the coverages. They know what is going on. They call out the plays and stuff. That is the way it has always been,” Embiid said last week. “That’s why most of the Defensive Players of the Year in the past have always been big.”
Teams with elite centers, such as Utah and Philadelphia, do funnel players toward their players in the middle. And having an effective deterrent at the rim is vital in a team’s ability to stop its opponents.
The stats back that up. According to ESPN Stats & Information research and Second Spectrum tracking, 139 players have contested at least 500 shots as the closest defender this season. Among that group, Gobert ranks second in effective field goal percentage allowed, behind Celtics center Robert Williams III, who will miss at least four weeks after surgery to repair a torn meniscus.
Gobert also ranks second in field goal percentage allowed at the rim among players to defend at least 200 shots, and opponents take 19.2% of their shots in the restricted area when Gobert is on the floor, the lowest rate in the league. When he’s on the bench, that rate jumps up to 24.3%, which would rank 19th.
Embiid, meanwhile, has been the help defender on 20.8 drives per game this season, per ESPN Stats & Information and Second Spectrum, the most in the NBA; a big part of why he thinks the center is the hub of the defense.
“That is the most important position on the floor, on defense,” Embiid said. “Because you see the whole floor.”
‘They’ll give somebody’s ass 40’
Perimeter players like Smart and Bridges have an ace up their sleeves in the Defensive Player of the Year debate: Centers aren’t chasing the NBA’s best scorers around the court.
It isn’t Gobert who is checking the Dallas Mavericks‘ Luka Doncic or the Golden State Warriors‘ Stephen Curry, the greatest 3-point shooter of all time, for 30 or 40 minutes. That responsibility primarily falls to stoppers like Smart and Bridges.
In their minds, that’s just as important as patrolling the paint.
“You just got to give more love and more recognition to on-ball defense,” Bridges said. “Guarding these tough guys like [James] Harden, [Kevin Durant], Kyrie [Irving], Steph, Luka, the list goes on.
“[Award voters] must not know how difficult it is to keep a guy in front of you and not be able to really touch him as much because they’re going to call foul, and just how talented these guards and everybody else on the wing and perimeter are.”
Bridges would know. He spends as much time guarding the elite wing players as anyone.
Bridges ranks in the league’s top five in half-court matchups on defense against 2022 All-Stars, per ESPN Stats & Information, and he also ranks in the top five in player points allowed per 100 matchups among 41 players to record 500 defensive matchups.
“You got to give [the defender] credit as much as you credit them when they’ll give somebody’s ass 40 — because they could do that every night,” Bridges said.
‘Rudy can’t guard all five spots’
When Smart was informed of Gobert’s pro-big man argument, the 28-year-old who has made the All-Defensive First Team in 2019 and 2020 and has been open about his desire to be considered the league’s top defensive player, immediately countered.
For Smart, the NBA’s best defender needs to have versatility.
“Let’s think about it,” Smart said. “As a guard, especially on the team that switches a lot, especially on the No. 1 defensive team, you are worried about every single player. And here’s the thing: When you see Defensive Player of the Year, that means he can guard all five spots.
“Nothing against Rudy, but Rudy can’t guard all five spots. I can guard all five spots and I have been doing it. I’ve done it very well.”
Per ESPN Stats & Information, Smart has switched 409 times as the ballhandler defender against on-ball screens this season, the third most in the NBA. On those plays, the Celtics have allowed 0.87 points per chance on these plays — well below the league average of 0.94 points per chance.
“Look at what he’s been doing since I’ve been in the league,” Williams said of Smart last week. “Played with him my whole career in the league. My energy, I base it off of his defensive presence. When I see him attack the other team, I wanna follow that. I wanna follow that routine.
“So he’s got my vote, 100 percent.”
Smart also received praise from Jazz coach Quin Snyder when presented with the question of whether a perimeter is capable of winning the award.
Snyder, who knows the impact Gobert has on a team and has helmed a Utah team built around the Frenchman’s singular strengths — including having a roster full of offense-first players and leaning into Gobert’s ability to clean up the ensuing mistakes as a result — said the award should be given to who impacts the game “most consistently and effectively.”
And he said a player like Smart, while seven inches shorter and nearly 40 pounds lighter than Gobert, is more than capable of impacting the game in a similar way.
“You look at [Smart’s] strength, his size, his quickness,” Snyder said last week. “He’s not a shot-blocker, but in some kind of ironic way, he’s able to do things off the ball that are equivalent because he’s a deterrent.
“It’s almost like [Los Angeles Rams cornerback Jalen] Ramsey in the Super Bowl. You don’t want to throw to that side of the field. … So his versatility is really what makes him unique.”
Ultimately, whether Smart, Bridges or another perimeter player snaps the center and power forward stranglehold on the Defensive Player of the Year award, or Gobert or another big carries on the tradition, it won’t change the fundamental disagreement on both sides.
“As a big,” Gobert said, “you can impact multiple players at a time. As a guard, it’s harder to do that.”
Said Smart: “I mean, if we’re looking at just simple impact, [perimeter players] definitely should be in any kind of conversation when it comes to that award.”
ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk contributed to this story.