He should cause the best players to question themselves, force coaches to adjust their offense, then adjust it again. He should give teammates and his fans a general sense of calm as soon as he steps onto the court.
Maybe he can guard any position to always stay on “Your Team’s Best Player”. Maybe he leads the league in picked pockets or blocked shots.
He makes game-changing hustle plays. Never misses an assignment. Never lets up. Makes the coolest players lose their cool. Makes the smartest players make mistakes.
He can lead his team to victory without scoring a single bucket.
At least that’s what the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year should be. Few are ever worthy of consideration, but here are the select elite that could lay claim to the mantle.
Honorable Mentions: Jusuf Nurkic, Nikola Vucevic, Andre Drummond, Jarrett Allen, Marcus Smart, Bam Adebayo, Joe Ingles, Mitchell Robinson.
NOT Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
A lot of people are putting Joel Embiid’s name into the DPOY conversation. I want to take this opportunity to say…don’t do that.
Embiid’s name is in the discussion because he is a fantastic rim protector when he wants to be. He is a beast who certainly can and does deny opponents’ forays into the restricted area. He swats away 1.9 blocks, contests 10.5 shots per game and is fifth in defended field goal percentage (54.1%).
Nevertheless, the Sixers let up a lot of points in the paint. Some nights, Embiid’s defense can frustrate Philadelphia fans more than it does opposing players.
Sometimes, he’ll do something really stupid, or nothing at all.
You can’t trust that Joel Embiid won’t take plays off. You can’t trust he won’t sulk. You don’t know that he’ll be in position, that he’ll hustle back, that he’ll provide help in a timely manner. You don’t know that he’ll fight back when the Toronto Raptors’ Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakam pluck him apart (because, apparently, he won’t). You don’t know that he won’t commit some stupid, overdramatic flagrant or technical foul late in the game because he’s frustrated—like hurling himself at Russell Westbrook.
That’s not quite DPOY behavior, even if all the tools are there to be that guy someday.
4. Russell Westbrook – Paul George – STEVEN ADAMS: BEST DEFENDER FRIENDS forever!
Defensive Player of the Year is, of course, an individual award. And the trophy isn’t a set of charm necklaces that fit together like puzzle pieces: A heart broken in parts that read “BEST” and “FRIEND” or “BLOCKS” and “STEALS”. Nevertheless, it is hard to separate the work that the Oklahoma City Thunder’s stars have done together this season.
Paul George leads the league in steals; Westbrook is third. Westbrook is fourth in defensive win shares, George is fifth and Steven Adams is 10th.
The Thunder lead in points off turnovers because of a team effort led by these three men. One deflects it, another secures the loose ball. One steals it, another takes it down to score. One creates pressure so that the ball-handler must pass, another denies the pass in one direction, another strips the ball or slips into the passing lane to snatch the ball away.
If only one were to get the award…the obvious choice early in the season was George. He has become the versatile “guard your best player” defender. Yet, Westbrook might actually be the more worthy, albeit least expected, choice.
What will count against any of them is that the entire roster exudes such a group effort and that the Thunder’s post-All-Star record has been a disappointing 7-13 nonetheless.
No other playoff-bound team has been worse.
3. Myles Turner
The Indiana Pacers were supposed to completely fall apart when a knee tendon rupture cut Victor Oladipo’s season short on Jan. 23. Myles Turner’s rim protection is one of the main reasons Indiana has only slid from third to fourth place in the East. His defensive plus/minus is the NBA’s third-best at 4.7.
Turner confidently tops the NBA leaderboard for blocks (2.7 per game) because he has impeccable timing and cannot be intimidated. Whether it’s an MVP candidate slicing towards the hoop or a 250-pound center barrelling in for a dunk, Turner is brave enough to take them on and definitively smother them.
Monday alone, he blocked the Detroit Pistons’ 6’11, 279-pound Andre Drummond four times in the same game. The Pistons tried to smash through, dodge by, cut and pass their way around Turner, but he was unshakable in the paint.
Counting against Turner? He does have some extra help from Thaddeus Young, and he has (shockingly) never even been named to an All-NBA Defensive Team before.
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo
What vitamin regime, deal with the devil or magic can of spinach empowers Giannis Antetokounmpo with such boundless energy and dominance on both ends of the court?
His scoring highlights are so electric they may blind some people to his defensive prowess—but he is absolutely worthy of getting DPOY (and MVP), if not first runner-up.
Advanced stats glowingly report that Antetokounmpo has the league’s best defensive win shares and defensive plus/minus. He’s arguably the best defender on the league’s best defensive team (although Brook Lopez—yes Brook—has begun to assert himself in that role). Plus, Freak’s number two in D-bounds (10.3 per game).
The Bucks shut down the paint like nobody else, and Antetokounmpo is credited with holding shooters 9.1% percentage points below their average within six feet of the hoop.
The Greek Freak is strong enough to withstand the battering of big men in the post, fast enough to chase down guards in transition and long enough to contest or alter a shot from nearly anywhere by anyone.
1. Rudy Gobert
It was a shameful thing, leaving the Utah Jazz’s big man Rudy Gobert out of the NBA All-Star Game.
What makes Gobert such an impressive rim protector? Not what he does to opponents at the rim, but what he does to keep them the heck away from it in the first place.
Thanks in large part to Gobert, Jazz opponents get very few shot opportunities in the restricted area (27.2) and make very few of them (59.5%). Thanks to others on the team, they also get very few opportunities behind the arc; Utah squashes opposing scorers into the mid-range.
Gobert frustrates bigs and guards alike with his length and agility. Not easily fooled by ball fakes, not quick to leave his feet, he can smother ball-handlers’ drives to the hoop and swat away both floaters and over-optimistic layups.
He’s also top-five in nearly every defensive category that matters for his position: 5.3 defensive win shares, 2.3 blocks per game, 15.9 contested shots; plus eighth in defensive boards and 0.8 steals.
Give this man what he deserves.
Stats from Basketball-Reference and NBA Stats. Valid as of game time April 1.
Sara Peters is a 17-year journalist who covers cybersecurity by day, basketball by night. She spent the past four seasons enduring a relentless barrage of losses as a featured New York Knicks columnist for Bleacher Report. She loves driving point guards, passing centers, scrambles for loose balls, buzzer-beating blocks, Allen Iverson, and tearful memories of Drazen Petrovic. Sara lives in Queens. Follow her on Twitter @3FromThe7.