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Golden State of Awards: Defensive Player of the Year

Who takes home the top defensive honor?

Phoenix Suns v Milwaukee Bucks Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

At this point it’s becoming clear that there will be one of two outcomes in the NBA this season, as a result of the coronavirus outbreak: Either the current season will be drastically truncated, or it will be cancelled entirely.

Either way, we’ve seen all or almost all of the regular season games, which means we can start crowning the individual awards winners. So I’m handing out my awards this week. On Monday, I chose my MVP. Today is about the Defensive Player of the Year, Wednesday will be Coach of the Year, Thursday will be Rookie of the Year, and Friday will be Most Improved Player.

Spoiler: Not a lot of Golden State Warriors will be making appearances.

Now let’s get into it.


Defensive Player of the Year isn’t the most glamorous award that the NBA hands out, but it’s certainly one of the most important ones. The Golden State Warriors can attest to that, as Draymond Green won the award for the 2016-17 season, after back-to-back second-place finishes - all while commanding an elite defense that played a huge role in some championships.

It’s often a more divisive award than MVP, because there aren’t particularly good stats for defense. In yesterday’s MVP column I included a whole number of individual stats with each player, but for this I’m just going to include team defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions), using the data from Cleaning The Glass (which eliminates garbage time).

As always, please feel free to use the comments to tell me how dumb I am.

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Milwaukee defensive rating: 1st (102.3)

Only four players have ever won both an NBA MVP, and a Defensive Player of the Year award: Kevin Garnett, Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, and David Robinson. And only two of those (Jordan and Olajuwon) won those awards in the same season.

Could Antetokounmpo become the fifth, and third, respectively? If my ballots are any indication, yes.

Defensively, Antetokounmpo has a lot of similarities to Draymond Green, albeit with a little bit less defensive skill, and quite a bit more athletic ability. He’s elite as an on-ball perimeter defender. He’s elite as an on-ball low-post defender. He’s elite as an off-ball rim protector. He’s elite as a roving help defender.

I’m honestly not sure where Antetokounmpo is at his best, defensively. That’s a compliment, not an indictment. He’s that good across the board, which gives the Bucks the benefit of being able to adjust their defense to play into his teammates strengths.

2. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers

Los Angeles’ defensive rating: 3rd (106.1)

Davis has long been considered one of the league’s elite defensive players, and is usually a trendy preseason pick to win this award.

Yet he’s only finished top-three in voting once in his career, and he’s never finished in the top two.

That could change this year, as Davis has captained one of the league’s top defenses. Viewers may tune in to the Lakers for the LeBron James to Davis offensive connection, but the defense has been just as good, and just as important for Los Angeles this season.

You could argue that Davis is better served as a center, rather than as a power forward, where the Lakers have opted to use him. But either way, he’s one of the sport’s greatest rim protectors, a capable switch defender, and an exceptional on-ball post defender.

And he’s a highlight machine, on both ends of the court.

3. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

Utah’s defensive rating: 10th (109.4)

Gobert has won the last two Defensive Player of the Year awards, and might have been in line to win a third as recently as mid-January. Then his defense fell apart, and the team’s defense dropped off the map.

Since the All-Star break, the Jazz’s team defense was 21st in the league - far closer to the Warriors than to the league’s elite.

Still, 10th overall in defense isn’t bad considering some of the players that Utah has started, and the moving parts the team has had all year. Gobert is still the best rim protector in the league, and a very strong switch defender, as long as Steph Curry isn’t on the floor.

Honorable mention

Joel Embiid: I didn’t want to leave Embiid off, but he’s missed a big chunk of games this year.

Kawhi Leonard: Leonard very well may be the best defensive player in the world, but injury management means he A) misses a chunk of games, and B) often doesn’t guard the best player on the opposing team.

Patrick Beverly: Beverly might be the best pound-for-pound defender in the league, but it’s just a lot harder for guards to provide defensive value than wings and big men.

Marcus Smart: Same as above, but a little bit less so.

Chris Paul: Same as above, but a little bit less so.

Myles Turner: Extremely good defensively, but not quite good enough (this year).