A lot of the awards for this year’s NBA season are already decided. James Harden will likely be the MVP, and Victor Oladipo will win most improved player. The most competitive race this year should be the race for defensive player of the year, in which there are several quality candidates. It is also a weird year for the award as lots of stud defenders have missed extended time with injury. Kawhi Leonard, Andre Roberson, Marcus Smart and Rudy Gobert(who is still on the list) have all missed real-time with injuries. That has opened up the field to some newcomers and made the race brutally competitive. Here are the top five defensive player of the year candidates.
Gobert has been by far the best defensive player of the year so far, but there is a catch. He has only played in 44 games so far this season and will finish up with 56 games played at most. Is that enough? Well here is what he has going for him. He is the best rim protector in league with a ridiculous 3.9 block percentage. What is even more amazing about that number is he does it without fouling. His foul percentage is only 3.2 percent a near elite mark. Gobert not only leads all centers in defensive RPM, but he also leads all players in the category. Gobert’s individual defensive success leads to team success as well.
The Jazz has been the stingiest defense in the league for the past twenty games, and Gobert is the engine of that defense. His defensive rating is third in the league among players who qualify. Among centers who are eligible, only Deandre Jordan and Marc Gasol allowed a lower point per possession. His only on court weakness is he is a good defensive rebounder, not an elite one. At times he can be exposed in space guarding the pick and roll, ranking in the 62nd percentile according to Synergy Sports. Overall though that is nitpicking, and his rim protection more than makes up for it. If he had played ten more games, he would be a lock, but the 56 games are borderline.
Man Horford has been excellent on both ends this year for the Celtics. His defensive versatility is impressive as he can hang with guards on switches and uses positioning beautifully to deal with the big guys down low. Horford is fourth in defensive win shares added among players who played at least 41 games, and the drop off is significant when he is not on the court for the Celtics. His defensive rating of 100.7 for the season is ridiculous. Horford only ranks behind Anthony Davis, Draymond Green, and Luc Richard Mbah Moute amongst power forwards in defensive RPM.
He doesn’t get a lot of steals and block, but he always knows where to be and always makes the right decision. Like Gobert, his rebounding is his most significant defensive weakness. Only his teammate Aron Baynes allowed a lower point per possession among all power forwards/centers. Baynes, by the way, plays too few minutes for this award, same with David West. Horford is the anchor of his team’s defense, he is versatile, and there is a significant drop off when he is not out there. He has also played in 63 games this season.
Jojo has been a monster this season. Establishing himself as an elite rim protector just two years into the league is impressive. Gobert has been a little better at protecting the rim as he has a higher block percentage and a lower foul rate, but Embiid has been the better defensive rebounder. Embiid will also play in 70 games and carries a more significant offensive load than Gobert. Embiid ranks fourth in defensive RPM among centers who play at least twenty minutes a game, ranking behind Gobert, Hassan Whiteside, and Jusef Nurkic.
He is sixth in defensive win shares added and ninth in defensive rating. His PPP allowed amongst centers is only behind Jordan, Gasol, Gober, Gortat and Steven Adams. Embiid does not lead many categories, but he poses good numbers across the board. Doing that while carrying an enormous offensive load is impressive. Like the others above him, he is the anchor of an elite defense, and that gives him a shot, but the analytics point to Gobert and Horford a little more.
Luc Mbah Moute
Our first wing defender! Boy has he been impressive this year. When he is on the court, the Rockets are an elite defense, and without him, they are slightly below average. He can legitimately guard positions one through four, and his switchability is outrageous. Mbah Moute has a good steal, and block percentages a low foul rate and the Rockets defend way better on the court with him. All good things! Since he played most of his minutes at power forward this year, he ranked first in defensive RPM among all power forwards.
You heard me, first!!! He is 7th in defensive rating, but only 20th in defensive win shares added. Part of that is he only played 26 minutes per game, which hurts him and he ha only played in 53 games so far this year. He is night in PPP allowed for his position and is maybe the best isolation defender in the league. His team defense is elite and so is his individual defense, but it may not be enough to make up for his lack of minutes and games.
Draymond will and should be on this list every year. Green has coasted a little this year at times, but when locked in no one can match his versatility or instincts. He rarely fouls, is a steal monster and an above average shot blocker. A rarity for someone of his stature. Add it up, and he ranks fourth amongst power forward in defensive RPM and 15th in defensive win shares added. Green’s minutes of only 32 a game hurt him a bit in that category. Green ranks in 8th in PPP allowed as the primary defender and sixth in score frequency. What’s most impressive about Green is he ranks above average defending every kind of offense, spot up, pick and roll, etc. Voters will note his versatility, but for Green’s standards, this has not been his best defensive season. Still, reputation and his play get him into the top five.
Winner: Al Horford
Gobert would be the pick if he didn’t miss so much time. Horford has been the anchor of the leagues best defense for the entire season. His value to his team is unmatched, and so is his versatility. Like Green, he posts good numbers in every individual defensive category and the drop off when he is off the court is significant. He’s got my vote!