The NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year is one of the hardest to predict. When watching basketball, we naturally focus on the offensive team and what they are doing. It’s hard to grasp truly what’s going on defensively at all times.
There’s only a limited amount of time we have to evaluate the defensive impact of every player, and even then, people perceive different defensive actions in different ways. Thankfully, we do have a host of statistical measures that help us understand what players bring to the table.
Let’s try to forecast who the top DPOY candidates are in this NBA season, regardless of whether the season is finished or not. What follows is our Defensive Player of Year predictions and preview.
- Honorable mentions: Bam Adebayo (Miami Heat), Marcus Smart (Boston Celtics), Brook Lopez (Milwaukee Bucks), OG Anunoby (Toronto Raptors), Myles Turner (Indiana Pacers)
Top Defensive Player of the Year Candidates for 2019-20
1. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
To be clear, Davis wouldn’t be my pick. While the versatile Lakers big man is a defensive monster who uses his length, athleticism and instincts to wreak all sorts of havoc, the Lakers have a great defensive team for many other reasons.
Los Angeles has two other excellent rim protectors in Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee, LeBron James is putting in solid effort on defense this season and Avery Bradley, Danny Green, Alex Caruso and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are all impactful perimeter stoppers. With the Lakers’ depth of defensive options, the team is actually a more efficient defense with Davis off the court by 2 points per 100 possessions. Of course, those on/off numbers don’t tell the whole story, but they do carry some weight.
Ultimately, I think Davis is probably the frontrunner in most people’s minds due to the Lakers’ popularity, their top-three defense and Davis’ tremendous numbers of 1.5 steals and 2.4 blocks per game.
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks’ defense is 3.3 points per 100 possessions better than any other team in the NBA. Who’s their best defender? None other than Antetokounmpo, who is also having the best overall season of any player in the league.
Antetokounmpo is an extremely versatile defender who can guard any player in the NBA capably. He is a tremendous defensive rebounder and rim protector. While his per-game blocks and steals numbers are slightly down (1 each per game), teams just don’t score against the Bucks in the paint very much.
Giannis is allowing opponents to shoot only 41.9 percent of their shots against him when they are closer than six feet to the rim. Not counting his own teammates Brook and Robin Lopez, no other player who has faced more than 100 such shots is surrendering below a 45.2 percent success rate.
Winning both Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player of the Year awards in the same year is a very tall task, though. Only Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon have done it, and I think a lot of voters may put Antetokounmpo second on their DPOY ballot since he’s already likely going to win the MVP.
3. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
Why is Gobert all the way down at third place despite being the two-time defending DPOY winner? The two reasons are this: the Jazz being just 11th in defensive rating and voter fatigue.
In the past 13 years, the Defensive Player of the Year has been on a top-three ranked defensive team 12 times. The one exception was Tyson Chandler on the fifth-ranked 2011-12 New York Knicks’ defense. It is a lot to ask voters to select the leader of the 11th-ranked defense as the NBA’s best defensive player, especially when his squad was ranked second in defense the previous two years when he won the award.
That said, Gobert shouldn’t be penalized for the Jazz changing their roster over the past year. Bojan Bogdanovic, Mike Conley and Jordan Clarkson have replaced Ricky Rubio, Derrick Favors and Jae Crowder from last year’s team. That’s a major defense-to-offense shift that demonstrates the Jazz’s trust in Gobert to fortify the team’s defense.
While many voters may dismiss Gobert as a potential winner, I think all voters should consider his impact as a rim protector on a team that has decent, but not great, defenders around him.
4. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
The 76ers’ season has been disappointing, for sure. A mixture of injuries and a lack of on-court chemistry has Philadelphia all the way down at No. 6 in the East when the team’s talent dictates it should be much higher.
You could also say the season has even been a bit disappointing for Simmons himself. His offensive numbers have remained pretty similar to last season, and he still refuses to shoot outside of about 10 feet.
Defensively, Simmons has most definitely flourished. He is the NBA leader in steals per game (2.1) and also gets tons of deflections while rarely making poorly conceived gambles. At 6’10” and 230 pounds, he also has a bit of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s ability to switch onto players of any position in him.
The 76ers rank a solid sixth in defensive efficiency despite 21 missed games for superstar center Joel Embiid, which is very impressive. Two blemishes on Simmons’ record is his 11 missed games and mediocre on/off splits, but he still has a strong case for DPOY.
5. Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers
In the past few seasons, Leonard’s defense has taken a slight dip from the years when he was just cementing himself as a star, and understandably so. With some nagging injury issues and increasing offensive responsibilities, it hasn’t really made much sense to go all out on defense on every possession.
This season he has upped his effort level and he has started to show more flashes of the player who terrorized perimeter players to no end for many years as a San Antonio Spur.
It’s been four years since Leonard last won the DPOY award, so voter fatigue probably won’t be much of a factor. In fact, his name recognition and reputation will probably benefit him as he receives many lower-ballot votes.