Inevitable early-season variance has shaken up the NBA Defensive Player of the Year race. As tempting as it is to overreact to numbers and analysis gleaned from a small sample size, though, season-long trends and historical precedent has left our top-five and honorable mention selections filled by expected candidates.
Here’s where Defensive Player of the Year Watch stands six weeks into the regular season.
Honorable Mention: Jonathan Isaac — Orlando Magic, Bam Adebayo — Miami Heat, Pascal Siakam — Toronto Raptors, Kawhi Leonard — LA Clippers, Patrick Beverley — LA Clippers.
5. Anthony Davis – Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers’ early-season honeymoon is probably over. A Charmin soft schedule saw them face 10 consecutive sub-.500 foes before falling to the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday, a loss that, not coincidentally, ended their 10-game winning streak. Eight of Los Angeles’ next 10 games are on the road, with seven of them coming against teams with winning records, leading up to a highly-anticipated showdown against the LA Clippers on Christmas.
Davis’ commitment on defense waned a bit over the past two weeks, as the Lakers easily beat up on inferior opponents. They now rank just outside the top-five in defensive rating after surrendering 109.8 points per 100 possessions since the last DPOY watch, and actually fared better on that end with Davis on the bench. His unsustainably dominant defense at the rim has waned, too; opponents shot 63.6 percent against him in last two weeks, and he challenged just 4.7 shots per game from the restricted area.
Still, don’t expect Davis to sit outside the top-three on this list for long. Los Angeles should vault back up the team-wide defensive rankings in December by being forced to play with maximum intensity and engagement, and a recommitted Davis is most likely to be the driving force behind that rise.
4. Marcus Smart – Boston Celtics
Smart is the most readily and disruptively switchable defender in the NBA, and it’s not particularly close. Even prime Draymond Green didn’t quite match his singular ability to check five positions without the likelihood of negative recourse. Smart is just as effective hounding ball-dominant point guards as he is frustrating superstar wings, and just as capable of fighting bigs on the block as he is chasing marksman around the arc.
The Celtics rank fifth in defensive rating, per Cleaning the Glass. Their 104 points allowed per 100 possessions barely moves whether Smart is on the floor or on the bench, an indication of just how loaded they are with intelligent, versatile and dogged defenders.
But watch any Boston game, and it becomes almost immediately apparent how immensely valuable he is defensively – whether guarding three different players on a given possession, kicking out an inferior post defender on the flight of the ball or lighting a fire into the Celtics with relentless hustle.
3. Rudy Gobert – Utah Jazz
The Jazz have dropped four of their last five games. And while Mike Conley’s widespread offensive labors have returned after he seemed to be finding his footing in mid-November, it’s the other side of the ball that’s been Utah’s biggest problem.
The Jazz’s defensive rating over the last two weeks is 110, a number that would rank in the league’s bottom third over the full season. They’ve actually been a hair stingier with Gobert on the bench than the floor, but any notion that a defensive dip is owed to a decline in his impact isn’t supported by film or the data.
Utah’s opponent expected field goal percentage is lower with Gobert on the court over that same timeframe, and its defensive rebounding rate substantially higher. The Jazz are fouling less and turning teams over far more with him in the lineup, too, and Gobert has allowed an elite 43.5 percent shooting at the rim.
The two-time reigning DPOY ranked relatively low on this list coming into 2019-20, due to the possibility his team would take a step back on defense by virtue of exclusively playing four-out lineups. Six weeks since tipoff of the regular season, that dynamic has finally reared its ugly head on the floor. What it means for Gobert’s chances to win a record-tying third consecutive DPOY award, though, is in the eye of the beholder.
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo – Milwaukee Bucks
So much for Antetokounmpo’s absence here.
Two weeks ago in the second in-season edition of DPOY watch, Antetokounmpo was at the top of honorable mention, squeezed out of the top-five in part by a preference to highlight a newcomer – in that case, Jonathan Isaac. But the justification behind bumping him down the rankings was also his positive net defensive rating, which suggested the Bucks were better on that side of the ball with the reigning MVP on the bench.
That’s a ridiculous assertion, of course, but one the numbers no less indicated due to Milwaukee’s team-wide prowess on that side of the ball, which early in the season most manifested itself from the bench. But that dynamic flipped on its head over the past two weeks, with Antetokounmpo posting a -12.8 net defensive rating, second among regulars behind Sterling Brown.
What changed? Nothing at all with regard to Antetokounmpo, specifically. He’s still the same game-changing presence he’s been all season. But sample size always plays a role before the New Year, and the Bucks’ starters weren’t quite blitzing opponents the way they did last season. They are now, and Antetokounmpo remains the biggest reason why.
1. Joel Embiid – Philadelphia 76ers
The data is just undeniable.
Embiid isn’t the most active defender. His hands are often below his shoulders and he seldom leaves the paint, making it easy to assume he’s less engaged than other upper-echelon defenders. And compared to a player like Rudy Gobert, who built his career on defense and is barely more than a screener and rim-runner even after years of development, that’s just as true as it is understandable given Embiid’s far broader offensive responsibilities.
But make no mistake, Embiid is every bit as impactful as each player on this list. Case in point: Embiid sits alone at the very top of Cleaning the Glass’ individual net defensive ratings. Why? Philadelphia allowed effective field goal percentage is 6.8 points lower with him in the game, and its sky-high opponent free throw rate dips by 8.3 points. The Sixers surrender 7.7 percent fewer shots at the rim with Embiid in the lineup, the second-biggest margin in basketball, and their league-leading defensive rebound rate gets even better, too.
In a different system, not surrounded by impact defenders, Embiid’s occasional lapses of energy defensively could prove more problematic. But he remains a perfect fit for Philadelphia’s scheme, and one of the several most influential defenders in all of basketball.