Stating the case for every Defensive Player of the Year candidate

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 15: Joel Embiid
NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 15: Joel Embiid /

Defense is about the hardest thing to measure in basketball, which makes the Defensive Player of the Year Award possibly the hardest to determine.

Even now that tracking data, on/off, adjusted plus-minus stats and defensive field-goal percentage are available, in addition to the more traditional blocks, steals and defensive rebounds, sometimes all the information just makes the picture even more muddled.

Ultimately, all of those things need to be mixed together with what we see on the court to determine why the numbers are what they are. The best defensive players generally shouldn’t have an “either” the numbers “or” the eye-test choice. They should shine in both, which is why I included all of that in these rankings, which are listed here in ascending order.

Victor Oladipo

I think we’re to the point where we can argue that the Indiana Pacers did not lose the trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder nearly as much as we thought they did last summer.

Olasipo is leading the NBA in steals per game with 2.3 per game, his Defensive Real Plus-Minus is second-best among shooting guards (trailing only the injured Andre Roberson), and the Indiana Pacers’ defense is 8.3 points better when he’s on the court.

Paul George

Paul Goerge is certainly in the conversation, and some of the numbers suggest that he should be. He’s averaging 2.1 steals per game, and that leads to a lot of transition points for the Thunder. He’s been the constant on the defensive end after Andre Roberson went down, and that’s on a team that doesn’t have a lot of other great defenders.

Steven Adams is very good, and Jerami Grant is much improved. Josh Huestis is developing. But for the most part, the Thunder are short of great defenders. This might explain why the Thunder’s defensive rating is actually 2.1 points worse while George is on the court, according to

Oklahoma City has slipped from third to 11th in the league since Roberson went out. George has done enough to keep his name in the conversation, but not enough to win it.

Jusuf Nurkic

Jusuf  Nurkic is the big difference on the Portland Trail Blazer this season, and that matters. They’ve gone from 21st to ninth in defensive rating this season. They give up 5.7 fewer points per 100 possessions when Nurkic is on the court, which is more than the 3.6 points the Thunder have improved on defense from last year.

Nurkic isn’t a great shot blocker (1.4 per game), but opponents shoot 8.2 percentage points worse when he is the closest defender within six feet of the rim.

They’re close to locking down the No. 3 seed because of their defensive improvement, and the defensive improvement is because of Nurkic.

Robert Covington

I went through much consternation about whether to put Joel Embiid, Robert Covington or both in this spot. I settled on RoCo, but if you want to put in Embiid, I’m not going to battle with you over it. I say this fully aware that most people are touting Embiid, as well.

There are some striking factors to consider, though. First, based on DRPM, let’s look at the number of estimate points players have “saved” this season.

1Robert Covington, SFPHI7431.83.73182.9
2Rudy Gobert, CUTAH5132.75.11177.5
3Jusuf Nurkic, CPOR7426.24.27172.5
4Anthony Davis, PFNO7036.43.22170.9
5Joel Embiid, CPHI6330.33.72147.9
6Victor Oladipo, SGIND7134.32.82143.1
7Giannis Antetokounmpo, PFMIL72372.37131.5
8Kyle Anderson, SFSA6926.73.28125.9
9Draymond Green, PFGS6532.82.79123.9
10Clint Capela, CHOU7027.62.99120.3

Covington leads the NBA with 182.9. And he actually has a slightly higher DRPM (3.73) than Embiid (3.72). He also makes more of a difference in the defensive rating (7.8 to 5.1). Finally, the Sixers defensive rating is 101.6 with RoCo and without the Process, but it’s 104.2 when the roles are reversed.

Finally, if there is a tiebreaker here, it’s games played, so I went with Covington.

Next: The Encyclopedia of Modern Moves

Rudy Gobert

The top spot is another somewhat controversial decision. The issue with Gobert is not how he played but how often he played (just 51 games). However, his mastery in the time he’s had more than compensates for the games he missed.

Just consider the above table. In spite of missing all those games, he still could have a greater impact than any player in the league. He’s averaging 7.9 defensive boards and 2.3 blocks per game. His DRPM is a league-best 5.11. But even those lofty-numbers barely describe his value as they’re somewhat nerfed by him playing injured for part of the season.

Since he returned on Jan 19, the Jazz’s defensive rating is 97.7 (4.2 points better with him on the court), and they’re 26-7 which has pushed them from lottery team to contending for homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

That’s why, in spite of the missed time, Gobert should still be the frontrunner here.