Stating the case for every Defensive Player of the Year candidate

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - MARCH 25: Jawun Evans #30 of the Phoenix Suns drives around Rudy Gobert #27 of the Utah Jazz during a game at Vivint Smart Home Arena on March 25, 2019 in Salt Lake City, Utah. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)
SALT LAKE CITY, UT - MARCH 25: Jawun Evans #30 of the Phoenix Suns drives around Rudy Gobert #27 of the Utah Jazz during a game at Vivint Smart Home Arena on March 25, 2019 in Salt Lake City, Utah. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images) /

Of all the NBA’s end-of-season awards, Defensive Player of the Year might be the most tightly contested year in and year out. Defense just remains a concept nigh-impossible to define. Is the lanky wing who locks down the opposing team’s best player more valuable than the gigantic center who builds a wall around the paint? Can a guard provide enough value to compete with either? Is a defender more valuable if they have a great impact in 28 minutes or simply a very good one in 36?

This year, our Defensive Player of the Year field looks no less competitive than ever, with just about every archetype of defender well represented. Which one will voters favor this time around? Here are the five candidates perhaps most worthy of your attention.

Rudy Gobert

No Defensive Player of the Year conversation would be complete without Rudy Gobert, who has steadily turned the award into something of his own personal playground, finishing fifth, seventh, second and first in voting across the past four seasons. Another top-three finish is all but assured, but Gobert has set his sights higher: if he wins this season, he’ll become the ninth player in NBA history to take home the award in consecutive seasons.

It’s hard to argue he doesn’t deserve the honor. Gobert is averaging 2.5 blocks per 36 minutes for the fifth consecutive season, and remains one of the league’s most prolific defensive rebounders, grabbing a whopping 30 percent of Utah’s defensive boards while he’s on the floor. Advanced stats tab him as perhaps the only choice this time around, as well. Among players recording at least 20 minutes per game, he leads the NBA in both DRPM (+4.37) and D-PIPM (+3.4).

Gobert’s case is difficult to nitpick. Detractors will point to how the Houston Rockets exploited him as a defender in space in last season’s playoffs, but this is ultimately still a regular season award. Gobert is the best defender on the second-best statistical defense in basketball, and should likely be considered the favorite to take home the hardware this season.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

What more can really be said about Giannis Antetokounmpo? Regardless of your feelings on this season’s MVP race, it’s undeniable that the Greek Freak has had the most profound two-way impact we’ve seen from an NBA player in a significant amount of time. He’s the answer to the question “what if Shaq was a wing player?” that you perhaps never knew you asked. He’s an eldritch horror that somebody handed a basketball.

What’s remarkable about Antetokounmpo’s defense is its implausible versatility. He’s simultaneously one of the league’s most disruptive perimeter defenders and also one of its most intimidating rim protectors, all while rebounding like a paint-bound center. The Milwaukee Bucks boast the NBA’s best defense, with a defensive rating of 104.4, and they’ve done it despite giving major minutes to players traditionally considered defensive liabilities like Brook Lopez, Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic. That’s the kind of impact the Greek Freak has on the team.

The biggest case against Antetokounmpo might simply be voter fatigue. Will the presumptive MVP favorite also come away with a second major end-of-year award? Only two players have taken home both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season: Michael Jordan in 1987-88 and Hakeem Olajuwon in 1993-94. He’s having a special season, but will voters see it as THAT kind of special?

Paul George

This season, Paul George has been to perimeter defense what Gobert has been to the defending the rim: nothing less than the prototypical ideal of the role. He’s the premier “go guard their best guy” defender in the league — the successor to Kawhi Leonard, who has lost a half-step this season in his return from injury. George ranks second among small forwards in DRPM (+2.78) and third in D-PIPM (+2.0), and he’s been the centerpiece of the fourth-best defensive rating (106) in the NBA in Oklahoma City. Few players in basketball are more consistently in the right place to make plays.

The problem for George is simple: his star just seems to be fading alongside the Thunder’s in recent weeks. Oklahoma City has lost eight of its 13 games since the start of March, and much of the buzz surrounding George’s career season has slipped away. If the award was handed out in February, George might have claimed it. At this stage, it feels as though he’s falling behind the pack.

Myles Turner

The Indiana Pacers have simply refused to fade away after the loss of two-way star Victor Oladipo. With their offense struggling to put points on the board with consistency, their resurgence has been predicated on their ability to deny points from their opponents, and they haven’t missed a beat in that regard. Since Oladipo’s injury, their 107.1 defensive rating ranks fifth-best in the NBA.

With apologies to Thaddeus Young, who is enjoying a stand-out season as a defender in his own right, the center of the Pacers’ defensive efforts (pun certainly intended) has been Turner, who has been enjoying the best season of his NBA career and perhaps morphed into the Eastern Conference’s answer to Gobert. The 22-year-old center leads the NBA with a staggering 3.4 blocks per 36 minutes, and advanced metrics love him: he ranks fourth in the league in D-PIPM (+3.0) and fifth in DRPM (+3.60). Opposing players are shooting nearly eight percentage points worse in the paint when Turner looms ahead of them.

However, on a broad level, it’s just hard to make a case for Turner over the other candidates on this list. In particular, the “Eastern Conference Gobert” comparison sort of works to his detriment. The two play similar roles for their respective teams, but while Turner has been very good, Gobert has been just a little bit better in almost every way. Gobert edges him out in advanced metrics while leading the Jazz to a slightly stingier defensive rating as a team (105.2), and also tops him in minutes per game, 31 to 28, meaning his impact is sustained slightly longer every night.

In other words, Turner is resigned to “darkhorse” status this season. He’s on the rise, though — don’t be surprised if he brings home the hardware in the next few seasons.

Marcus Smart

Few players bring the same level of intensity to an NBA lineup than Marcus Smart, the do-it-all guard who has kept the Boston Celtics afloat since joining the starting lineup back in November. He’s the beating heart of this Celtics team: a ferocious perimeter defender who piles up deflections, vacuums loose balls and draws charges like it’s an art form. Despite standing just 6-foot-4, Smart is nigh immovable in the paint and has guarded 1 through 5 as needed throughout the season. The Celtics would be absolutely listless without him.

There are a couple of challenges standing in the way of Smart’s candidacy here. First, like Turner, he takes a bit of a hit due to a lack of minutes. Despite seeing an uptick in usage with his promotion to the starting lineup in November, Smart is still averaging just 27 minutes per game on the season and hasn’t averaged more than 29 in any month this season.

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More notably, though, is the fact that guards just don’t win Defensive Player of the Year in the NBA anymore — only five have won the award in its history, and two of them were Sidney Moncrief. The award hasn’t found its way to a backcourt player since Gary Payton took it home in 1995, as the league has always preferred paint-patrolling centers like Gobert or versatile forwards like George. The stats reflect this bias: though Smart ranks second among guards in DRPM (+1.59), that figure isn’t enough to rank him within the top-50 overall.

It feels as though it would take an extreme outlier season for a guard to earn consideration here, and while the Cobra is one of the most entertaining defenders in the league right now, it just doesn’t feel like he’s stood out quite enough to worm his way into the conversation.