NBA Power Rankings: Who are the best defenders in the NBA this season?

Feb 9, 2023; Los Angeles, California, USA; Milwaukee Bucks center Brook Lopez (11) boxes out Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis (3) for a rebound in the first quarter at Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 9, 2023; Los Angeles, California, USA; Milwaukee Bucks center Brook Lopez (11) boxes out Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis (3) for a rebound in the first quarter at Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports /

Big men are dominating the Defensive Player of the Year race and our latest NBA Power Rankings take a look at who is on top.

For years, Defensive Player of the Year was the exclusive domain of big men. Marcus Smart won last year, making him just the second guard to win (along with Gary Payton) in the last 25 years. But in that most recent quarter century, we’ve also seen it go to a wing three different times (Ron Artest and Kawhi Leonard x2) and Draymond Green an entirely non-traditional big man. And even last year, Smart’s win came over Mikal Bridges, another wing.

But while their appears to be a movement toward recognizing the defensive contributions of smaller players, this year’s Defensive Player of the Year race has been almost completely dominated by big men. We’ve seen a slew of fantastic rim protectors who have stretched their range and leveraged their mobility to completely control the center of the floor.

NBA Power Rankings: Who is the Defensive Player of the Year favorite?

6. Nic Claxton, Brooklyn Nets

I was going to leave this list at five but I wanted to make sure I at least showed Nic Claxton a little love. ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus estimates him to be a top-10 defensive player this season. He’s averaging 4.3 blocks and 1.3 steals per 36 minutes, nearly doubling his blocks per 100 possessions from last year. He’s also second among all centers in deflections per game, leading to a lot of early offense opportunities like this

At one point, the Nets looked like one of the best teams in the league and their formula was the offensive brilliance of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, paired with an elite defense anchored by Claxton.

5. Rudy Gobert, Minnesota Timberwolves

This has been a down year for Gobert based on his own lofty standards but he’s still, easily, among the most impactful defenders in the league. Minnesota’s porous perimeter defense put him in a lot of bad spots early in the season and it’s a bit harder to see his overall impact on the team when they haven’t had the same defensive infrastructure around him. But his rim protection numbers are still very strong and the Timberwolves would be even more of a defensive mess without him.

4. Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers

ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus estimates Mobley to be THE most impactful defender in the league this season. Even if you don’t agree with that exact ranking, it’s fairly remarkable considering he’s only in his second season. When he’s on the floor on his own he’s a strong rim protector but he looks even more unique when he’s paired with Jarrett Allen and he has more responsibility for defending in space.

Mobley ranks in the top-15 in both blocks and deflections, also chipping in 1.1 steals per 100 possessions, helping anchor one of the best defenses in the league.

3. Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies

Jackson Jr. might rank higher here if he hadn’t missed so many games early in the season. But his importance to the Grizzlies’ third-ranked defense is undeniable. Among all players who defend an average of five or more interior shots per game, no player has a bigger difference between how well opponents actually shoot when he’s the closest defender and how well we’d expect them to shoot based on their season-long averages. And his shot-blocking presence extends so much further because of his mobility. Case in point — he’s already blocked three corner 3-point attempts this year.

Everything about that play is indicative of his elite defensive ability — covering an insane amount of ground, closing out without fouling, still having the hand-eye coordination to block the shot as he goes flying past.

2. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers

Davis has been an absolute terror on defense this season, averaging 2.1 blocks and 1.0 steals per game. Jackson Jr. is the only other player above those thresholds this season and they reflect the diversity of his defensive impact. He’s been fantastic protecting the rim but also stepping out to the top of the key and swarming pick-and-rolls and hand-offs.

Davis, like Jackson Jr. hasn’t yet played 1500 minutes and has played about 600 fewer minutes than No. 1 on this list. His impact has been phenomenal but he just hasn’t been on the court enough for me to rank him ahead of…

1. Brook Lopez, Milwaukee Bucks

I have to tell you, there is some serious cognitive dissonance involved in an NBA fan of my age ranking Brook Lopez No. 1 in the Defensive Player of the Year race. I remember when Lopez was an offense-only, post-bound scorer, regularly ridiculed for his meager rebounding totals. He certainly hasn’t gotten any faster over the past decade but he’s learned how to use his size and length to become one of the best interior defenders in the league.

He leads the league in blocks and has already logged 76 on shots outside the restricted area — more than Joel Embiid and Myles Turner combined. Yes, he has the benefit of playing with two other elite defenders in Jrue Holiday and Giannis Antetokounmpo but Lopez is the undisputed anchor of the best defense in the league and having him on the back line is part of what makes Giannis and Holiday so effective in their own roles.

Subscribe to The Whiteboard, FanSided’s daily email newsletter on everything basketball. If you like The Whiteboard, share it with someone you love! If you don’t like The Whiteboard, share it with someone you loathe!

Got a basketball question? Send it to us on Twitter or by email and we’ll try to answer it in our Friday mailbag. 

Content from around the FanSided network

Draft prospects to watch in the NCAA Tournament

Men’s March Madness brackets are out. While many of the top NBA Draft prospects this year aren’t in the NCAA, there are a few teams to keep an eye on during the tournament if you want to maximize your scouting time. Here are the teams with the most draft prospects:

  • Alabama has a potential top-five pick in Brandon Miller and another likely first-rounder in Noah Clowney. They’ll play the winner of Southeast Missouri State and Texas A&M — Corpus-Christi on Thursday at 2:45 p.m. ET.
  • Arkansas has two likely lottery picks — Nick Smith Jr. and Anthony Black — and two more — Jordan Walsh and Ricky Council IV who could wind up in the second round. They begin their tournament against Illinois (another team with multiple prospects), Thursday at 4:30 p.m. ET.
  • Duke may have the most prospects selected in this draft but it’s possible none land in the lottery. Dariq Whitehead is a versatile wing who was highly touted but has struggled this season and may have fallen outside the letter. Kyle Filipowski and Dereck Lively II are polar opposites as bigs — Filipowski is a stretch floor-spacer, Lively a high-flying rim protect — who could land late in the first round. Mark Mitchell is a versatile, role-playing wing who would likely go in the second. Duke starts with a dangerous game against Oral Roberts on Thursday, at 7:15 p.m. ET.
  • Houston has a possible top-five pick in Jarace Walker, a physical specimen with elite defensive ability. Wings Marcus Sasser and Terrance Arceneaux could be late first-rounders or early second-rounders. Houston starts their tournament late on Thursday, facing Northern Kentucky at 9:20 p.m. ET.
  • Illinois has two prospects who could end up sneaking into the back half of the first round —Coleman Hawkins Terrance Shannon Jr. — especially if they can show up well against the future NBA picks they’ll see on the Arkansas roster.
  • Indiana has a handful of NBA prospects but only one likely to go in the first round — Jalen Hood-Schifino who has impressed with his toughness and versatility. Trayce Jackson-Davis is a hyper-efficient big whose throwback game might limit him to the second round. Indiana plays Kent State at 9:55 p.m. ET on Friday night.
  • Kansas has a pair of potential first-rounders. Gradey Dick is perhaps the best shooter available in the draft and is a likely lottery pick. Jalen Wilson is a versatile wing who has helped lead Kansas but will have to prove he can thrive as a role player at the next level. Kansas starts early, tipping off against Howard at 2:00 p.m. ET on Thursday.
  • Kentucky has a likely lottery pick in guard Cason Wallace. Oscar Tshiebwe would have to be a second-round pick if he slips into the draft. Kentucky plays Providence at 7:10 p.m. ET on Friday.
  • UCLA has a trio of prospects on our last big board — Jaime Jaquez Jr., Jaylen Clark, Adem Bona — but none are likely to slip into the first round unless something really changes in the next few months. UCLA plays in the last game to tip-off on Thursday, scheduled for 10:05 p.m. ET.

THE WHITEBOARD. Subscribe to our NBA daily email newsletter. light