With the NBA regular season seemingly over with, due to the Covid-19 pandemic (you may have heard of it), it seems remiss of me to wait any longer before casting my votes on my imaginary NBA ballot. GIVE ME MY BALLOT, NBA! COWARDS! As well as nominating my winner, and acknowledging those in the conversation, we’ll also go back through my preseason and mid-season predictions, so we can see just how off the mark I was (which might go someway to explaining why I don’t have a ballot. Sorry for venting, NBA). Today, let’s have a look at the men who take pride in the less glamorous side of the sport and crown our NBA Defensive Player of the Year.
Defensive Player of the Year
Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee Bucks)
Pre-season prediction: Joel Embiid (Philadelphia 76ers)
Mid-season prediction: Rudy Gobert (Utah Jazz)
In the mix: Ben Simmons, Rudy Gobert, Marcus Smart, Brook Lopez, Anthony Davis, Bam Adebayo, Joel Embiid
As you might gather from the pre and mid season articles, the Defensive Player of the Year race has ebbed and flowed throughout the NBA season. At various times, there have been four or five players could conceivably have had their noses in front, although for all that the clear winner plainly has to be the most dominant defender on a historically stingy defensive team. But more on Giannis later.
As per usual, the DPOY field is dominated by the NBA's tall timber, with only Ben Simmons (a power forward masquerading as a point guard) and Marcus Smart (a genuine five position defensive dynamo) breaking up the cadre of centres. The single thing that those two have in common: versatility.
Simmons has been a defensive marvel all season long and has – even more so than his acclaimed teammate Embiid – emerged as the Sixers defensive leader. As good as Embiid is at protecting the rim and cleaning the glass, it's Simmons ability to slide around screens, stay in front of jitterbug guards, or bang bodies in the post that opens up so many lineup options for Coach Brett Brown. Check out the players that Simmons has guarded for the most minutes this season:
Adversaries ranging from play making guards, to bullocking wings, to sharp shooters, to genuine power forwards: basically all the types of players that Embiid can't defend. The other interesting thing to note is that all of these players are #1 options (amongst non centres) aside from Middleton; and he's a damn fine #2. Simmons was 5th in the NBA in defending the opponents #1 offensive option and the only players ahead of him are role players or defensive specialists.
His raw numbers are fantastic. Simmons leads the NBA in steals (2.1 per game), trails only Jrue Holiday in deflections with 4 per game. He's also 2nd in the league in loose ball recoveries with 1.7 per game. Simmons also passes the eye test. Watch how he slides around on ball screens and keeps his hands active in the video below.
Anthony Davis is the closest contender to Antetokounmpo for this seasons Defensive Player of the Year. His first season in Los Angeles was always going to tell us a lot about AD. In New Orleans he was The Man on – at best – middling squads. If he made a mistake, or took a few plays off, it didn't really matter. The Pelicans were not fighting for anything of great consequence. That's obviously not the case in Lakerland. Every play is analysed. Every move scrutinised. Every action judged.
To say Davis coped with the added pressure is quite the understatement. He displayed his usual excellence on offense, and proved transformative for the Lakers at the defensive end. In 2019, Los Angeles finished 13th in the league in defensive rating. This season: 3rd place.
Davis' malleability on the defensive end of the floor allowed Coach Frank Vogel to spend large swathes of the season pairing Davis and LeBron James with either JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard, to form the huge, intimidating front court that formed the bedrock of the Lakers defense.
Individually, The Brow stayed right around his career averages with 2.4 blocks and 1.5 steals per game (Davis remains one of only seven players in the history of the NBA to average over a steal and two blocks for their careers), although playing predominantly at the four meant his rebounds fell to 9.4 per contest; the first time he's dropped into single figures since his rookie campaign. Remember a few paragraphs back (cue harp music) when we mentioned Simmons was 2nd in the league in loose ball recoveries? Davis lead the league. In fact, the difference between AD & Simmons was the same as Simmons to Giannis, down in 9th. Davis held direct opponents to 38.5% shooting, good for 2nd in the NBA amongst players who defended at least 500 shots.
In this video, Davis show his full repertoire: defending at the rim, barricading the paint, switchability, help and recover, hard double teams....the man is a nightmare to play against.
Yet, as they say in the Highlander:
…and that one is Giannis Antetokounmpo: the best defensive player on one of the most dominant defensive team in the history of the NBA.
Giannis is fearsome in the open court on offense, but he's equally as frightening playing open court defense. His ability to eat space shrinks the court so much that fast breaks end up like half court sets.
Giannis with the chasedown block on Harden! pic.twitter.com/nHCmM0LD3A— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) October 25, 2019
When he gets in the half court, Giannis is simply unplayable. He bests AD for the league league in opponents field goal percentage, holding his player to 36.1% shooting. And he gets it done in all areas of the court: 41.8% at the rim (again, league leading); 25.9% in the post; 14.8% in isolation – astonishing numbers. One caveat on those numbers is that teams, like they do with Rudy Gobert, rarely go directly at Giannis. It's an admission from the greater NBA community that he's just too good defensively for most NBA players. Even for the brute's:
(I'll admit, I literally giggled when I first saw this play)
Therein lies the problem for Milwaukee's opposition: you can't go at Giannis one on one, yet that means you have no choice but to try and attack the Bucks other elite defenders like Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton or the Lopii. Even with excellent defensive talent around him, it's Giannis that is the lynch pin of the Bucks 'defend the rim at all costs' defensive scheme. Away from the ball, he takes away so much space with his length and speed that you simply have no choice but to attack the Brothers Lopez, who finishes 2nd and 3rd in defending the rim. On the rare occasions the Bucks go small with Antetokounmpo at the five, they're still elite with a 94.8 defensive rating.
Yes, Mike Budenholzer is an outstanding basketball coach, blessed with wonderful defensive talent. You can't deny, however, that this team's defense is borderline top 10 with a replacement player in Giannis' place. With him, it's historic.
The Greek Freek can do it all. He's our Defensive Player of the Year for season 2019/20.