DEFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS, SO GOES THE OLD ADAGE. It’s a lot more fun watching offense, and scoring is much easier to understand, but defense matters, too. Both defense and offense win championships, but we pay attention to only half of the game far too often. Today, we’re giving defense its due, continuing 2020 NBA Awards Season by selecting All-Defensive teams and choosing a worthy Defensive Player of the Year (DPOY).
Defense is notoriously difficult to value properly, even as we create more and more all-in-one advanced metrics. For me, the best place to start is team defense. We know how to evaluate which teams are best on defense — now who is the best defender on that team? Anyone that fits that description or close should be considered. If you’re on a great defensive team but only the third or fourth best defender on the court, I’m taking your metrics with a grain of salt. And if you’re a a presumed elite defender but your team’s defense is #20? I’m not buying it, especially if you’re a big man.
That said, I’ll refer to a handful of metrics below: Defensive Box Plus-Minus (DBPM) from Basketball Reference, Jacob Goldstein’s Defensive Player Impact Plus-Minus (DPIPM), and ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus (DRPM). They’re all extremely, insanely flawed. But they’re the best we’ve got and give us something to frame things with.
Enough preamble. Let’s talk defense.
Brook Lopez, Milwaukee
On defense we start at center, because center is still where much of the most significant defense in the NBA is played. Defense still matters most closest to the basket, where you can most make a difference on a shot made or missed. Jump-shot percentage is mostly variable, while shot percentage in the paint and at the rim depends far more heavily on the seven-footer protecting it.
No one in the NBA was better protecting the paint than Milwaukee, not this season or in many recent seasons. The Bucks allowed 38.8 points in the paint per game, almost 10 points lower than league average and a full 3.3 points fewer than any other team. Milwaukee also led the league with 77.8% defensive rebounding, and yes, rebounding is part of defense — the whole point of rebounding is ending the opponent’s possession. The Bucks allowed 11.1 second chance points per game, again, fewest in the league. They ranked first in defensive rating by a country mile.
You don’t play that well on defense without everyone contributing, and it helps to have an alien, of course. But Brook Lopez remains this team’s defensive anchor, dropping back to protect the paint and shutting things down at the rim. Lopez ranked second in the league in DBPM and DPIPM, both by a sizable margin, trailing only his alien teammate.
Brook Lopez should be in contention for Defensive Player of the Year. Milwaukee’s defense was so much better than any other team that the DPOY virtually has to come from their roster, so that means BroLo or Giannis. He’s absolutely First-Team All-Defensive, and he’s closer to #1 on the DPOY ballot than off it.
Rudy Gobert, Utah
There are a glut of great defensive options at center after Lopez, and we’ll mention a few in the honorable mentions, but it’s hard to go wrong with Rudy Gobert. The rest of the world knows Gobert’s name a bit better after the last few weeks, but NBA fans have known him for years.
The Stifle Tower had to carry a much heavier load this season without Derrick Favors and Ricky Rubio on his side, and Utah’s defense slid to just outside the top 10. It would be easy to blame that on Gobert, but we’re going the other way. How many other rosters could sustain heavy minutes from Bojan Bogdanovic, old man Mike Conley, and others and still be near the top 10?
Gobert ranks #1 in DRPM but that’s the metric I trust least of the three. It’s tough to compare him to someone like Lopez who had so much more help, but it didn’t feel like Gobert made quite the same impact. Still, he had 69.3% of his team’s blocks while on the court, still best in the league by far. The only thing Gobert didn’t defend this year (this is not a Coronavirus joke) was his back-to-back DPOY status. The award is headed to Wisconsin this season.
I really wanted to talk myself into Bam Adebayo. He had a massive minutes load for the Heat and was the anchor of their defense, but that D faded as the season wore on and finished only #12 in the league. He also had a lot of help. He’ll have to settle for beating Gobert on my All-NBA teams instead.
Marc Gasol would’ve finished ahead of Gobert if he’d stayed healthy. He was the best defender on the league’s second best defense. Myles Turner is definitely just an honorable mention, but he’s worth mentioning either way. If you could combine Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee’s minutes into one super JaVight McGard, they’d have a strong case too. Nerlens Noel didn’t play enough either, but he was awesome. Joel Embiid was good not great and missed too many games, so he’s not getting bolded. Sorry, big guy.
It’s not too difficult to figure out which centers were the worst defenders in the league. Just find the league’s worst defense, and there’s almost certainly a big man not doing enough in the middle.
I adore Karl-Anthony Towns, but he is Worst-Team All-Defense this year. He ranks last or close in all the typical metrics. Minnesota’s defense was tragic with KAT on the court but kind of decent and even good at times without him. Minnesota didn’t really get to see what their new roster looked like with Towns at center. We’ll see how his defense looks with D’Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley ole-ing opponents into the paint.
Shouts Cody Zeller and Thomas Bryant. No bueno.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee
Ladies and gentlemen, your clear DPOY. We already talked about Milwaukee’s defensive dominance above. Brook Lopez has been a huge part of that, but Giannis has been even huger. It’s his insane length that makes the Bucks system go. Like a free safety that takes away half the field in football, Giannis is getting into passing lanes, affecting shots, eliminating them altogether.
Antetokounmpo ranks #1 in DBPM, #1 in DPIPM, and #3 in DRPM. He’s first among all regulars with a 96.4 individual defensive rating. The next six players are all Bucks too, and no other NBA regular is below 100. Just like MVP, this isn’t that hard. Giannis is the best defender on a historically good best defense in the league. He’s about to join MJ and Hakeem as the only players in NBA history to win MVP and DPOY in the same year.
Anthony Davis, L.A. Lakers
I’m not nearly sold on Anthony Davis’s presumed DPOY resume, in part because he is getting a massive amount of help from LeBron James, Dwight Howard, and JaVale McGee doing a lot of the same job. Still, Brow is the best and most impactful defender of the bunch, and the Lakers were the #3 defense in the league behind the Bucks and Raptors.
Davis will show up on many DPOY ballots, probably first on some, and I suspect he’ll finish a clear runner-up. That overstates things. The metrics like Davis but nowhere near that stratosphere. DRPM, for example, rates him only #9 among power forward, behind players like Jonathan Isaac, Aaron Gordon, Paul Millsap, and Pascal Siakam. Again, these metrics are flawed, and those are all good defenders too, but they’re not DPOY guys.
Jonathan Isaac, Orlando
Speaking of Isaac, he was just straight up better on defense than Davis this year, but he played only 32 games. If the season does end up shortened, perhaps Isaac not missing that last month will be enough to give him a very deserving spot on the All-Defensive team.
Isaac averaged 4 stocks a game this season — 1.6 steals and 2.4 blocks per game. The list of players to average 4 stocks per game is a veritable who’s who of the greatest defenders in NBA history: Hakeem, Admiral, Eaton, Kareem, Big Ben, Mutombo, Bol, Elmore, Camby, Elvin, Kirilenko, Josh Smith, Bobby Jones, Gerald Wallace, Walton, Dr. J, Heard, Lanier, Brow, and MJ… and now Jonathan Isaac. It’s an insane list to join.
The Magic were a top-5 defense with Isaac healthy, around 106 defensive rating. With him on the sidelines, that leapt to 112 and left Orlando in the bottom-10 defensively, struggling to make the playoffs. Isaac would be worthy of DPOY contention if he’d stay healthy all season. He was finally making the leap. Shame no one noticed.
Kawhi Leonard, L.A. Clippers
No one needs to tell you how good Kawhi Leonard is on defense, but you might not have noticed he had taken a step back the past few years — in the regular season. That was not the case this year, maybe thanks to all that load management keeping him fresher. He’s still saving his best for when it matters most, but he’s a worthy final addition to our Second Team.
You want to make a case for LeBron James, I know, but he was the third most important defender in most key Lakers lineups, and I can’t reward him just because he actually tried this (regular) season. Jayson Tatum was the best wing defender on a top-5 defense. OG Anunoby had a similar defensive role for an even better D. Many metrics put Utah’s Royce O’Neale right in that mix too, which is pretty impressive for a guy so unknown I had to list his team name just now.
Had the season actually played out, I think Kristaps Porzingis might have played his way onto the list — or out of contention, if he had qualified as center instead of forward. He was really making the leap over the last month of the season and finished top 10 in DRPM.
Andrew Wiggins may be on the Warriors now, but his new teammate Eric Paschall was the worst forward defender in the league. Paschall is going to end up on a lot of Rookie of the Year ballots because he played for Golden State, and it’s a real shame because he is #notgood. Wait til you see him out of the rotation when the games matter next year, kind of like Kyle Kuzma.
DeMar DeRozan had maybe his best offensive season as a pro with all that newfound spacing, but he was also the weak spot on defense for a Spurs unit that finished ranked 25th, by far their worst ever under Gregg Popovich. Pop took over midseason in 1997 for the team missing David Robinson. Those Spurs won 20 games and finished dead last in defense. The year after, San Antonio had the #2 defense and has made the playoffs every season since — until DeRozan destroyed that this season.
Patrick Beverley, L.A. Clippers
It’s actually Beverley, and not Kawhi Leonard, who leads the Clippers in a lot of advanced defensive metrics. Do you realize how hard it is to be the best defender of a top-5 NBA defense as a guard? Beverley ranks second among all players in DRPM.
He’s an absolute pest that annoys the bejeezus out of every opponent every time he steps on the court. Go ahead, check out the Clippers numbers. This was a three-man team, not two. Los Angeles was load managing Patrick Beverley every bit as much as Kawhi and PG.
Marcus Smart, Boston
Dig into the numbers and you’re going to have an awfully hard time justifying all that love for Marcus Smart. The defensive numbers are fine. Good really. Just not great. Not elite. They don’t match the eye test. They don’t match the endless 200% energy Smart gives on every play, don’t measure the way he dives after every loose ball and turns every 50/50 into an 80/20. They don’t show Smart’s switchability or the way he wears the opponent down over a game, let alone a whole series.
Look at the numbers instead and you see the #7 point guard in DRPM. Again, good! Just not great. Look a little further and you’ll see those numbers place him behind players like D.J. Augustin and Devonte’ Graham. If you don’t know Smart is in a totally different universe than those two guys, I’m not sure what to tell you.
Beverley and Smart were both First-Team All-Defense for me last year too. They’re just that good.
Ben Simmons, Philadelphia
Simmons is my lone All-Defensive Sixer, which means no Joel Embiid and no Matisse Thybulle. Philadelphia finished as the #6 defense, so one representative feels about right. Who was the more valuable Sixers player this year? It’s up for debate, and on both ends of the court. Embiid certainly has the higher ceiling, but with Simmons at least you know what you’re getting every night. Embiid is just too unreliable still.
Kris Dunn, Chicago
I don’t think he has any real chance of making the team, but Kris Dunn was absolutely incredible on defense this season, even in only 51 games and 32 starts. This was the player I was ecstatic when Minnesota drafted him four summers ago, at least on defense.
Dunn’s metrics are through the roof. He ranked top-15 in DBPM, DPIPM, and DRPM, and when he got hurt and the Bulls plugged in Shaq Harrison, Shaq was just as elite. The two of them together were the guard defender of the year and genuinely DPOY-ballot worthy. Do you realize the Bulls finished in the top half of the league on defense?! Dunn and Shaq are the reason why. Think about that for a minute. It’s incredible.
I suspect Eric Bledsoe will end up All-Defense this year, and it’s not egregious that one of the league’s best guard defenders gets a second All-D berth, but I don’t think he deserves it this year. It’s tough to distinguish between all the non-Giannis-and-BroLo guys on Milwaukee, but most of them have incredible defensive numbers. Bledsoe ranks 52nd in DRPM… among point guards. Honestly, I’d have taken his teammate Donte DiVincenzo over him.
Two of my favorite young defenders are worth a mention. Matisse Thybulle is incredible, and his 3.5% steal rate is just silly, but he was under 20 minutes a game. DeAnthony Melton is an absolute pest too, and he’s finally getting some minutes in Memphis. Defense is only valuable if you’re good enough offensively to stay on the court.
Trae Young was every bit as good as he looked on offense — and every bit as terrible on D. There are 30 NBA teams with 13-man rosters. That’s 390 players. Young ranked #503 in DRPM and DPIPM. Dead last.
Bradley Beal gets a dishonorable mention too. He just didn’t try. He was third worst among NBA regulars in DRPM ahead of only Trae and Michael Porter Jr.
Shouts to Collin Sexton and Zach LaVine. Way to be.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo
2. Brook Lopez
3. Rudy Gobert
This shouldn’t come as a real surprise at this point.
When you’re a historically good defense miles ahead of any other D on the planet, you get the top two spots on the DPOY ballot. Sorry, I don’t make the rules (I do). Giannis and BroLo should be top-2 on every ballot in some order, and the ballot would be more accurate if you just left 3-through-5 empty.
In real life, we have to pick someone third. I’d have taken Isaac if he played another 20 games and considered him anyway. I could be talked into Isaac, Brow, Beverley, or Gobert. Tie goes to the defending DPOY. ■