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With the NBA season almost finished, which players distinguished themselves most this year on the defensive end?
Accurately evaluating NBA defense is an almost impossible endeavor, and opinions of individual defenders depend largely on the eye of the beholder. There are so many little things that happen (or don’t) within a possession that can fly under the radar if you aren’t looking for it, and we have yet to devise a reliable way of quantifying most of those subtleties.
Defensive catch-all metrics are noisy to a point of near-uselessness, raw steal and block numbers are antiquated to the point of actual uselessness, and it takes more games than most people can reasonably watch to get a solid, accurate reading on how good or bad a player is on defense because of how many variables are at play on a given night.
On-off splits and opponent shooting numbers can provide rough estimates of defensive impact, especially for big men, but they still don’t capture things like communication, rotations and other details that add up over the course of a possession, game and season.
With that in mind, here is an imperfect attempt — using publicly available stats and my own observations from watching all 30 teams — to identify the best defenders in the NBA this season.
NBA Awards: Defensive Player of the Year
- Rudy Gobert
- Giannis Antetokounmpo
- Jaren Jackson Jr.
If the Defensive Player of the Year is meant to recognize the most valuable regular-season defender, it stands to reason that it should go to the player who most effectively takes away the most valuable shots on the floor. Centers who protect the paint not only deter their opponents’ most valuable shots, they’re able to influence an outsize number of those shots because they have less ground to cover and more leeway to help at the rim. A great rim protector can shield off virtually the entire lane, while even the best wing or guard defender cannot possibly cover the entire 3-point line. As a result, this list skews toward big men.
A healthy Draymond Green would have challenged Gobert and Antetokounmpo for the top spot. Even at age 32, Green may still be the best undersized center in league history, and he processes the game in real-time like no one else can. He’s everywhere on defense — disrupting passing lanes, swiping live dribbles, confronting players at the rim, switching onto ball-handlers and calling audibles on the fly to take offenses out of rhythm. His motor and mouth are constantly running, which helps organize one of the most connected defensive units in basketball.
Opponents take a minuscule 23 percent of their shots at the rim and get fewer points in transition with Green on the court, and Golden State has owned the defensive glass in his minutes despite his relative lack of size. In total, the Warriors allow just 104.7 points per 100 possessions with Green on — a mark that would lead the NBA by over two full points and a nearly five-point improvement over when he’s on the bench. Alas, he also missed 36 games this season, creating a comfortable distance between him and the top two.
As in the MVP race, Giannis has been under-discussed in the wider DPOY conversation. In addition to his singular physical tools, he possesses elite timing, instincts and motor, which make him arguably the best weak-side defender in basketball. He’ll apparate at the rim for mind-bending blocks, or eliminate the possibility of a shot altogether by arriving before shooters can even try him. The Bucks allow just 27 percent of opponents’ shots at the rim with Antetokounmpo on the floor, and the efficiency of those looks plummets by nearly seven percentage points.
There’s a unique elasticity to Giannis’ defense, in both the way he imposes himself physically and the way Milwaukee deploys him in virtually every capacity. Because he’s so versatile and covers so much ground, the Bucks can use him in any scheme, coverage or matchup without ever compromising their defense. This season, that involved using him more at center, and he responded by morphing into one of the best drop pick-and-roll defenders in the league while still pressuring the ball out on the floor and holding his own in one-on-one settings.
Gobert is less versatile than Giannis, but provides better paint protection for a team with weaker surrounding defensive talent. Whatever one’s opinion of him as a playoff defender, Gobert’s value in the regular season is undeniable: Utah’s 107.6 defensive rating with Gobert on the floor would rank second in the NBA, and their 115.6 mark without him would rank 27th. He is the team’s system. The entire scheme is designed to funnel the ball toward the rim, and still the Jazz still allow the fourth-fewest close-range shots in the league because players are so wary of shooting in Gobert’s presence. Players shoot under 52 percent against him within six feet of the rim, and Utah also drastically reduces its foul rate when Gobert plays.
Without the rim, free-throw line or offensive glass as viable scoring routes, teams are left with only the least efficient options on the floor, and those relatively inefficient opportunities add up over 48 minutes. Gobert has also become one of the best switching centers in the league and can hold his own against offensive superstars in isolation. There may still be ways in which the Jazz might be exploited in the playoffs, but there’s little doubt that the three-time Defensive Player of the Year has once again been among the most valuable regular-season defenders in the NBA.
A handful of candidates made cases for the third spot. Green would be a worthy choice even with a two-month gap in his résumé. Joel Embiid remains an eminently reliable conventional rim protector, though a major offensive leap came at the expense of his upper-end defensive value. Bam Adebayo might be the most versatile center in the league, but missed 25 games and is still a mediocre rim protector. Jarrett Allen emerged as an imposing interior force, anchoring Cleveland’s sixth-ranked defense with some of the best rim-protecting numbers in the entire league. But he, too, missed 23 games, and I still view the Cavs’ defensive success more as a product of Allen and Evan Mobley’s collective work than either individual player doing the bulk of the heavy lifting.
Missed time also hurts Robert Williams, who posted one of the highest block rates in the league while serving as the cornerstone for the league’s best defense. The Celtics held teams to 104.4 points per 100 possessions — more than two points better than their league-leading mark — with Williams on the floor and fell off by almost five points per 100 when he sat. As with Giannis and Gobert, opponents fear Williams in the paint, and he switches onto the perimeter as well as nearly any center in the league.
Meanwhile, Jackson’s rim protection has been roughly as good as Allen and Williams’, only in about 220 additional minutes, which gave him the tiebreaker over the rest of the pack. Jackson took a massive step forward this season, blossoming into the all-around defensive wrecking ball he projected as entering the league. He owns the third-highest block rate among rotation players, and opponents have shot almost eight percentage points worse at the rim with him on the floor. That elite rim protection, along with improved perimeter defense and a reduced foul rate, has made Jackson a viable defensive center for the first time in his career. Overall, Memphis allows just 107.3 points per 100 in Jackson’s minutes, and under 106 when he plays without another center.
Poor rebounding — both individually and as a team — hurt Jackson’s case a bit, as does the fact that his one-on-one defense can still be a bit sloppy. Slotting Green, Williams, Adebayo or Allen over him would be defensible, but in a third-place race with five almost equally qualified candidates, the hairs split in Jackson’s favor.
NBA Awards: All-Defense
G: Marcus Smart, Matisse Thybulle
F: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Draymond Green
C: Rudy Gobert
G: Alex Caruso, Dejounte Murray
F: Mikal Bridges, Jaren Jackson Jr.
C: Robert Williams
Different voters have different philosophies, but the key distinction I draw between Defensive Player of the Year and All-Defense is a reduced emphasis on availability. All-Defensive teams should reflect the best defenders in the league rather than the most valuable, so discrepancies in playing time won’t matter unless one player has a significant edge over a defender of similar quality.
That tiebreaker really only came into play on the guard line, where I wanted to include Gary Payton II after an exquisite season. Payton has arguably been the best defensive guard in basketball this year, combining tenacious on-ball activity with keen help instincts and sound positioning away from the ball. He leads the league in steal rate and deflections per 36 minutes and completely changes the tenor of the game whenever he checks in. But with so many worthy candidates, it’s hard to justify giving one of four guard spots to someone who plays less than 18 minutes per game, even if he played those minutes at a higher level than anyone else.
Caruso has played fewer total minutes than Payton, but more than 10 additional minutes per game, which felt like a more salient data point for this exercise. He helped keep the Bulls above water on defense, stifling ball-handlers off the dribble, expertly navigating ball screens and blowing up possessions at the point of attack. Even with multiple bad defenders in its starting and closing lineups, Chicago allowed nearly eight fewer points per 100 possessions with Caruso on the court than with him off (a massive disparity for a guard).
Thybulle goes in as a guard, both to clear another forward spot and because he spends more time defending that position. Arguably the most disruptive defender in the game, Thybulle is one of the few players in the league who can actually get into the airspace of elite scorers and bother their shots, and he wreaks havoc away from the ball in ways opponents don’t expect. His risk-taking approach occasionally leads to breakdowns and silly fouls, but those gambles pay off far more than they backfire.
Smart, meanwhile, tied together an airtight Celtics defense with elite communication, anticipation, and positioning, and is the rare guard who combines all-out effort with disciplined technique. He’s elite at nearly every defensive skill both on and off the ball, and his ability as a 6-foot-4 guard to switch onto bigger players and occasionally protect the rim gives Boston’s hyper-versatile defense no weak points to attack.
At his best, Jrue Holiday might be the best defensive guard in the league, but understandably wasn’t quite the same force this season after a summer that included NBA Finals and Olympic runs. Murray also didn’t maintain quite his usual level of defensive impact under a heavier offensive workload, but he was still a major asset across the positional spectrum as an on-ball defender and a master thief in passing lanes. Other guard candidates included Toronto deflection kings Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr., charge magnet Kyle Lowry, the ever-aggressive Dillon Brooks and the overaggressive Patrick Beverley.
Gobert, Giannis, Draymond and Jackson are easy choices in the frontcourt, and I slightly prefer Williams’ combination of scheme-defining paint protection and perimeter quickness to Adebayo’s supreme versatility or Allen’s more conventional rim protection. That leaves one remaining forward slot for a host of deserving candidates: Jimmy Butler turned in another strong season as an active help defender, but lost just enough of a step on the ball to recede from the upper echelon of wings; Maxi Kleber and Dorian Finney-Smith would have been worthy choices for propping up Dallas’ eighth-ranked defense, as would Evan Mobley for his expert rim protection and off-ball instincts; Herb Jones also delivered one of the best defensive rookie years in recent memory, while Jayson Tatum’s combination of on-ball versatility and outstanding team defense was an underrated component of Boston’s success.
I have no opposition to any of those choices, but Bridges’ elite on-ball defense at a crucial position just separated him from the others. The 25-year-old blankets opposing stars for the league’s second-ranked defense, beautifully slithers over ball screens, nails rotations on the weak side and deftly interrupts passing lanes — all of which make him invaluable to a team without another real defensive stopper. He doesn’t provide much rim protection, but he’s an otherwise sound help defender who uses his length to swipe passes and dig down on drives to his side of the floor.
Honorable Mention: Jrue Holiday, Gary Payton II, Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., Patrick Beverley, Chris Paul, Dillon Brooks, Kyle Lowry, Jayson Tatum, Evan Mobley, Jimmy Butler, Maxi Kleber, Dorian Finney-Smith, Herb Jones, Jarred Vanderbilt, OG Anunoby, Jarrett Allen, Bam Adebayo, Jakob Poeltl
Stats courtesy of Cleaning the Glass & NBA.com.