Friday April 10th, 2015

The last time a perimeter defender won the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award was back in 2003-04, when Ron Artest (now known as Metta World Peace) earned the honor as a member of the Pacers. Since then, the list of winners has been dominated by interior big men—nine wins for centers and one for a power forward (Kevin Garnett).

So the question is, could this be the year that someone aside from an interior defender could be named DPOY? Nerlens Noel, Rudy Gobert, Anthony Davis, Andrew Bogut and, especially if you ask Clippers head coach Doc Rivers, DeAndre Jordan, make up the list of big men who will be in the conversation.

The crop of elite defensive wing players in the running this year, however, may spoil a string of 10 straight seasons where DPOY has gone to an interior defensive anchor.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Hornets

Although Charlotte sits three games back of the No. 8 spot in the hapless Eastern Conference, Steve Clifford’s crew has held steady as the sixth-best team in terms of defensive rating (100.5). The offense has been dreadful, but the defense continues to thrive thanks in large part to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

The 21-year-old small forward has been hampered by injuries throughout his 2014-15 campaign and may miss the remaining four games due to an ankle injury that has kept him sidelined since late March. Nevertheless, what he was able to do during his time on the court was very impressive.

For instance, the offensive rating of Hornets opponents with MKG on the court sits at a paltry 98.8 points per 100 possessions. That number jumps to 106.8 points per 100 possessions when the Kentucky product has been sidelined.

Throw in the fact that Kidd-Gilchrist is matched up with every opponent’s best player on a game-to-game basis, and it’s difficult to discount the impact he’s made on the defensive side of the ball. Of course, a losing record as well as missing 23 games (and counting) hurts MKG’s case. The bright side? He won’t be 22 years old until September. He still has plenty of time to build his résumé as a defensive force.

Tony Allen, Grizzlies

The “Grit and Grind” mantra in Memphis would not be possible without the presence of “The Grindfather” himself, Tony Allen. The defensive-minded guard/forward has received praise (both directly and indirectly) from some of his most accomplished peers.

Reigning MVP Kevin Durant, for instance, shot just 44% from the field and 32.1% from three-point range during Oklahoma City’s first round playoff series against Memphis a year ago. Following a dreadful 5-of-21 shooting performance against Allen and the Grizz in Game 4, KD said via ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, “I’m worrying about a guy coming from behind trying to block the shot. I’ve just got to focus in on the rim and my shot. I can’t go out there and think too much, I have to let my instincts take over.” It was clear that Allen, at least to some extent, ruffled Durant’s feathers.

Future Hall of Famer and Lakers legend Kobe Bryant said of Allen last year, “He’s fundamentally sound defensively and he plays harder than everybody else defensively,” per Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News.

The 33-year-old veteran hasn’t slowed down, as opposing teams post an offensive rating of 97.5 when he’s on the court defending and 106.5 when he’s on the bench. Add in the fact that he’s holding opposing shooting guards to a per-48-minute PER of 11, according to 82games.com, and his case as an invaluable defensive cog only gets stronger.

Draymond Green, Warriors

Golden State has posted the best defensive rating in the NBA as a team by a considerable margin—97.9, nearly two points per 100 possessions better than the second-place Spurs (99.4). So it only makes sense that Warriors players will be on the radar for Defensive Player of the Year honors.

Aussie center Andrew Bogut is garnering warranted praise as the Dubs’ rim-protecting safeguard. He’s held opponents to just 41% shooting at the rim, according to NBA.com—a truly astonishing number. But Draymond Green has been Golden State’s jack of all trades as a defensive chameleon.

Unlike Bogut, whose primary objective is to thwart opponents when they drive into his domain, Green has been asked to defend a multitude of positions throughout the season. From bruising big men to spry perimeter players, Green hasn’t shied away from the challenge.

The effective field goal percentage, rebound percentage, assist percentage and offensive rating of Warriors opponents are worse across the board when Green is on the court defending. That’s a testament to his basketball IQ and understanding of sound team defense.

Although Green sports a pedestrian 16.45 PER, ranking him No. 98 in the league among qualified players, passing the eye test again and again while playing for the NBA’s best defensive team makes his case for DPOY as strong as any.

Kawhi Leonard, Spurs

Kawhi Leonard isn’t a guy in the mold of James Harden and Stephen Curry, who can both go off for 50 points on any given night. Quite the contrary, as Leonard hasn’t even hit the 30-point plateau all season. But what the San Diego State product provides Gregg Popovich and his San Antonio teammates is still completely irreplaceable.

Since last season’s NBA Finals MVP returned to the court in mid-January following a hand injury, the Spurs have posted a 29-10 record. His individual defensive rating of 96 is tops on the team, and his 4.2 defensive win shares trails only Tim Duncan’s 4.5 (note that Duncan has played 13 more games).

The 23-year-old’s magnum opus to this point of the season occurred on April 5 against the Warriors. In just 24 minutes of action, Leonard recorded 26 points, five rebounds, three assists and a career-high seven steals (no surprise, San Antonio won easily, 107–92). Thanks to that effort, Leonard has a stranglehold on the NBA steals lead.

The night and day difference San Antonio has experienced with Leonard versus without him has been alarming. He sets the tone defensively, takes on the toughest matchups and hounds opponents with wingspan and enormous hands.

There’s no guarantee that one of the aforementioned guys will ultimately take home Defensive Player of the Year, especially since it’s been more than a decade since the last perimeter guy did so. At the very least, though, the shot-blocking big men can’t rest on the laurels of former towering award winners—perimeter players are building an equally stout case.

More from Ben Leibowitz:

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