SI.com's NBA midseason awards: Defensive Player of the Year
Lee Jenkins: Kawhi Leonard, Spurs
Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green are going to be jostling for this honor every season, it seems. Leonard has accepted more responsibility on offense for the Spurs, but he hasn’t let it diminish his efforts on the other end at all. Leonard’s physical gifts are obvious – the interminable wingspan, the massive hands – but, at 24, he has also learned the nuances of his opponents and the tricks of his trade. San Antonio’s defense is historically stingy, and plenty of players deserve credit, including 39-year-old rim protector Tim Duncan. But the list starts with Leonard, who sets the Spurs’ tight-fisted tone.
Ben Golliver: Kawhi Leonard, Spurs
Although the “best player on the best defense” shouldn’t necessarily be gifted this award every year, it’s very difficult to look past that designation this time around. The Spurs have put on a defensive clinic this season: Not only are they ranked first in defensive efficiency, but they lead the No. 2 Warriors by 5.5 points, a monstrous chasm that is equivalent to the gap between the Warriors and the No. 17 defense in the league. Leonard, the 2015 Defensive Player of the Year, continues to reign supreme. He’s the total package on defense: big, strong, fast, quick, smart, disciplined, versatile, experienced, confident and instinctive. What’s more, he has risen to the challenge of locking up high-profile wings on numerous occasions this season, he’s enjoyed good health all season long, and he’s logged 150+ more minutes than any of his teammates. He’s San Antonio’s most important and most irreplaceable defensive piece, and that should make him this year’s DPOY.
Rob Mahoney: Kawhi Leonard, Spurs
That this award is traditionally the province of big men is all the more reason to reward the perimeter players who transcend basic defensive roles. Leonard is one of them. Not only does he have the power to control a given matchup, but his ability to seek out steals without completely selling out on his defensive positioning helps him lock down an entire side of the floor at a time. Proceed near Leonard with the ball at your own risk.
Matt Dollinger: Kawhi Leonard, Spurs
Much like a shutdown corner in football, Kawhi Leonard has become so dominant defensively he essentially eliminates an entire side of the court for opponents. Thanks to Leonard, the Spurs own the best defensive rating in the league (93.3) by a margin as long as the San Antonio riverwalk. The Spurs rank second in the league in opponent field-goal and three-point percentage. With Leonard shutting down star players on a nightly basis, the Spurs are able to put the onus on other teams’ supporting casts. Unfortunately for everyone else, few teams are a deep as Leonard’s Spurs.
DeAntae Prince: Kawhi Leonard, Spurs
The NBA’s second-best team is anchored by the league’s premier perimeter defender, a pest who can give pause to LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and every player in between. Leonard’s length and instincts shine through in traditional and advanced stats, as he averages 2.6 steals per game and boasts a 93 defensive rating while taking on the toughest assignment every night.
Jeremy Woo: Kawhi Leonard, Spurs
Kawhi Leonard is one of maybe a handful of players that can make one-on-one defense extremely fun to watch, except he does it every single game for the entire game. It’s entertaining and fascinating to watch him match up with a wider range of players than anyone around, until you imagine you are the person he is guarding and then want to curl up in a ball and contemplate your own purpose on the planet. Automatic matchup-problem wings players like LeBron, Kobe and Durant dominated this league for years: perhaps Leonard arriving perfectly and uniquely equipped to stop them is just nature running its course. He deserves this award a second time.