2019-20 NBA Awards: Sorting Through the League's Best Defenders

Ben Ladner

As the value of rim protection and defensive shot profiles has become more widely recognized, the Defensive Player of the Year award has begun to slant toward dominant anchors rather than rangy perimeter players. Center is the most -- though not the only -- important defensive position in basketball, and this award typically reflects that. It’s easier for a big man to affect his entire team’s defense by walling off the rim, rotating from the weak side, and erasing mistakes than it is for a perimeter player largely confined to his individual matchup.

Most defensive impact doesn’t appear in box scores, or even initial looks at live action. As a result there still isn’t a foolproof way to quantify value on that side of the floor. Block and steal numbers, while sometimes indicative of a player’s activity level, can be wildly misleading while on/off data and all-in-one metrics aren’t foolproof either.

That makes the criteria for defensive awards more subjective than those of Most Valuable Player or All-NBA, and thus leaves more room for variance in the selections. Distinguishing one deserving player from another requires careful review of data and film, with some arbitrary blend of the two determining the final results.

Defensive Player of the Year

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo

2. Rudy Gobert

3. Brook Lopez

Not since Hakeem Ojajuwon in 1994 has a player won MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season. Antetokounmpo, the likely MVP frontrunner and most important component of a historic defense, could end that run this year. The Bucks’ forward is almost the perfect modern defender, possessing the length to bother shooters anywhere on the floor and the athleticism to cover absurd amounts of ground, combined with the intelligence and instincts to avoid mistakes and the motor to impact every possession.

He blends the attributes of the league’s best interior anchors with its peskiest perimeter disruptors. Giannis is a hawk away from the ball, capable of shutting off passing lanes with his endless arms and intercepting deliveries without taking unnecessary gambles. He’s agile enough to paper over mistakes, yet smart enough that he seldom has to. He has the agility to stay in front of primary ball-handlers on the perimeter and the heft to match physical post scorers. He can sink into the lane to help contain a drive and still recover to his man on the perimeter in time to deter a jumper.

The Bucks usually prefer deploying him away from the ball to help plug holes all over the floor, but Antetokounmpo can still capably defend the handful of lead ball-handlers -- LeBron James and Ben Simmons, for instance -- too big for Khris Middleton. The lone area in which Giannis struggles is in getting his lanky frame over ball screens, but Milwaukee has so few weak points that it can afford to switch most screens without much consequence.

The Bucks, who allowed over three points fewer per 100 possessions than the NBA’s second-best defensive team (Toronto), were more than 11 points per 100 better defensively with Antetokounmpo on the floor. That’s a larger disparity than Utah had without Gobert, Miami had without Bam Adebayo, or the Lakers had without Anthony Davis. In fact, the Bucks’ offense fell off by less than a point per 100 possessions when their superstar sat; they felt his absence almost entirely on defense.

Milwaukee has four other impactful defenders in its starting lineup, but even with Brook Lopez -- the Bucks’ other elite rim protector -- off the floor, the team still allowed just 100.6 points per 100 possessions with Giannis in the lineup (and 108.2 in the opposite alignments, though Lopez’ backup is a far better defender than Antetokounmpo’s). Milwaukee both prevented and contested shots at the rim with preposterous success when Antetokounmpo played. Among players who defended at least 80 shots within six feet of the rim, he held shooters to a 42 percent success rate -- the best mark in the NBA.

Just behind him in that metric was Lopez, who had the best defensive season of his career for the second year in a row. Rim protection has three general elements to it -- prevention, alteration, and erasure of shots -- and Lopez checks all three boxes. While he isn’t as versatile as Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee’s entire scheme is designed to funnel the ball toward Lopez at the rim, who turns away drives with remarkable efficiency. The Bucks held opponents to just a point per possession and allowed less than 29 percent of enemy shots at the rim with their starting center on the floor.

Somehow, Lopez had more blocked shots than personal fouls this season despite challenging over seven attempts per game within six feet of the rim. Not only is that a miraculous statistical achievement, it also allows the Bucks to deprive opponents of the two most profitable shots -- layups and free throws -- in basketball. Lopez might have the best shot-blocking technique in the NBA, absorbing inbound threats into his Brobdingnagian body with his arms straight up, tracking the ball with his outside hand and spiking it into the floor at the moment of release. It was easier, however, to assign responsibility for Utah’s defensive success to Gobert than it was to credit Lopez for the Bucks’, which gave the former center a slight edge over the latter.

Many modern seven-footers defy ordinary body mechanics, moving with the fluidity and precision of smaller men. Gobert makes viewers appreciate just how difficult it is to repeatedly transport such gangly limbs up and down the floor. He moves the way a 7-foot-1 man should, which only serves to accentuate his unrelenting motor and world-class conditioning. He doesn’t make covering the width of a basketball court look easy, because it isn’t, and thus leaves no doubt that he’s giving maximum effort on virtually every play. That may cause Gobert to get beat by quicker guards or pulled outside the paint by more skilled bigs, but he almost always finds his way back into the play. He seldom gives up on plays and his length allows him to recover when the ball gets past him.

Without Derrick Favors beside him, Gobert had more weight than ever on his shoulders this season. The Jazz held opponents to 107.6 points per 100 possessions with him on the court -- a tidy mark, but still a regression from prior seasons -- albeit with far weaker supporting defenders than Antetokounmpo or Lopez had. Gobert is slightly more mobile than Lopez, but that’s partly because he’s asked to cover more ground in Utah’s system than Lopez is in Milwaukee’s.

Even as the Bucks lapped the league in defensive efficiency and the Jazz’s identity shifted more toward the other end of the floor, it felt necessary to find room for perhaps the league’s best rim protector between the two central pillars of a historically dominant defense.

giannis lopez

First Team All-Defense

Guard: Marcus Smart, Jrue Holiday

Forward: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard

Center: Rudy Gobert

Second Team All-Defense

Guard: Kris Dunn, Ben Simmons

Forward: OG Anunoby, Anthony Davis

Center: Brook Lopez

The All-Defense ballot only allows for one center on each team, so Lopez misleadingly falls to the second team. Also hurt by the dearth of center spots were the quietly awesome Favors, who almost singlehandedly stabilized New Orleans’ defense when available; Joel Embiid, who had a massive impact in only 1300 minutes; Kristaps Porzgingis, whose tumultuous offensive season may have obscured his immensely valuable defensive contributions; and Bam Adebayo, who preserved Miami’s fleeting defensive integrity and whose versatility nearly warranted his inclusion as a forward.

It’s rare for a wing to have the kind of team impact Leonard did this season, but he has always been a rare breed of defender. The Clippers held teams to 105.3 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor -- a five-point improvement over when he sat. They defended well in virtually every configuration that included Leonard, holding opponents to lower shooting percentages, grabbing more defensive rebounds, and allowing fewer shots at the rim with him on. Pull any one of Paul George, Patrick Beverley, Ivica Zubać, or Moe Harkless from the mix, and the Clippers still had a robust defense with Leonard on the court.

Doc Rivers had the unique luxury of using Leonard on or off the ball, with George and Beverley plugging holes elsewhere, and Kawhi’s engagement and lateral quickness both seemed to improve over last season. He may never get back into the Defensive Player of the Year discussion, but the deeper one looks into the data behind the Clippers’ success, the more it seems to trace back to Leonard’s presence.

Davis -- who split time between center and power forward -- may appear on many short lists for Defensive Player of the Year, and might be a more useful defender in a vacuum than Gobert or Lopez. He can stay in front of the ball against nearly anyone, and his physical tools and instincts make him a fearsome rim protector. His recovery blocks are among the most breathtaking in the entire league.

But despite Davis’ tools and astonishing individual plays, the Lakers allowed nearly two points more per 100 possessions with their ostensible anchor on the floor. He didn’t have the same effect preventing shots at the rim as he has in the past, and opponents finished better within four feet when Davis played. Lineups with Davis at center fared well, but remove LeBron James from the equation, and L.A. more closely resembled a lottery-level defense than an elite one even with JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard on the floor.

Those marks aren’t entirely representative of Davis’ defensive ability, but relative to other elite defensive anchors, it does cause him to stand out. There still aren’t 10 defenders better than Davis in the NBA, and I couldn’t bring myself to leave him off the ballot entirely.

I generally value team impact in the frontcourt over individual defensive efforts, but Anunoby might be the best isolation defender in the NBA, with the versatility to slide over screens and bang in the post. His on-ball fortitude at every position stood out slightly over off-ball contributions from forwards like James, P.J. Tucker, Jayson Tatum, and Paul George. Aaron Gordon and Royce O’Neale provided a diminished approximation of Anunoby’s archetype for Orlando and Utah, respectively, while Paul Millsap might have cracked the second-team had he played more minutes for an otherwise wobbly Nuggets defense.

Eric Bledsoe, Patrick Beverley, and Josh Richardson were the toughest omissions on the guard line. (Jaylen Brown, Gary Harris, Kyle Lowry, Lonzo Ball, Chris Paul, and Danny Green deserve mention as well. The NBA is replete with staunch on-ball defenders and only four can make the cut.)

Smart, Holiday, and Dunn are perhaps the most spectacular of that bunch, constantly denying opponents’ intentions and blowing up even the best-disguised counters. Smart is probably the best guard defender in the NBA; his tenacity, versatility, and intelligence stand out even on a team full of quality defensive players. 

Holiday and Dunn take pressure off of more limited teammates by applying it to opponents at the point of attack. Both rank in the 84th percentile or better for their positions in both block and steal rates, per Cleaning the Glass, and have outsized impacts on opponent shot distributions for point guards. Dunn simply snatches the ball from opponents like Leonard did in his athletic prime while Holiday will often just materialize in a shooter’s airspace (if they can find any) to vaporize a shot like, well, prime Leonard used to do.

simmons smart

Simmons and Richardson offer more versatility than Dunn, only less disruptively and in a far superior defensive environment. Enveloping ball-handlers and slithering through all but the most punishing screens, Philadelphia’s guards slide across the positional spectrum seamlessly, often handing off defensive assignments over the course of a game until one claims the most challenging for himself.

What separates Simmons from other versatile forward-sized defenders like Antetokounmpo, Tucker, James, or Millsap is his agility and fluidity on the perimeter. Most other players his size struggle to get over screens or press into ball-handlers beyond the 3-point line, but Simmons capably glides through picks, moves his feet, and uses his sturdy frame to inhibit driving lanes. While Richardson is peskier on the ball and Embiid is a more impactful anchor, Simmons’ versatility makes life easier on everyone else (he also plays a different position than Embiid).

While Lopez and Antetokounmpo erase nearly every mistake in Milwaukee, Bledsoe gave his bigs exceedingly little to clean up. He scurries over ball screens as well as anyone in the league, and his length and strength make him a pest on point guards and wings alike despite a relative lack of height. He has great hands and reflexes, which allow him to take calculated risks other guards shouldn’t. Beverley makes opposing guards uncomfortable at all times and provides optionality for a team with solid defenders at other positions, but lacks the size to switch onto bigger wings or protect the rim as a help defender. 

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