Every week, Yahoo Sports’ Vincent Goodwill will reveal his ballot for an NBA superlative award for the 2019-20 season. The ballots were due before the restart of the season at Walt Disney World.
Previous ballots: Rookie of the Year
The NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award has become increasingly difficult to assess because of the increased amount of advanced information and the way the game has evolved over the years. Still, the ability to defend at all levels has a value that cannot be stressed enough, making Giannis Antetokounmpo (-400 win Defensive Player of the Year at BetMGM) a prime candidate to pull off the double whammy of being named Most Valuable Player and DPOY in the same season.
Michael Jordan (1988) and Hakeem Olajuwon (1994) are the only players since the defensive award’s inception in the 1982-83 season to win both awards in the same season, with Olajuwon leading the Houston Rockets to the NBA title, a feat Antetokounmpo hopes to achieve this fall.
Olajuwon was a vicious rim protector with quick feet and quicker hands, making him a terror on switches against guards. Jordan was both fundamentally sound with positioning and aggression, accomplishing the rare feat of 200 steals and 100 blocks.
Antetokounmpo is literally none of that and all of that, yet is still the ultimate defensive Swiss Army knife. He only averages a block and a steal per game, partly because he only plays 31 minutes a night.
The defensive metrics back up his candidacy, leading the league in defensive rating, defensive win shares and defensive box plus/minus for the second straight year.
Essentially, there’s no place he can be on the floor that he’s uncomfortable. With more perimeter scorers than ever and rules favoring offenses, Antetokounmpo can be at the top or on the wings and be in perfect position.
For the old-school heads, it’s almost as if he’s the evolution of the young, skinny Dennis Rodman, who won the award in 1990 and ’91 for the Detroit Pistons — except that Antetokounmpo is longer and perhaps more athletic.
The athleticism makes him a threat around the rim in a non-traditional sense and he’s able to rebound and start the break on his own.
The other two candidates on my ballot weren’t far behind Antetokounmpo but are a little more traditional in how they approach defense: runner-up Rudy Gobert of Utah (+3000) and third-place Anthony Davis of the Lakers (+250).
Players who just missed the cut are impactful but somewhat limited in their effects. Miami's Bam Adebayo comes closest by way of versatility and it won't be a surprise to see him finish high in the voting soon, and Philadelphia's Joel Embiid has a presence that's hard to ignore. But the rules prohibit hand-to-hand defense in a way it doesn’t at the rim. So Marcus Smart, Ben Simmons and Kawhi Leonard don’t have the same opportunities to maximize their strengths — on-ball defense — because the NBA has legislated it out, save for the last few minutes of close playoff games.
And there are few better than those three when it comes to keeping scorers below their usual averages.
Gobert has anchored the Utah Jazz’s defense for several years, and in the last couple of seasons has wanted to be more involved with the offense. Whether that’s a byproduct of his defense slipping slightly from his award-winning levels the last two seasons or just a correction is difficult to pinpoint, but he’s still formidable.
Gobert is not as versatile as Antetokounmpo or Davis, but there’s no challenging him at the rim. Even if he doesn’t block the shot or doesn’t go for it, you can see players flinching or seeing the ghost of Gobert, which affects the quality of the shot attempt.
The way Utah funnels its defense to Gobert and the way offenses scheme around Gobert show his value. Hardly any other player affects a game plan like Gobert, and even though you can draw him to the perimeter to make him uncomfortable, it takes the offense so far out of its own rhythm it becomes counterintuitive.
Gobert (13.6 per game) rebounds as well as Antetokounmpo (13.8), but finishing a possession is important in this discussion and somewhat separates him from Davis.
Davis has more foot quickness than Gobert and is more inclined to switch onto perimeter players without compromising the rest of the team defense. Davis has long been feared at the rim — he was third in total blocks before the stoppage and top 20 in steals.
As he’s bulked up his frame, he’s gotten better defending the post, being able to take the bumps while still keeping his base to block shots on the ball. His versatility enables the Lakers to play big with JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard at center while moving Davis to power forward — an old-school, super-sized frontcourt that can keep LeBron James from the toll of being on the boards for long stretches.
But for the Lakers to win, it’ll likely be because Davis anchors the defense at center and stretches the floor on offense. He has more responsibility than Gobert to be versatile and probably paces himself on that end.
Davis has the potential to be in the class of Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett defensively, but their motors were relentless and they permeated through their teammates. Davis has caused James to be more engaged defensively than he has since his Miami Heat years, and Davis’ singular excellence on that end probably challenges James to bring better efforts nightly.
What separates the three is Antetokounmpo’s inability to take nights off or even possessions off on that end. He must be accounted for by the opposing offense, and boost his team’s energy and commitment on that end.
His year is historic and should be rewarded as such.
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