The NBA’s Defensive Player Of The Year Tradition

Why they got 2018 wrong and how long until a guard wins

On Monday night, at the 2018 NBA Awards, Rudy Gobert won Defensive Player Award, keeping a long-running tradition of pure rim protecting centers as the sole winners with just a few exceptions since 1982. Those exceptions would be (in chronological order of award) Sidney Moncrief (1982–83 & 83–84), Alvin Robertson (85–86), Michael Cooper (86–87), Michael Jordan (87–88), Gary Payton (95–96), Metta World Peace (2003–04), and Kawhi Leonard (14–15 & 15–16). Over 36 years of the DPOY award, it has gone to a non-rim protector just 9 times and most of those came in the 80s and 90s.

That trend has continued into 2018. The last ten winners are Dwight Howard (x3), Tyson Chandler, Marc Gasol, Joakim Noah, Kawhi (x2), Draymond Green, and Rudy Gobert. With the exceptions of Kawhi and Draymond, all of these winners share some things in common. They are all pure rim protectors. They rack up blocked shots at a prodigious rate and ‘anchor’ a defense.

Before the emergence of the Golden State Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Houston Rockets popularized the heavy use of the three-pointer, you absolutely need an anchoring big for a strong defense. But, in 2018, times have changed. The two best teams in the NBA, the Warriors and Rockets, both employed defenses that heavily utilized switching, as did the Boston Celtics. The Warriors ranked 11th in defensive rating, the Rockets 6th, and Boston 2nd. Of course, I have to admit that the Utah Jazz, anchored by Rudy Gobert, rated 1st overall on defense. Except the Jazz got beaten in five games in the second round of the playoffs. The Warriors won their third NBA title in 4 years, the Rockets came within a Chris Paul hamstring of beating the Warriors, and the Celtics, without Kyrie and Gordon Hayward, almost downed LeBron James in the Eastern Conference Finals.

In the playoffs, the Warriors feature their “Death Lineup,” the lineup with which they have changed the calculus in the NBA to maximize 3-point shooting and ball movement. The lineup of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala, and Draymond Green lacks a traditional big-man to protect the rim. However, the combination of Durant and Green provides the requisite rim protection.

Boston’s best lineups featured Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Morris, and Al Horford. Horford is one of the smartest players in the entire league and helps fill the Draymond role for Boston. Of course, the Celtics are one of the best coached defensive teams in the league, but Brown, Tatum, Morris, and Horford are all capable of defending guards and wings on the perimeter.

The Rockets are the only one of this trio to feature more of a traditional big man in their major lineups. Clint Capela averaged 2.1 blocks and 11.6 rebounds per game in the playoffs and showed competency when forced to switch out on the perimeter against the Warriors. Capela also provides enough offensive value as a lob threat and inside presence that he doesn’t get played off the court by the Warriors. However, the Rockets’ second most used playoff lineup features PJ Tucker in Capela’s place as the 5 and brings in Eric Gordon to give the Rockets a three-guard set. This lineup is a direct counter to Golden State and the Rockets’ own “Death Lineup.”

The main point is that none of the best teams in the NBA absolutely feature a traditional center. The Warriors, inexplicably, had 6 centers on their roster this year but have acknowledged that they were primarily for getting through the regular season. Houston relies on Capela for his rim-protecting prowess, but he also provides them with strong perimeter defense when forced. Boston’s most played traditional center would be Aron Baynes who matched up primarily with Tristan Thompson of the Cleveland Cavaliers and shot well in a limited sample on 3-point attempts.

Given the way that the NBA is changing and the way the best teams are constructed, I wonder how long it will be before we see another guard win DPOY. However, there is a litany of reasons as to why I think it may be a while. Traditional centers rack up stats; we’ve already established that. We’ve also established that the traditional center hasn’t been a huge part of any of the best teams in the NBA lately. But, the DPOY award is given out on the basis of the regular season, not the postseason. And, as Draymond Green so eloquently put it, “There are 82-game players, then there are 16-game players.” That statement was made in reference to the NBA draft where the game, and who got playing time, drastically shifted from the regular season, especially in the Warriors-Rockets series, but it rings true for the DPOY award as well. Traditional centers are a pathway to a great regular season defense, which of course always gives you a chance in the playoffs, but we haven’t seen the right team yet.

Incidentally, the three 2018 finalists for DPOY were Rudy Gobert, Joel Embiid, and Anthony Davis. Rudy Gobert finished first, playing 56 games and averaging 2.3 blocks, 0.8 steals, and 10.7 rebounds per game. Embiid finished second, with 63 games played and averages of 1.8 blocks, 0.6 steals, and 11.0 rebounds per game. Davis, who came in third, played 75 games and averaged 2.6 blocks, 1.5 steals, and 11.1 rebounds per game. How in the world did he not win DPOY with numbers like that?!?! He played the most games, blocked the most shots in the league, ranked 18th in total steals, and fifth in total rebounds. However, the Pelicans ranked just better than league average in defensive rating in 14th place while the Jazz ranked 1st and the 76ers were 4th.

When viewed through the team lense overall, as well as the on/off numbers for Gobert, I understand why he won. Same with Embiid, although to a lesser extent and I think Davis should have been second. But, in terms of picking the best defensive player in the NBA, give me Anthony Davis all day, every day. I don’t know what more you could want in a defensive player. Davis has led the league in blocks three times, he’s averaging 1.3 steals per game for his career and is averaging 11.4 rebounds per game over the last two seasons. He’s one of the, what, five most athletically gifted players in the NBA, has played 75 games in each of the last two NBA seasons, and is just as good on the perimeter as he is protecting the rim. Against Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers in the playoffs, not only did Davis wreck havoc on their offense from the post but at least twice he was switched out on Damian Lillard at the 3-pt line and blocked his shots. Davis’ athletic and defensive abilities are super rare and he’s the best defender in the NBA, even if he doesn’t get the help from his team that others get.

Whereas it’s easy for a traditional center to amass counting stats, guards are in a more difficult position. Most guards’ best shot at defensive counting stats come in terms of steals. In 2018, Victor Oladipo led the NBA with 2.4 steals per game and added 0.8 blocks per game. Oladipo was named First-Team All-Defense but finished 15th in DPOY voting, tied with Jusuf Nurkic who averaged just 0.8 steals and 1.4 blocks per game.

For some reason, among the traditional voters, steals appear to count for less than blocks. Steals are a guaranteed turnover; the possession is shifting from one team to the other. Whereas with a block, the team (or player) who just got blocked has almost an equal chance of getting the ball back. Some have argued that a shot-blocker’s presence deters the opposing team from driving into the paint, which I partially agree with. Regardless of whoever is defending the paint, drives and shots at the rim are still one of the most high-percentage shots in the game. And a proficient stealer (I guess that’s what you call them?) works the same way in my opinion. If I know that Oladipo is shutting down my point guard/shooting guard and is a prolific stealer, I’m a lot less likely to pass to him. Especially since at 6’4” with a 6’ 9” wingspan, Oladipo is bigger and longer than most guards and it shows with his 0.8 blocks per game to go with 3.7 deflections per game (3rd in the NBA) and 1.5 loose balls recovered per game (9th in the NBA).

When Oladipo was drafted, he was projected “to be able to defend all three perimeter positions at the NBA level” according to DraftExpress. His prospect card cites his “athleticism and anticipation skills” as well as his “strength, toughness” to help guard small forwards. That’s a lethal combination, especially given how matchup dependent the NBA has become.

Personally, I think 2.4 steals and 0.8 blocks per game is more valuable than 0.8 steals and 2.3 blocks per game. However, I believe that the instinct to look at blocks per game stems from the 80s/90s/00s when the highest blocks per game figures far outstripped any steals per game figures. Over the next couple of years and beyond, I expect that attitude will shift and voters will be more willing to incorporate other, more detailed stats into their evaluations of defensive players and their impacts.

Another factor that I believe is necessary for a guard to win DPOY is the narrative behind them. The triple-double narrative won Russell Westbrook an MVP. Narratives won Andre Iguodala a Finals MVP. Narratives won Ben Simmons ROY. And the narratives certainly didn’t hinder Rudy Gobert on his path to DPOY.

For his career, Gobert is averaging 2.2 blocks and 0.6 steals per game and is a 2x All-NBA Defense selection. In 2017, Gobert finished second to Draymond Green for DPOY. Green posted 2 steals, 1.4 blocks, and 7.9 rebounds per game while Gobert had 0.6 steals, 2.6 blocks (led NBA), and 12.8 rebounds per game, easily the best season of his career, while also playing 81 games to Green’s 76. It’s not an apples to apples comparison, given the two drastically different roles they each fill, but I’m not sure the additional 1.4 steals Draymond provide is worth the extra 1.2 blocks and five rebounds that Gobert provided.

Regardless, 2016–2017 was the first time that Gobert got serious consideration (he was seventh in 2015–2016) and it set the stage for him in 2017–2018. So when Draymond’s quality of play slipped a fraction and Kawhi only played 9 games, the media and voters already had a candidate to fall back on because he had been there the year before.

For a guard to win, I believe that it will take two or three years of sustained excellence and public recognition from their peers before they win DPOY. Oladipo has started the ball rolling for himself with his Most Improved Award and a breakout defense season, but there’s another guard who already has some momentum. Klay Thompson finished a mere 11th in DPOY in 2018 with (very) meager counting stats, 0.8 steals and 0.5 blocks per game, but he’s a lockdown perimeter defender and has the appreciation from his peers.

After a Celtics loss to the Warriors in January, Kyrie Irving said: “That’s some bull***t” when informed that Klay Thompson has never made an All-Defense Team. He’s a 4x All-Star,3x NBA Champ, 2x All-NBA recipient, and made the All-Rookie team, but has never received recognition for his defensive efforts. Thompson is an instance where narratives surrounding him and his team have affected his chances at an award.

Everyone knows that the Warriors are an offensive juggernaut of the likes we’ve never seen and, consequently, they rarely get recognized for their top-notch defense. To be fair, the only times we ever see the Warriors engaged defensively anymore is the playoffs and you don’t get regular season awards for playoff performance. Of course, Klay is never in the news and doesn’t give inflammatory quotes during press conferences, therefore ending up a little bit disregarded.

What seasons could a guard have DPOY then? In an effort to find the best defensive guard seasons ever, I utilized Basketball-Reference.com. I ran a search for every individual season where a guard (a pure guard, not a guard/forward), posted a season of 1+ steals and 1+ blocks per game.

Every season a guard has posted 1+ STL/G and 1+ BLK and qualified for the Minutes Per Game leader board.

My search returned two names. Dennis Johnson and Dwayne Wade. Dennis Johnson was a point and shooting guard for the Seattle SuperSonics, Phoenix Suns, and Boston Celtics from 1976–1990. As evidenced by the table, his best defensive seasons were in 1978–79 and 1979–80, both of which took place before the DPOY was awarded starting in 1982–83.

Dwyane Wade, on the other hand, is just now coming to the close of his career. His best defensive season and the best ever for a guard was in 2008–09. That year, Dwight Howard took home the award on the strength of 2.9 blocks, 1 steal, and 13.8 rebounds per game. Wade may have been a rim-protecting guard, but with the way basketball was played, he stood no chance that year. That third place finish was Wade’s highest ever. A few years prior, in 2006–2007, Wade averaged 2.1 steals and 1.2 blocks per game and could have been headed for another high finish. However, he only played 51 games, but that doesn’t always matter for DPOY; Alonzo Mourning won the award in 1998–99 while playing just 46 games and Gobert played 56 in 2017–18. In 2006–2007, Marcus Camby played the sixth fewest games ever by a DPOY winner (70) and won, posting 3.3 blocks and 1.2 steals per game. Despite the strength of Wade’s candidacy, Marcus Camby played extremely good defensive basketball and more games, making his selection easy.

The Defensive Player of the Year Award has become one of the most intriguing every single year. So much of the voting and criteria is fluid and changes as basketball changes. However, the winner in 2018, Rudy Gobert, showed a return to the traditional center as the best defensive player in the NBA. As basketball has drastically changed in the recent years, it’s worth wondering how the award will (or won’t) change too. On top of that, guards have rarely won and, in the years that they’ve had fantastic seasons, they just been overshadowed. The DPOY race is fascinating every season and with all the stylistic changes basketball is undergoing, I wouldn’t be surprised if the next 5 or 6 years is a mishmash of winners, all with distinctly different defensive styles.

Sophomore studying Sport Management and Economics at the University of Texas. Writing about Baseball from an analytical and scouting perspective