Since we began handing out these awards nine years ago, not once have we encountered a tie.
This season’s Defensive Player of the Year was such a toss-up that we have declared co-winners in Marcus Smart and Robert Williams.
Both players impacted the team’s defense in their own unique way, as Williams stuffed the box score nightly with absurd defensive statistics, while Smart continued to impact the team like he has year-in and year-out with his relentless hustle and gritty, winning plays.
We’ll start off by explaining why Williams deserves a share in this award, which marks his second in our Series after already being named Sixth Man of the Year.
After displaying flashes of raw, defensive potential throughout his first NBA two seasons, Williams, this year, began living up to the hype. By earning a more consistent role with increased playing time, the 23-year-old center saw both his confidence and his discipline improve, leading to a breakout season.
Williams proved to be a terror on the defensive end, combining his elite athleticism with his 7-foot-6 wingspan to turn into a shot-blocking machine. He tied for the sixth-most blocks per game (1.8) in the NBA, despite playing only 18.9 minutes per game. That means that he averaged 3.3 blocks per 36 minutes, which placed him second behind this year’s blocks champion, Myles Turner (3.9), among players who saw at least 900 minutes of court time.
Williams also posted the highest block percentage in the league among players who averaged at least 15 minutes per game, finishing with a rate of 75.8 percent per NBA Stats. That mark placed him just above three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert (74.8 percent) and the block champ, Turner (74.6 percent).
Not many shot-blockers in Celtics history have had more success than Williams did this past season. The only members who have averaged more BPG in a season since the NBA began tracking blocks in 1973 were Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, and Kendrick Perkins. On top of that, Williams’ mark of 3.33 blocks per 36 minutes ranks second all-time behind Parish’s mark of 3.35 in 1980-81, per Statmuse.
As impressive as his numbers were in the regular season, he was even more imposing during Boston’s short postseason run. He averaged a league-best 3.0 BPG in the postseason while averaging just 15.2 minutes per contest. That was largely thanks to a franchise-record nine-block effort against the Brooklyn Nets in Game 1 of the first round.
Williams was also one of Boston’s best rebounders this past season. He led its main rotation players in offensive rebound percentage (14.9 percent), defensive rebound percentage (25.6 percent), and total rebound percentage (20.2 percent), all according to Basketball-Reference. He also posted 6.9 RPG, which equaled out to 13.1 rebounds per-36 minutes.
To fully grasp how impactful Williams was defensively, look no further than his team-leading defensive box plus/minus mark of 3.1. The only Celtics player on record who has logged a better DBPM during a single season was Kevin Garnett, who recorded a 3.5 during Boston’s 2007-08 championship season when he earned the only Defensive Player of the Year nod in franchise history.
Williams’ statistical accomplishments alone made him worthy of our Defensive Player of the Year, but not every area of the game can be covered in a box score. That’s where Smart’s worthiness comes into play.
Smart may not put up the crazy defensive numbers that Williams does on a nightly basis, but he is unequivocally regarded as the team’s vocal leader and defensive anchor. Such as been the case for the last several years, and that likely won’t change anytime soon.
Smart continued to be Boston’s most tenacious defender in a year when defense wasn’t its strongest suit, as he helped them keep the ship afloat on several occasions by producing a variety of his trademark winning plays.
Smart led the team in many hustle categories including steals (1.5 per game), deflections (3.3 per game), defensive loose balls recovered (0.6 per game), and contested 3-point shots (3.1 per game). Unsurprisingly, he earned the team’s inaugural Tommy Award, which recognizes the Celtic who “best embodies attributes of hustle, effort, and pride throughout the season.”
Despite the Celtics finishing 13th in defensive rating, Smart still nearly found his way onto his third consecutive All-Defensive Team. He finished sixth among all NBA guards in the voting, earning one First Team vote and 20 Second Team votes. The only other vote-getter from the C’s was Jaylen Brown, who earned one First Team vote, as well.
Throughout the 2020-21 season, Smart maintained his reputation as one of the most respected defenders in the NBA, while Williams began building a reputation of his own, becoming one of the league’s most feared shot-blockers.
As a result, we have our first-ever set of Awards Series co-winners in our two deserving Defensive Players of the Year.