Everything Everywhere All At Once: Bam Adebayo Is The Defensive Player Of The Year Because He’s Every Defensive Player Of The Year

Bam Adebayo is defending Mason Plumlee. Plumlee doesn’t think about it. Not for a second.

Ball screen.

Bam Adebayo is defending LaMelo Ball. Ball thinks about it. Nothing there.



Bam Adebayo is defending Terry Rozier. Rozier thinks about it for a little longer. Even tries for a moment. Still nothing.


Bam Adebayo is defending Miles Bridges. Bridges doesn’t think. He tries it. Bridges puts his head down and drives the middle of the floor. He collides a shoulder into Adebayo’s chest and catches a glimpse of daylight. If he can just get the ball to the backboard first, that’s two. He extends with his right hand. The ball hangs in the air. Maybe, just maybe, it’s going to get there.

Nope. Adebayo spikes the shot off the backboard and races down the other end of the court for a dunk.

That’s four players in 15 seconds. One center. Two guards. One combo forward. Adebayo had them clamped. It’s not about them not having a chance. Of course they have a chance. Defense is about minimizing opportunities and percentages, not eliminating them entirely. You can beat any defender with a pull-up three or a crafty move. Ball, Rozier, Bridges, even Plumlee, they all had a chance to score on Adebayo in their own ways. What they didn’t have was an advantage. If we’re to put words to Adebayo’s particular brand of defensive je ne sais quois, it’s that he can defend anyone, of any shape or size or skill, and 99 percent of the time he holds the cards. The high ground. The upper hand. The edge.

He’s up for Defensive Player of the Year. Contending for it, rather. And with votes due in short time, this is the possession that would’ve been his For Your Consideration… submission were this the Academy Awards.

“How many guys in general in this league can guard 1-through-5 in the same possession and get a stop on everybody?” asks Gabe Vincent. “He’s a specimen, the way he does it.”


The Defensive Player of the Year award has historically gone to a rim-protecting big. A handful of guards and forwards won it around the inception of the award in 1983. Sidney Moncrief. Alvin Robertson. Michael Cooper. Some guy named Jordan. Gary Payton in the mid-90’s. But for the most part the 39-year history of the honor has been dominated by centers who patrol the paint and shut down the rim. Mark Eaton. Dikembe Mutombo. Ben Wallace. Dwight Howard. Alonzo Mourning. Hakeem Olajuwon. Since Payton’s win in 1996, only two players, non-centers Metta World Peace and Kawhi Leonard, received the most votes while blocking less than a shot per game.

A few of the winners defy classification. Dennis Rodman won it twice with the Detroit Pistons starting at the four next to Bill Laimbeer. Kevin Garnett was about five years early for the positional revolution when he won it as a pick-and-roll destroying four in 2008. Draymond Green is Draymond Green and Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2020 was a weakside scythe slashing through passing lanes.

Adebayo is all of those players rolled into one, a full-time center who can square anyone up one-on-one, execute any scheme against pick-and-rolls, blow up any coverage, rebound from any spot, protect the rim in both halfcourt and transition and play the weakside like a demon. He may not be A-Number-One in every category, not the single best rim protector or isolation defender or blitz man in the history of the league. Yet his menu may be more diverse than anyone to date.

“He can do everything,” says Caleb Martin.

“In this new era of basketball, being a center who can guard guards is key,” P.J. Tucker said. “It’s key to fixing a lot of things and being able to take people out of their offenses and making them do what you want them to do. That’s the key to defense.”

You can play him conservative when you need to. Or you can do what Erik Spoelstra does and weaponize Adebayo. There are plenty of iron-reinforced brick walls on the list of award winners, those in the middle of schemes designed to funnel all action to their home territory. There are far fewer sharks with laser beams attached to their heads.

“We’re one of the more unique defensive teams in the league,” Spoelstra says. “We have a lot of experienced, highly decorated, veteran defenders, but to do what we’re doing requires a unicorn. That’s what Bam is defensively. He can defend in any scheme and he can defend any player within that scheme.”

Like their center, Miami’s scheme is not passive. They switch the second-most screens in the league, behind Boston, at 29 switches per 100 possessions. When Adebayo is on the floor, that number skyrockets to 40.4 per 100. That’s more than even the 2019-20 Houston Rockets, at 34.8, when P.J. Tucker was on the floor after they traded away their lone center in Clint Capela. Nobody has switched more than Adebayo’s 561 screens this season, and he does it better than anyone. With a nod to Miami’s stocked barracks of strong positional defenders – Tucker, Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry, Caleb Martin, Gabe Vincent – the HEAT only allow 0.87 points-per-possession when Adebayo switches. Not per pick-and-roll, that number, per Second Spectrum player tracking, encompasses the entirety of any possession containing an Adebayo switch.

“He’s just so disruptive,” Martin says. “He’s not one of those guys who can do it just chilling around the rim, he actively is trying to get involved in every action.”

In three seasons from 2018 through 2020, the Rockets never dropped below the 0.90 threshold on switch possessions. Only the 2015-16 Warriors as a team, that year they only lost nine games, and Draymond Green individually in a season where he lost a close race for DPoY to Kawhi Leonard, have a better points-allowed mark (0.84 for the team) than Adebayo’s in 2021-22. Factor in some offensive inflation with the steady rise of threes – the average Offensive Rating in 2015-16 was 106.4 while this season it’s at 111.4 – and you’re standing on solid ground if you want to make the argument that Adebayo is having the best switching season in league history.

“Switching is a big part of our pick-and-roll defense and that looks great, sounds great, but if you don’t have somebody that can really see plays before they happen and get things organized as the initial backline of the defense, and then you [become] the frontline of the defense on the switch, that’s not as easy as it may seem,” Spoelstra says. “This league is driven by these amazingly skilled perimeter players that have incredible range and handles and know how to draw fouls and know how to get people off balance. We’re switching our center onto so many of those guys night in and night out, that just shows you his level of defensive prowess, IQ, physical ability.

“The majority of the teams just don’t have that sort of player to be able to do this scheme.”

Nor do they often have the players to combat it.


Gabe Vincent remembers the first time Adebayo switched on to him in practice. He had just signed his two-way contract with the HEAT back in January 2020, before the world changed. He had yet to play a single minute in the NBA, and up stepped Adebayo, shoulders squared and palms up, after a screen.

“I got off the ball,” he said. “I knew I couldn’t get that pocket three, so I just moved off of it. Tried to get something on the other side.”

Vincent immediately knew better. It took the league a little longer than that. Back during the early seasons, it was common to see some of the league’s biggest stars draw Adebayo and get that look in their eye. Steph Curry. LeBron James. Kawhi Leonard. Bradley Beal. Another big, they might have thought, another piece of food to play with. They all eventually learned The Lesson, that Adebayo is not an opportunity. He’s an obstacle. Over five seasons and nearly 1,000 possessions, Adebayo has allowed 0.89 points-per-isolation. Over the past three, that number is down to 0.84. No. 2 among the 24 players who have defended at least 500 isolations.

Teams have evolved their approach. Rather than seeking out Adebayo to go at him, they aim to move him around. To get him out of the play. Here’s a token pick-and-roll, go ahead and blow it up and leave the rest of us alone.

“Instead of finding ways to attack Bam, they find ways to get around Bam, they find ways to make sure Bam is not involved in actions,” Duncan Robinson said. “That alone speaks volumes. Bam is one of the few people in the league – and I’ve had conversations with people – where first quarter of the game you realize he’s involved in all these actions defensively and [then] you make a deliberate effort to keep him out of the play.”

The first problem with trying to Chess Adebayo out of the play, to trap him on one side of the board while you make a push on the other, is that you often have to sacrifice your own best piece to do so. You may slide Adebayo to the weakside, but unless you want to entrust a weaker ballhandler with an early action he’s going to be on the weakside attached to one of your best playmakers. The Boston Celtics of a few years ago were able to do this successfully because they could shift Adebayo with one of Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward and still have two or three top-tier playmakers to work the offense. Most teams don’t have that luxury.

“They scheme against it,” Adebayo says of his switching. “They know I’m one of the primary defenders on my team. They know I’m going to guard the best player, that I’m switching pick-and-rolls. There’s been a lot of times where I’m on the baseline and they’re setting screens with other guys.

“That’s respect, in my eyes, that they don’t want to put me in the pick-and-roll. It’s respect that they don’t want me in the middle of the defense causing havoc.”

The second problem with trying to scheme Adebayo is that he’s also an incredible weakside defender. He may not have eye popping block and steals numbers because he spends so much time on the ball – though his 1.5 steals per game are the most for any center in the past two seasons – but he still finds a way to terrorize away from the play, to erase mistakes in such a way that it probably harms his rim protection numbers (63.3 percent on 3.5 rim attempts defended per game) as he covers vast amounts of real estate to meet the ball rather than have it come to him.

“Some of those plays, he’s not supposed to be in the play,” Robinson said. “He’s just got defensive instincts, coming over and making a play which is a special talent.”

“Everybody goes to the first obvious trigger that we’re able to switch a lot of different things, but if you do have him on the weakside he sees things before they happen,” Spoelstra says. “He’s like the Matrix. It feels like he can be in two, three places at once.”

There are still has plenty of chances to get a stop mano a mano. Each week there’s a new rookie or sophomore who hasn’t had the full experience, who has to learn. Sometimes they get to Adebayo early and pull a three over the top. What happens more often, and here’s the third problem with trying to get the ball away from Adebayo, is that if your secondary creators can’t create anything and you need your star to bail out the possession, now they’re trying to isolate Adebayo up against a short clock. Somewhat hilariously, when Adebayo is defending an isolation in the second half of the 24, he’s allowed a mere 0.66 points-per. There’s only so much a defender can control. The numbers will always fluctuate. Adebayo has more control than most.

Watch Adebayo’s defensive film for long enough, you’ll start to hear Tom Cruise’s voice from The Color of Money pinging around your skull. “It’s like a nightmare, isn’t it?”

It’s all in the feet.

“The nuances that you have to be able to conquer to be able to handle that kind of skill out on the perimeter is overwhelming,” Spoelstra said.

Every offensive player in that video was an All-Star this season. Adebayo has allowed 0.69 points-per-isolation to that subdivision when they shoot, draw a foul or commit a turnover. They average, per Second Spectrum, 1.01. Isolations, as they are tracked, do not include post-ups.

“Usually whenever there’s bigs out there you want to come help, you want to be more shrunken in the gaps,” Martin said. “We look at [Bam], if he’s put on an island, he’s looking back at us like, ‘You better not be helping.’ He doesn’t want the help. We’re always in our spots to shrink because that’s what we preach and where we’re supposed to be at, but we don’t play him like we need to send another guy.

“We let him handle his own business.”


Nikola Vucevic probably thought he had it easy.

Adebayo was switched out onto Chicago’s Coby White, and White had just put on an authentic-enough pump fake with a pullback dribble to get Adebayo to step up with a hand up. The driving lane, such as you could call it that, was there. When Vucevic’s defender, Tucker, rotated over to get in front of the ball, Vucevic had nothing but open roads and clear skies ahead of him.

White sends the lob. Vucevic get two hands on it. Lightning strikes.

“That was unreal,” says Max Strus. “The way he moved his feet like that, and to get there vertically. That was special.”

“I’ve never seen anything like that myself,” Vincent said.

If you ask anyone on the team for Adebayo’s singular defensive highlight this season, this is the one. As Sean Connery might put it, that’s The Chicago Play.


If Adebayo has a weakness, it’s that he’s not as big as the biggest. Sacrifices have to be made somewhere. If he was a 7-foot-2 create-a-player who could still move his feet with such quick-twitch explosiveness, he would be hands down the greatest defensive player in the history of the game. At 6-foot-9, there are some who can back him down and shoot over the top. He’s allowed 1.28 points per post-up. The good news is that it’s not 1995.

“It’s not like that no more,” Tucker said. “These bigs now, there’s no post-up guys no more. It’s Joker and Embiid. Nobody is throwing it in the post to go score.”

The key number, for once, isn’t the efficiency Adebayo has allowed in the post, it’s the raw totals. He’s given up 39 points in the post, but he’s only defended 28 direct post-ups. On the rare night with a true post threat on the docket, the HEAT simply don’t allow them to do it. Adebayo will use his size to front and deny the pass, he’ll push the catch out to 20 feet, or they’ll have Tucker on the threat and have Bam play the backline should the defense attempt to go over the top. Or they’ll go zone and let Adebayo roam the passing lanes. He‘s the ultimate problem solver. You want to make a catch impossible, he can make a catch impossible. You want him to blitz, he can blitz. You want, he can.

“What makes Bam unique is he can do a more traditional pick-and-roll scheme,” Spoelstra says. “He can play in our zone. He can start out playing the five, he can finish out playing the three, he can play the four. He can defend a point guard.

“He’s the backline of our defense and then he shifts to our frontline and he can toggle back and forth from that so seamlessly. And then when he’s on the weakside, he’s literally one of the best weakside defenders in this league. If your base defense is protecting the rim or rotating. He can do that as well as anybody.”

All-in-one numbers are never going to be the most reliable form of player evaluation. Even less so when you drill down on the defensive side of the ball. They’re value estimates, not exact figures. Guidelines, so to speak. Still, Adebayo is no slouch. In 538’s Defensive RAPTOR, he’s tied for No. 3. In Defensive Estimated Plus-Minus (per dunksandthrees.com), he’s tied for No. 3. For each number, the two players ahead of him are different. Adebayo is the constant. Perpetually the 99th percentile.

You want base, raw numbers? He’s got those, too. The HEAT are the No. 5 defense at 107.9 points allowed per 100 possessions. When Adebayo is on the court, that number drops to 103.6, which would be the top defense in the league, this or last season. The difference between Miami’s defense when Adebayo is off the court and on is 7.6 points per 100, tied for No. 4 in the league – per cleaningtheglass.com – among those who have played 1,500 minutes.

It also doesn’t hurt that with Adebayo on the court, the HEAT have what would be the best defensive rebound percentage (76.4) in the league. When he sits, that number falls to what would be (71.3) No. 23. That’s the fifth-best rebounding differential in the league. No small impact for a player who starts a significant portion of his possessions switching out beyond the arc.

If you’re wondering whether Adebayo deserves the credit – last season there was a bit of a vote split between him and Butler across the different voting pools for Defensive Player of the Year and the All-Defense Teams – when Adebayo has been on the court with all three of Lowry, Tucker and Butler, the HEAT have a defensive rating of 97.8. As good as it gets. When all three of those players are on the bench, Adebayo anchors a defense at 107.6, which would still be good for No. 4 in the league (per cleaningtheglass.com). There isn’t a version of Miami’s defense that is bad, or even mediocre, when he plays. The spectrum is great to historic.

Your mileage may vary when it comes to games played. A torn ligament in his right thumb kept him out of 22 games in December and early January. Since then, he hasn’t missed a night. If he plays in each of the HEAT’s remaining 10, he’ll get to 57 games. Before you let that be a disqualifier, consider that Rudy Gobert won Defensive Player of the Year in 2017-18, his first of three wins, with just 56 games, beating out Joel Embiid (63 games) and Anthony Davis (75 games). When Kawhi Leonard won it in 2015-16 – that season when the Warriors’ pick-and-roll defense was pantheon level – he did it with 64 games played, beating out Draymond Green who had played 79. There’s precedence for a lower availability total, both on its own and in the context of the competition. Adebayo, for his part, has not been in and out of the lineup. He was just out of it, once, for a stretch.

And then consider this: Adebayo’s defense scales. The HEAT have the No. 11 4th Quarter defense at 108.9 allowed per 100. With Adebayo on the floor in that period, that number drops to 106.7 – good for No. 3. The only time regular season basketball resembles postseason basketball, both in style and strategy, is in the last five minutes of close games. And what’s the most postseason friendly defense of the modern era? Switching.

“You can’t be the Defensive Player of the Year if you can’t play in most fourth quarters. That’s insanity to me,” Tucker said, referencing how the game has changed with teams like Brooklyn playing Kevin Durant at the five in closing lineups. “Just look at fourth quarter lineups, that’s the game.”

There is no dropoff with Adebayo. No structural flaw. This Death Star has no thermal exhaust ports. He can be all things, and that makes him the most eligible contender for one very specific thing.


Adebayo is not one to, in his own words, ‘brag on himself.” Even when asked to, he doesn’t make much more than a modest case for his own considerations before pivoting to talking up Tyler Herro, Jimmy Butler or Erik Spoelstra for different awards.

“I let my game speak for itself,” he says. “That’s part of the reason why I feel like nobody really sees me.”

As he says this in a back hallway off the practice court at FTX Arena, Udonis Haslem walks by. He sees Adebayo, and hears him, too. Partially.

“Everything he says is bull****,” Haslem says.

“Oh, so DPoY is bull****?” Adebayo replies.

“Oh, yeah,” Haslem says, stopping in his tracks, his tone becoming much more matter of fact. “You should win that.”

“That’s the voucher right there,” Adebayo says with a smile.

He might not be one to talk about himself. He might not be one to shake hands and campaign. But you spend enough time around Adebayo, you can tell when he wants something. And that only happens when he thinks he’s earned it.

“He has my vote,” says Jimmy Butler.