Is Michael Carter-Williams the Best Defensive Guard in NBA and Could He Get Into DPOY Conversation?

by Josh Cohen

ORLANDO - One of the problems with box score gazing, something we all do sporadically and in some cases frequently, is that it’s hard to accurately assess player performance, especially in the NBA. Sure, in some instances, it is obvious just by glancing at the final stat line who made the biggest impact, particularly from a scoring or passing standpoint.

But again, it doesn’t tell the whole story, maybe not even half of it.

One player flying under the radar right now for those doing some box score gazing is Michael Carter-Williams, the Orlando Magic’s starting point guard since his return from a foot injury.

The Magic are 9-3 when he has played this season, 4-1 since coming back. That’s not a coincidence, I assure you.

Keeping his team organized when he’s on the floor is one key factor for the team’s success. But, more than anything else, it’s his unrelenting commitment to the defensive side of the floor that has made the biggest difference.

Is it possible, and the numbers do side with a yes answer, that MCW is the NBA’s best defensive guard? And could he be in the running by season’s end for the league’s Defensive Player of the Year Award?

Let’s just start with the data. When he’s been on the floor, the Magic have a defensive rating of 96.4. That is the NBA’s best mark among players who have appeared in at least five games and average a minimum of 20 minutes of action. Carter-Williams has appeared in 12 games and is averaging 25.5 minutes.

Let’s jump over to defensive field goal percentage, which is the opponents' field goal percentage on shot attempts when the player is defending the shot. MCW’s is 40.6 percent for the season and 37 percent in Orlando’s last five games.

Getting more specific as far as how poorly individual players have shot with him being the closest defender during this stretch: Stephen Curry went 2-for-8, Andrew Wiggins 0-for-3, Immanuel Quickley 1-for-4, Dennis Smith Jr. 0-for-3 and Tyrese Haliburton 1-for-3 – all according to Second Spectrum tracking data.

When the Magic first signed the 6-foot-6, 190-pounder late in the 2018-19 season, head coach Steve Clifford graded his on-ball and pick-and-roll defense as an 8 ½ or 9 (out of 10). That has been a spot-on assessment by Clifford, who also coached MCW for a season in Charlotte. His length, ability to fight over screens and get back into plays when opponents have snuck into the paint are major strengths of his.

Another thing he can do, which Clifford has emphasized many times, is guard players with different skillsets. If he’s asked to guard a power forward, he can do that and do it well. If he’s asked to guard a primary isolation scorer, he can do that and do it well. If he’s asked to guard an off-screen shooting threat, he can do that and do it well.

When asked following the victory over the Golden State Warriors what has clicked defensively in this recent stretch, Evan Fournier was quick to mention his starting backcourt teammate.

“I think, one, having Mike back changes a whole lot,” the 6-foot-7 shooting guard said.

“Mike is a dog,” he went on to say. “We need his energy. You need players like Mike…Having him on the floor is huge for us.”

Since he joined the team, the Magic are 40-29 when he plays, 15-31 when he hasn’t. That’s significant.

Having also played with him with the Hornets, Dwayne Bacon isn’t at all surprised the Magic have been flourishing defensively since MCW came back.

“Of course, he’s definitely one of the best defensive guards in the league,” Bacon said. “He takes the challenge on anybody, any game. He don’t care. He don’t care who you are. He’s just going to go out there and play hard. That’s part of the reason we are winning, because (of) his defensive intensity. He’s coming out every night and just imposing his will on the defensive end.”

As far as the question at hand, could MCW get into the DPOY conversation by the time the season is complete? Obviously, just based on the history of voting for individual awards, star power is a factor. There’s just more of a spotlight on players who are All-Stars or close to one.

Right now, the leading candidates for this honor are probably Rudy Gobert, who has already won the award twice before, and Ben Simmons. I personally think LeBron James is neck-and-neck with both of them, considering the Lakers have the NBA’s best defensive rating and even though sometimes he plays more of a safety role, his help defense and on-ball defense in clutch moments has been superb.

Others in the mix include Mike Conley, Myles Turner, Kawhi Leonard, Bam Adebayo and Wiggins, arguably the most improved defender this season.

Over their last seven games, the Magic have the NBA’s best defensive rating (105.4). Also during this stretch, Orlando is No. 1 in opponent second chance points, No. 2 in opponent field goal percentage, No. 3 in opponent free throw attempts, No. 3 in opponent points in the paint, and No. 5 in opponent points off turnovers.

Although Carter-Williams has helped spearhead this defensive resurrection, everyone that has stepped on the floor for Orlando has contributed. The last several days, a couple others have been highlighted on OrlandoMagic.com for the jobs they’ve been doing on the defensive end (click here for Terrence Ross and here for Chuma Okeke). Fournier has really elevated his defensive play this season. Nikola Vucevic is arguably the most underrated defender at his position because of his high basketball IQ. Getting Al-Farouq Aminu back recently has been a boost and even though it’s not his forte, Chasson Randle has held his own on the defensive end.

Maybe the craziest part of it all is that the Magic don’t have two of their best defenders available. Jonathan Isaac is out for the season recovering from a torn ACL in his left knee and Aaron Gordon is nursing a sprained left ankle, although he is expected back in the next few weeks.

The question going forward is, can the Magic sustain this level of defensive play as the schedule toughens? Following Tuesday’s game against Detroit, Orlando will go up against several elite teams before the All-Star break, including Brooklyn and Utah. The Magic are also projected to have one of the most difficult schedules during the second half of the season.

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