In the second of what will be several days of NBA Awards ballot reveals, here is a look at the votes and rationale for the Hakeem Olajuwon Defensive Player of the Year, as one voter sees it:
1. Brook Lopez, Milwaukee Bucks
2. Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies
3. Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers
Lopez’s ascendancy as a top DPOY candidate is just the latest of his re-imaginings since arriving as the No. 10 pick to the Nets way back in 2008. His conversion to become a serious 3-point threat in his ninth NBA season, after eight years scoring close to the basket, is well-known. But his role as a defensive anchor for Milwaukee has evolved, too, from straight drop-coverage to a more mobile, aggressive cover.
The big man’s work on pick-and-rolls is exemplary, given his ability to stifle both opponents as needed. Milwaukee’s rise from 14th in defensive rating to fourth this season owed much to Lopez’s successful back surgery, fixing a problem that limited him to 13 games in 2021-22.
As for his stats, Lopez amassed a career and NBA-high in blocked shots (193) and puts other high-end defenders to shame in volume. Lopez contested an average of 17.5 shots per game — 45% more than the next busiest man (Nic Claxton, 12.1). He had a defensive rating of 106.6 and shooters were off by 4.7% when he’s in their way or on their minds.
There’s a defensive bent to the Bucks from the top down, with Giannis Antetokounmpo alongside him and Jrue Holiday out front. But Lopez is essential, quite literally the center of all Milwaukee does at that end. If he were to win DPOY, he and Antetokounmpo would be the first teammates to have earned the honor.
Jackson was a terror for Memphis. True to one of his nicknames, “Block Panther,” his blocks jumped from 2.3 per game last season, when he topped the NBA, to 3.0 in 2022-23. His 9.6 block percentage was historic, the seventh highest since the league began tracking it 50 years ago. He too had a 106.6 defensive rating, and for a big man he switches and moves a lot like Miami’s Bam Adebayo.
What kept him from the top spot here was noted previously in our Kia Defensive Player Ladders: Jackson fouls too much and thus spends more time off the floor, even as his fouls send opponents to the line and into the bonus. He fouled out four times, dealt with five fouls another 14 times and had four in another 18 games. His 28.4 minutes per game would rank as the second-fewest by a DPOY winner, behind only Michael Cooper’s bench role 27.5 in 1987.
The Grizzlies had a 111.5 rating when he wasn’t on the floor – and he was off the floor 2,168 minutes (counting games missed and time on the pine) compared to 1,788 on it. Based on 30 minutes per game, Lopez played the equivalent of almost 20 additional games compared to JJJ.
Mobley has an elemental case for DPOY — he’s the best defender on the NBA’s top-rated defense. That’s a standard often applied to Kia MVPs — best on the best — and it figures to get some votes for the Cavaliers’ big man. Mobley is able to guard whomever, whenever, outside or in, switching as needed. He led the NBA in contesting 3-pointers and was seventh in defensive win shares (0.139). He’ll snag a Hakeem trophy or two as his career plays out.
Mobley reached way back for the emphatic block 😤
— NBA (@NBA) March 29, 2023
Here are my choices, too, for the NBA’s All-Defense teams:
C Brook Lopez, Milwaukee Bucks
F Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies
F Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers
G Alex Caruso, Chicago
G Jrue Holiday, Milwaukee Bucks
C Draymond Green, Golden State
F Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
F Jaden McDaniels, Minnesota Timberwolves
G Derrick White, Boston Celtics
G Dillon Brooks, Memphis
Bam Adebayo, O.G. Anunoby, Herbert Jones, Jarrett Allen, Nic Claxton