Defensive Player Ladder

Defensive Player Ladder: Draymond Green still No. 1; Rudy Gobert and Matisse Thybulle rise

The Warriors' versatile forward holds the top spot in this month's ranking of the NBA's best defenders.

Draymond Green maintains the No. 1 spot in the December edition of the Defensive Player Ladder.

The term “Defensive Ladder” has taken on new, unwelcome meaning in the NBA since the November edition of this feature. At this point, with the surge in positive COVID-19 tests and the parade of players into (and fortunately, out of) the league’s Health and Safety Protocols, we might be talking first and foremost about the steps teams are taking to defend against the virus and its variants, trying to keep this contagion at a minimum.

The comings and goings of regular roster players, and the call-ups and call-backs brought in to fill their spots, can’t help but affect the quality of play. Lesser individual talent may play a role, sure, but unfamiliarity with and lack of reps in their teams’ schemes logically could bog things down as well.

For our purposes here, the rung-holders all are active and accounted for. Golden State’s Draymond Green, as the Secretary of Defense for the Warriors, retains his top spot from November. But others have climbed or dropped slightly more than two months into the 2021-22 schedule.

(All stats through Sunday, Dec. 19)

1. Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors

Last month’s Ladder: 1

He’s not a rim protector, nor is he a lockdown on-ball defender. You won’t find Green ranking high among the usual defensive stats such as steals, blocks, contested shots, deflections, loose balls recovered or charges drawn. But Golden State’s status as the league’s stingiest team makes the case for Green — when coach Steve Kerr or teammates otherwise aren’t — as the NBA’s best defensive player. His recent sitdowns to dissect his approach with NBA TV’s Dennis Scott and ESPN/ABC’s Doris Burke were illuminating — he’s almost like the rover in vintage hockey or short centerfielder in softball in taking overall responsibility for messing up the other guys’ attacks. And while Green is a six-time All-Defense pick and the 2017 DPOY, consider this improvement: the Warriors had a defensive rating under 100 in 12 of their first 30 games this season compared to 11 times in 72 games in 2020-21.

2. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz 

Last month’s Ladder: “Next Five” status

The Timberwolves embarrassed themselves when they decided to batter Gobert’s reputation immediately after a game they lost to Utah by 32 points — with the Jazz being 25 points better during the big man’s 31 minutes on the floor. Both Anthony Edwards and Patrick Beverley disparaged the rim defense of the three-time Defensive Player of the Year. Not smart, though it adds a little something-something to the teams’ rematches in Minneapolis Thursday and on New Year’s Eve. Gobert leads the NBA in rebounding (14.8) and defensive rebounding (11.8), averages 2.3 blocks and 12.9 contests and helps Utah rank at the top in net rating (10.5). At least Washington’s Bradley Beal knows it means something to have success at the rim against Gobert.

3. Matisse Thybulle, Philadelphia 76ers

Last month’s Ladder: “Next Five” status

Ben Simmons annually was one of the top two or three defenders in the NBA (if you didn’t know that, just ask him). His absence has seen the Sixers fall out of Top 10 status on that side of the ball, but Thybulle has stepped up as the team’s first on-ball option. The players he guards are shooting 8.6% worse in overall field-goal accuracy, second only to Minnesota’s Patrick Beverley (minus 9.6%). Thybulle also ranks in the Top 10 individually in deflections and steals. He made his impact felt against the Warriors when he blocked two 3-point attempts from Stephen Curry.

The Next Five

(In no particular order)

Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics

• QB of D tied atop NBA in steals (61) and is second on Celtics at plus-78.

Mikal Bridges, Phoenix Suns

• Scored 2 points, was plus-21 in holding Steph Curry to 4-of-21 on Nov. 30.

Gary Trent Jr., Toronto Raptors

• Total of 6.1 deflections and steals per game on Raptors’ hustle crew.

Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers

• 23 blocks in past seven games, but not among leaders in rebounds or contests.

Alex Caruso, Chicago Bulls

• Forms pest tandem with Lonzo Ball: combined 6.9 deflections, 3.8 steals.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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