Defensive Player Ladder

Defensive Player Ladder: Brook Lopez reclaims No. 1 spot

The anchor of Milwaukee's defense moves past Memphis center Jaren Jackson Jr. for the top spot.

Brook Lopez is back on top as he continues to spark Milwaukee’s elite defense.

Double digits can be a beautiful thing.

Nothing would satisfy some NBA purists — the Kia Defensive Player Ladder committee included — than for the Boston Celtics and the Milwaukee Bucks (7:30 p.m. ET, TNT) to battle on Valentine’s Day to a 92-89 outcome at Fiserv Forum.

In this season of runaway scoring inflation, an old-fashioned grinder would be a welcome palate cleanser. It was all the rage 20 and 30 years ago, driven by factors such as hand-checking defense, far fewer 3-point shots and coaches who figured they could slow down their opponents by slowing … down … everything.

Now such games are the exception. For example, the Celtics and the Bucks — despite ranking No. 4 and No. 2, respectively, in defensive rating — have played only two games each in which both they and their foes failed to score 100 points. They are a combined 1-3 in those games.

The last time these two met? Fuhgeddaboudit. On Christmas in Boston, defense took a holiday. The Celtics won, 139-118, while shooting 58.8% overall and 19-of-39 on 3-pointers. The Bucks lost while hitting 50% of their shots and a respectable 13-of-36 from the arc.

Just three seasons ago, the Bucks led the NBA in defensive rating by a wide margin, yielding just 102.5 points per 100 possessions. Today they’re second at 109.7.

Back in 2007-08 when the Celtics unleashed Kevin Garnett as the league’s ultimate defensive spoilsport, they posted a 98.1 rating en route to a championship. And 26 of the 30 teams that season were stingier than Milwaukee or Boston (110.5) so far this season.

The average points per team that season: 99.9. In 2022-23: 114.3. The Cleveland Cavaliers rank first both in rating (109.0) and in points allowed per game (105.9), stats that would have had them last in both categories at the turn of this century. Back in 1999-00, the Lakers were No. 1 in rating (96.4) while the Spurs gave up the fewest (90.2).

These days we settle for the relative excellence displayed by Boston, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Memphis and Miami, the defensive leaders.

The Celtics have a no-nonsense coach, Joe Mazzulla, stressing that side of the ball, along with the reigning Kia Defensive Player of the Year in oft-injured Marcus Smart and a game-changer-when-healthy at that end in Robert Williams III.

Similarly, the Bucks’ roster has defense everywhere, from guard Jrue Holiday on the ball and Giannis Antetokounmpo as wrath-raining helper to Ladder leader Brook Lopez in the middle, the Patrick Mahomes of Milwaukee’s defense. And coach Mike Budenholzer’s crew just added Jae Crowder for the P.J. Tucker role that helped them snag the Larry O’Brien trophy two years ago.

Maybe this all is more fun and entertaining, a better showcase for today’s players and their marvelous skills. But it’s almost enough to make the Ladder want to fold up and hang itself in the garage.

But no, here are the top contenders for the DPOY in this February edition of the Ladder:

1. Brook Lopez, Milwaukee Bucks

Lopez bounces back up to the top rung, partly for his continued dominance and partly as a rebuke to the No. 2 guy. On merit, the 34-year-old’s case is strong — he’s a runaway so far in contesting 17.3 shots nightly, with Brooklyn’s Nic Claxton second at 12.2. That works out to 952 contests, 283 more than runner-up Ivica Zubac. The Bucks’ 7-footer averages 2.5 blocks and got some love in the Wall Street Journal recently, in which he explained how he has combined his size, skills and experience without flashy leaping ability or quickness. “I try to analyze who’s in the pick-and-roll,” Lopez said. “Say I have a guy who’s come off the pick and he’s not really a passer, or if the big gets the ball, what’s he going to do? Is he looking to score, is he looking to kick it out, is he comfortable making plays? I know where I can play my advantages.”

2. Jaren Jackson, Jr., Memphis Grizzlies

If the Ladder had a penalty box, Jackson would be in it. His strengths have turned into weaknesses, his aggressiveness costing him and his team via fouls and the big man’s time on the proverbial pine. His line Sunday at Boston — fouling out in just 20:34 — undercut his plus-7 value in a game the Grizzlies lost by 10. Being overly aggressive can rack up flashy blocks and contests, but being reckless can send opponents to the line for easy points, put them in the bonus early and deprive your own team at both ends (no DPOY winner ever has averaged as few as Jackson’s 27.1 minutes). Since Jan. 1, Jackson’s fouls have gone from 2.9 per game to 3.8 as Memphis has slid from tied for fourth in defensive rating before that date to tied for 10th. Here’s a challenge to Triple-J, who already has fouled out three times: In the four seasons winning the award, Rudy Gobert (2018, ’19 and ‘21) and Marcus Smart (2022) fouled out a combined once. Stay on the floor.

3. Robert Williams III, Boston Celtics

Look, the max appearances Williams can make this season, if he stays healthy the rest of the way, is 47. That’s not enough to win a major annual award like DPOY. Heck, it’s not enough to climb as high as No. 1 on this Ladder. But the Celtics’ center merits a high rung here because he’s not just a top defender — he’s a doctor of denial. His on/off impact is ruthless: Boston’s rating with him defensively is 104.8 vs. 110.9 without him. And among players averaging 10+ defensive field goal attempts, his minus-8.0% effect on foes’ shooting is tops. Granted, Williams was a little un-Bill Russell-like when he rejected Phoenix forward Ish Wainright’s shot all the way to Cambridge. Then again, how many of the other guys on this list will swat your shot into the VIP seats, then lend you a helping hand up off the floor?

The Next Seven:

(In alphabetical order)

Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat

  • Defense now overshadowed by offense, but he’s still versatility + tenacity.

O.G. Anunoby, Toronto Raptors

  • He still The North, a missed deadline opportunity for D-needy teams.

Dillon Brooks, Memphis Grizzlies

  • “Dirty” plays grab headlines but his on-ball hectoring grabs this rung.

Alex Caruso, Chicago Bulls

  • 5.5 deflections per 36 minutes and 176 total (T1).

Nic Claxton, Brooklyn Nets

  • Can’t block Nets’ pre/post Jan. 1 slide: 2nd (112.1) to 24th (115.5)

Herbert Jones, New Orleans Pelicans

  • Top 10 in steals, deflections, charges, plus great job at the end Monday.

Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers

  • Rim protector, right? Well, he also leads NBA in contested 3-pointers (211).

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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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