If this were a hill, the Utah Jazz’s Rudy Gobert would be declared king of it. Because it’s a ladder — the Defensive Player Ladder, our weekly ranking of the NBA’s most effective and stifling defenders — that makes him top dog of the top rung.
And since this week’s edition is the final one for the 2020-21 regular season, it carries with it a prize: One first-place vote for the NBA’s Kia Defensive Player of the Year Award. More specifically, the top three rungs mirror the three-spot ballot that I cast with the league by Monday night’s deadline.
So it was 1) Gobert, 2) the Philadelphia 76ers’ Ben Simmons and 3) the Miami Heat’s Bam Adebayo, with 99 other voters determining how that order holds up come trophy time.
Going with Gobert was not a close call. Whether you prefer analytics or eye tests, his play at that end of the floor is essential to the Jazz’s defensive scheme beyond any rivals’. And that defensive scheme is essential to Utah’s 52-20 record, the NBA’s best this season. The Jazz ranked third in points allowed per 100 possessions (107.5), fourth in points scored per 100 (116.5) and tops in the gap between them (9.0).
As for Gobert specifically, his statistical edges over the competition are on par with his wingspan. Utah’s defense when Gobert is on the floor is 11.9 points better than when he’s off. Shooters fare 7.7% worse when he’s the one contesting their shots, and he tops the NBA in defensive field-goal attempts (19.1). His defensive rating is 100.9, his plus/minus for the season was plus-728 and his defensive win shares was 0.181, all per NBA.com/Stats.
Compare those numbers to Simmons, widely is regarded as the league’s top on-ball defender with his capability of guarding all five positions. Here are the Philadelphia player’s respective stats by category: minus-0.4 net defensive rating, a 5.2% impact on shooters in the 9.9 shots he faces nightly. A 106.0 defensive rating, a 328 plus/minus and 0.140 defensive win shares.
Two different sorts of defenders, two sets of numbers, only one top rung.
Here are the Top 5 of the final 2020-21 Defensive Player Ladder:
(All stats through the end of the regular season)
1. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
Even the statistical and political Web site FiveThirtyEight.com chimed in on Gobert’s defensive impact this season. Hyperbole was not a concern, either, when they wrote:
“The data suggest that not only is [Gobert] running away with this year’s award, he’s having one of the best defensive seasons in modern NBA history. … In fact, Gobert’s defensive on-off split is one of the largest of any high-volume player over the past 15 years.”
The data would favor Gobert even more, the Web site suggests, if his success over multiple seasons at blocking shots, thwarting roll men on pick-and-rolls and suffocating post-ups hadn’t discouraged many opponents now from trying those things.
“The day I retire,” Gobert told FiveThirtyEight, “we’re going to be able to look at the data. I think that day, maybe people will finally stop disrespecting me.”
See, defensive to the end.
— Utah Jazz (@utahjazz) May 17, 2021
2. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
Simmons’ and his supporters’ case that he should win the DPOY relies on him tackling defense in a completely different manner from Gobert. His chores are more personal, hitched to the wagons of the Sixers opponents’ top scoring threats. So when you’re in a matchup with the likes of Bradley Beal, Luka Doncic, Giannis Antetokounmpo or their ilk, holding that man to “only” 20 points can be a legit outcome. Just so Simmons acknowledges he has a defensive helper in Joel Embiid, and that Gobert’s brand of defense, while altogether different, has as much or more value.
3. Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat
It’s never a good thing for media people to play a direct role in what the athletes they cover get paid. But that’s how the NBA set things up when they linked annual media-voted honors to contract bumps and bonuses. Adebayo’s defensive versatility and demeanor has been strong, but this wrinkle in which he can make an extra $16 million in a five-year extension if he wins the DPOY is awkward for him and for voters. Even if he feels good about his chances.
4. Clint Capela, Atlanta Hawks
Capela led the league in rebounding (14.3) and averaged 2.0 blocks, but it was his mere presence on the floor that his fellow Hawks valued most. When Capela sat, Atlanta struggled, giving up 3.2 points more than they scored per 100 possessions. When Capela was out there, they were comfortably in the black, scoring 114.8 per 100 vs. yielding 108.2. Combined, that’s a swing of 9.8 points per 100 — more than James Harden in his 2017-18 Kia MVP season (4.4) and Giannis Antetokounmpo in the first of his two MVP seasons (9.4 in 2018-19).
— Atlanta Hawks (@ATLHawks) May 17, 2021
5. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Milwaukee fiddled with its defense and dropped off this season, Antetokounmpo dipping with them. From a 97.4 defensive rating to 107.3, though his net rating still is a strong 9.8. Foes shoot 4.6% worse when “The Greek Freak” is guarding them. And in the offense-as-best defense dept., Giannis outscores the others in this Top 5 by 10-14 points per game.
The Next Five
(In no particular order)
Jrue Holiday, Milwaukee Bucks
- New versatile defensive option vs. Heat this year.
Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
- Too low here only if he were *wink* the GOAT defender.
Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat
- He and Adebayo are the twin turbos of Heat’s defense.
Matisse Thybulle, Philadelphia 76ers
- If his offense earns more minutes, defense will get more acclaim.
Mikal Bridges, Phoenix Suns
- Whatever the tough perimeter matchup, Suns let Mikey have it.
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