Defensive Player Ladder

Defensive Player Ladder: Giannis Antetokounmpo holds top spot with less than 1 month left

Milwaukee's star leads the way in the latest ranking of top defenders in the NBA, but could Draymond Green make up ground?

Giannis Antetokounmpo and Milwaukee matched up with Rudy Gobert and Utah on Monday.

On a night when much of the NBA world was focused on a clash of leading Kia MVP candidates – Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid vs. Denver’s Nikola Jokic – there was another head-to-head showdown of hardware interest.

In ESPN’s nightcap coverage Monday, two Kia Defensive Player of the Year favorites and lofty rung-holders on the Defensive Player Ladder went at it in Salt Lake City. Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Milwaukee squad beat Rudy Gobert’s Utah crew 117-111, with the work of both big men as interesting to watch as anything that transpired offensively.

Neither player might send the video to DPOY voters, considering the point totals, but their styles and responsibilities were on stage frequently. Neither was credited with a blocked shot, curiously, but their discouragement factor was high. Each team scored 38 points in the paint, with the Jazz shooting 39.8% to the Bucks’ 46.5%.

The biggest wrinkle defensively for Milwaukee was the return of center Brook Lopez, making his first appearance since Opening Night after missing 67 of the first 68 games. Lopez, a 2020 All-Defense selection, came off the bench with a minutes restriction in his return from back surgery. He started the second quarter – and the Jazz dropped from 39 points in the first 12 minutes to 20 in the next 12.

Coincidentally, Draymond Green – the No. 1 choice for this season’s first two Ladder editions – made his return to Golden State’s lineup. The “middle linebacker” (his term) of the Warriors’ defense had not played in more than two months due to his own back issues.

Green played off the bench, too, and like Lopez (plus-13 in 14 minutes), led his team in plus-minus at plus-24 in 20 minutes in the 126-112 cruise over Washington. Clearly, it’s good to have the big fellas back.

Green returned in all his entertaining, candid glory. In the hours before tipoff, he reminded everyone of the DPOY status he had earned in playing 33 of Golden State’s first 37 games. “I don’t know what league everybody else been watching,” Green said, “but I have not seen anyone solidify themselves as the Defensive Player of the Year.”

Yeah, well …

There’s a difference between one guy “solidifying” himself as the prohibitive DPOY favorite and several candidates vying for the award in their particular ways while participating on a more regular schedule.

Which is to say: How few is too few games?

Green played in his 35th game Monday. If he participates in all remaining games, he’ll wrap the season with 48 appearances. That’s 59% of the possible 82, which would fall significantly short of both historical precedents and the formula by which the NBA determines most of its statistical leaders.

When Gobert won his first of three DPOY trophies in 2018, he played in 56 of 82 games. That’s a participation rate of 68%. The only lower rate for the winner of any of the NBA’s five major player awards was Patrick Ewing, earning Rookie of the Year with 50 appearances in 1985-86. That’s only 61% but the Knicks’ new center was clearly tops in a down season of first-year performances (Xavier McDaniel was second and Karl Malone deserved his third-place spot).

A better “floor” was MVP winner Bill Walton’s 58 games in 1977-78. That’s a touch over 70% of the traditional NBA schedule, right in line with the league minimums for statistical recognition.

Current example: That’s why Brooklyn forward Kevin Durant’s 29.6 points per game doesn’t show up among the official scoring leaders this season. The Nets have played 68 games and the NBA minimum at that point is 48. Durant has played in 41.

For comparison’s sake among Ladder leaders, Phoenix’s Mikal Bridges hasn’t missed a game so he’s on pace for 82. Memphis’ Jaren Jackson Jr. has sat out only once. Boston’s Marcus Smart and Robert Williams III, respectively, can play a maximum of 72 and 69 games. Antetokounmpo can get to 71 games if he plays in Milwaukee’s final 13 and Gobert to 67 for Utah.

So as vital as Draymond has been to the Warriors’ defense – and as great as it is to have him back on the court and on the podium – there’s no way 48 appearances (max) can compete with 67, 71 or 82 for a major award. Most responsible voters know it.

(All stats through Monday, March 14)

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Last month’s Ladder: 1

As a sampler of stellar individual defense, this month’s Ladder has us covered: Bridges to represent perimeter defenders, Gobert as a rim protector and Antetokounmpo as probably the league’s best help defender. The Bucks are in the middle of the defensive pack as a team (110 points per 100 possessions) but there’s a big reason why: Lopez’s absence. That has required Antetokounmpo to log big minutes at center, taking him away from places where his alien-like bundle of wingspan, quickness, size and instincts are more effective. No other guy here has had to adapt as much. A keepsake moment from Monday: Utah’s Royce O’Neale picking up the ball low along the lane, knowing Antetokounmpo was standing there and immediately looking elsewhere for what wound up as a clock violation. The DPOY race remains open, with Antetokounmpo playing more than several top candidates and, having won once, facing a lesser fatigue factor than Gobert.

2. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

Last month’s Ladder: The Next Five

Patrick Beverley was at it again, lobbying against Gobert as the league’s best defender. After all, Beverley has made the All-Defense first team once and second team twice, while Gobert only has fooled voters three times to be named Defensive Player of the Year. On J.J. Redick’s “The Old Man and the Three” podcast last week, Beverley seemed to be arguing mostly about taste in defenders – snails vs. oysters – when he said: “How you’re the best defensive player, and you don’t guard the best offensive players? He’s great. He’s phenomenal. Changed the game. That doesn’t make you the best. … Put five seconds on the clock. ‘Mano a mano.’” Clearly, Beverley dislikes the tradition of the DPOY award recognizing rim protectors and shot blockers. Well, Gobert did OK against this best-offensive player.

3. Mikal Bridges, Phoenix Suns

Last month’s Ladder: 2

One positive that almost seems to be arguing against Bridges’ candidacy is the Suns’ overall defense. Phoenix does as well or better when the lanky wing is off the floor – stats don’t quite capture the fact that he mostly sits down when the opponents’ No. 1 threat checks out. And he has teammates who thrive on the defensive end of the court as well. Everyone knows about Chris Paul, DeAndre Ayton and even Jae Crowder as defenders, but lately, coach Monty Williams has been boosting scorer Devin Booker as worthy of All-Defense consideration. All of that goes a long way toward explaining the Suns’ rankings (second in defense at 105.8 per 100 possessions, first in net rating of 8.0), but it starts with Bridges shouldering the toughest task each night.

The Next Five:

(In no particular order)

Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors

• Dubs are 29-6 when he plays, 18-16 when he hasn’t.

Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics

• He and teammate Robert Williams III are headed for All-Defense.

Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies

• NBA’s blocks leader has buddy Ja Morant touting his DPOY case.

Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat

• Dinged by participation rate (69.5% max) but undeniable key to Heat D.

Herbert Jones, New Orleans Pelicans

• With Cavs’ Mobley, two rookies could snag All-Defense spots.

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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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