Defensive Player Ladder

Defensive Player Ladder: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Marcus Smart start on top

The reigning DPOY explains his approach with Boston, while Milwaukee's star leads the 1st ranking of top defenders for 2022-23.

Steve Aschburner introduces the 2022-23 Defensive Player Ladder, which features some familiar faces.

Floor burns, bruised ribs, the occasional elbow to the face – such were the tolls paid by guard Marcus Smart for eight years in establishing himself as the Boston Celtics’ first and sometimes last line of defense.

Finally, last spring, the NBA world properly noticed, honoring Smart’s work with the 2021-22 KIA Defensive Player of the Year Award.

So now, when the floor burns, bruised ribs and occasional elbow to the face come, hey, that’s a DPOY winner paying the price.

A trophy on his shelf at home doesn’t make those wince-inducing moments any less unpleasant. But there is a satisfaction in between the pain that wasn’t there before.

“The recognition,” Smart told in a phone interview this week. “I don’t play for recognition, but in the game we play, where it’s ruled by offense and defense is at a disadvantage, to actually win that award is harder than ever. Especially to be a guard to do it. It’s an incredible thing.”

Smart, 28, became the first guard since Seattle Hall of Famer Gary Payton in 1996 to be voted the league’s top defender, and only the sixth backcourt player overall. The burly 6-foot-3, 220-pound veteran received 37 first-place votes and 257 points last spring from a panel of 100 sportswriters and broadcasters. Phoenix’s Mikal Bridges (22 first-place votes) was second and three-time winner Rudy Gobert (10), since traded from Utah to Minnesota, finished third.


Oddly, Smart – featured here in the season’s debut edition of the Defensive Ladder – believes the DPOY honor has brought even more scrutiny to how he goes about dominating opponents at that end of the court.

“I think I get more criticism now because I won it,” he said. “You get less calls. It’s kind of weird. I would think [I’d get reputation calls] too, right? But I know who I am, I know what I can do. What I’ve been doing and how well I’ve been doing it.”

As Smart spoke Monday, he faced a long night – the Celtics were in Memphis, tasked with facing explosive Ja Morant and the rest of the young, aggressive Grizzlies. Mostly Smart was eager to get back to the hotel for his pre-game nap, committed to the idea that rest before a game is as important to a proper defensive performance as energy and effort are throughout it.

Morant scored 30 points but Boston won, 109-106. And Smart was sticking his nose and chest into most of Memphis’ possessions. The Celtics switched liberally, throwing a fleet of defenders at the Grizzlies’ bouncy point guard. But with two minutes left, it was Smart drawing the charge from Morant. He was the Boston player most likely to backpedal to thwart any fast-break notions.

And while his night’s highlight reel showed him quarterbacking his team with 15 points, 7 rebounds and 12 assists, it was his work as the Celtics’ middle linebacker that mattered more.

“There’s a lot of trash in this world. Somebody’s got to pick it up,” Smart said. “Not a lot of people want to do it. You commend those people willing to take jobs that other people won’t. When it comes to defense, that’s one of those jobs.

“Nobody wants to play defense. Nobody wants to battle like that every single night. Possibly injure themselves by throwing their bodies around. Sacrifice their bodies for the betterment of their team and teammates. That’s what makes a great defender. And obviously your basketball IQ and anticipation skills, and just leading the whole defense.”

Defense swept through Boston’s locker room like a virus under coach Ime Udoka last season, the payoff coming not just in Smart’s award but the team’s No. 1 ranking and a trip to the Finals.

“We talk about ‘action.’ Actions speak louder than words,” Smart said. “It’s kind of hard to tell somebody to do something that you’re not doing. For me, I’m going to preach coming out, giving everything you’ve got, effort and sacrifice for your teammates, I have to lead by example. If I’m preaching it but not doing it, it’s just nonsense.

“Each and every day, if I’m thinking, ‘My body’s sore. I’m tired. I didn’t get enough sleep,’ I’m still going to go out there and take a charge, dive on the floor, box out a big man and take an elbow to the face,” Smart said.

Like the one he got Saturday trying to guard New York’s big Julius Randle in the post. Got the whistle too, though.

“It’s keeping your face in there and every time you get hit, keep coming back,” Smart said. His strong base and low center of gravity enable him to check bigger opponents, but it put his jaw and nose in perilous proximity to their arms and elbows.

“For me to be able to do that,” the Boston point guard said, “it looks everybody else in the eye and makes them think, ‘Sheeh, if he’s gonna do that, man, and he’s yelling at me? I’ve got to listen!’ Then it becomes contagious.”

The Celtics are 7-3 but defensively they have fallen off, ranking 23rd at 113.8 points allowed per 100 possessions compared to last season’s 106.2. They have held a team under 100 points only once, compared to three times in their first 10 games a year ago, when they went 25-5 on such nights.

Smart said the schemes haven’t changed much under new coach Joe Mazzulla, and he refuses to use center Robert Williams III’s knee surgery as an excuse. But not having a guy whose active defense disrupted foe after foe in the playoffs does offer an explanation.

“I’m guarding the 5 a lot more than I have,” Smart said. “Without Rob, we have to move pieces around and play people in certain places they’re not used to or we haven’t practiced as much. Teams are doing a really good job of adjusting without Rob back there, trying to break down that first line and get past us.”

Smart said if Williams were available, he would be his pick as a top DPOY candidate this season. He likes Bridges and Draymond Green as elite defenders, and tosses in teammate Grant Williams into the conversation.

As for his own continued commitment to that duty – nine previous DPOY winners won the award again the next season – that’s not wavering. He still would rather win a game with a stop than a shot.

“Anybody on any given day can make a shot,” Smart said. “But to be able to lock a guy down for a game, especially when everything is in his favor – from the clock, him knowing what move he’s going to make and what shot he’s going to take, being able to draw contact and get a foul – it’s all to the offensive player’s advantage. For you to be able to get a stop, last play, that’s big time.”

Here are the big-time rung holders in the November edition of the 2022-23 Kia Defensive Player Ladder:

(All stats through Monday, Nov. 7)

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

It’s important to make a distinction with the Bucks: Antetokounmpo is the team’s best defensive player and thus, based on Milwaukee’s No. 1 ranking (101.9), the top pick for this early Ladder. But that doesn’t negate Brook Lopez as the squad’s most valuable defender. The veteran center has adapted well to some tweaks in coach Mike Budenholzer’s strategy this season, asking for less pure drop coverage and more mobility. Still, the 2020 DPOY winner from Greece brings the full tool kit, providing rim protection, on-ball resistance and stifling help defense.

2. Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics

Figured we’d ask the reigning top defender if there is one statistic that matters most in evaluating other defenders. Blocked shots? Steals? Deflections? Charges drawn? Shots contested? “I’m gonna say no,” Smart said. “Anybody can draw a charge, anybody can block a shot. For me, a stat that I’d throw in there is deflections because that means you’re around the ball. But anybody can get those, too. … If I had to choose, it would be all the stats combined.” Like the NFL’s quarterback rating to assess all-around defenders, in other words. Then again, there was this at the start of this season: In 102 possessions with Smart guarding James Harden, Tobias Harris, Tyrese Maxey, P.J. Tucker, Jimmy Butler, Tyler Herro and Kyle Lowry in Boston’s first two games, those seven players combined to score 11 points.

3. O.G. Anunoby, Toronto Raptors

For a guy who has yet to snag an All-Defense berth in five previous seasons, Anunoby is aiming high. “I’ve always wanted to be Defensive Player of the Year,” he said last week. “I’ve always thought I was the best defender in the league. I’ve thought that for the last I-don’t-know-how-many years.” One key is staying healthy (he appeared in only 91 games in the past two seasons combined). The league’s steals leader (3.1 spg) has 22 in Toronto’s last five games.

The Next Seven:

(In alphabetical order)

Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat

  • Also targeting DPOY, proud of 1-through-5 versatility.

Mikal Bridges, Phoenix Suns

  • “Tough twos” could be his nickname for way he defends.

Luguentz Dort, Oklahoma City Thunder

  • Strength, knack for handling top threats boosts OKC’s D.

Herb Jones, New Orleans Pelicans

  • Studies NFL safeties for their read-and-react defense.

Brook Lopez, Milwaukee Bucks

  • Venturing further but guarding rim (2.5 bpg, 15.2 contested twos).

Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers

  • Eight blocks, 7 ‘Bill Russell-style’ (Cavs controlled possession) vs. DET

Ivica Zubac, Los Angeles Clippers

  • Foes shooting 41%, 7.5% worse on 19.3 shots he contests nightly.

* * *

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

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.