Defensive Player Ladder

Defensive Player Ladder: Rudy Gobert, Ben Simmons maintain leads

An updated look at the ranking of the Top 5 defenders in the NBA.

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

Rudy Gobert continues to make his presence felt on the defensive end.

As we grapple here week to week to identify, evaluate and rank players who might wind up as top candidates for the NBA’s 2021 Kia Defensive Player of the Year award, we are reminded of how broad and frankly nebulous such competitions are.

Not all of the awards, mind you. The Kia NBA Sixth Man Award is about as straightforward as it gets: it goes to a great “instant offense” player off the bench, period. The last time it went to somebody who injected rebounding or defense in reserve was, well, never.

The DPOY is trickier. It lumps in the league’s best rim protectors with great on-ball defenders. Big men who block shots and snag rebounds with sneaky, quick wings snagging steals in passing lanes or drawing charges.

Apples vs. oranges.

Winners of the DPOY may reflect on NBA values that have shifted. Seven of the first nine winners from 1983-91 were guards or small forwards. But only five of the 29 recipients since then have been. And three of the last 16, including Kawhi Leonard’s back-to-back wins in 2015 and 2016 and Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2020.

One-on-one “stoppers” get lip service and votes, but guys such as Rudy Gobert, Joakim Noah, Marc Gasol, Tyson Chandler and Dwight Howard — who have won eight of the past 12 — take home the hardware.

Are the bigs really more deserving? The Ladder put the question to a sampling of NBA coaches, asking which they would rather have: Great perimeter defense or great big-man defense?

Washington’s Scott Brooks: “If you want to be great, you need ‘em both. But if you had to pick one, I think rim protection is so important. I know everybody’s shooting 3s, but 60 points a game are at the rim. If you can take away six or eight of those every game, you have a chance.”

Milwaukee’s Mike Budenholzer: “You need to have both. Wings that can guard. Big guys who can protect the paint and scramble and guard. It’s such a tough league — there’s so much offense out there now. … You really need five that can do it all.”

Now that’s just greedy.

Sacramento’s Luke Walton: “Honestly, I’d take either one.”

No, that wasn’t a cry for help based on the Kings’ No. 30 spot in defensive rating (118.0 points per 100 possessions). Walton was just revving up.

“You have to be able to defend the perimeter,” he said. “And then with the amount of spacing almost every team is playing with, with the 3-point shot so relevant now, if you have to get into full rotations, which is what NBA basketball has done forever, there’s so much shooting out there, you’re always chasing.

“So if you can get a [Rudy] Gobert, someone like that who can protect your rim and you can leave the other guys at home on the shooters, I think everyone sees how valuable that is.”

Statistically, some numbers — those attempting to assess rim protection or pick-and-roll defense on roll men — seem most suited to the defensive contributions of big men. Others — like deflections/loose balls recovered or pick-and-roll defense on ball handers — identify a lot of wing defenders.

Then there are the everyone-into-the-pool stats such as defensive win shares or on court/off court that try to account for defense all over the floor.

Apples vs. oranges? Better throw some bananas, cherries and mangoes in there. Eye tests add grapes, lots of them.

So that’s the fruit salad the Ladder has to deal with each week. Hey, it’s a tough job but someone has to eat it.

Here are this week’s Top 5 on the 2020-21 Defensive Player Ladder:

(All stats through Monday, Feb. 22)

1. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

Last week’s ranking: No. 1

Gobert remains the favorite for DPOY — with lots of season left, mind you — because his work at that end of the floor remains central (fitting, given his position) to what the Jazz are doing. He has help, notably wing Royce O’Neale and point guard Mike Conley, whose on/off defensive rating is a team best minus-11.2, better even than Gobert’s minus-7.6.

2. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

Last week’s ranking: No. 2

We’re sticking with Simmons in the runner-up spot at least until we learn if his defense (along with the rest of his game) gets respected enough by the Eastern Conference coaches to earn All-Star reserve status. He leads the league in deflections (3.9) and loose balls recovered (1.5) per game.

Best of Ben Simmons on the defensive end this season

Steals, blocks and more have made Philadelphia's star guard a stalwart on the defensive end this season.

3. Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers

Last week’s ranking: No. 3

One way to avoid running into Turner on a drive to the rim? Shut down the Pacers for two postponed games. The big man still leads the NBA in blocked shots (3.5) per game and Indiana ranks second in blocks per game (6.2).

4. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

Last week’s ranking: N/A

Anthony Davis, in this spot last week, has missed the past four games and the team’s defense has sagged, contributing to a 1-3 record. But the Lakers lead the NBA in defensive rating (105.5) and James, already carrying such a load offensively, also leads the league in defensive win shares (0.179), topping both Conley (0.177) and Gobert (0.159). As for Davis, being out gets him a seat in the Ladder’s crowded green room of Top 5 candidates.

Best of LeBron James so far this season

5. Mikal Bridges, Phoenix Suns

Last week’s ranking: N/A

The third-year Suns wing regularly draws the opponents’ most prolific scorer as his defensive assignment. He has dealt with pick-and-roll ball handlers a league-high 219 times, limiting them to 0.91 points per possession and a scoring frequency of 42 percent. His net rating of 5.7 actually splits to 11.6 at home … and minus-0.9 on the road.

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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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