Defense wins championships. But do defenders?
If judged by the success rate of the NBA’s Kia Defensive Player of the Year award winners at the peak of their powers, the answer is: Not so much.
This isn’t to put a jink on any of the players on this week’s Defensive Player Ladder or their teams. But the numbers are clear: Of the 38 past winners of the DPOY award, only four played on teams that subsequently won that year’s NBA title. That’s an awfully meager 10.5%.
The ones who did it? Lakers wing Michael Cooper in 1987, Houston Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon in 1994, HOF Class of 2020 inductee Kevin Garnett with Boston in 2008 and Golden State’s versatile Draymond Green in 2017.
Curiously, Detroit’s tenacious big man Ben Wallace was named the league’s top defensive player four times, but wound up bracketing the Pistons’ 2004 run to the Larry O’Brien trophy. Wallace won it in 2002, 2003, 2005 and 2006, while Pacers forward Metta World Peace won it in what wound up as Detroit’s championship season.
Compare this to the Kia MVP. Like the DPOY, the MVP is a regular-season award, so the playoffs don’t count. But as a predictor of postseason success, it has a much higher batting average: Twenty-two of the 65 MVP awards have gone to players who snagged rings a few weeks later.
By that standard, the DPOY has more in common as a title predictor with Kia Rookie of the Year. Only three ROY winners out of 74 (4%) – and none since Jamaal Wilkes with Golden State in 1975 – played on teams that won championships.
Granted, an MVP impacts his team and an NBA season more profoundly than a top rookie or premier defender, however central that guy’s role is to his club’s success. Some of the MVP winners were known as much or more for their defense, such as Boston’s Bill Russell, who would have cleaned up in DPOYs if that honor existed during his career.
Olajuwon, too, who won both awards in the same year (1994). Michael Jordan did that as well in 1988, though the Bulls didn’t get past the Pistons in the East semifinals that spring. In Jordan’s four other MVP seasons, which did include championships, the DPOY went to Dennis Rodman (1991), David Robinson (1992), Gary Payton (1996) and Dikembe Mutombo (1998).
Where does that leave us? Stats still suggest that team defense is pretty essential to championship aspirations. Of the past 10 NBA champs, nine finished in the Top 10 that season in opponents’ points per 100 possessions. Nine of 10 finished in the Top 5 in net rating, too.
Which should give some pause to Brooklyn, Boston and Portland this season, who aren’t above those cutoffs in either category. Heck, the Nets are 25th in points allowed per 100.
If there is any consolation for the DPOY candidates, it’s that 15 of the 23 men who won that award wound up with rings (10 with the teams where they won the defensive award).
Here are the Top 5 this week on the 2020-21 Defensive Player Ladder:
(All stats through Sunday, May 2)
1. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
Simmons’ offensive game has been generating some chatter since he returned to the Sixers’ lineup on April 26. That includes his game-winning tip-in to beat San Antonio in overtime Sunday, and the fact he’s hitting 72.2% with his carefully limited shooting repertoire in five games back. But the part of his game that has him atop these rankings did not go unattended. Simmons drew a pair of late charging calls in OT against the Spurs’ Keldon Johnson. “Biggest plays of the game,” Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers called them.
— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) May 4, 2021
2. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
They didn’t swap spots again this week in what has been a tight race all season at the top of these rankings. Simmons’ individual highlights and apparent effect on winning – five consecutive victories since he got back in Philly’s lineup vs. four straight losses while he was out – have kept him at No. 1. But Gobert’s case by numbers won’t be denied for long. His defensive rating (101.4), defensive win shares (0.175), opponents’ shooting difference (-7.1% on 19.3 shots) and on/off impact of his team’s defense (10.5 ppg better with him) all surpass Simmons’ (105.7, 0.142, -5.1% on 10.2 shots and 0.4 ppg better with him). That he’s missed 11 fewer games than Simmons matters, too.
rudy said 👈 pic.twitter.com/IqpOQKltZw
— Utah Jazz (@utahjazz) May 4, 2021
3. Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat
A recent article on SI.com argued that Adebayo is the league’s most underrated defender, though he has been this high for weeks. Here’s the claim, none of which gets pushback here: “Almost every time he steps on the court, Adebayo looks like a slightly more voracious version of the player you last saw. And while most upgrades are easier to spot on offense, there’ve also been tangible developments on the other end, where Adebayo unlocks one of the most versatile and rabid defenses in the NBA. … It’s impossible to say with 100% certainty or confidence that anyone else is more complete on that side of the ball.”
Legit. #BAMDPOY @Bam1of1 pic.twitter.com/x8SRfKOD9M
— Miami HEAT (@MiamiHEAT) May 3, 2021
4. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks-Nets showdown Sunday in Milwaukee offered up offensive fireworks from each team’s biggest star – Antetokounmpo scored 49 in victory to Durant’s 42 – and mutual admiration from the two players. But one of them praised the other’s defense, a nod to the Greek Freak’s DPOY award in 2020 and long-established reputation on that end. “You want to gauge yourself against the best defender, best team defense, best coaching,” Durant said. “That’s the only way you’ll get better as a player.” When Antetokounmpo is on the floor, Milwaukee’s defensive rating (106.3) is better than the Lakers’ league-leading 106.7.
5. Matisse Thybulle, Philadelphia 76ers
Last week’s Ladder: The Next Five
Look, we had T.J. McConnell up here for his work off Indiana’s bench as a defensive pest, one who led the NBA in total steals and steals per game for a good chunk of the season. So it’s only fair to acknowledge Thybulle’s work for Philadelphia in 20 minutes per game as a reserve. His 37.6% defensive field-goal percentage is the league’s best, and the work he does against pick-and-roll ball handlers – allowing 0.86 points per possession and 42.5% effective field-goal percentage – make a case that he’s a Top 5 defender in need only of more court time.
A block AND a steal. (2/2) pic.twitter.com/IqQXg5Pn2g
— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) May 4, 2021
The Next Five
(In no particular order)
- Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers
Blocks are great, but Pacers’ D has improved since he got hurt.
- Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
The Steph Curry Warriors are better on defense (6th) than offense (24th).
- Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
Who helps whom most with his defense: Simmons, Thybulle or Embiid?
- Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat
Hustle stats – steals (2.1), deflections (3.5), etc. – of a hungry scrub.
- OG Anunoby, Toronto Raptors
Opponents are shooting 36.9% against him from 5 feet out.
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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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