Defensive Player Ladder

Defensive Player Ladder: Rudy Gobert, Ben Simmons lead new weekly ranking

Shining a light on the defensive end with the debut ranking of the Top 5 defenders in the NBA.

Rudy Gobert is averaging 2.8 blocks this season to rank 2nd in the NBA.

When the NBA released the second fan returns of All-Star Voting 2021 presented by AT&T last week, two players were conspicuously absent from the Top 10 at their respective positions.

Both play for top contenders. Both have their All-Star bona fides, so it’s not as if either should be considered a stretch or an afterthought. Both are having seasons as good as or better than they’ve had in the past.

Yet Rudy Gobert and Ben Simmons were nowhere to be found among the 10 leading players at their respective positions — Western Conference frontcourt and Eastern Conference backcourt — after two weeks’ worth of counting votes. In fact, Simmons went backwards, dropping from No. 10 after the first week to somewhere south of that position in the updated totals.

Which serves as an awfully strong reminder: Offense sells. Defense? Meh.

Gobert and Simmons are two of the NBA’s most effective and celebrated defenders, playing that oh-so-important end of the floor, or so it’s called up and down the hierarchy of basketball coaches. They’re not slouches with the ball, mind you, each playing a vital role offensively for Gobert’s Utah Jazz and Simmons’ Philadelphia 76ers.

But defense is where they really shine, and they can’t get more All-Star balloting love than guys such as Andrew Wiggins, Christian Wood, Collin Sexton, Russell Westbrook (2020-21 edition) or at least 16 others at their spots.

It’s almost like an updated version of the old baseball saying from 60 or 70 years ago, “Home run hitters drive Cadillacs, singles hitters drive Fords.” Or MLB’s 1999 variation (now considered embarrassing, in the wake of steroids scandals), “Chicks dig the long ball” bit.

In today’s NBA, it’s fair to say, fans dig the long ball, with 3-pointers raining from everywhere, from everyone. There’s no automotive equivalent, since everybody on an NBA contract can drive whatever the heck they want. But this is undeniable: Scoring drives ratings and clicks.

Consider: Of the 10 players leading at their positions last week as penciled-in starters — three in each frontcourt, two in each backcourt, five in each conference — eight ranked in the Top 10 in points per game. All 10 ranked in the Top 16, with overall vote getter LeBron James as that No. 16 guy with 25.5 ppg.

Viewed a certain way, there’s not a thing wrong with that. All-Star Games are about scoring, scoring is the surest path to stardom in this league and people want what they want when they vote for stuff.

Yet many people view All-Star invitations as rewards for great half-seasons or for winning or for a burgeoning resume of hoops success. Gobert and Simmons certainly qualify along those lines — but nope, can’t crack those Top 10s.

Guess they need more than Simmons’ one measly 3-point field goal between them.

And given how much they share, maybe Simmons shouldn’t have gotten so, er, offensive about Gobert’s defense Monday night after scoring a career-high 42 against Utah (“I loved it when I saw Rudy was guarding me. … I felt like it was a little bit of a disrespect putting him on me.”). The Jazz, who went with that matchup when Sixers center Joel Embiid did not play, still won the game, after all.

Here are some statistical areas where the two defensive maestros do shine:

Simmons, a two-time All-Star as well as an All-Defensive Team selection and steals champ in 2019-20, ranked fourth in steals per game (1.7) through weekend action. He was first in deflections per game (4.1) and second in total deflections (98). The 6-foot-11 point guard also was second in loose balls recovered per game (1.5) and overall (36).

Then there’s Gobert, the NBA’s Kia Defensive Player of the Year in 2018 and 2019 and, finally, a 2020 All-Star. He ranked first in defensive rebounds per game (9.8) and third overall (13.4). Second in blocks at 2.8 per game. His defensive rating (98.7) topped all NBA regulars and he ranked fourth in net rating (14.2).

The “Stifle Tower” was second in contested 2-point shots per game (11.6), per stats, and third in contested shots overall (14.5 twos and threes). And among centers or forward/centers defending at least 10 shots per game, Gobert ranked first (18.1) and third in defended field-goal percentage, with opponents shooting 41.9% with  the Jazz big man focused on them.

All of which helps to explain what we’re doing here. We already have the Kia Race To The MVP Ladder here, as well as the Kia Rookie Ladder to track the season-long jockeying for recognition among the league’s most valuable players and top newcomers. It seems appropriate that if we truly value the other half of the game, as we’re instructed constantly by coaches and many players, we have a regular round-up of some of the NBA’s best at thwarting all that marvelous scoring.

We will leave it to the conference coaches to recognize (or not) ace defenders like Gobert and Simmons as All-Stars when they cast their ballots for All-Star reserves. With analytics and that field’s most ardent proponents admittedly limited in mining numbers that fully capture the defensive impact of individuals in a team activity, we’ll cite but not entirely lean on statistics.

We’ll try to gauge the success of both bigs and perimeter players, the challenge with which voters for NBA Defensive Player of the Year are tasked. We’ll hunt for a variety of factors, from 1-on-1 lockdowns to W-L records, with lots — including specific highlight plays or box score numbers — in between.

We’ll try to go less on reputation and more on current productivity, but not entirely or unfailingly. And we’ll consider nominees weekly as well from readers, who may have had their jaws drop over a staggering display of defensive stinginess that passed under our radar.

There probably will be tweaks to the process and the product as we go, the way a pilot episode roughs out rather than immediately nails the eventual sitcom (remember “The Seinfeld Chronicles?”).

For now, and with temporary apologies to Giannis Antetokounmpo (the reigning Kia Defensive Player of the Year), Kawhi Leonard (2-time Defensive Player of the Year), Draymond Green (2017 Defensive Player of the Year), Bam Adebayo, Patrick Beverley, Marcus Smart, Jrue Holiday and a couple dozen others whose names could pop up here in coming weeks, here are the Top 5 for the debut of the 2020-21 Defensive Player Ladder:

(All stats through Monday, Feb. 15)

1. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

Getting one’s arms around Gobert’s defensive impact is a challenge. Frankly, he’s better at getting his arms around pretty much anything. There are the stats cited above. There is the defensive confidence he gives the other four Utah players on the court at any time, knowing he is back there to clean up their mistakes. There are the countless number of shots not taken and drives not made once opponents remember who waits between them, the ball and the basket. And just for the record, Gobert leads the league this season in dunks, making others pay in ways he rarely allows.

2. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

It wasn’t just Monday that Simmons dissed Gobert as a defensive frat brother. Early in the NBA shutdown last March, he took a drive-by swipe at the Jazz center while immersed in some video gaming. Hey, just like people bring different definitions to the word “valuable” when casting votes or forming opinions about MVP candidates, “defender” can be just as nebulous. The 6-foot-10 Simmons has the skills, height and inclination to tackle any defensive assignment, making nights miserable for individual scorers compared to Gobert making them long for entire teams.

3. Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers

Indiana’s center led the league two seasons ago in blocked shots and blocks per game, and he’s right back there at the top this season with 90 total and a career-best 3.46 per game. That’s the third-highest average in the past 13 seasons, trailing only Hassan Whiteside’s 3.68 in 2015-16 and Serge Ibaka’s 3.65 in 2011-12. Turner and fellow Pacers big Domantas Sabonis have learned to play in tandem, proving naysayers wrong and enabling Sabonis to put up All-Star worthy numbers while Turner handles dirtier work.

4. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers

He might slip off this list for a bit as he nurses his calf/Achilles back to health. So think of this as planting a flag before he goes for Davis, based on his body of work so far in 2020-21 and for the Lakers’ rank as the top team overall in defensive rating (105.1 points allowed per 100 possessions). There’s as big a gap in that category between them and No. 2 Utah (107.4) as there is from Utah to No. 9 San Antonio (109.7). Davis’ ability to guard all five spots if needed, while protecting the rim most nights, explains his second-place finish in DPOY voting last season — as well as why the Lakers will miss him so much as he recuperates for a few weeks from his calf injury/Achilles scare.

5. Lugentz Dort, Oklahoma City Thunder

Dort is here in the inaugural Ladder as a rep for all those players who have made and can make defense their calling card, as they work on the rest of their games. On the night last month when Dort stole the ball six times from Chicago, he also scored 21 points with eight rebounds. On Valentine’s Day against the Bucks, Dort had 19 points, seven boards and two steals. And as a 3-and-D guy, he has hit at least one from the arc in 21 of his 25 appearances. OKC has contested the most shots per game (64.7), grabbed the second-most clutch time steals (12) and rank eighth in recovering 3.4 loose ball defensively. This guy sets the tone for that.

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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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