With Kawhi Leonard limited to nine games by quadriceps tendinopathy and Draymond Green not defending at his typical level, this year's NBA Defensive Player of the Year choice has taken on a different look. Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz also missed 26 games, but has been the best defender while on the court. Is that enough to lift him over the other candidates?
Read on for my choice as well as picks for the two All-Defensive Teams and three other honorable mentions at every position.
As usual, my choices are informed both by watching more than 200 games this season and the available defensive statistics from Second Spectrum, NBA Advanced Stats, CleaningTheGlass.com, ESPN's real plus-minus (RPM) and more.
Murray's ascension to starting point guard ahead of Hall of Famer Tony Parker is a big reason the Spurs remain one of the league's top defenses without Leonard. San Antonio has allowed just 97.2 points per 100 possessions with Murray on the court, per NBA Advanced Stats, grabbing more than 80 percent of available defensive rebounds because of his contributions on the glass.
Murray's size (6-foot-5 with a 6-foot-9½ wingspan) is also an asset when he has needed to switch, defend bigger opponents playing alongside Patty Mills or contest from behind defending the pick-and-roll.
Though Holiday has technically started most of his games at either shooting guard or small forward (depending how you want to categorize him and E'Twaun Moore), he has played the majority of his minutes at the point while defending all three perimeter positions.
At 6-foot-4, Holiday is often at a size disadvantage on the wing, but he compensates with strength. Additionally, no player shorter than Holiday blocks shots as frequently. As a result, the Pelicans allow 9.0 fewer points per 100 possessions with Holiday on the court.
Paul hasn't been quite as good defensively as last season, when he was my first-team pick, but his ability to defend bigger players has been crucial in Houston's switch-heavy defense. Rubio's anticipation has added more turnovers to a Utah defense that traditionally generated few of them. And Dunn was a bright spot on a poor Chicago defense, as he ranked second in the league in steal rate without sacrificing on-ball duties.
Limited to 39 games by a ruptured patella suffered in late January, Roberson was so valuable defensively while on the court that he merits first-team recognition anyway.
His plus-4.6 defensive RPM was tops among guards by a mile, and while Roberson has benefited from hot opponent 3-point shooting with him on the bench (38.0 percent, as compared to 33.9 percent when he played), his massive contributions to the Oklahoma City defense go beyond that. Roberson was one of five players in the league -- and the only guard -- to average at least 2.0 steals per 100 plays and block at least 3.0 percent of opponent 2-point attempts. The Thunder have sorely missed Roberson's ability to defend elite scorers one-on-one, which freed Paul George to roam the passing lanes.
Roberson's former teammate has maximized his potential at the defensive end of the court this season in addition to emerging as an elite scorer. Oladipo leads the league with 3.3 steals per 100 plays and has also been outstanding one-on-one. According to Second Spectrum tracking, the 0.58 points per play Oladipo has allowed on isolations are second among perimeter players who have defended at least 75 of them.
Green, the league's premier shot-blocking guard, and Thompson are fixtures in All-Defensive consideration. They're joined by Brown, whose versatility has been an important part of the league's best defense.
While Joel Embiid is the interior anchor of the Sixers' top-five defense, don't underestimate Covington's importance on the perimeter. According to NBA Advanced Stats, Philadelphia has actually posted a better defensive rating with Covington alone (101.2) than Embiid alone (104.2).
Covington leads all regular players with 4.4 deflections per 36 minutes (via NBA Advanced Stats' hustle leaderboard) and defends all three perimeter spots, a must given how often the 76ers crossmatch on D.
Never particularly effective on defense, the Timberwolves collapsed after Butler underwent knee surgery. They've allowed 113.1 points per 100 possessions with Butler on the bench, which would easily be the NBA's worst defensive rating over the full season.
Butler has mastered the art of locking up his man while remaining an active help defender, and Minnesota misses both skills when he's on the bench.
George has been less effective when asked to step into Roberson's role as stopper. He was better cast roaming the passing lanes, having averaged 2.5 steals per 36 minutes with Roberson and 1.8 without him via NBA Advanced Stats. Mbah a Moute's comfort defending on the perimeter and in the post made him perfect for Houston's defense, which has been at its best with him on the court. Signed for the rookie minimum last summer, O'Neale was a find for the Jazz. He has excelled at locking and trailing, taking away a favored way for second units to create points.
While we're here, we should probably address Kevin Durant, who got Defensive Player of the Year buzz when he was leading the league in blocks. Yet Durant's defensive RPM ranks 70th among small forwards because the Warriors are allowing 6.6 more points per 100 possessions with him on the court.
This isn't a case of fluky opponent 3-point shooting; according to Second Spectrum's qSQ (quantified shot quality) measure, teams are getting slightly better shots against Golden State when Durant plays. And his Cleaning the Glass page shows Durant's teams have a long history of forcing fewer turnovers when he's on the court. I don't think Durant is a below-average defender, but I don't think he has been an elite one during the regular season either.
First team: Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
Green's defensive intensity hasn't been the same during the regular season, which is evident both watching him play and in the statistics. Most notably, Green's deflections per 36 minutes have dropped from 4.3 last season (10th in the league) to 3.3 this year (28th).
However, it's worth noting Green was so good defensively that he could slip somewhat and still be outstanding at that end. After all, Green is still second among power forwards in deflections and a plus rim protector for the position.
Second team: Al Horford, Boston Celtics
Few players could slide as seamlessly between the two frontcourt spots as Horford, who typically starts at power forward but finishes games at center. That's testament to Horford's ability to both protect the rim and defend on the perimeter. Plenty of players excel at one skill or the other; few excel at both.
Aminu's ability to play bigger than his size has been a key factor in Portland's defensive emergence. Antetokounmpo might have the most defensive upside of anyone in the league when fully engaged because of his size and athleticism. Davis, who leads all starting 4s in defensive RPM, has a strong case for a top-two spot. His box-score stats are impeccable, and the Pelicans also allow 5.2 fewer points per 100 possessions with Davis on the court. However, that's largely a product of opponents making an unsustainable 38.4 percent of their 3s when Davis sits; according to Second Spectrum data, opponents actually get higher-quality shots with Davis on the court.
First team and Defensive Player of the Year: Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
Embiid's recent orbital injury made it a little easier to choose Gobert as the top center and overall defender. After all, the difference in their minutes played is down to 220, with Gobert likely to narrow the gap over the Jazz's four remaining games.
When he has been on the court, Gobert has had incredible defensive impact. Not only do teams attempt less efficient shots against Utah (their qSQ of 50.4 percent with Gobert, the effective field goal percentage we'd expect average players to shoot based on the location and type of shots and nearby defenders, would rank third in the league; Utah's qSQ ranks 12th with Gobert on the bench), they also make them less often.
Second team: Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
After making a huge defensive impact in limited minutes as a rookie, Embiid demonstrated this season that he could maintain it while playing more and having a stronger defensive backup (longtime RPM standout Amir Johnson). That's translated into a top-five defensive rating for the Sixers.
Embiid is difficult to score over around the basket. The 52.4 percent opponents shot against him within five feet was third lowest among players who defended at least 250 such attempts, per Second Spectrum tracking on NBA Advanced Stats.
Baynes' defense and rebounding helped take the Celtics' defense to newfound heights; with Baynes on the court with Horford, Boston allowed a microscopic 95.1 defensive rating. Nurkic earned the third spot on my Defensive Player of the Year ballot by improving his rim protection this season; he ranked fifth in the aforementioned group, not far behind Embiid. And West had the league's second-best defensive RPM, improbably emerging as an elite shot-blocker at age 37. Before joining the Warriors, West had never blocked more than 3.0 percent of opponent 2-point attempts. He has doubled that mark this season.