What we've seen during the second half of the NBA season made this the most complicated DPOY decision I can remember.
For two reasons.
1. Rudy Gobert moved into the starting lineup in Utah and quickly became the most feared interior force in the game, entering the final night of the 82-game schedule holding opponents to a mere 40 percent shooting at the rim.
2. Kawhi Leonard started playing the best all-around basketball of his life and helped the Spurs re-establish themselves as the most feared team in the West, maybe the whole league. That's saying something, when the West was won by Golden State, which will finish with 66 or 67 wins.
Thanks largely to those developments, there are disclaimers and caveats all over the place in the defensive player of the year derby, which was tough enough when we merely had to try to choose between Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut as the Warriors' most influential defender.
Or when we were simply focused on what to make of DeAndre Jordan's unquestioned status as a rim deterrent and rebounding machine set against the fact that the Clippers are all the way down at No. 15 in the defensive efficiency standings because so many players around Jordan can't guard.
Or the fact that analytics provide so little to lean on when it comes to defensive matters. Example: Jordan awoke Wednesday ranked No. 1 in Defensive Win Shares . . . but No. 42 in Real Defensive Plus/Minus.
Another issue beyond the fact that defense continues to be so hard to evaluate statistically, even for the league's foremost numbers folks: Pretty much anyone you want to consider for this award has a top-flight defender playing next to him. In Golden State, it's Bogut and Green. In San Antonio, it's Tim Duncan playing goalie behind Leonard. With the Clippers, Jordan can still count on the valued assistance of Cliff, er, Chris Paul.
So . . .
What do you with all this?
Normally I'd say that Leonard missed too many games (19) to win the award. Or that Gobert's emergence came too late in the season to truly contend for it.
But those two are right at the top of my ballot. With apologies to both Bogut and Green, whom I can't figure out how to separate no matter how many voices in my head I listen to, Leonard and Gobert keep popping up when those voices are asking about the game's most disruptive one-man forces on D.
Maybe it's the fact that I was in the house in San Antonio for Leonard's seven-steal show against the mighty Warriors that finally made Steph Curry and Co. look mortal on Easter Sunday. Maybe I'm compensating for the fact that I developed a man crush on Gobert's shot-changing abilities during last summer's World Cup in Spain . . . but then stupidly talked myself out of picking Gobert as my preseason Most Improved Player nominee because I mistakenly feared he wouldn't play enough.
Leonard, in the end, wins by a hair despite those 19 missed games, largely because his return and the way it transformed San Antonio's season -- sparking a 21-3 record since Feb. 27 and the league's best D in that span -- prove impossible to ignore. And Bogut edged out Green for the third spot largely because of his first-place standing in Defensive Real Plus/Minus -- 6.02 to Leonard's 5.01 -- as well as the fact Golden State went a mere 9-6 in the games Bogut missed this season, compared to 57-9 with him.
Stein's ballot: 1. Leonard; 2. Gobert; 3. Bogut.
October prediction: Dwight Howard.