The NBA Defensive Player of the Year award race is wide open, although current futures odds favor Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert to win the award for the third time in the last four years.
The award used to be dominated by centers, but as the league has changed to a pace and space style that favors big men who can stretch the floor, that has changed defenses as well. Non-centers have actually won the award four of the last six years – Draymond Green, Kawhi Leonard (twice), and Giannis Antetokounmpo last year. Antetokounmpo actually won both the MVP and Defensive Player of the Year award last season and is once again a candidate for both.
Gobert is a throwback center and has never added a perimeter shot to his game, but he has been able to thrive in Utah for a couple of reasons. The Jazz can typically surround him with four shooters at all times, which makes his lack of shooting less of factor on the court. And Gobert is also much more than a rim-protector on defense. He’s the rare center who can switch onto small perimeter players and hold his own and not get beaten off the dribble or give too much space that allows open shots. He’s been an anchor for Utah’s defense and is a huge reason they have the league’s best record. He’s also second in the league in both blocked shots and rebounds.
Early in the season, Indiana Pacers center Myles Turner made a strong case for the award. And he also said in words that it was his desire to win it. Turner looked like he’d make good on that promise at one point – he was leading the league in both blocks and steals, and the Pacers were solidly in the fourth spot in the Eastern Conference. But Turner fell way off in the steals department and is now averaging less than one per game. That, combined with the fact that he’s not a strong rebounder despite being a center and that the Pacers have slumped, make his case a tougher one. He also is now injured and out of the lineup indefinitely.
Philadelphia center Joel Embiid is also a contender. Embiid, at 7-foot-2, is a great rim protector and, like Antetokounmpo, is a contender for both the MVP and Defensive Player of the Year award. Embiid is a good rebounder and shot blocker, but his shot-blocking numbers are down a bit this season. He’s also not quite as mobile a perimeter defender as Gobert is, so he can’t always defend in space against smaller centers.
His Philadelphia teammate, Ben Simmons, could be the new perimeter threat to win the award. Simmons would be in the model of Leonard and Green, who don’t necessarily stand out in any defensive statistical category, but their ability to absolutely smother players or play great help defense make an impact that traditional stats just don’t measure well.
Simmons has become a jack-of-all-trades defender for the Sixers. He’s able to play much smaller guards one-on-one out on the perimeter, but is also big and strong enough to handle talented post-up players. Simmons is averaging 8 rebounds and nearly 2 steals per game. He’s not necessarily a rim protector, but his length and athleticism allow him to bother and contest many shots.
Few players have Simmons’ combination of speed, size, and athleticism mixed with great defensive instincts. He’s bigger, faster, and more athletic than Green, though maybe not as instinctive. He’s bigger than Leonard, but maybe not as fast or athletic. He’s definitely in the mold of those players, though, and makes a major impact all over the court. That’s why he’s our prediction for this year’s award, even if he hears some protests from his teammate. Here is our top five:
Our All-Defensive First Team predictions are: Ben Simmons, Jrue Holiday, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, Rudy Gobert
Our Second Team predictions are: Lu Dort, Chris Paul, Draymond Green, Myles Turner, Joel Embiid.