Thursday, December 8 2022
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Thus far in these NBA awards previews, we’ve been able to identify one or two trends that tend to predict winners. That’s not so easy when it comes to Defensive Player of the Year because judging defense is so subjective. Every voter values different things, every race is different, and to be perfectly frank, the voting pool on balance is less qualified to pick a winner here than it is for any other award.

Awards that include offense are much easier to vote on because offensive statistics are so straightforward. Valuable defensive metrics exist, but they’re based on opaque formulas most voters don’t know or don’t care to research. Even the best defensive metrics are flawed, and that makes the eye test essential for picking winners here. The problem? No voter is capable of watching all 30 teams play 82 times. The voting pool tends to be divided into categories: national voters, who watch every team, but by virtue of that volume, can’t watch them especially frequently, and local voters, who are experts on one candidate but haven’t seen the others nearly as often. 

At the very least, this creates a bit of bias in voters based on when they saw players. Maybe they watched a specific candidate play a dozen games, but they all happened to come against the right matchups or injured opponents. Maybe a beat writer’s team has success against a candidate when most other teams don’t. There aren’t easy numbers to fall back on here. Picking the right winner means watching every candidate as often as possible, and even then, different voters can justifiably value different defensive traits more or less than others. 

What does all of this mean? Well, for starters, make peace with the fact that the voters get this award wrong pretty frequently. You’re not trying to bet on the correct defender, you’re trying to bet on the one that they’ll wind up picking. That choice is often based on things besides value, and that leads to quite a bit of groupthink. The Action Network’s Matt Moore made a great point on his Buckets podcast: uncertain voters will often flock to big media names who publicize their pick and thought processes because they are perceived as trustworthy. It’s not a coincidence that Marcus Smart did quite a bit of media at the end of last season during his Defensive Player of the Year push. In that sense, this is an award that should probably be bet on during the season, when you can see which way the wind is blowing.

If you’re going to make a preseason bet, keep the following in mind:

  • This is the dynasty award. Only 19 players have won it since 1990. There have been four three-time winners in that span: Dwight Howard, Dikembe Mutombo, Rudy Gobert and Ben Wallace. This makes sense. Unle`ss there’s reason to believe a former winner has fallen off, an uncertain voter is going to feel comfortable sticking with the status quo. 
  • Every winner since 2008 has played for a top-five defense. Again, this makes sense. Voters who want to narrow down their pool of candidates can easily do so by looking at the best teams.
  • Smart, Ron Artest and Kawhi Leonard are the only perimeter players to have won the award this century. They did so on a relatively predictable timetable. Michael Jordan won in 1988… and no perimeter player won again until Gary Payton in 1996. Then we waited eight more years for Artest in 2004. Then 11 for Leonard in 2015 and 2016. Then Smart six years later. Roughly once per decade, the concept of a perimeter player winning the award gains steam. That player wins, and then a year later, we’re back to the status quo. Needless to say, I will not be betting on Smart to repeat.
  • No award has a greater allowance for missed games than Defensive Player of the Year. Rudy Gobert won in 2018 despite playing only 56 games. Kawhi Leonard suited up just 64 times in the 2014-15 season and nudged his way past Draymond Green, who played 79. There’s a limit to this, as Green saw firsthand last season when he was on track to run away with the award before injuries allowed him to play only 46 games, but this isn’t the MVP award. Voters aren’t going to pick the wrong player just because he played every night.

So with all of this in mind, we’re going to go through the nine candidates with odds at 25-to-1 or below and evaluate their cases one-by-one to settle on the best bets. Then, we’ll take a look at a few long shots just to cover our bases.

All odds via Caesar’s Sportsbook

Rudy Gobert (+500)

Gobert has won this award three times. There’s no longer any question about his own capability, and while he’s dipped very slightly athletically, he remained the NBA‘s best overall rim-protector last season and likely will be again this season. No, the question regarding Gobert is how good you think his Wolves teammates are.

Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell were among the NBA’s worst defenders at their position before last season. Chris Finch came up with an innovative and aggressive defense to put them in more advantageous positions. Towns is better on the perimeter than he is near the basket. Russell is dreadful as a straight-up pick-and-roll defender but worked well as a backline helper off of the ball because of his high basketball IQ. It was a gimmick defense that made sense because of Minnesota’s personnel limitations. Gobert’s presence necessitates a much more traditional, drop-coverage-based scheme.

Jaden McDaniels was already a good defender last season. He’ll likely be even better this season, and with Patrick Beverley gone, he’ll have to defend the top opposing perimeter player every night. Anthony Edwards is the swing piece here. He has all of the physical tools to be a defensive star. Will that be his priority, or will his offensive growth be his primary focus?

I’d advise some cautious betting on Gobert. Don’t go all-in until we’ve seen the Timberwolves play, but the baseline here is so high it’s almost foolhardy not to take him as at least a preemptive hedge against your preferred candidate. Remember, Utah squeaked into the top-10 in defense last season despite a group of perimeter players so porous they managed to turn Terance Mann into a Clippers legend and Jalen Brunson into a $100 million player in back-to-back postseasons. Minnesota’s defense will be good simply because Gobert is there. If you think it’s going to be great, you have to believe that everyone else can be better than what Utah had a season ago. 

Aside from being perhaps the most versatile defensive center in the NBA, Adebayo has two major points in his favor:

  • He’s 25 and almost never gets hurt. He missed 26 games last season, but only nine combined in the previous three seasons. Freak injuries can happen, but Adebayo profiles as the sort of player that establishes a defensive player of the year dynasty. Gobert won his first trophy in his age-25 season. Dwight Howard was 24. Ben Wallace was 28, but in just his third season as a full-time starter. That’s the pattern here. A young player is identified as an excellent defender, and once he starts easing into his prime, he starts racking up awards.
  • The Heat are never bad on defense. Like, almost literally never. They’ve been a below-average defense only once in Erik Spoelstra’s 14 seasons at the helm. He got them to No. 6 with Luke Babbit and Rodney McGruder as starters. He is a defensive wizard.

So why am I avoiding Adebayo? Largely because the Eastern Conference has gotten so deep that I think they’re due for some team-wide slippage. P.J. Tucker is gone. Jimmy Butler always misses games and he’s about to turn 33. Kyle Lowry is no spring chicken either. Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson never defend. Spoelstra will scotch tape a competent defense together when the dust settles, but I find it far likelier that the Heat are good defensively and in the bottom half of the Eastern Conference playoff bracket than it is that they remain atop the East with a top-five defense. It’s hard to imagine Adebayo winning as a No. 5 seed with the No. 11-ranked defense after he came up short a year ago. 

Robert Williams (+750)

Williams is the favorite that I’m backing going into the season. I believe that if he’d gotten injured in December instead of March, he would be the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. He’s Boston’s best defender and was the key to the Celtics’ defensive turnaround a season ago. The major schematic shift that turned them into the NBA’s best defense came in the middle of the season, when Ime Udoka started putting him on power forwards so he could wreak havoc off of the ball. Even the vaunted Golden State Warriors had no solution for him. Boston held Golden State to 103.5 points per 100 possessions with an injured Williams on the floor in the Finals, but got blasted for 115.6 when he sat.

Williams is known for his explosive plays, but ironically his block rate hit a career-low 6.8 percent last season. That’s no surprise. His greatest weakness defensively was how frequently he was caught out of position. He’d go for a big block and give up a quiet layup in the process. That changed a season ago. The mistakes have largely been erased. He’s cut his foul rate nearly in half since he reached the NBA. He’s covering as much ground as anyone save perhaps Giannis Antetokounmpo. That allows him to strike the perfect middle ground: visible enough to be noticed without letting his ambition bait him into bad plays.

You’re taking an injury risk on Williams. He’s missed 41 games over the past two seasons and has played roughly as many regular-season minutes in his career as LeBron James once did in a typical-usage season. There’s also a bit of defensive regression coming simply because no team should ever be 3.5 points per 100 possessions better than any other defense as Boston was from New Year’s Day on. But Williams is the best player on the best defense. His internal competition has already won and there’s no overwhelming external threat facing him. The value is limited when compared to the risk you’re taking, but I’m picking Williams to win the award and will bet on him to win the trophy that should’ve been his last season.

Draymond Green (+800)

I’m skeptical of Green for three reasons:

  • He’s 32 and missed nearly half of last season with a back injury. Winning as an older player certainly isn’t unheard of. Dikembe Mutombo did it plenty, but we haven’t had a winner in his 30’s since Kevin Garnett in 2008. Green was the runaway winner a season ago until he got hurt.
  • Gary Payton II is gone. Now, Golden State’s defense was still very good without Payton. In Green’s minutes without him, the Warriors allowed only 102.9 points per 100 possessions. That’s what you’d expect out of a Defensive Player of the Year. But when they were together? You simply couldn’t score on the Warriors. Their 98.1 defensive rating in those minutes was better than every team’s full-season mark since 2012. He’s a heavy loss.
  • The young players are going to get plenty of minutes, and young players tend not to be very good defenders. Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody should grow into strong defenders with time, but they’re unlikely to thrive there this season. Jordan Poole may never be a good defender, and while that’s perfectly okay given his offensive contributions, it won’t help Green’s cause. James Wiseman is particularly concerning. It’s not a coincidence that the 2020-21 Warriors were below .500 with him and 21-12 without him. Wiseman might be better next season than he was as a rookie, but he was really destructive to Golden State’s defense the last time we saw him play.

In general I’d steer clear of the older Warriors when it comes to awards. Green, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Steve Kerr have all been there and done that so many times that they’re likely to be more focused on the playoffs anyway. 

Giannis Antetokounmpo (+1000)

I’m entirely open to the idea that Antetokounmpo is the NBA’s best defender. He’s just not the best candidate for this award. The Bucks have quietly started to ease into that comfortable space occupied by Golden State and most veteran winners of not especially caring about the regular season. Mike Budenholzer always limits how many minutes he’ll use his best players, and Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez are all in their 30’s.

Speaking of Lopez, his absence played a meaningful role in Antetokounmpo not seriously competing for this award a season ago. Milwaukee’s starters had been one of the league’s most reliable defensive units for three years, but without Lopez a season ago, the Bucks slipped all the way to 14th defensively. Having Lopez for the whole year surely would have helped, but even in the admittedly small sample he played with Antetokounmpo last season, the Bucks allowed a pedestrian 108.4 points per 100 possessions. An aging Lopez is likely keeping most of his gas in the postseason tank.

The supporting cast, save those top four, is largely bad defensively. Wes Matthews is back, but he’s a 35-year-old minimum-salary player. Grayson Allen and Bobby Portis are poor defenders. Joe Ingles is too and he’s coming off of a torn ACL. When it counts, the Bucks will be quite good on defense. In January? They’re probably not going to give Giannis the support he needs to win this award. 

Marcus Smart (+1000)

Only two perimeter players have ever won this award back-to-back. Sidney Moncrief did it in the first two years of the award’s existence, when guards were more common recipients. Peak-Kawhi Leonard was so good that opposing teams chose to play 4-on-4 offense over engaging him in their actions. Neither precedent really applies to Smart.

He’s due for fewer minutes this season with Malcolm Brogdon joining the backcourt and Derrick White onboard for the full season. I’ve laid out the case for Williams already. Voters will remember Jimmy Butler and Stephen Curry carving the Celtics up in back-to-back playoff rounds and wonder what it says about their perimeter stopper.

It just seems extremely unlikely that all of the stars that aligned for Smart a year ago do so again. Either the Celtics regress defensively and voters look elsewhere, or they’re just as good as they were a year ago, which means that Williams likely gave them 65 All-Defense-caliber games. It took Green and Adebayo missing significant time with injuries, Gobert playing on a miserable roster and Antetokounmpo’s apathy to get Smart a trophy last year. I struggle to see all of that happening again. 

Bridges comes with all of the same perimeter-player stink that Smart carried a season ago, but with the caveat that he is unlikely to counter that by leading the NBA’s best defense. The Suns got torched for almost 115 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs as teams more aggressively exploited Chris Paul’s age. DeAndre Ayton didn’t want to stay and may not be as enthusiastic about the little things as he was when he was fighting for a contract. Jae Crowder has been in trade rumors all offseason. Virtually all of their reserves are average or worse defensively.

Bridges is so good that he can prop up a lesser defense, and Williams does the same as one of the NBA’s best night-to-night coaches. But Bridges isn’t a center. Big men have a much easier time transforming regular-season defenses than wings do because they have an easier time impacting the entire floor. I’m not opposed to betting wings. I just wouldn’t do it at 12-to-1 with this roster around him. 

So many things need to happen for Davis to be a viable candidate for this award.

  • He needs to stay healthy. He’s played just 76 times in the past two years.
  • Darvin Ham needs to credibly replace Frank Vogel, one of the NBA’s best defensive coaches. He’s coming from a great defensive organization in Milwaukee, but he’s a first-time head coach. We know very little about him.
  • Several of the minimum-salary lottery tickets the Lakers bought need to hit. Patrick Beverley does too. Think of the roster Davis had when he nearly won this award in 2020. Forget about Alex Caruso. Who is this team’s Kentavious Caldwell-Pope? Its Kyle Kuzma? Danny Green? You get the idea.
  • LeBron James needs to stay healthy, both to give the Lakers any hope of winning basketball games and because he’s quietly essential as the defense’s chief communicator.
  • Russell Westbrook needs to either be traded or try on defense and neither of those things have happened yet.

There are way too many variables. I’m not touching this. You’d have to offer it to me at closer to 50-to-1.

I was going to bet Mobley before the Donovan Mitchell trade. A version of this Cavs team starting Isaac Okoro at shooting guard had top-three defensive potential. With Mitchell, I’m looking more closely at Cavaliers team props. I might take a swing on Cleveland as the No. 1 seed, but it would be because I expect this squad to finish in the top 10 on both ends of the floor, not because I expect the Cavs to be great defensively.

There’s also the complication of Jarrett Allen (+3000) deservedly earning credit. Mobley is the superior defender, but voters who don’t watch Cleveland regularly would likely struggle to attribute its defensive success to a single big man when they use two of them in a league that so rarely does. Mobley will win this award some day. I just don’t think we’re quite there yet given the makeup of his roster. 

Long shots

My favorite long shot for literally any award is OG Anunoby at an utterly preposterous +15000. He’s every bit the defender Bridges is at over 12 times the payout. Ignore the Tampa tank and Nick Nurse has coached defenses ranked second, fifth and ninth. Durability is Anunoby’s primary concern, but at these odds, the reward vastly outweighs the risk. In general, I’d advise taking a shot on a Raptor. If they’re healthy, they’re going to have one of the NBA’s best defenses.

Keep the name Jakob Poeltl filed away in the back of your mind. I think he’d contend for this award on the right roster, but he doesn’t have that right now. If the tanking Spurs deal him before the season, revisit him as a sleeper. At +30000, a couple of bucks would net a huge return.

As always, I’m tempted by Alex Caruso at a tiny number. The advanced metrics love him, essentially treating him as the guard version of Gobert from an impact perspective. If the Bulls are at all competent defensively, he’s going to be why now that Lonzo Ball is expected to miss the beginning of the season. But man, I struggle to see the Bulls reaching competence without Ball. Chicago was very good defensively with both. They were startlingly average with just one. They were the Rockets without either. Caruso can’t play 48 minutes. Those minutes he sits are going to kill any hopes the Bulls have of a respectable defensive ranking. I’d consider it at +10000, but at +50000, I’m steering clear. 

Source: CBSSports.com

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