The regular season is over two-thirds finished, and the playoffs start in 53 days.
Unsurprisingly, the front of the Defensive Player of the Year race has remained largely stagnant as 2019-20 enters its final stretch. But there’s ample time for movement among the obvious top-four candidates, with factors like injuries, lineup changes and even overall team performance poised to play a large part in the inevitable shuffle.
Here’s where Defensive Player of the Year watch stands as spring quickly dawns.
Robert Covington – Houston Rockets
The league’s stingiest small-ball lineups have never played all that small.
The bygone Golden State Warriors, at least before adding Kevin Durant, routinely doled out crunch-time lineups absent a defender taller than 6-foot-8. The length and physicality of Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes and Klay Thompson allowed the Warriors to switch across positions with near impunity.
But a quartet of like-sized defenders didn’t give the Death Lineup its name or defensive effectiveness. Golden State’s ability to compensate for limitations provided by the presence of Stephen Curry and a collective lack of height is what made the team’s closing five special, a reality best explained by the off-ball genius of all-time defenders like Green and Iguodala.
The Houston Rockets, embracing small-ball like no team ever before, don’t possess a single defender at that exalted level of historical greatness. Just two of Mike D’Antoni’s top-eight players, in fact, are considered an objective plus on that side of the ball irrespective of surrounding circumstances. But the Rockets’ downsized defense has held up well thus far regardless, and Robert Covington’s rare, all-court impact as a help defender is arguably the biggest reason why.
Covington, 11th in deflections per game this season, was credited with three blocks in his new team’s convincing road win over the Utah Jazz on Saturday. The film reveals just how large those blocks loomed to the game’s outcome — and how unlikely they would have been for most any other 6-foot-8 wing challenging Rudy Gobert at the rim.
Covington is often mislabeled as a traditional stopper. He’s certainly a better option checking superstar alpha dogs than an average wing and boasts the versatility to guard pretty much anyone without being consistently exploited.
The real scope of Covington’s influence extends to All-Defense levels, though, because of his imminent penchant for disrupting action away from the offense’s initial point of attack. That’s a trait especially valuable for a team like Houston, whose switch-heavy scheme inevitably lends itself to double-teams and a losing numbers game on the backside of the play.
Through six games, the Rockets’ defensive rating with Covington on the floor is a team-best 102.5, a hair worse than the Milwaukee Bucks’ league-leading mark. They’re allowing nearly 20 points per 100 possessions more when he sits, easily the highest discrepancy on the roster.
Those numbers portray Covington as a more valuable defender than is realistic. Not even basketball’s best rim-protectors make that big a singular difference all by themselves. Still, they’re telling of Covington’s unique defensive worth to Houston and indicative of the game-changing off-ball plays – whether highlight-reel or barely-noticed – he makes on a nightly basis for basketball’s smallest defense.
The Philadelphia 76ers’ New Rotation
Good on Brett Brown for making the necessary change that confirms Philadelphia’s odd-ball offseason was a mistake.
There might be a world in which Joel Embiid and Al Horford thrive playing together, owning the paint on both ends, exploiting mismatches from the inside out and affording ball handlers ample space to operate with canny screens and dribble hand-offs. But this one definitely isn’t it, not with Ben Simmons cramping the floor by refusing to shoot outside the paint and Horford’s three-ball falling at a rate well below career norms.
The theoretical silver lining, even if it’s one you have to squint to see, is that the Sixers aren’t taking anything off the table by moving one of their best players to the bench. Embiid is almost a top-five defense unto himself. The hope is that negative fallout defensively from replacing Horford with a wing like Furkan Korkmaz or Glenn Robinson III proves minimal, while additional spacing and off-dribble dynamism on the other end juices an offense that’s lagged far behind its talent level all season long.
Fortunately for Philadelphia, there’s ample evidence supporting the viability of those assumptions. The Sixers have defended at a league-best level with Embiid on the court whether Horford plays next to him or not, surrendering equal effective field goal percentages of 50.2. Their offensive rating spikes from a putrid 98.9 to an average 108.8 when Embiid mans the middle sans Horford, with the former’s true shooting percentage bumping nearly four points to just below the hallowed 60 percent threshold. Philadelphia remains elite defensively with Horford at center, too, surrendering 104.8 points per 100 possessions, a number that would rank third in the league overall.
Obviously, the real test for the Sixers’ revamped rotation – which is still very much in flux even before accounting for Simmons’ back injury, by the way – will come in the playoffs. But this team was always built more for the postseason than 82-game grind, and Philadelphia proved last spring that it’s more than comfortable knocking jaws in a half-court series.
Should that prove the case again, don’t be surprised if Brown reverts to relying on units featuring both Embiid and Horford. Either way, what a luxury that the Sixers’ in-season about-face prompts little to no concern about their ability to hold up defensively.
Giannis Antetokounmpo – Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks don’t play a single negative defender.
Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez deserve All-Defense consideration. No team in the East has a better collection of versatile, experienced wing defenders than Khris Middleton, Wesley Matthews and Marvin Williams. The defensive bona fides of George Hill, Robin Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova need no explanation. Donte DiVincenzo has quietly become one of the most disruptive perimeter defenders in the league. Pat Connaughton’s 2.5 percent block rate this season ranks sixth among all guards since 2010.
Mike Budenholzer and his staff deserve immense credit. No defense in the NBA is more connected than Milwaukee’s, moving in perfect sync on the flight of the ball and letting questionable shooters launch wide-open from deep while protecting the rim at all costs.
But the above personnel’s unrelenting symbiosis and commitment to scheme isn’t what takes the Bucks’ defense from the top of the league to historical greatness. Giannis Antetokounmpo, of course, owns that distinction all by himself.
It’s not always easy for the naked eye to deduce Antetokounmpo’s defensive value. He’s rarely tasked with shutting down his team’s top offensive threat, instead primarily used as an omnipresent deterrent away from the ball. But no matter who Antetokounmpo is guarding, they’re noticeably hesitant to attack him.
Gobert leads the NBA in contested shots per game with 20.5, while Pascal Siakam ranks 20th by averaging 14.4 contested field goal attempts. Jonathan Isaac, another multi-positional defensive monster, is 52nd in that category. Antetokounmpo, by contrast, finds himself outside the top-100 in contested shots per game.
Don’t be fooled by his lackluster standing there relative to other dominant defenders, though. As the New Orleans Pelicans’ young franchise players learned earlier this month, going at Antetokounmpo is such a losing proposition that it’s best avoided altogether.
Is any other player in basketball capable of meeting Zion Williamson at the mountaintop and coming down left standing, let alone completely swallowing Brandon Ingram one-on-one in the same game? No way.
Antetokounmpo is a shoo-in for his second consecutive MVP. The case for his first Defensive Player of the Year award is nearly as strong, even if it’s much less discussed.
Defensive Player of the Year Rankings
5. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
4. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
3. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
2. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Honorable Mention: Kawhi Leonard, LA Clippers; Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics; Robert Covington, Houston Rockets; P.J. Tucker, Houston Rockets; Bam Adebayo, Miami HEAT; Toronto Raptors – Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, O.G. Anunoby