Projecting the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year is a difficult challenge. We have a very narrow array of statistics to measure defensive impact, and those that we do have don't always match up well to the way this award is usually handed out. But if you're looking for a favorite to win this award, there are a few historical trends that can help narrow things down.
Only once in the last 12 seasons has the Defensive Player of the Year come from a team ranked outside the top five in points allowed per 100 possessions. The voters may have differing opinions on the value of blocks, steals and defensive rebounds, but they clearly seem to favor the best defensive players on the best defensive teams.
LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwight Howard are elite defenders. Anthony Davis and DeAndre Jordan have made dramatic defensive improvements this year, but the Heat, Rockets, Pelicans and Clippers all rank outside the top five in defensive efficiency this season. There are always outliers, and any of those players could win the award.
But if we focus on the patterns of the past, looking at just those teams in the top five in defensive efficiency, those players fade away, and we can hone in on a different group of players who drive the best defenses in the league and have the best chance to win this award.
Serge Ibaka's defensive reputation is built mostly on his abilities as a shot-blocker. It's a reputation well-earned as he's second in the league in BLK% this season, sending away 6.4 percent of opponents' shot attempts. According to the NBA's Player Tracking statistics, players defended by Ibaka are shooting just 44.2 percent at the rim this season.
You can see in the clip below how Ibaka's athleticism and impeccable timing allow him to be so effective challenging shots at the rim. Here he is able to wait until the last possible second, ensuring that his man isn't left open on the baseline, before rising to turn away the dunk attempt.
But it is more than Ibaka's interior defense that makes him so valuable. With excellent quickness for a player his size, he's also able to hedge hard on pick-and-rolls, deterring ball-handlers and still recovering to his own man.
Here, he is able to completely corral penetration on a pick-and-roll and then race halfway across the court to cut off the roll man and challenge his shot at the rim.
The ability to cover this much ground and make these sorts of plays, inside and out, makes the Thunder's whole defensive ecosystem so much healthier.
It allows perimeter players more room to be aggressive in pressuring the ball, and it has created space for some of their younger players to play through mistakes since so many of them are being erased by Ibaka on the back line.
Last season, the Warriors' surprising run was driven by an explosive offense, paired with a defense that hovered around the league average. This season, that trend has reversed itself, and the combination of Andrew Bogut and Andre Iguodala has helped push the Warriors to the third-best defensive efficiency in the league.
Bogut's particular area of defensive strength extends beyond just the basket, covering a significant area in the middle of the floor. His ability to patrol this space and control the movement of offensive players through it is really special.
Here, he drops back on a pick-and-roll and moves his feet to keep Damian Lillard in front of him, making sure that any shot must be taken over his outstretched arms.
That kind of lateral move in a tight space is extremely difficult for a player his size, especially with the body control to contest Lillard's shot on the move, all without fouling.
When it comes to actually contesting shots, he also does a great job of keeping his feet long enough to prevent an opposing player from blowing by him, while still getting a hand up to challenge a shooter.
As great as Bogut has been in the middle for the Warriors, adding Iguodala on the wing has really been the tide that lifts all ships. When they are on the floor together the Warriors have been allowing an average of just 97.0 points per 100 possessions, 2.5 points better than their overall season average.
While Bogut is the backbone of their defense, Iguodala is often out front, applying pressure at the point of attack. The Warriors scheme often asks their wing defenders to funnel ball-handlers toward their big men. Iguodala is adept at doing this, while still fighting through screens to make his presence felt.
Here he again directs the ball-handler toward his help defender and still recovers to challenge the shot.
With so much offensive firepower arrayed around them, Bogut and Iguodala are both able to exert maximum effort on the defensive end. So far, it's been an incredibly successful formula for the Warriors.
According to mySynergySports.com (subscription required), the Bulls rank second in defensive efficiency against isolations, first against post-ups, second against cuts and third against spot-ups. Their ability to defend effectively against so many different types of offensive attack is driven, in large part, by Joakim Noah.
Like Ibaka, Noah's defensive value to the Bulls is less about his ability to protect the rim than it is about his ability to cover ground and disrupt plays all over the floor.
Here, he rotates down to keep Paul George from curling to the basket before recovering back to his man, David West. As he comes back to West, Noah keeps his feet to prevent West from driving past him but still rises in time to challenge the shot.
Here, Noah rotates to cut off penetration, recovers to Zach Randolph, moves his feet to prevent the drive, challenges the shot in the lane and gets the rebound.
That the Bulls have the second-most efficient defense in the league this season, despite all the injuries and roster turnover, is a testament to the steadying force Noah's chaotic defensive energy can be.
The Pacers defense has been phenomenal this season, bordering on historic levels of defensive effectiveness. When we adjust for the league average level of efficiency in each season, this year's Pacers have the stingiest defense since the 1979-1980 season.
They are currently allowing just 95.5 points per 100 possessions, a full 2.2 points better than the next best defense in the league.
While this historic performance has been a team effort, George and Hibbert have been the engines that make the whole system go.
The key to the Pacers' defense is controlling halfcourt space and pushing everything into the middle of the floor. Mid-range jumpers are, on average, the least efficient shots in the game, and no one in the league has forced their opponents into more of them than the Pacers this season.
This image shows the basic core of the Pacers' defense. The Knicks are running a high pick-and-roll with Raymond Felton and Tyson Chandler. Hibbert is dropping back, controlling the middle of the floor. George is pinching in off his man on the wing and George Hill is fighting over the top of the screen.
This basic setup has been incredibly effective for a variety of reasons. The Pacers wing defenders, be it George, Hill or Stephenson, all excel at fighting through screens and defending at the point of attack.
But they also are long and quick enough that they are able to pinch in, the way George is here, and still recover to shooters. This has allowed them to put extra pressure on the ball without releasing open three-point shots.
Hibbert has become incredibly adept at controlling this central space. He's so threatening as a rim defender that when he drops back this far, a mid-range jumper often seems like the only option.
But he's also so long that he's able to challenge those mid-range shots. Basically, the Pacers force you to take tough shots, and their length makes those shots even tougher.
Here's an example of Stephen Curry running into that mid-range buzz saw.
The Pacers' historic levels of defensive efficiency make it hard to imagine that someone from this team wouldn't be recognized as the best defensive player this season.
If that decision comes down to Hibbert and George, it seems almost certain Hibbert would end up with the hardware. Setting aside the fact 11 of the last 18 Defensive Player of the Year Awards have gone to big men, Hibbert's defensive contributions are much more unique.
George is a phenomenal defender, and he is capable of suffocating individual performances. But the Pacers defense is great because of the meticulous execution of their system.
Both Stephenson and Hill do a passable job of filling the team defensive role that George fills. But the whole thing would come crashing down around them without Hibbert in the middle.
There are no sure things when it comes to postseason awards, but Roy Hibbert is the best defensive player on the best defensive team in the league. You can't ask for a better favorite than that.
Statistical support for this story from NBA.com/stats