Rudy Gobert, Paul George Stand in Way of Draymond Green's $235M Extension

Will Gottlieb@@wontgottliebFeatured Columnist IFebruary 22, 2019

Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

Even in the era of advanced stats, individual defense remains nearly impossible to quantify.

But the exercise is important. The Defensive Player of the Year accolade can have a significant impact on a player's salary—especially if you're Draymond Green and can qualify for a $235 million supermax contract in 2020 by winning this year's Defensive Player of the Year award.

This year's race isn't just a two-man concern, as it's been the past two years with Rudy Gobert and Green in a tier of their own. This season, Paul George has built a case for himself as a premier lockdown defender on the Oklahoma City Thunder's third-ranked defense. He is versatile enough to guard 2 through 4, and his team allows 7.2 more points per 100 possessions without him. 

Comparing apples to apples would make this conversation far easier, but Green and Gobert couldn't be more different in the way they impact the game.

Gobert has the edge in every all-in-one defensive metric. ESPN's Defensive Real Plus-Minus, Box Plus-Minus and Jacob Goldstein's Player Impact Plus-Minus all rank Gobert ahead of Green and George.

Gobert blocks shots at the highest rate. Green and George get more steals and deflections and contest more threes per game. The all-in-one stats don't like George quite as much as the two bigs, but he's had the most dramatic impact on his team's defensive success. Green isn't as elite in post or perimeter defense, but he may be the perfect combination of the two.

Green vs. Gobert vs. George Defensive Stats
Green vs. Gobert vs. George Defensive StatsWill Gottlieb

Those stats are a helpful starting point, but comparing the three does not solely come down to the eye test against analytics. Since Green, George and Gobert all have such different jobs, both the eye test and analytics must be taken into account.

"Well, Rudy is more of an old-school defender, protecting the paint and protecting the rim and dominating with his shot-blocking and his presence," Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said. "Draymond is more modern-day, just covering the entire floor: pick-and-roll, switching and guarding point guards and then getting back to the rim. Both tremendous defenders obviously, they just go about it in different ways."

Meanwhile, George is the gold standard for wing defenders, which every team needs.

What's so impressive about Gobert's performance this season is that the NBA is built for him to fail, and he's altering the game on that side more than anyone else.

In this era, it's often more useful to have players like Green, who allows Golden State to utilize a switch-heavy style. It's always important to have big, lockdown wings like George on the perimeter to throw at the likes of LeBron James or Giannis Antetokounmpo.

              

Gobert's Case

Because of Gobert's limitations moving his feet on the perimeter, the Jazz's defensive scheme funnels shooters off the three-point line and toward the middle, where the offense is forced to attack Gobert at the basket or pull up for a dreaded mid-range two.

"If you have a player like Rudy, defensively, from a tactical standpoint, you want to take advantage of him and the fact that you have him," Jazz head coach Quin Snyder said. "Sometimes you can take him for granted. Guys can be less focused than they need to be on the perimeter."

In the past, teams like the Warriors have been a particularly bad matchup for Gobert. They're eighth in mid-range frequency and first in mid-range field-goal percentage. Coaxing opponents into mid-range shots is the smartest way to defend, but Gobert can't do much waiting near the rim.

That's where Gobert has shown the most growth. He's expanded from a pure rim protector to someone who can adapt to the high pick-and-roll offense that has taken over the NBA.

"For Rudy to be as impactful as he can be and as we need him to be, he's had to extend his range, so to speak, defensively," Snyder said. "To be able to be out on the floor in pick-and-roll. To be up high enough that [Portland Trail Blazers guard] Damian Lillard doesn't get a clean look. Or Steph [Curry] doesn't. And also be back and protect the rim and not lose that."

Deterring opponents from taking shots doesn't show up in a traditional box score, but it's a game-breaking skill. Gobert deserves credit for stretching his range to adapt to the modern game while remaining a human lid at the basket, where he reduces his opponents' field-goal percentages on shots within six feet by an average of 8.8 percentage points.

Gobert has turned himself into one of the NBA's premier defenders. He's able to change the outcome of a game based solely on his defense, which is a rarity in this era.  

"He's really competitive," Snyder said of Gobert. "His ability to stay focused and not get distracted in a given possession—he's capable because he's so competitive that he can impact every play."

That sense of focus has been lacking for the Warriors this year. That isn't the case for George's Thunder, who are third in defensive efficiency, or Gobert's Jazz, who are right behind them in fourth.

              

Green's Case

The Warriors have coasted to their best-in-the-West 41-16 record, or at least that's how it has felt. Playing at 100 percent every night can be difficult, especially on defense, when you know you can win with less effort.

It's easy to forget just how talented Green is on that end considering the team has dropped to 15th in defensive rating (109.2 points allowed per 100 possessions). Effort may be the biggest culprit.

But when he's playing his best, he can put his stamp on a game in a way few others can.

"Reading plays. Communication. We've had an up-and-down defensive year, but when he's locked in, dialed in defensively, you see how much of a disrupter he is on the floor," Green's teammate Stephen Curry said.

This is the kind of incredible, contagious defensive energy the Warriors are capable of playing with, and it begins and ends with Green.

Green's combination of speed, strength, length and smarts makes him one of the best defensive players in NBA history. He does everything from defending the rim from the help side and squashing post-ups like Gobert to switching onto guards on pick-and-rolls and defending the best ball-handler like George. He quarterbacks the defense and has changed the way teams defend in the modern era.  

Although the 6'7" Green is often defending power forwards on the perimeter, he's able to make heroic blocks at the rim because of his uncanny awareness and timing.

He also can stunt toward the ball-handler and get back out to the strong-side corner shooter to make impossible blocks like this:

When Green is as locked in as he can be, no defender in the league has the ability to impact the game in as many ways.

"For the modern NBA, the way the league is played, it's so hard to find anybody like Draymond who can literally cover all five positions and read and react and play free safety and analyze everything that's going on and make those split-second decisions and be in the right place at the right time," Kerr said. "He's amazing."

                 

George's Case

Meanwhile, George is a bank robber hiding in plain sight. His ability to scan the defense has reached Green-esque levels, but he does it while defending the opponent's best player as opposed to playing free safety. Most of the defensive metrics don't favor him as much because he isn't erasing shots at the rim, but what he brings might be even more valuable. Whoever he's defending can't make or receive a pass without it potentially getting picked off, which effectively eliminates a player from the offense.

Unlike Gobert—and Green, to a certain extent—George is best suited to cover the opposing team's best player. He's fast, he slithers over screens, and he's smart while positioning himself to pick pockets. He's like a mousetrap; all he needs is for the ball-handler to make any semblance of a mistake. Then he strikes.

                     

Who's Atop the DPOY Leaderboard?

All three players have a legitimate claim to Defensive Player of the Year. Green is a jack-of-all-trades who has somehow mastered each one. He's the exception to the rule that you have to play big and long or small and fast. But DPOY is a season-long award, and his defense hasn't been good enough for consistent periods of time to get the nod. George and Gobert have made their teams hell to battle every single night. 

What tips the scales is how the league is trending toward Green- and George-style players. Length on the perimeter is the new height protecting the rim, which makes Gobert's success the most impressive of the bunch.

             

All stats up to date as of the All-Star Break. Advanced stats courtesy of NBA.com, Cleaning the Glass, Basketball-Reference, ESPN and from Jacob Goldstein.

Follow Will on Twitter: @wontgottlieb

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