Final Expert Defensive Player of the Year Ranking for 2021-22 NBA Season

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistApril 8, 2022

Final Expert Defensive Player of the Year Ranking for 2021-22 NBA Season

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    With the 2021-22 regular season wrapping up this week, it's time to fire up the take machines on individual awards.

    Today's subject is Defensive Player of the Year, which has been dominated by bigs for decades. And if the names of players who received votes here but didn't crack the top five are any indication, that trend might continue.

    Before we get to the explanation for our process and the top five, it's worth mentioning that Joel Embiid, Bam Adebayo (two bigs) and Mikal Bridges got a little love from Bleacher Report's panel of experts.

    Just not enough to crack the top five below.

Our Process

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    Bleacher Report asked 11 NBA experts to vote for their top five Defensive Player of the Year candidates from this season.

    Each first-place vote was worth five points. A second-place vote was worth four points; that pattern continued down to fifth place, which was worth one point.

    At the end, we tallied the votes, calculated the points and established our definitive top-five ranking.

    This is one part of a B/R staff series ranking the top five most deserving candidates for major NBA awards this season. Special thanks to the following for their votes: A. Sherrod BlakelyAndy BaileyDan FavaleEric PincusGrant HughesGreg SwartzJake FischerJonathan WassermanMo DakhilSean Highkin and Zach Buckley.

5 (tie). Robert Williams III, Boston Celtics

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Indicators: 7.2 defensive rebounds, 2.8 blocks, 1.2 steals per 75 possessions, 2.3 defensive estimated plus-minus

    The Boston Celtics and their dominant post-All-Star defense offer a forum for a bit of a philosophical debate: Which position offers the most value to an NBA defense?

    Jayson Tatum, who didn't receive a vote from this panel, is tied with Nikola Jokic for the league lead in defensive win shares, a number typically dominated by big men. The ability to cover multiple positions outside opens up switch-heavy schemes.

    The Celtics also feature Marcus Smart, who provides versatility similar to Tatum's, while being able to shut down guards at the point of attack too. But (spoiler alert) we'll talk more about him later.

    Robert Williams III tops both Smart and Tatum in shots defended and shots defended at the rim, and the field-goal percentage he's allowing in both contexts is lower.

    Williams isn't your typical rim-protecting 5, either. He has the vertical explosiveness and quick-jump ability to help in that capacity, but he's also more than comfortable helping on the outside (or even starting possessions on smaller players).

    He can stay in front of guards and wings on switches and actually leads Boston in threes contested per game.

    That ability to cover the entire floor is what's made him so important to the Celtics' league-leading defense. They give up 104.4 points per 100 possessions with Williams on the floor, compared to 109.2 when he's off.

    Total Voter Points: 16

5 (tie). Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies

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    Justin Ford/Getty Images

    Indicators: 5.6 defensive rebounds, 3.0 blocks, 1.2 steals per 75 possessions, 2.4 defensive estimated plus-minus

    Like Williams with the Celtics, Jaren Jackson Jr. is an integral part of a Memphis Grizzlies defense that is loaded with difference-makers.

    There are nine rotation players with above-average marks in defensive estimated plus-minus, including Desmond Bane and Dillon Brooks (pit bulls against wings), De'Anthony Melton (a point-of-attack defender who can switch onto bigger players) and JJJ.

    With Steven Adams often playing the role of paint-clogger (as Al Horford does for Boston), Jackson is free to play something of a free safety-rim protector hybrid role.

    He has his specific assignments, sure, but Jackson has also shown a knack for knowing when to leave those players and go for a weakside block or jump a passing lane.

    He's also shown an ability to play various pick-and-roll coverages this season, including switching onto the ball-handler. He's decent at staying in front of those smaller players, but his real strength there is recovery. Even when he's beat, he has the length and quickness to bother or block shots from behind.

    All that leads to a significant defensive impact that isn't confined to one position. Memphis gives up 4.5 fewer points per 100 possessions when JJJ is on the floor, has a defense that ranks in the 83rd percentile when he's at power forward and one that ranks in the 92nd percentile when he's at center.

    Total Voter Points: 16

3. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Indicators: 12.8 defensive rebounds, 2.4 blocks, 0.8 steals per 75 possessions, 2.9 defensive estimated plus-minus

    After winning three of the last four Defensive Player of the Year awards, a hint of voter fatigue may be setting in on Rudy Gobert. He is, as always, dominating the all-in-one stats from around the internet.

    Of the players listed in the top five in this slideshow, Gobert leads the way in the defensive catch-all metric listed above (defensive estimated plus-minus). He's also second to Horford in Basketball Index's defensive LEBRON, first (by a long shot) in FiveThirtyEight's defensive RAPTOR and first in defensive real plus-minus.

    The metrics seem to be catching Gobert's game-changing impact better than traditional numbers can, but you don't have to trust them alone.

    Much like Stephen Curry or Houston Rockets era James Harden on the other end, Gobert is a defense unto himself (which is especially important on a Utah Jazz team severely lacking other help there).

    The Jazz funnel everything to Gobert. And if you tune into any Jazz game, you'll see multiple slashers enter that funnel, notice Gobert and promptly do an about-face.

    Those brave enough to challenge him aren't having much success. 

    Gobert is defending 7.0 shots at the rim per game (sixth among players who've appeared in at least 30 games) and allowing players to shoot just 50.0 percent on those shots. The league-average field-goal percentage within three feet of the basket is 68.6.

    When he's on the floor to cover that backline, Utah allows 107.5 points per 100 possessions (the Phoenix Suns' No. 2 defense gives up 107.5). It gives up 115.3 when he's off (the 27th-ranked Sacramento Kings give up 115.9).

    Total Voter Points: 28

2. Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    Indicators: 3.8 defensive rebounds, 1.9 steals, 0.3 blocks per 75 possessions, 2.7 defensive estimated plus-minus

    Back to our philosophical debate from the Williams slide. It's something ESPN's Tim Bontemps explored in a recent article. What kind of an argument can a guard like Smart have within a field and award dominated by bigs?

    The reasons for their inclusion are obvious. They're the last resort on defense. They typically end more possessions with highlight blocks and defensive rebounds than guards do. And the biggest responsibility for many centers, the rim, is still where the game's most valuable shots go up.

    But what about everything that happens before a possession gets to that point?

    "I'm not taking anything from the bigs," Smart told Bontemps. "A vital part of the game is protecting the paint. But, as guards, we do a lot more before [our man] gets to the paint. ... Contesting the three, contesting pull-ups, making sure he doesn't get to his spots."

    If you ignore the fact that both Williams and Horford contest more threes per game than Smart, he certainly seems to be onto something.

    In his prime, Klay Thompson's defense didn't impress the catch-all metrics because he didn't tally a ton of counting stats. But preventing a guard or wing from ever taking the shot or penetrating to the paint is harder to measure. And that's what players like Thompson did (and Smart does).

    Smart is a dynamic on-ball defender who can stymie a team's attack from the outset. And matchup data shows he's comfortable defending more than just wings and guards.

    He's spent more time on those smaller players, but Smart has also had plenty of possessions on bigger forwards like OG Anunoby, Franz Wagner and Miles Bridges. And for years, he's been one of the game's better guards at stonewalling big men in the post.

    The versatility Smart brings as a defender has undoubtedly been a key part of Boston's top-ranked defense, but it wasn't quite enough to put him over the top here.

    Total Voter Points: 34

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

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    Aaron Gash/Associated Press

    Indicators: 10.5 defensive rebounds, 1.5 blocks and 1.1 steals per 75 possessions, 1.3 defensive estimated plus-minus

    Two years after Giannis Antetokounmpo won Defensive Player of the Year, this panel is ready to crown him again. And with his wide-ranging contributions on that end of the floor, it's not hard to see why.

    Giannis isn't the best rim protector in this bunch. He's not the best perimeter defender, either. He might not even be the best roamer. But he does a little bit of all of the above.

    And that's why Milwaukee gives up 4.6 fewer points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor.

    The other thing about Giannis is that this isn't some flash-in-the-pan candidacy. His defensive dominance started even before he won the award the first time.

    He's averaged at least five defensive rebounds, one block and one steal per 75 possessions in each of his nine NBA seasons. That total already ranks 20th all time. If you up that defensive rebounds qualifier to 10, Giannis' total drops to four seasons, but his rank climbs to sixth.

    For years, Giannis has been one of the best, most versatile defenders in the league and one of the few who can legitimately guard every position.

    Even in a crowded field with plenty of reasonable candidates, he's done enough to warrant a win.

    Total Voter Points: 38


    *Also receiving votes: Mikal Bridges (15), Bam Adebayo (14), Joel Embiid (4)