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DPOY check-in as season nears quarter point

The race for Defensive Player of the Year is a bit more tight this year, though Gobert remains in his rightful place nearly a quarter way through the season

Philadelphia 76ers v Utah Jazz
Rudy Gobert finds him spaced on the perimeter more often these days and is proving yet again that he’s not the problem against 5-out lineups
Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

As each new season begins, it’s always tough to hold back reactions to the surprising events that take place early on.

While exciting that Rudy Gobert grabbed 20+ boards his first two regular season games or disappointing that the Jazz dwindled in the bottom 10 in 3P%, history has taught us to take a deep breath and let a few more games take place.

But we’re nearing the point where enough of the season has transpired to start inferring it’s impact on the rest of the season, and there’s no better place to start than with the awards.

Just as “perennial MVP candidate” is thrown to guys like LeBron, Durant, Giannis, Steph, and Jokic, the most perennial of award candidates is Rudy Gobert with Defensive Player of the Year.

2021 NBA Playoffs - LA Clippers v Utah Jazz
Rudy receives the 2021-22 Defensive Player of the Year award during the second round of the NBA Playoffs.
Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

Gobert has ranked in the top 3 of DPOY voting for 5 consecutive years and winning the award in 3 of the last 4 seasons.

With 20% of the season in the books, it’s time to evaluate candidates for this year’s award and make inferences about how the rest of the season will play out.

As always, we’ll look at 3 main categories: oddsmakers, advanced metrics, and narrative.

Oddsmakers

We start with the oddsmakers since they have the most to lose and gain by getting this right.

Last year while the national media trumpeted the likes of Ben Simmons, the oddsmakers indicated that Gobert was the favorite over the field. And so it turned out, with Rudy receiving 84% of first place votes.

The truth is most have no skin in the game in predicting the outcome, so it’s important to proportion our analysis accordingly.

This year, the oddsmakers are expecting a closer race than last year at this juncture:

Top 10 ranked NBA DPOY Odds and Tiers
Odds thanks to OddShark, Covers, and Sports Betting Dime | Visual thanks to Adam Bushma, SLC Dunk

There’s a soft two man race between Rudy Gobert and Anthony Davis, with tier 2 comprising of Bam Adebayo and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

While Gobert is the consensus odds-on favorite, his lead is by no means secure or favored against the field.

Advanced Metrics

Advanced metrics are an important component of this analysis because they give us an earlier indication of impact than ~15 games of film or standard numbers can ascertain.

Their labeled as “advanced” because they factor in luck-adjustments, teammate independence, and an appropriately scaled system.

As was detailed beautifully last year by FiveThirtyEight’s Ben Dowsett last season, they rarely align perfectly, but can still indicate whose early performance is validating the oddsmakers and worthy of whatever narrative circles them.

Top 10 ranked NBA DPOY Advanced Metrics and Tiers (minimum 30 mpg)
Metrics thanks to FiveThirtyEight, Basketball Reference, and Dunks & Threes | Visual thanks to Adam Bushman, SLC Dunk

As much as 20% of the season feels substantial, nothing says “it’s still too early” than seeing ESPN, B-Ball Index, and NBA Shot Charts keep their metrics unpublished.

However, with the 3 metrics we have, several players stand out.

Only 3 players show up in the top 10 of each metric: Nikola Jokic, Rudy Gobert, and Jarrett Allen.

A few surprising players are Jae Crowder, Derrick White, and Kentavius Caldwell-Pope. This is an indication that the unpublished advanced metric sources have a point of it still being early.

Surprisingly Draymond Green, Myles Turner, and Anthony Davis are underrepresented in these metrics.

Narrative

Narratives stemming from the national media to local fanbases are the source most fraught with error. They’re heavily biased and largely based on too small of a sample size.

However, narrative framing is powerful and enough to land a handful of players awards that seem questionable in retrospect. Once a narrative is formed, confirmation bias is hard to counteract.

With the season young at this point, narratives are still slow building.

Last night’s comeback win against Detroit, led by Anthony Davis’ play on both ends, was a feather in his cap for DPOY.

The Warriors #1 ranked defense has a lot of people remembering the special defender that is Draymond Green. His coach wants everyone to know what he should be hoisting at year’s end.

While most agree that Rudy Gobert deserves recognition and representation in the award voting every year, “voter fatigue” is consistently cited as a concern for why he wouldn’t win, despite opposing teams giving him major props this year.

Narratives will be built all year long and influenced somewhat by the oddsmakers and the advanced metrics.

However loud the narratives appear to be, they should always be validated by the other two categories we’ve reviewed.

Summary

There appears to be one consistent player throughout the three perspectives: Rudy Gobert. As loud as the “voter fatigue” noise as he chases his 4th award in 5 seasons, the analysis confirms why he is and should be leading the way.

The threats to his winning are the Utah Jazz finding themselves on the outside of the top 5 defenses in the league and seeing the team perform poorly against 5-out offensive lineups.

Miami Heat v Utah Jazz
Rudy Gobert defends the rim against a two pronged attack of Caleb Martin and Bam Adebayo
Photo by Jeff Swinger/NBAE via Getty Images

Anthony Davis, Draymond Green, and Bam Adebayo are the likeliest second tier. Each have various points to their DPOY case and other drawbacks.

For Davis, the threats to his winning are his usual 3 “meh” games to 1 stellar performance (not to mention a team defense ranked 23rd).

For Draymond, the biggest threat is the impending schedule featuring a heavy does of the league’s best offenses. Furthermore, players with fewer than 30 minutes per game never compete in the voting.

For Adebayo, he’s got everything going for him. But, he shares the floor with dark horse contender Jimmy Butler, and excellent defenders in Kyle Lowry and PJ Tucker. Last year Ben Simmons was hurt by fellow contender Joel Embiid and defensive stalwarts Matisse Thybulle and Danny Green.

We’ll check back in on the Defensive Player of the Year candidacy as the season progresses. While Gobert shows up well in the 3 categories, there’s enough variety that the race should turn out close.