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DPOY check-in ahead of Bucks-Jazz

With Giannis and Rudy set to square off Monday night, we check-in on the Defensive Player of the Year award as the regular season winds down

NBA: Preseason-Milwaukee Bucks at Utah Jazz
Recent DPOY winners Giannis Antetokounmpo and Rudy Gobert square off Monday night as the regular season winds down
Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Things haven’t gone the Jazz way as the season heads to a close

The Jazz have seesawed their last 7 games, picking up wins against the Kings, Blazers, and Thunder while falling on the road to the Pelicans, Mavericks, and Spurs.

Utah slots in at #4 in the NBA’s Western Conference standings, just 1 loss up on Dallas and 2 losses behind Golden State and Memphis. Not all hope is lost for a surge up to #3 or #2, but recent losses put extra pressure on the remaining 15 games.

While implications for a strong 2022 Playoffs look increasingly dire, not all related to the team is depressing.

Tonight, Jazz play host to the reigning champ Bucks where each team sports a Defensive Player of the Year candidate as the race heats up.

Utah Jazz v Dallas Mavericks
Rudy Gobert eyes a 4th DPOY award, in spite of a down season defensively and poor team execution on that end of the floor
Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

3-time DPOY winner Rudy Gobert looks to tie Ben Wallace and Dikembe Mutombo as the only players in league history to win the award four times. He’s currently tied with Dwight Howard as the only players to win thrice.

Rudy’s first award came in the 2017-18 season, where, due to injury, Gobert suited up just 56 games. That’s the fewest games played among winners of DPOY. His win was resounding, however, amassing 88% of the first place votes.

The next season saw an even tighter race despite 81 games played from Rudy. Still, 65% of first place votes went Gobert’s way. First-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo took second that season.

In 2019-20, a second straight season of superb play on both ends landed Giannis with his second MVP and his first DPOY, landslide victories in both awards. Gobert took 3rd with just 6% of first place votes.

2020-21 proved to be Gobert’s year, yet again. Winning his 3rd DPOY, his only serious challenger was Ben Simmons who logged just 15% of first place votes.

Looking back on the past half-decade plus, Gobert has dominated the voting like few else:

Set to turn 30 over the offseason, Gobert still has a handful of years to rack up defensive honors and cement his status on the Mount Rushmore of NBA defensive greats.

But enough past and future, let’s analyze the present race for Defensive Player of the Year.

Oddsmakers

The first place to look when taking a pulse on any award are the sportsbooks and the reason why is simple: these have the most to lose should they get it wrong.

Media and players have no real stake in the game so their opinions require a heavy dose of salt. We saw that happen last season. Ben Simmons, along with most the national media, lobbied for DPOY and crafted a loud, compelling narrative. Oddsmakers proved right by having Gobert the odds on favorite for most the season.

The race appears as one of the tightest we’ve seen in recent memory:

NBA Defensive Player of the Year Odds
NBA Defensive Player of the Year Odds as of 3/14/2022
Odds via DraftKings, FanDuel, BetMGM, PointsBet, and Caesar’s

Based on the mean and standard deviation of odds for each player, there are approximately 4 tiers for the award.

Gobert, Bam Adebayo, and Antetokounmpo round out tier #1. Gobert is the only player sporting, albeit modest, odds-on favorite odds from DraftKings and Caesar’s. Bam Adebayo has supplanted Giannis for second place on the East’s top team.

Draymond Green has plummeted due to his injuries, though optimism abounds that he makes a return tonight. The early favorite by consensus, Green will max out at 48 games played (assuming his plays the remaining 14 games + 34 games played thus far). It’s unlikely he avoids any more missed time yet oddsmakers are universally bearish on winning the award with just over 50% games played.

Williams, Jackson, Bridges, Embiid, and Mobley are all deserving of defensive love but who will likely see that recognition in the All-Defensive teams, as opposed to any serious share of votes for DPOY.

The Numbers

Voters ultimately will span the media and one of the first places they’ll look to are the numbers to help differentiate the candidates. We’ll concentrate our numbers on the tier #1 guys who will command the majority of votes.

As highly as guys like Al Horford, Draymond Green, Gary Payton II, etc., rank, there are too many factors on the periphery that make them unrealistic contenders.

Many will begin to cite surface level metrics like personal DRTG, block and steal rate, etc. for DPOY. While not wrong to do so, they aren’t great indicators and differentiators. The best approach is to use advanced metrics that focus on defensive impact while factoring in those siloed numbers.

Here’s how the tier #1 guys fare in the advanced numbers:

NBA Defensive Player of the Year Advanced Metrics
NBA Defensive Player of the Year Advanced Metrics as of 3/14/2022
Stats via NBA Shot Charts, B-Ball Index, Dunks & Threes, ESPN, and FiveThirtyEight

(It should be noted that several tier #2 through tier #4 guys outperform some of the above 3 in these metrics, though such stellar performances obviously hasn’t translated to enough confidence to send them into tier #1)

Each of these 3 shine in different ways on the court and that translates to incredible impact. You honestly can’t go wrong with any of the above 3. However, Rudy Gobert is a consistent cut above throughout these metrics.

By the nature of numbers, one can always cherry pick to craft supporting evidence of one player or another. However, a wholistic approach tends to paint a clearer picture. Should media voters do the same, they’ll likely star Gobert as the ideal choice from this lens.

The Narrative

The final lens with which to view any award is the least important for a variety of reasons, though absolutely contributes as we near the end of the season: narrative.

2022 NBA All-Star - All Star Practice
Draymond Green has logged just 34 games played which is prompting everyone to evaluate just how serious a contender for DPOY he can realistically be
Photo by Brandon Todd/NBAE via Getty Images

Draymond Green rightfully dominated the early- to mid-season narrative but has since lost all traction due to the injuries. It’s unlikely that even playing every single game the rest of the way recoups that enough playing a full 8 games fewer than the previous low.

Since then, it’s been a mishmash of talking points. All tier #1 - tier #4 guys have received love at one point or another but over the last month there’s been little to no overarching Defensive Player of the Year discussion.

In the coming weeks writers and networks will begin to publish their final rankings and likely selections for each award. Their choices are unlikely to be influenced by any national narratives since there appears to be no loud, consistent message for a single player.


Ultimately it looks like Rudy Gobert is the current favorite and leader for the award. As opposed to seasons past, it almost appears as though he could win be default.

Rudy has been below his standards defensively for most of the season and missed a stretch of games in January/February. His case is by no means a slam dunk. However, similar injuries and COVID-related absences have affected nearly everyone’s availability and performance.

In such a tumultuous season, it’s not crazy or unfounded to assert that Gobert, as weird a season as he’s had, is still the best candidate relative to the field given everyone has experience similarly weird circumstances.

As the season winds to a close, continue to keep a pulse on the oddsmakers, numbers, and narrative for this and the other NBA awards.