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Back to Back: Is Rudy Gobert the 2018-2019 Defensive Player of the Year?

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Oh man. Oh man, oh man, not again. Rudy Gobert has a chance to be the ninth repeat Defensive Player of the Year in NBA history.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

If Rudy Gobert wins a second straight Defensive Player of the Year, he’ll join a pretty short list.

Sidney Moncrief, Dennis Rodman, Hakeem Olajuwon, Dikembe Mutombo, Alonzo Mourning, Ben Wallace, Dwight Howard and Kawhi Leonard are the only players in NBA history who won back-to-back DPOY awards.

Rodman, Olajuwon, Mutombo and Mourning are all in the Hall of Fame. Moncrief was a five-time All-Star who Basketball Reference gives a 49.9-percent shot to get into the Hall. Wallace, Howard and Leonard are at 45.3, 99.3 and 15.8 percent, respectively.

Will Gobert join this elite group of defensive anchors?

There is no shortage of criticism for catch-all metrics in basketball like Real Plus-Minus, Player Impact Plus-Minus, etc. That’s even more true of the defensive variants of those numbers.

And yes, a lot of that criticism is warranted. Most of it might be for the defensive numbers. But as of February 25, if you sort every NBA player with 500-plus minutes by the average of their ranks in Defensive Real Plus-Minus, Defensive Player Impact Plus-Minus, Defensive Box Plus-Minus and Defensive Win Shares per 48 Minutes, Gobert comes in at No. 1. Heres’ the rest of the top 15:

  1. Rudy Gobert (average rank of 3.0)
  2. Myles Turner (3.75)
  3. Giannis Antetokounmpo (6.0)
  4. Hassan Whiteside (6.5)
  5. Nerlens Noel (7.5)
  6. Jusuf Nurkic (9)
  7. Nikola Vucevic (12.25)
  8. DeAndre Jordan (13.5)
  9. Anthony Davis (14.75)
  10. Brook Lopez (16.0)
  11. Andre Drummond (17.0)
  12. Marc Gasol (19.5)
  13. Draymond Green (20.25)
  14. Joel Embiid (23)
  15. Ed Davis/Paul Millsap (24.25)

Warranted criticisms of defensive catch-alls aside, that’s a list that wouldn’t score terribly on the eye test. Sure, there’s plenty to gripe about there. Paul George being 21st and a spot behind Nikola Jokic definitely doesn’t help its case, but that’s a top three I can buy.

Gobert’s ranks in each of the four are as follows:

  • Defensive Real Plus-Minus: 1st
  • Defensive Player Impact Plus-Minus: 1st
  • Defensive Box Plus-Minus: 4th
  • Defensive Win Shares per 48 Minutes: 6th

But, of course, very few (if any) voters will put much stock in numbers like those. And I’m not even arguing that they should. Defensive Real Plus-Minus seems to carry some weight, but nowhere near enough to tip the scales when narrative is on the other side.

And that’s where George probably comes in first. Right now, the Oklahoma City Thunder are third in points allowed per 100 possessions, and that number is 6.3 points better when George is on the floor. He’s also averaging a league-leading 2.2 steals, often guarding the opposition’s best perimeter player and forcing his way into James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s MVP conversation.

His offense is the biggest reason for that last bit, but when voters cast their ballot for Harden or Antetokounmpo for the big award, they may feel compelled to vote George for DPOY as some sort of consolation.

There’s more to it than that—George really is a sight to behold on defense—but him having the best betting odds for the award right now has a lot to do with the narrative.

Joel Embiid, Leonard and maybe even Draymond Green will also get a little bit of love for similar reasons. Embiid swings his team’s Defensive Rating slightly more than George does. Kawhi has the reputation as one of those repeat winners, but Toronto’s defense is actually comfortably better when he doesn’t play.

Strong statistical cases can also be found in Nos. 2 and 3 from that earlier list. In addition to their placement there, Myles Turner and Antetokounmpo are critical components for the two defenses ranked ahead of OKC’s.

Turner is averaging an NBA-best 2.7 blocks per game, and his Indiana Pacers are second in defense. Antetokounmpo is averaging 1.5 blocks, 1.4 steals and 10.3 defensive rebounds, and his Bucks have the league’s best defense.

So, how does Gobert stack up against all these worthy candidates?

Defensive Player of the Year might be the toughest award of the bunch for a purely statistical breakdown. Again, defensive numbers (especially the catch-alls) still feel far from perfect. But Gobert leading the league in Defensive Real Plus-Minus for three straight years should be a feather in that formula’s cap.

When you watch the Jazz, it’s easy to see the impact of Gobert on that end. Several times a game, drivers will take abrupt u-turns away from the paint upon seeing Gobert. Few centers can cover a pick-and-roll as well as him, whether it’s hedging out to the ball-handler and then recovering, or simply dropping to and protecting the paint. When he’s on the floor, all of Utah’s perimeter defenders can play more aggressively, knowing that if they funnel their man to Gobert, they’re still in good shape.

Gobert truly is a defensive system unto himself. There are only five players whose Offensive Real Plus-Minuses exceed Gobert’s league-leading Defensive Real Plus-Minus (4.59): James Harden (7.32), Stephen Curry (5.86), Damian Lillard (5.22), Paul George (4.85) and Kevin Durant (4.61).

There are clearly other worthy candidates this season, and a lot will depend on how much higher Utah’s No. 4 defense can climb, but I’m not sure anyone in the league can transform a defensive system and culture quite like Gobert. Just like I think having Curry pretty much guarantees a top-five offense, having Gobert instantly gives a team the inside track to a top-five defense.

That’s tough to prove, but this is an award that lends itself to subjectivity. So, I’m going to be subjective.


Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Cleaning the Glass or ESPN.
Andy Bailey covers the NBA for SLC Dunk and Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@AndrewDBailey) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R’s Dan Favale.