The 2016-17 NBA season has been an historic one, to say the least. League-wide scoring is at its highest mark in over 25 years, we’ve seen record-highs in triple-doubles and three-point shooting, and just recently someone notched the sixth 70-point game in NBA history. The offensive explosion has been impossible to ignore and sustained from the first game of the season to the last, and yet, it has coincided with some equally impressive individual performances on the defensive end. Just as there is a definite case to be made for several players for the league’s Most Valuable Player award, the same can be said for its Defensive Player of the Year, with standouts like the Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard, Utah’s Rudy Gobert and the Warriors’ very own Draymond Green the likely leading candidates.
After finishing second in the voting each of the last two seasons, Draymond Green may have put forth the best defensive season of his career this year. Utilizing his unparalleled defensive versatility, Green has hounded opposing players both in the paint and out on the perimeter with staggering success, as evidenced by the fact that he leads the league in defensive win shares (4.7), a metric that estimates the number of wins a player contributes to his team through his defensive production.
Despite not having the height advantage of some of his counterparts, Green has been one of the top rim protectors in the NBA, tied for the league-lead in defensive field goal percentage (.439) within five feet of the basket (minimum 400 shots defended), while also leading the NBA in steals per game (2.0) and trailing only John Wall in total deflections (295). That’s an extremely rare skill set, as according to Basketball Reference, Green is on pace to become just the sixth player in NBA history to play at least 20 minutes per game and post block (.033) and steal (.030) rates of three percent or greater within a single season. That means that, on average, approximately 6.3 out of every 100 opponent possessions with Green on the court this season have resulted in a block or steal by him.
The switch-heavy defensive scheme that the Warriors utilize simply would not be possible without Green’s ability to contain centers and guards alike, and that’s exemplified by his defensive rating of 99.3, which leads the league among all qualified players who average at least 20 minutes per game. That means that the Warriors have allowed an average of 99.3 points per 100 possessions with Green on the floor this season, but that mark actually pales in comparison to how stout Green was in Kevin Durant’s absence after the perennial All-Star went down with a knee injury on the last day of February. One would naturally have expected Golden State’s defense to suffer without their leading shot-blocker and defensive rebounder, but the exact opposite proved to be true, thanks in large part to Green’s ramped up play on that end of the floor. In the 19 games Durant missed due to injury, the Warriors posted a defensive rating of 97.0 points per 100 possessions with Green on the court, nearly 10 points fewer than the league average over that span.
And yet, Green faces stiff competition for this year’s Defensive Player of the Year award, and with multiple viable candidates, it may simply come down to the voters and the moments of defensive dominance they remember most. If that indeed is the case, that may actually work in Green’s favor, as he’s provided a defining defensive play to seal a Warriors’ victory on several occasions throughout the season.
Kawhi Leonard is the only player to receive more votes for the award than Green in each of the last two seasons, and the reigning two-time Defensive Player of the Year is likely to finish near the top of the voting again in 2016-17. Leonard is universally regarded as one of the premiere two-way players in the game today, but some of his individual defensive metrics have regressed just slightly relative to his winning campaign of a year ago. Dwight Howard (’08-’09 to ’10-’11) is the only player in NBA history to win Defensive Player of the Year in three consecutive seasons, so history may not be on Leonard’s side this time around.
Along with the Warriors and Spurs, the other division leading team in the Western Conference has another worthy candidate for Defensive Player of the Year on their roster. Rudy Gobert leads the NBA with an average of 2.7 blocks per game, defends the most shots inside five feet of any player (10.3 per game) and is tied with Green for the lowest field goal percentage (.439) of anyone who has defended at least 400 such shot attempts. Consequently, Gobert trails Green by just three thousandths of a defensive win share per game for the league lead, so the margin is razor thin, but in a race this close, who knows what could prove to be the difference in determining a winner.
Ultimately, it’s a shame that only one of these players can be recognized as the league’s Defensive Player of the Year, as all are plenty deserving. The winner will be revealed at the league’s first-ever NBA Awards Show in New York on June 26th on TNT, meaning an NBA Champion will already have been crowned earlier that month. Green, Leonard and Gobert are all headed to the postseason with their respective teams in less than two weeks, and the defensive play of each individual will likely have a considerable impact on how deep into the playoffs each team goes.
It’s already been an historic NBA season thus far, and with all three of these dominant defenders on track to play starring roles in the upcoming playoffs, the best may still be yet to come.
*All statistics according to NBA.com/stats unless noted otherwise