Is Kawhi Leonard a Lock for Defensive Player of the Year?
With so many NBA players having career seasons, awards such as MVP, Most Improved Player, and Rookie of the Year feel like they could go in several directions.
However, the one award that seems to have been locked into an individual player -- at least relative to the other big awards -- is the Defensive Player of the Year going to San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard.
Although he has been a monster on defense, there are several other worthy candidates who could push Leonard during his attempt to collect his third consecutive award as the NBA’s top defender.
Should Leonard Be the Favorite?
The two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year has certainly not done anything to discredit his stance as the league’s top defender this season. The Spurs currently have the number-one defensive rating in the NBA at 100.7, which is paced by Leonard, who is charged with slowing down the top player on the opposition each night.
He has also maintained his career averages of 1.8 steals and 0.7 blocks per game along with a solid 5.9 rebounds per game. Along with that, Leonard has also posted 4.3 defensive win shares, which is good for sixth in the league.
That said, this year he has a career worst 102 defensive rating, along with drops in both steal and block percentage from prior seasons. That is shown even more by his on/off court splits this year.
With Leonard on the floor, opposing offenses have an offensive rating of 106.4. When he is off the floor, that actually falls to 98.6. That is in stark contract to last season when opponents were held to an offensive rating of 97.2 with Leonard on the floor as opposed to 101.8 when he was off the court.
Another stat that will certainly hurt Leonard’s candidacy will be his defensive real plus-minus, which sits at 0.89, 26th among all small forwards.
One interesting trend, which could explain the drop some of his metrics, is teams taking the offensive player Leonard is guarding and simply putting him in the corner and playing a quasi game of four-on-four. This has been referred to as "Kawhisolation" and was analyzed by Matt Moore of CBS.
Unlike a Rudy Gobert, who patrols the paint and is only defending big men and driving wings, Leonard's versatility on defense is so great that opponents are willing to sacrifice their top offensive threat to neutralize his defense.
Overall, his combination of steals and blocks and the fact he paces the number-one defense in the NBA will be tough for voters to bypass.
The Anchor in the Paint
There is little doubt the top defensive center in the game this year is Gobert. Affectionately known as the Stifle Tower, Gobert anchors the third-ranked defense in the NBA.
The Utah big man leads the NBA at 2.6 blocks per game and also chips in with 0.7 steals per game. Another stat not often in line with Defensive Player of the Year, Gobert also has a stellar 29.5% defensive rebound rate, which has helped him pull in a career high 12.9 rebounds per game.
Another strong case for Gobert is his ridiculous on/off court splits for the Jazz this season. When he is on the floor, opponents have an offensive rating of 103.2, but that jumps to an above-average 109.7 when Gobert is off the floor.
What will also garner Gobert some attention is his league-leading 5.82 defensive real plus-minus. He also paces the league with a 6.4% block rate and 5.5 defensive win shares.
For true stat heads, it would be hard not to cast their vote for a player in Gobert who bests Leonard in defensive real plus-minus, defensive win shares, blocks, rebounds, and defensive rating.
The Top Defender on the Top Team
When people think of the Golden State Warriors, they instantly think of the offensive end with the trio of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Kevin Durant. However, the Warriors trail only the Spurs in team defensive rating at 101.0. That defense has become even stingier of late as the Warriors are the top defensive team over the last 10 games with a remarkable defensive rating of 97.4.
That defense is orchestrated by the number two player in defensive real plus-minus at 5.33, Draymond Green. The least heralded of the Warriors, Green plays a role very similar to Leonard in that he is a jack of all trades who can defend multiple positions.
The two-time all-defensive team member is the only player in the NBA to average at least 1.4 steals and 2.0 blocks per game. He is also a solid rebounder at 8.1 per game, which is just behind Kevin Durant for the lead for Golden State.
Green’s versatility is evident in that fact that opponents shoot 6.8% worse from the field against Green than they do over the rest of the season. Among players with 70 games played this year, that trails only Gobert’s rate of -7.1%.
Among the multitude of weapons for Giannis Antetokounmpo is a top-notch defensive presence. The Milwaukee Bucks' wing is eighth among small forwards with a defensive real plus-minus of 1.93 and is the only player in the league to average at least 1.5 blocks and steals per contest.
Although he has the skill set to win the award, a 20th-ranked Bucks defense will prevent the Greek Freak from taking home the award this season.
Coming off a season in which he averaged 3.7 blocks per game, Hassan Whiteside has continued his solid play on the defensive end. This season, Whiteside is averaging a solid 2.1 blocks per night, but his case for first-team all-defense is built on rebounds. He leads the NBA at 14.1 boards a night, but more impressively has a defensive rebound rate of 35.1%, a number only four players in NBA history have hit.
The last candidate is the always spectacular Anthony Davis, who is tops on the New Orleans Pelicans in blocks and rebounds. He does carry a lofty defensive real plus-minus of 3.64 and has helped the Pelicans to the sixth-ranked defense, but he does not have a category where he stands out above the rest.
That said, playing in a career high for games could help Davis to push onto his second all NBA defensive team this season.
Why Leonard Will Win
Although defensive metrics have come along way, the fact that NBA coaches have at times decided sacrificing their top offensive player to remove Leonard from the equation shows the amount of respect and talent he has.
The on/off court metrics certainly favor Gobert, but in 2014-2015 Joakim Noah was also able to win Defensive Player of the Year despite opposing teams having a better offensive rating with him on the floor.
Leonard will also benefit from being the unquestioned leader of the top defense in the NBA, and combined with another great season in San Antonio, that should be enough to push him to a third consecutive award.