The Year Historical Precedence Shifted for the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year Voting

Draymond Green is the frontrunner for the Defensive Player of the Year award, but if we went by historical precedence, another player would take it home.

This year’s award ballots have been hotly debated, and for pretty good reason. For multiple awards, the “best player” may not win over a player with the "correct" or "better" narrative. LeBron James is still the best player, but his narrative (taking a mid-season rest) is punishable when compared to Stephen Curry's 79-game season so far, even if the minute-disparity isn’t great enough to disqualify James.

The Defensive Player of the Year race is kind of similar to the MVP one -– Kawhi Leonard is probably the best defender in the world, but Draymond Green is the “catalyst for the league’s best defense” and the “guy who allows them to keep their switching scheme that makes them so good," and other phrases you’ve likely heard and read all year.

However, what do the statistics say and what is historical precedence for the award? To look at this, I went back the past 25 years and looked at how Defensive Player of the Year (DPOY) winners fared in regards to specific statistics -– notably, minutes, defensive rebounding percentage (DRB%), steal percentage (STL%), block percentage (BLK%), defensive win shares (DWS), defensive box plus-minus (DBPM), and defensive rating (DRtg).

Here are the historical winners. Below we’ll look at how this year’s candidates compare.

2014 - Joakim Noah282024.
2013 - Marc Gasol297618.
2011 - Dwight Howard293530.
2010 - Dwight Howard284331.
2009 - Dwight Howard282129.
2008 - Kevin Garnett232825.
2007 - Marcus Camby236930.
2006 - Ben Wallace289025.
2005 - Ben Wallace267126.
2004 - Ron Artest271412.
2003 - Ben Wallace287334.
2002 - Ben Wallace292128.
2001 - Dikembe Mutombo259130.
2000 - Alonzo Mourning274821.
1998 - Dikembe Mutombo291725.
1997 - Dikembe Mutombo297325.
1996 - Gary Payton31628.
1995 - Dikembe Mutombo310026.
1994 - Hakeem Olajuwon327723.
1993 - Hakeem Olajuwon324225.
1992 - David Robinson256424.
1991 - Dennis Rodman274727.
1990 - Dennis Rodman237721.

Judging defensive players is much more difficult than judging offensive players, and our defensive advanced statistics are still in their infant stages. For example, Marc Stein tweeted this out earlier.

In general, each of these all-in-one defensive statistics have their flaws –- both DWS and DBPM both just use available common statistics. So if blocks, steals, and defensive rebounds aren’t enough to measure defensive impact (they aren’t), then those two advanced stats are going to be skewed. ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus incorporates more things, but we’re still learning how to interpret those numbers and they aren’t available for prior years.

Even still, these are the best we have historically and while flawed, they’re flawed for everyone. We’re trying to figure out historical precedence here, so we should look at historically available stats, regardless of how good or bad they might be.

Ok, moving onto this year’s candidates.

DeAndre Jordan282032.
Draymond Green247022.
Marc Gasol264921.
Tim Duncan219326.
Kawhi Leonard199520.
Rudy Gobert213427.
Andrew Bogut156626.

As you can see, every candidate has something with their resume that bucks historical trends. Regarding playing time, Andrew Bogut is the outlier here, as he’ll be the only one to finish below the 2,000-minute threshold after tonight.

Historically, DPOY goes to a rim-protecting center. In fact, there have only been two instances in the last 25 years where it hasn’t: Gary Payton in 1996 and Ron Artest in 2004. This is where it gets interesting, as we can look at Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green and whether they fit the model of what it takes to win DPOY as a non-traditional candidate (non-rim-protecting big).

What Payton and Artest had in common is a crazy high steal rate –- Payton was at 3.7% and Artest was at 3.1%. In comparison, Green is at 2.4%, which is still impressive, but below what we’d expect from a non-center. However, Leonard is right there with a steal percentage of 3.8%, which would actually put him above those other two perimeter defenders that won DPOY.

Just for fun and to be math-y, let’s find the historical averages for each category, determine the standard deviations, and then see how each player compares this year.

This shows that, historically, Doc Rivers is probably right that DeAndre Jordan should be the DPOY frontrunner. And if SportVU cameras hadn’t been invented and we didn’t have rim protection statistics like we do now, Jordan would definitely win the award.

As such, the basketball community is as smart as ever. We know that defense isn’t all about steal and block stats. We know that how you fit into a defensive scheme matters and that guarding specific players can make your stats fluctuate. Therefore, Green will likely win the award, and he probably even deserves it. All the cases made for him about being the most important piece in the league’s best defense are true.

However, historically, Green shouldn’t win. Jordan should.

We’re definitely in a different time of evaluating and valuing defensive players.