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Monday, March 19, 2018

Early NBA Defensive Player of the Year candidates

Paul George

Here was the All-Defensive First Team for the 2016-17 NBA season: Patrick Beverley, Chris Paul, Kawhi Leonard, Draymond Green, and Rudy Gobert. Of those players, one (Leonard) has yet to even play this year, another (Beverley) is done for the season, a third (Paul) just returned after missing nearly a month with a knee injury, and a fourth (Gobert) is in the middle of a four-to-six-week absence thanks to a knee injury of his own. What that means is [puts talisman around neck to ward off the evil Madden cover curse spirits] that the Defensive Player of the Year race is wide freaking open.

Here are seven guys who have put together particularly strong cases for the award so far.

*Stats courtesy of NBA.com, ESPN, and Basketball Reference*

Joel Embiid, C, Philadelphia 76ers

Forget about who our beloved Process potentate is for a second. Picture a seven-footer who has appeared in all but two of his team’s games playing over 29 minutes a night and who ranks fourth in defensive real plus-minus and seventh in blocked shots while also anchoring a top-ten defense overall. That is some serious and valuable production on that end of the floor, and that is the kind of campaign that the 23-year-old Embiid has been having so far. Shockingly, the Defensive Player of the Year Award has not gone to a true seven-footer in nearly five years, but this lion of a human being manning the middle for the Sixers has a pretty good chance of changing that this season.

Draymond Green, SF/PF, Golden State Warriors

The Warriors’ fire-and-brimstone defense has regressed a bit down to the level of us mortals, but the reigning DPOY winner has still been a handful this season as he defends his trophy (pun absolutely intended). Green is putting up a career-high in blocks per game and been able to maintain most of his other defensive metrics from last season despite playing the fewest minutes since he first entered the Golden State starting lineup back in 2014. You know exactly what you’re getting with Dray: a hot glue gun who plugs up leaks and vulnerabilities on all 94 feet on the court and across all five positions. If fellow frontcourt partner Kevin Durant doesn’t vulture too many votes from him, a repeat is certainly in the realm of possibilities for everybody’s favorite troll.

Paul George, SF/PF, Oklahoma City Thunder

After spending many a fortnight as the No. 1 option for the Indiana Pacers offense, a role that often forced him to conserve energy on the other end of the floor, George’s defense is shining bright this season now that he is a member of the Justice League in Oklahoma City. He leads the NBA by a country mile in both steals (2.8) and overall deflections per game (5.0), and he also leads the Thunder (owners of the league’s second-stingiest D) in defensive rating (98.2) and defensive win shares (1.4). The sacrifice of a handful of shot attempts from George in exchange for getting to watch him extinguish entire opposing offenses whole on a nightly basis is proving well worth the price of admission.

Hassan Whiteside, C, Miami Heat

He goes by many names: Young Whiteside, Agent Block, Blocktopus, Count Blockula, Hassanity, Mr. Whiteside (shoutout to The Killers). But credit to the big man because he is living up to all of them this season. The Heat have gone 8-5 since he returned to the lineup at the start of November, and his impact on the defensive end seems to be darn near irreplaceble. The blocks are still coming in bunches (1.8 of them per game, good for fifth in the league). But Whiteside is also getting smarter about his defensive positioning and timing, no longer recklessly chasing rejections when simply deterring an opponent from attempting a shot in the paint will often do. The result has been a 96.5 defensive rating for Whiteside (the best for any individual player to this point of the 2017-18 campaign) and a few less gray hairs on Erik Spoelstra’s head.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, SG, Los Angeles Lakers

If there’s anything that will make your eyeballs pop out of their sockets, it’s the hyperspace leap the Lakers have made from the 30th-ranked defense last season (out of 30 NBA teams, mind you) to the sixth-ranked this season. A major reason for that improvement has been the addition of Caldwell-Pope a.k.a. your favorite defender’s favorite defender. The fifth-year man has been locking down the perimeter and throwing away the key. He is once again among the league leaders in steals, and he ranks in the top ten in defensive RPM for guards seeing at least 30 minutes a game (a remarkable feat when you consider that he is usually tasked with checking the other team’s best offensive player). Bank on KCP making his first All-Defensive Team this year.

Al Horford, PF/C, Boston Celtics

The essence of Boston’s meteoric rise to the top of the standings has been their league-best defense, which is allowing a Scroogelike 95.8 points a night through 21 games. Horford is the linchpin of their defensive gameplan with his nimble feet and his first-class pick-and-roll instincts helping grease the wheels of the C’s uber-disruptive switch-everything strategy. That versatility in a 6-foot-10, 250-pound frame can blow up actions on the perimeter and in the post alike. It’s no wonder that Horford leads the Celtics in defensive BPM by a mammoth margin (3.6 compared to second-place Marcus Smart’s 2.4). It turns out the media isn’t the only place where he’s defensive.

Luc Mbah a Moute, SF/PF, Houston Rockets

Mbah a Moute is playing the least minutes of anybody on this list, but his significance to his team defensively has been just as great. After predictably finishing in the bottom half of the league on the defensive end last season, the Rockets are putting the D back in Mike D’Antoni’s name in 2017-18. They’re fielding a top-seven defense, and it seems the arrivals of Mbah a Moute and PJ Tucker are behind it. Of the two, Mbah a Moute has the better numbers (Houston is a full nine points worse defensively per 100 possessions when he sits versus “just” 5.2 points worse when Tucker sits). His three-inch height advantage over Tucker makes him the more versatile defensive piece. Should the Rockets keep this up and successfully finish as one of the NBA’s marquee defensive units, they will have The Fresh Prince of Cameroon to thank.

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