With many teams passing the 70-game mark earlier this week, the2021-22 NBA season is coming to a close. The first day of theplayoffs is exactly one month away, and that's wild to comprehend.Every year, the league cycle brings new moments, developments,opportunities and an entirely different subset of storylines. I'dbe remiss if I didn't mention that this has probably been myfavorite season to cover thus far in my career. Basketball isawesome.
As I'm going throughout the season, I tend to keep running noteson award races and improvements.
I kept coming back to Defensive Player of the Year and theAll-Defensive teams, and almost felt overwhelmed by the amount ofmental math going into the calculations this season. In past years,the defensive side of the ball has been fairly straight forward forme, but due to a plethora of injuries and extemporaneouscircumstances, this year felt different!
To parse through defensive thoughts, context and some of thecomplex equations this season has brought about, I teamed up withNekias Duncan and Jackson Frank to create a consensusdefensive ballot and provide reasoning for our selections. We allenjoy the defensive side of the ball, and couldn't avoid theopportunity to celebrate those who have put together a reallyspecial season on that end.
Note: Voting was done on March 14, and there is certainlyroom for change in the last month of the season, but this is wherewe came together as of that point. Anyone left off of the teams wasdeliberated on for a long time, and I can promise we havecollaboratively stressed the success of each individual throughoutthe year even if they did not make the team; this wasreally hard to narrow to 10 names!
Defensive Player of theYear
A guard hasn't won the NBA Defensive Player of the Year awardsince Gary Payton in the 1995-96 season, but there's real viabilityin Marcus Smart bucking that trend. The Boston Celtics have been agood defensive team for much of the year; they've ascended to dominant in 2022,building a 23-9 record off that foundation since the start of theyear.
Across five-man units that have played at least 250 possessions,there is not a stingier group than the Celtics' starting lineup,allowing just 93.8 points per 100 possessions, according toCleaning the Glass. That's 17.8 points below the league's averageOffensive Rating.
Smart is the best defensive player on the best defensive team inbasketball. He's a menace at the point of attack, one of the true"switch-all' players in the NBA. While every player on the court isa positive communicator — a substantial part of great defense —Smart reigns supreme as the defensive signal-caller by directingtraffic and calling out switches and pre-switches (the hallmark ofBoston).
The passing lanes aren't safe as Smart excels as one of the mostdisruptive off-ball players in the league, averaging 5.0 steals anddeflections per game combined (top-10 in both categories, perSecond Spectrum). He consistently toes the line ofoveraggressiveness and controlled chaos, but his immaculate timingmakes that one of his greatest strengths. He knows his personnelon-court and uses it to his advantage, abusing non-spacers orseeking out blind spots of a ball-handler or post defender. If youhave a weakness, Smart will find it.
Despite the Milwaukee Bucks only sitting 13th in DefensiveRating this season, Giannis Antetokounmpo is putting togetheranother brilliant defensive campaign. That ranking is far more areflection of injuries and limited personnel rather than some swiftdecline from him. He remains the league’s chief weak-siderim-protector, capable of covering ground with a degree of hasteand technique emulated by few others in NBA history. He’s rangy,quick off the ground and constantly toggling between the action andhis man to stay ready.
Before Brook Lopez returned from injury, Antetokounmpo wasMilwaukee’s one true interior presence, and filled a number ofroles in pick-and-rolls — whether it be drop coverage, switching onthe perimeter or trapping at the level of thescreen. The Bucks’ rim-protection has cratered without him.According to Cleaning The Glass, opponents shoot 6.3% betterwithout Giannis on the floor. He’s been exceptionally good, perusual, this year, and is rightfully a leading candidate to takehome his second DPOY award.
- Jackson Frank
Remember that stretch of games that Rudy Gobert missed earlierthis season while he was injured? The Utah Jazz ranked 28th and24th on defense in the league in those two stretches of play he wassidelined in January, per Cleaning the Glass.
While the detraction of Utah's 10th-ranked defense is fair giventhat its notable playoff flaws haven't been paved over, it should not be an indictment ofGobert. He remains the best rim-protector in the NBA; theopposition shoots 11.6% worse at the rim than the average whenGobert is defending the rim — and defend it he does often,averaging 8.74 rim contests per 75 possessions.
Gobert's instincts and positioning in help are exceptional, andallow him to cover for the mistakes of Utah's perimeter defenders.He's gotten even better on switches this season, sticking out onthe perimeter to shut down ball-handlers in late-clock situations(whatever happens behind Gobert on a switch is between the switcheddefender and his god).
I couldn't fault anyone for electing to vote for Gobert to winhis fourth DPOY award.