We’re continuing to check in on the other award races with one one month to go in the NBA season. And after starting with Coach of the Year and then Most Improved Player earlier this week, we’re wrapping up with the one award race that feels truly up for grabs: Defensive Player of the Year.
A couple months ago, DPOY looked like a fait accompli. The Golden State Warriors were off and running, thanks in part to Steph Curry’s early MVP heroics and in part to a dominant No. 1 defense led by Draymond Green.
Green was my DPOY pick before the season at +3300 and he quickly became a clear betting favorite with a minus in front of his name midway through the season. But when a back injury derailed Green’s season, this race was blown wide open, and the odds have bounced all over the place ever since.
Rudy Gobert remains the betting favorite almost by default after winning DPOY three of the last four seasons, but he’s never really pulled away as a favorite this year and is still around even odds at most books.
This award feels wide open with a month to go. Let’s look at 10 guys who could still win this thing, starting with the favorite.
The Favorite: Rudy Gobert
Gobert is less a favorite and more of a default at this point. Will any voter really be excited to cast yet another DPOY vote for Gobert? It feels like there’s serious voter fatigue with Rudy after yet another cycle of playoff failures at his expense, especially since the Jazz are notably worse this season than last.
The Jazz rank only 10th in Defensive Rating, per Basketball Reference. They’re closer to bottom-five than they are to the top of the rankings. The Jazz finished second (twice), 13th, and fourth in Defensive Rating the past four seasons. Can you guess which year Gobert did not win DPOY in that stretch?
DPOY is an individual award, but it takes a team effort. Even Gobert needs help around him to be truly elite, and he’s not getting enough this year. Since 2008, every single DPOY has finished on a team with a top-five Defensive Rating, and all but three of them finished top-three. Gobert and the Jazz still have a chance to get there, but it won’t be easy.
Only Dikembe Mutombo and Ben Wallace have won four DPOY awards. Will voters really have the stomach to add Gobert to that list, and do it in a year when he’s been more good than great?
I don’t buy it. Gobert feels like a placeholder while we wait for another candidate to emerge. There’s no way I’d bet on him with a minus in front of his name, and even +160 at PointsBet isn’t enough. I’ve been hunting an alternate DPOY winner for months. I think it’s one of these names below.
The Veteran Contenders
Giannis Antetokounmpo +550
Antetokounmpo is the only player besides Gobert to win DPOY since 2017. Voters have a long history of rewarding repeat winners on this award. Twenty-three men have been named DPOY; 10 of them won it more than once and only 13 are one-time winners. There’s a decent chance Giannis adds at least one more DPOY award to his growing trophy case at some point.
But is Giannis just a second, worse version of Gobert? He’s another name that feels like a default choice more than a name voters will be excited to reward.
The Bucks rank only 15th in Defensive Rating, league average. It feels like the Bucks have sleepwalked their way through the season. Giannis has defended well and given his usual effort but the Bucks have a 105 Defensive Rating with him on the court, a far cry from the 97 he posted two years ago in his DPOY season, when the Bucks had the league’s top ranked defense.
Antetokounmpo feels like another default placeholder. He obviously has a better narrative than Gobert after last year’s title run, but it’s tough to see him worthy of a bet at +550 at DraftKings.
Bam Adebayo +225
Adebayo is much closer to the profile of a typical DPOY winner. The Heat are tied for fifth in Defensive Rating and have really turned the corner over the past month. Miami ranks second defensively over the last 15 games and is making a push now that the Heat are finally getting healthy.
Adebayo was one of the DPOY favorites to start the season but fell off the radar when he missed all of December and the first half of January. He’s played only 42 games and maxes out at 57, under 70% of Miami’s games. In a race like MVP, that would be a death knell.
It might not be for DPOY. Gobert actually played only 56 games his first DPOY season, and the timing is in Bam’s favor. Voters are prone to recency bias, and like it or not, it matters that Draymond’s injury came late while Adebayo’s is ancient history now.
Defensive awards are based on reputation and narrative, since there really aren’t many numbers to fall back on. Adebayo is well-liked, and voters may want to reward Miami for a hard-fought 1-seed season.
That reputation can take some time to be rewarded. Adebayo broke out two years ago in the Heat’s run to the Finals, and he’s an established star in Year 5 of his career. But Gobert didn’t win his first DPOY until Year 5. Same for Draymond Green, Dwight Howard, Marc Gasol, and Metta World Peace.
Adebayo would be my favorite. At the time of publish, Adebayo’s best odds are +225 at DraftKings. The value isn’t as great as it was just one week ago (he was just +600 at BetMGM), but Adebayo is as short as +140 at other major books. Miami has a cushy schedule and is coasting toward a No. 1 seed. Adebayo could be in line for his first major award.
The Young Guns
Robert Williams +1600
Perhaps voters will break their usual trend and look toward a younger option. Only Kawhi has won DPOY before his fifth season in the past 25 years, and he was in his fourth year and coming off back-to-back Finals. The last guy to win it that young before Kawhi was Dikembe Mutombo in 1995.
Outside of that age and reputation factor, Robert Williams makes a lot of sense. He’s been getting a ton of hype from the Zach Lowes and Ben Taylors of the world who really study this stuff, and he’s at the heart of the league’s hottest defense in Boston. The Celtics are playing like the best team in the East, having won 14 of their last 16, thanks largely to the defense.
Ime Udoka moved Williams out of the paint and put him off the ball on the wing, allowing him to use his incredible recover ability and shot-blocking skills as a help defender. Williams leads the league in blocks at 2.2 per game, and Boston leads the league in Effective Field Goal Percentage and may soon pass the Warriors for No. 1 in Defensive Rating.
I played Williams a month ago as a long shot at +5000, and he’s getting real buzz with the Celtics this hot. But there is serious historical momentum against a player this young — really in his first year as a starter — breaking through so dramatically. I don’t see much value at +1600.
Jaren Jackson, Jr. +1800
Jackson is in Year 4, though it’s really his third year since last year was a lost season. He’s one of a handful of Grizzlies who have really broken out and taken the leap this season, along with Most Improved Player favorite Ja Morant and Desmond Bane.
Jackson was initially drafted for his defensive upside, but struggled on that end early on even as the offense came. He developed a reputation as a stretch big who got into foul trouble often and wasn’t effective as a defender. That’s all changed in a big way this season and he’s now a linchpin of a top-10 defense, and he’s also played all but one game.
Even so, the Grizzlies defense is more good than great, and there’s just not enough buzz here. For a young player not playing on one of the league’s top defenses, I don’t see any value even at +1800.
Mikal Bridges +2700
The young player most likely to win DPOY might reside in The Valley. Phoenix Suns wing Mikal Bridges is playing in his fourth season but follow in Kawhi Leonard’s footsteps, taking advantage of a Finals run and serious reputation boost to grab DPOY the following season.
Bridges is crazy long and really bothers guys on the perimeter, but it’s so hard for a perimeter defender to win an award like this when big men have such a bigger impact. Are we sure Bridges is even the most impactful defender on his own team?
Deandre Ayton has been awesome, and Chris Paul is always an elite guard defender. These two and even Jae Crowder all have better advanced metrics defensively than Bridges.
Phoenix ranks top three in Defensive Rating and voters will want to reward a great Suns season. Bridges has built himself a real reputation, but DPOY is a bridge too far for me. He’s not the shutdown defender Kawhi was, and Leonard and World Peace are the only wings in the last 30 years to win DPOY.
I don’t mind a nibble at +2700 at FanDuel, but I don’t think he gets there.
Evan Mobley +5000 / Jarrett Allen +10000
The fact that our last two youngsters have to be listed together is exactly why neither of them has a great chance to win this award.
The Cavs are certainly the league’s most improved defense, and they’re by far the most surprising. There’s little mystery behind why — it’s Mobley and Allen. Cleveland’s twin towers have been awesome defensively, setting the tone all season for the league’s No. 4 Defensive Rating. Unfortunately, the two big men are also splitting credit for that success.
Mobley could have a path to steal some shine while Allen is out injured, so he’s the more intriguing option at +5000. If Cleveland pushes one last time up the standings without Allen and Collin Sexton, Mobley would get and deserve a ton of credit.
But are we really giving a rookie an award for established reputation? Mobley is already going to win Rookie of the Year. I don’t see voters rewarding him twice, no matter how awesome he’s been.
The Long Shots
Joel Embiid +10000
If you want to look further down the board for a long shot, you might think about Joel Embiid. I’m not sure it would be a deserving award, but voters could decide to give Embiid DPOY as something of a consolation prize if Nikola Jokic pulls away late to win MVP.
Embiid has the reputation defensively, even if it doesn’t feel like he’s always lived up to it this year or given his finest effort on that end. The Sixers rank ninth in Defensive Rating. That’s not good enough for a team with Embiid and Matisse Thybulle, not to reward a DPOY.
But the consolation prize idea could have legs. As a 100-to-1 long shot, it’s not a crazy nibble. But there’s one other even better long shot.
Draymond Green +10000
Let’s be honest — Draymond Green was supposed to win this award. Green is the best defender of his generation, and it’s honestly a bit shocking that he’s only won one DPOY.
The Warriors were so far ahead of the pack defensively with Draymond that they still lead the league in Defensive Rating — even though he’s played only 68 minutes in 2022, and even though the Warriors have plummeted to 23rd in Defensive Rating over their last 15 games with Draymond watching. That’s a pretty clear case for Green’s value.
The lack of games is the problem. Green has only played 34 games. Even if he returns March 14 as expected and plays every remaining game, that’s still just 48 games. Gobert will play around 65, Antetokounmpo around 70. Even Adebayo should get to 55.
Draymond leads the NBA in Defensive EPM at Dunks and Threes. He might be having the finest defensive season of his career. If he comes back and plays well and the Warriors immediately look like the Warriors again, could voters overlook the lack of games?
Honestly, they might. Green deserves a second DPOY at some point, and it’s a crying shame he was left off the NBA 75 team. If the Warriors quickly re-establish themselves as the league’s second best team, voters will want to stamp this season as Another Warriors Year and reward Golden State. Some of these voters are going to stare at a ballot and wonder to themselves … am I really going to vote for Williams or Jackson over Green?
In a race without a clear surefire winner, why not fall back to the guy everyone in the league agrees was the best defender this year?
Green sits around +1500 to +1900 at most books. That’s a tough sell for a guy with only 34 games played. But at 100-1 at PointsBet, Green is a must-add to your futures portfolio. He’s just too good to be totally out of this wide open race, and his return next week should shoot him up the boards instantly.