Rudy Gobert versus Draymond Green for Defensive Player of the Year is as much a stylistic debate as it is performative one. A vote for Gobert is a vote for the establishment, the idea that a center is intrinsically more valuable on defense than anyone else. A vote that says if their talents are remotely close, the tie should always go to the big man. On the other hand, a vote for Draymond is a vote for progress, the idea that the league has changed so much that no position is inherently more valuable than any other. And, that Green’s versatility has more value in the modern NBA than Gobert’s rim-protection.
I probably lean towards the latter ideologically. I would rather have Draymond, a switching menace who covers more holes than any other defensive player in basketball, or Kawhi Leonard, the league’s best man-to-man defender, than any non-Gobert center in basketball purely in the name of keeping the ball out of the hoop. If anything, the idea of the pure rim-protecting center is dying. Roy Hibbert is practically out of the league. Players who had real value just a few years ago (Ömer Aşık, Timofey Mozgov) are now plastered to benches. Centers have to be able to do things other than stand in front of the basket now.
Which is why I settled on Gobert as my Defensive Player of the Year. He is the league’s best rim-protector for sure. But, he is also versatile enough to cover both the old-world and new-world bases of defensive value. Draymond is as well, and remains an inexplicably remarkable rim-protector in his own right. But he simply cannot match Gobert in that arena when his wingspan is a foot shorter. Gobert makes up enough of the difference in other areas to push him over the top.
Draymond’s calling card is his ability to switch and defend on the perimeter, particularly in the pick-and-roll. But Gobert gives up only 0.71 points per possession against the pick-and-roll, nipping right at Draymond’s heels as he allowed 0.68 points per possession in the same setting. Two years ago you could have argued that Gobert wasn’t strong enough on the perimeter to beat Draymond. That’s no longer the case.
You shouldn’t be surprised at how similar those stats look. The two are virtually identical in nearly every respect. Gobert allows 0.73 points per possession on post-ups and Green allows 0.74. Even in Gobert’s preferred arena of rim-protection the pair are dead even, allowing opponents to shoot 43.9 percent.
These numbers should, of course, be taken with a grain of salt. We aren’t privy to the NBA’s official definition of a pick-and-roll or a post-up. And while their contested field goal percentage numbers are nice snapshots, most objective analysis shows that they’re imperfect to say the least.
The things that push Gobert over the top are far more basic than the highly specialized stats above. A major one isn’t even statistical: you can’t measure the psychological deterrent Gobert’s length presents. His league-high block rate is nearly twice Draymond’s. And as helpful as blocked shots are in themselves, they have a ripple effect that matters on almost every other possession. How many shots were altered, or not taken altogether, specifically because Gobert was there?
It’s impossible to know, but we can say that Utah’s defense gets demonstrably worse when Gobert sits. They allow only 100.6 points per 100 possessions with him in the game and 107.5 when he’s out. That difference of 6.9 points per 100 possessions is a fair bit greater than Draymond Green’s 4.8.
A lot of that comes from their teammates. Draymond shares a starting lineup with Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, two of the best defenders at their positions in basketball. Gordon Hayward has improved significantly and George Hill is very good, but neither impact the game as much as those two, and that’s before you remember that Golden State gets to bring Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston off of the bench whereas Utah goes to Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw. Simply, Gobert has less to work with. And even if Draymond’s defense is better with him than Utah’s is with Gobert, I find the achievement of Gobert playing with lesser teammates more impressive.
The other major factor is often overlooked in defensive debates: rebounding. The goal of a defensive possession is to end the possession. Most possessions end in rebounds, and Gobert grabs 29.5 percent of available defensive rebounds compared to Draymond’s 20.9 percent. Efficiency matters more in player evaluation, but the goal of a basketball game is to score more points than the opponent. If Green’s opponents are getting more opportunities to score points than Gobert’s, at least on a relative basis, then they have an easier time winning. It has to matter that Gobert ends more possessions than Green does, even if you include his far higher steal rate of 3 percent compared to Gobert’s 0.9 percent.
I don’t have an answer to the era-defining question of which position matters most on defense. But I do feel pretty confident in saying that Rudy Gobert is the best overall defensive player right now, regardless of position. That’s what wins him Defensive Player of the Year in my book.
The Rest of My Ballot…
2. Draymond Green: For really bizarre reasons, Defensive Player of the Year is the one award the tends to be exclusionary of many of its most deserving candidates. Scottie Pippen is universally considered the best perimeter defender of all time. Yet, he never won. Tim Duncan is probably the third-best defensive player of all time. But guess what? He never won. LeBron didn’t win, but Ben Wallace has as many as David Robinson, Kevin Garnett and Hakeem Olajuwon combined. No offense Marcus Camby, but you shouldn’t have that trophy. I sincerely hope Draymond doesn’t eventually end up on this list. He deserves to win this award at least once. He just happened to exist in a period with Gobert and Leonard, who are both all-timers on defense even at this young age.
3. Kawhi Leonard: If you needed one stop to win the championship, you’d probably take Kawhi over anyone else in basketball. But on a night-to-night basis, his offensive responsibilities are just too taxing for him to be the Defensive POY on top of them. He’s still excellent, and in a playoff setting he should turn the effort knob up a bit. But this is a regular season award, and he just didn’t do enough to warrant serious consideration.
4. Paul Millsap: My offseason wish list begins with the dream of getting Millsap onto a true contender. I see no feasible way for him to wind up in Cleveland, but if he did it’d be a game-changer. I don’t know. Maybe he wins the lottery and can afford to sign with someone for the minimum. He’s too good to toil away on the Hawks.
5. Hassan Whiteside: This was the most complete defensive season we’ve seen from Whiteside yet. He no longer chases blocks blindly, yet he still led the league in rebounds per game. It shows just how quickly he can recover to the rim if necessary, mitigating the risks his expanded perimeter duties seemed to present.