The DPOY Race Once Again Features a Dominant Gobert

February 18th, 2019 | by John Keeffer

Gobert is once again having an elite impact on the defense. (Melissa Majchrzak via espn.com)

While the Utah Jazz have certainly had their ups and downs this season, their reigning Defensive Player of the Year is in the midst of the best season of his career. Rudy Gobert is boasting averages of 15.2 points, 12.8 rebounds, 2.2 assist, and 2.2 blocks. To put that into perspective, only two other players in the entire NBA have averages greater than 15 points, 12 rebounds, two assist and two blocks: Anthony Davis and Joel Embiid. That is why we are all still trying to process the reasoning for him being left off of the NBA All-Star team.

The All-Star snub makes it fair to wonder whether Gobert is in position to repeat as Defensive Player of the Year, or whether his impact will be overlooked there as well. We are a few months away from award season, but the talks for the DPOY have been dominated by Paul George. Some of the other names getting mentioned are Kawhi Leonard, Myles Turner, Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis.

Last month, ESPN polled its expert forecast panel for their votes halfway through the season to see who they had as the front-runners for all the major end-of-season awards. In that panel, George edged the reigning DPOY with 31.8 percent of the vote, while Gobert received 25 percent. Davis and Leonard followed at 15.9 percent each, and then Embiid at 11.4 percent.

Here was the justification provided for having Gobert over George:

This is an abnormally deep DPOY race. Usually a clear contender or two emerges early on, but any of these five players could end up taking it. ESPN’s real plus-minus (RPM) gives Rudy Gobert the edge among this group, but Paul George has the benefit of providing rare, elite defense on the wing.

So Gobert has a larger defensive impact based on ESPN’s RPM statistic, but because George is a wing his impact is more impressive? Seems counter intuitive to me, but instead of arguing that point, let’s take a step back and look at more pieces of the puzzle.

In an effort to understand where all the major defensive players stand, I looked at the statistical rankings for each player in the major defensive stats.

So let’s start with the obvious by eliminating  two of the defensive player of the year candidates: Leonard and Embiid. While Kawhi is still one of the most feared individual defenders in the entire league, and he does still have the ability to absolutely lock down an opponent, his overall impact on the defensive side of the court is largely overblown this year. His reputation as a two-time winner of the award is carrying his candidacy in this year’s race. Embiid is still an intimidating presence on the defensive side of the ball, but as he’s assumed a larger offensive role, he’s taken a step back on defense.

That narrows down the playing field to Gobert, George and Turner, each of whom has a compelling case. Let’s start with Turner, since he is the player that no one is talking about. His numbers are extremely impressive. Almost all of his defensive stats are currently in the top ten. He is the top shot blocker in the league, has the third best defensive rating, and his team currently has the second best defense in the NBA. If the Pacers continue their winning ways after Victor Oladipo’s season-ending injury, and defense is the main area that carries them to a top 5 seed in the East, the national media will start looking at Turner’s defense as the reason.

The Pacers have the 5th hardest remaining schedule in the league, and without Oladipo, I expect them to drop off as contenders in the East. With that, I expect Turner’s case to fade. 

Georges advanced numbers aren’t quite up to par in comparison to both Turner and Gobert, but his case is made in being the best perimeter defender in the league. It is hard for a wing to have the same defensive impact as a big man, hence the boost ESPN gave him. In my opinion, George does not have the defensive numbers to earn Defensive Player of the Year honors, but his impact on defense does strengthen his two-way case as a potential MVP candidate.

Gobert is the man who has the clearest case for DPOY. Of the nine defensive stats I compared, Gobert is top five in all but two of them, and top ten in all but one of them. His average ranking in the nine primary defensive statistics is 14.5. George’s average is 36.1, and Turner is at 25.2.

Gobert is tops in NBA Math’s Defensive Points Saved metric, ESPN’s Defensive RPM, and Defensive Box +/-. Simply put, when Gobert is in the game, he has the most positive defensive impact of any player in the entire NBA.

Many of these end of season awards come down to recency bias. The overall numbers are sometimes not as important as how the player has performed post All-Star break. Luckily for Gobert’s DPOY case (and for the Jazz), Utah has the easiest remaining schedule in the NBA. If the Jazz can finish the season on a tear similar to last season, he should establish himself as the clear front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year honors.

John Keeffer

John is a Multimedia Journalism major at Utah's Weber State University, where he has been a sports reporter for The Signpost. He also has previous writing experience at his own blog, The Wasatch Front, as well as at The J Notes. John moved to Utah at a young age, just in time for the Jazz's back-to-back Finals runs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *