Getty Image/Ralph Ordaz
Offense gets the attention in the NBA and, in the modern era, it could be argued that offense is more important than ever. Defense still separates contenders from pretenders, though, and the best defenders in the world leave their mark on the floor each night. To reward the top tier, the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award is in play again in 2021-22 without a clear and dominant frontrunner. While injury-related absences are, unfortunately, part of the reason for the jumbled group, that doesn’t take away from the elite performance on display from the top candidates.
Today, we will take a look at which players are the current leaders in the race with a sprinkling of honorable mentions, all of whom will arrive in alphabetical order.
Antetokounmpo is a clear MVP candidate, and he has won that award twice. He is also a former Defensive Player of the Year. Why, then, is he not always mentioned in this particular race? Well, unless it is voter fatigue, the reasoning is unclear. Antetokounmpo is tremendous at the rim, versatile enough to guard in space, a fantastic weakside rim protector, a high-end rebounder, and basically the total package. He gets an extra bump for carrying Milwaukee’s backline defense without Brook Lopez, and he is certainly on the short list for the top spot.
Gobert is a three-winner of this award, and he is the best regular season defender in the league over a half-decade or so. He is also near the top this year, even while missing 14 of 58 games, and Gobert has the obvious counting stats in averaging 14.8 rebounds and 2.3 blocked shots per game to lead the NBA in both categories. Simply put, Utah’s craters anytime Gobert leaves the floor, either for injury or rest. The Jazz have built the entire ship around his defense, for better or worse, and Gobert is the best rim protector in the league. For good measure, he leads the NBA in defensive RAPTOR (by FiveThirtyEight) and Gobert’s defensive metrics are always pristine.
When Green last played on Jan. 5, he was the clear leader in the Defensive Player of the Year race. The Warriors were lapping the field from a team perspective, and Green was the undeniable centerpiece of that success. Since he has not played in more than a month, Green’s candidacy is not in the same position, just due to the numbers game. Fortunately, Gobert also missed considerable time, and Golden State’s team results, coupled with Green’s reputation, can buoy his candidacy in the coming days. He will need to return pretty quickly after the All-Star break, though, or it is going to be an uphill battle from a cumulative perspective.
Mikal Bridges – The Suns are in the top three on defense with an ensemble cast. Bridges is the team’s best defender pretty easily, and he does show up in the top ten in the betting market for the award. It is tough to see him winning it unless Phoenix gets even better in the next two months, but he is a fast-rising impact player on the wing, and Bridges can simply take away an opposing option each night.
Joel Embiid – Embiid has three All-Defense teams on his profile and might make another one. He is also a legitimate MVP candidate, but the Sixers’ overall defense might keep him away from the top three (or even the top five) here. There is no shame in simply being awesome, but Embiid does not profile quite as well as Gobert for the award and there are candidates with better seasons going on defense.
Jaren Jackson Jr. – Memphis, like Phoenix, is enjoying a heck of a season without a single dominant defender. Jackson Jr. is on the radar in the betting market, however, and would likely be the guy if the Grizzlies got more attention. He has made “the leap” on defense this season, returning some of the pre-draft hype about what he could be on that end of the floor.
Evan Mobley – If we are being honest, this is probably a year or two early for the rookie big man. However, Mobley is in the top ten in the betting market and he is been the best defender on a top-five defense in the NBA. The future is unbelievably bright, and he is already quite good.