What are your criteria for selecting the annual All-Defensive Teams?
Is it about which players have exerted the most effort from start to finish? How much does team success on the defensive end matter? Are we picking the best defensive players or the best defensive seasons?
Making matters more difficult is the incontrovertible fact that the less glamourous end of the floor remains a statistical abyss.
How much value do you put into on/off-court splits? What about hustle stats like deflections, charges or shots contested? Or what about simply blocks and steals, two of the box score staples that can't be considered without a wealth of contextual layers?
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Further muddying the waters? Reputation. How much does the stigma of waning effort work against the likes of LeBron James or even Kawhi Leonard? Conversely, how much does it help in cases where an individual's statistical markers fall short of typical standards?
Pick any player within reason and there's a mountain of evidence that can be parsed to point towards a defensible conclusion.
Perhaps more so than any other honour, picking All-D requires a blend of the eye test and evidence. While it's irresponsible to lean into the former without any regard for actual proof of performance, there are far too many confounding factors to rely on the latter without the former on hand to serve as a guiding light.
And so, here's a perfectly imperfect stab at anointing the 10 best defensive players this season.
- Guards : Eric Bledsoe, Ben Simmons
- Forwards : Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis
- Centre : Brook Lopez
Antetokounmpo, Davis and Simmons are locks.
In my estimation, those are the three front-runners for Defensive Player of the Year and I didn't waste two seconds considering anything short of a spot on the first team.
Antetokounmpo may not accept the challenge night in and night out of guarding the opposing team's best player, but he's the most disruptive help defender in the entire league. He can rotate out of nowhere to snuff easy looks at the rim, he can use his freakishly long arms to disrupt all passing lanes, he's agile enough to extend out and fast enough to recover when he gets beat. I believe he'll ultimately become the third player in NBA history to win both MVP and DPOY in the same season.
Davis captains a third-ranked Lakers defence and perhaps most importantly lit a fire under LeBron James resulting in the four-time MVP's best defensive season in over a half-decade. Like Antetokounmpo, Davis's incredible ability to trade paint with bangers inside and slide effortlessly with shifty players on the perimeter means he can guard essentially any player in the league. LeBron James might be the Lakers MVP, but Davis isn't far off.
Nobody defends stars as much as Simmons. When he's on the floor, chances are he's guarding the other team's best player . That's not baseless conjecture either, but rather a fact supported by the NBA's individual matchup data. The towering Aussie deserves credit for taking on the best of the best and as a 6'10" wing stopper, could become the tallest player in NBA history to lead the league in steals .
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While there are a number of directions to go with the final two spots, I chose to reward two more integral members of one of the most dominant defensive teams in NBA history .
Eric Bledsoe is a royal pain in the you-know-what; an in your face scrapper who loves to junk it up and make life miserable. He's the point of attack for what's unquestionably the league's top D and while he certainly benefits from an incredible backline, Bledsoe is a proven shutdown defender at a position which features the most prolific offensive scorers in the league.
He's been that good. Not only is Lopez contesting more shots than anyone else, he's forcing opponents into a worse field goal percentage at the rim than any other prominent rim protector . He's been more of a hindrance at the rim than Rudy Gobert in either of his last two Defensive Player of the Year campaigns. The Bucks are impossible to score on inside and Lopez is the biggest reason why.
- Guards: Jrue Holiday, Kyle Lowry
- Forwards: Kawhi Leonard, P.J. Tucker
- Centre: Rudy Gobert
Here's where it gets tricky.
Unlike All-NBA Second Team, there's plenty of worthy contenders and there's honestly about 20 different ways to go. In fact, that's exactly how many players I considered for these five spots.
The two easiest selections were Holiday and Gobert and even those didn't come without any second-guessing.
When I made my first pass at this, Holiday earned a spot on the First Team. In a vacuum, I think he's ultimately had a better season than Bledsoe. He guards players of all shapes and sizes and - like Simmons - spends a considerable amount of time guarding All-Stars and No. 1 options. There aren't many other guards that assume the primary responsibility of guarding LeBron James whenever the Lakers show up in town. Holiday leads the NBA in deflections and remains one of the league's most active defenders. He gets knocked down to the Second Team mostly because of my belief that the Bucks have been so magnificent and should be rewarded with three on the First Team.
Gobert could very well win Defensive Player of the Year for a third straight season and I wouldn't have too many qualms. In fact, in a survey in which The Athletic polled 33 NBA coaches to make their All-Defence picks , Gobert finished tied with Antetokounmpo for the most votes among all players. It's been a rollercoaster year for Gobert and the Jazz, but he remains unquestionably elite. All of that aside, both Joel Embiid and Marc Gasol warrant close looks and there will likely be plenty of ballots that feature one of them.
The other three spots are up for heavy debate.
Marcus Smart, Patrick Beverley, Fred VanVleet, Kris Dunn and Chris Paul all have strong cases for the other guard spot. I went with Lowry as he remains the heart and soul of a Raptors team that still managed to rank second in the NBA in defensive rating despite losing both Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. The Raptors have plus defenders all over the roster so division of credit can be dicey, but if you were to ask me to pick one player most responsible for their defensive identity, it's the charge-taking Lowry.
The last two forward spots go to Leonard and P.J. Tucker.
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Although Leonard's defensive effort in the regular season has waned over the last few years as he's assumed a heavier offensive burden, he dialled it up enough this season to represent the Clippers in this space. He held perimeter players to under 40 percent shooting during the regular season while also ranking among the league leaders in both loose balls recovered and deflections. When Leonard's effort is there, which was more often than not in 2019-20, he's the best perimeter defender in the league.
I can't say enough about Tucker who has been tasked with the impossible in Houston. Even prior to the trade of Clint Capela, Tucker regularly banged with the big boys down low. Now that he's the nominal starting centre, Tucker faces off against players six inches taller and 30 pounds heavier on a daily basis. Tucker is perhaps the most irreplaceable player on a Rockets team that many still have pegged as a sleeper to win it all. While James Harden and Russell Westbrook have each other, Tucker doesn't truly have an equal (Robert Covington comes closest, but he's not in the same class of fire hydrant on the block. Nobody on any of the 30 teams across any position carries on a more arduous and thankless defensive role than Tucker.
Guards : Marcus Smart, Patrick Beverley, Fred VanVleet, Kris Dunn and Chris Paul
Forwards : Pascal Siakam, Khris Middleton, OG Anunoby, Jayson Tatum, Bam Adebayo, LeBron James, Jonathan Isaac
Centres : Joel Embiid, Marc Gasol
The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.