We don’t know yet whether the 2019-20 NBA season is over. But if this is it, I thought it might be nice to take a minute to acknowledge the best of what we watched. I don’t have a ballot for the NBA’s year-end awards. If I did, though—and if we had to vote based on the roughly 80 percent of the season that we actually got to see—here’s how I’d have filled it out. We’ll run through all of the awards this week, one post at a time, because we all must do our part right now, and the least I can do is give all of you the opportunity to roast me for my choices.
Defensive Player of the Year
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
2. Anthony Davis, Lakers
3. Ben Simmons, 76ers
To be honest, it pains me a little to put Simmons at third. The Aussie’s ability to handle any assignment Brett Brown threw at him was one of the few constants in a chaotic and often frustrating season in Philadelphia—a consistently entertaining, effective, and impressive subplot in the roiling (and somehow still ongoing) psychodrama in the City of Brotherly Love.
Simmons was a persistent menace, leading the league in steals while finishing second in deflections and third in loose balls recovered. He continued to do his damage from a variety of angles, too: For the third consecutive season, according to defensive versatility metrics compiled by Krishna Narsu of Nylon Calculus and Andrew Patton of The BBall Index, he spent at least 15 percent of his floor time defending the 1, 2, 3, and 4 positions, while also seeing his fair share of duty against bigs. (Another fun nugget from Narsu and Patton’s research: Simmons spends more time than any other All-Star guarding opposing teams’ no. 1 options.)
He slides seamlessly up and down the positional spectrum, nimbly navigating screens to stay locked onto jitterbug point guards and muscling up on the block when it’s time to bang against a big. There aren’t many players who could defend Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, OG Anunoby, Marc Gasol, and Serge Ibaka in the same game—well, not effectively, anyway—while staying out of foul trouble, logging 40 minutes, and still having enough in the tank to shoot 8-for-11 from the field and dish nine assists. As great as Joel Embiid is when he’s healthy and engaged, Simmons was the most reliably excellent and by far the most versatile contributor to the NBA’s no. 6 defense. For all the Sturm und Drang over what his offensive game might lack, we shouldn’t take for granted all that he brings to the table on the other end.
If the NBA actually ends up having year-end awards this season, I don’t think my choice will wind up being the winner. I’m guessing Davis would take home the trophy, in part because of the historic rarity of a player winning both MVP (as I expect Giannis would) and Defensive Player of the Year, and in part because of Davis’s massive value as the mistake-erasing constant on a Lakers defense that ranked a pedestrian 14th in points allowed per 100 possessions last season and shot up the leaderboard to third in his first season in forum blue and gold.
If it shook out that way, I wouldn’t bat an eye. Davis was sensational, a whirling dervish of disruption, forever lurking behind the first line of defense and threatening to end a possession; no player logged more blocks and steals, or recovered more loose balls this year. As fearsome a rim protector as Davis is, when you zoom out to look at shots taken from all areas of the court—a worthwhile exercise, considering how much time Davis spent dealing with rangy stretch 4s and switching onto guards—among rotation regulars, only Pascal Siakam and Deandre Ayton contested more 3s per game than Davis did. Opponents shot just 38.5 percent from the floor overall when AD was guarding them. That was the second-lowest defensive field goal percentage of any player who defended at least 500 shots this season.
It’s notable (and kind of weird!) that the Lakers actually posted a better defensive efficiency mark with Davis off the court (allowing 104.9 points per 100 possessions) than on it (106.7 points per 100). I’m not sure that should necessarily be a demerit in Davis’s ledger, though. Some of the difference can be attributed to a gap in 3-point shooting—opponents made 34.8 percent of their triples with AD on the floor, compared to 33.2 percent when he sat—which past studies have suggested is due to randomness more than the impact of an individual defender. (Laker opponents shot about 6 percentage points better from the foul line in AD’s minutes than when he sat, too.) And it’s not AD’s fault that the lineups that don’t feature him all still included a quality rim protector (either JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard) and a ton of size, length, quickness, and defensive smarts around the perimeter. Besides, the Lakers’ defensive rating with Davis on the court was still damn good—equivalent to the Celtics’ no. 4-ranked defense.
Davis’s ability to guard 4s and 5s opened the door for twin-towers lineups with McGee or Howard also on the floor, establishing the Lakers’ identity as a gigantic, brutalizing, shot-swatting outfit that bullied the opposition on most nights. He set the tone the moment he showed up, not only saying he wanted to win DPOY but also insisting LeBron James push for an All-Defensive berth, and he followed through (as did LeBron, who might not have been All-Defense-caliber, but who definitely worked way harder on that end this season), leading the Lakers to the top of the Western Conference and their best regular-season performance in more than a decade.
If Davis is your pick, I get it; I won’t shout you down. As was the case last year, though, I found the argument for Antetokounmpo most compelling.
He still doesn’t look exactly like players who’ve won the awards in years past, posting crooked numbers of rejections (he’s 39th in the NBA in blocks per game) and thefts (76th in steals per game). He’s not his team’s no. 1 rim protector; that’s Brook Lopez, who finished second in the league in blocks and limited opponents to 46.9 percent shooting at the basket, fifth best out of 126 players to guard at least three such attempts a night.
Eric Bledsoe still locks down the top backcourt threat most nights; Wesley Matthews and Khris Middleton step up on the top wing scorers; and a slew of long-limbed, well-drilled teammates handle tough tasks for Milwaukee. It takes more than one elite defender to field the best defense in the NBA, and one of the best in league history, and the Bucks have them. Still: Milwaukee’s lockdown defensive scheme, which prioritizes defending the rim above all else, works as well as it does only because Antetokounmpo can essentially erase half the floor, influencing which choices opposing offenses are willing to make like an All-Pro free safety roaming in the defensive backfield—or, maybe, like the Jaws shark off the coast, just waiting for some unsuspecting fun-seeker to get in too deep.
No defender in the league covers ground like Giannis, with his condor wingspan and ZIP-code-clearing strides; he’s virtually never out of a play, so his presence short-circuits forays into the paint, resets possessions, and strikes fear in the hearts of drivers. When someone’s bold enough to try to take it straight up against him, he snuffs them out. Davis held opponents to 52.2 percent shooting at the rim, good for 20th place among players who made at least 10 appearances and defended more than three up-close shots per game. Giannis: 41.8 percent, good for first. Remember the part about opponents shooting 38.5 percent when AD was guarding them, second best among high-volume defenders? Giannis: 36.1 percent, no. 1 with a bullet.
He’s a straightjacket one-on-one. Opponents shot just 7-for-20 (35 percent) in the post against him this season, according to Synergy Sports, and only 4-for-27 (15 percent) on isolation possessions, putting him the 99th percentile among all ISO defenders; just as notable as those percentages is just how few attempts dudes even bothered making on him. And he’s become the most fearsome transition defender in the league, daring opponents to try to get it on the glass before he can get there, and obliterating them with extreme prejudice:
Giannis with the chasedown block on Harden! pic.twitter.com/nHCmM0LD3A— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) October 25, 2019
Giannis with a big block on RHJ pic.twitter.com/4uMNJIaYlN— The Render (@TheRenderNBA2) February 26, 2020
The Bucks led the league in defensive efficiency this season, allowing just 102.3 points per 100 possessions. With Giannis on the floor, that number plummeted to a microscopic 97.7 points per 100. And as valuable as the Lopez twins were to Milwaukee’s scheme, the Bucks were even more suffocating when Giannis came in from the perimeter to man the middle; Giannis-at-the-5 lineups put the clamps on to the tune of just 94.8 points per 100 when Mike Budenholzer unleashed them.
Antetokounmpo has become, as my Ringer teammate Jonathan Tjarks recently put it, the NBA’s apex predator: a player with the size, strength, skill, speed, and tenacity to take any opponent, at any position, out of the equation. He’s the best defender on the best defense in the league, and—to my eyes, at least—a worthy successor to Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon as just the third player ever to win MVP and DPOY in the same season.
Just missing the cut: Bam Adebayo, one of just four players this season to log at least 75 blocks and 75 steals as the hyper-athletic back-line All-Star linchpin of the positionless Heat; Rudy Gobert, who led the league in defensive real plus-minus for the fourth season in a row as the constant organizing principle in Utah, and in whose minutes the sometimes shaky Jazz allowed 6.6 fewer points per 100; Brook Lopez, a mountain at the front of the rim who helps give Milwaukee’s defense shape and snarl.