Scoring is down across the league. Recent rule changes have allowed for a more physical type of play, and nearly every head coach has focused on shutting down the perimeter. Overall, we’re seeing less free throw attempts per game and a considerable drop in three-point efficiency versus last year.
Scoring sells tickets and drives up TV ratings. There’s nothing like seeing LeBron James at 250 pounds, dice through the lane like a 6-2 point guard for a massive dunk. Similarly, people rush to witness one of Stephen Curry’s step-back 40-foot bombs in person.
Still, in 2021-2022 defense is in, pushing the league’s best defenders to the forefront of the conversation.
Next, we’ll rank the top-10 candidates for the Defensive Player of the Year Award.
Jarret Allen has been an excellent defensive center this season. His Cavaliers are ranked second in defensive rating, and he’s defending 14.4 field goal attempts per game while holding his assignments to a stingy 44.6%. Only one year ago, Allen’s Cleveland squad finished the season 25th in the association in defense. A new face in Ohio (more on him later) has helped morph the Cavs into the defensive juggernaut we’ve seen through the fall and early stages of winter pushing Allen out of our top-10.
The Chicago Bulls are 8th in the NBA in DEFRTG, and Alex Caruso is their best overall defender. He’s first in the league in steals per game and fourth in total deflections despite playing nearly half as many minutes as the other members of the top-5. Playing time is the problem, though. Caruso comes off the bench and averages less than 30 minutes per game, pushing him out of our rankings.
10. Paul George
At 6-8 220 pounds, Paul George is a prototypical lockdown wing. He has consistently taken on his team’s most challenging perimeter assignment on defense throughout his career, with excellent results.
This year is no different.
PG-13’s Clippers rank 4th in defensive rating behind his ability to harass opposing wings one-on-one. He’s stifling his assignments into a 42.3 hit rate from the field, and he’s defending 11.6 attempts per game, one of the highest marks out of all wings in the league.
Paul George takes pride in being known as one of the top two-way players in the world. His running mate, Kawhi Leonard, is out with injury this season, so George is shouldering more of an offensive load than ever. Still, that hasn’t stopped the former Fresno State star from going hard on every defensive play. It doesn’t matter whether he’s guarding LeBron James, Jayson Tatum, or Donovan Mitchell, PG-13, wants to shut down his assignment.
The Clippers lack a true playmaker on offense (Reggie Jackson, their starting PG, is averaging 4.1 APG), and often things have turned into a slog on the fun side of the ball for the Clippers who own the 24th rated offense in 2021-2022. Behind Paul George’s intensity, the defense has helped lead LA’s other team to a 16-14 record, good for 5th place in the Western Conference.
If the Clippers sneak into the top-4 out West, Paul George should climb up our Defensive Player of the Year rankings.
9. Deandre Ayton
Deandre Ayton has been a beast in the middle for the Phoenix Suns. He’s one of the rare big men in the league who has the size to protect the rim and the agility to step out on the perimeter off a switch and cut off drives down the lane.
Ayton is contesting 12.7 shots per contest (4th in the league), showing how active he’s been on D, but more notably, he’s getting a hand up on shooters behind the arc 3.1 times per game, a vast improvement from last season.
At 6-11 250 pounds, Ayton isn’t a hulking center who can be game-planned against. He’s more than comfortable covering guards off a botched pick and roll or handling a wing in the mid-range.
This season, Deandre Ayton has helped propel the Suns to one of the best defenses in the league, making Phoenix management wish they’d handed him a max contract over the summer.
8. Jimmy Butler
Jimmy Butler’s 2021-2022 defensive statistics are similar to Draymond Green’s; they aren’t great. Throughout the early stages of the season, Butler is allowing his assignments to shoot 0.8% better than their normal average, and according to Cleaning the Glass, the Heat are 0.7 points worse per 100 possessions with him on the court.
Also, like Draymond Green, the numbers don’t paint the total value of Jimmy Butler’s defensive worth.
The Miami Heat are 11th in defensive rating and third in points allowed per game (103.8), solid overall rankings. Still, when you consider their do-everything-on-defense center, Bam Adebayo, has been out for nearly two weeks, it’s clear to see their effort on the less fun end has been excellent, and Jimmy Butler’s the Heat’s motivation.
He’s second on the team in usage at 27.4% and first in points per game (22.8). Despite Butler’s heavy offensive responsibilities, he goes hard on every defensive possession. When his teammates see him pushing through the pain in his legs by launching out to open three-point shooters or by bodying up big men in the lane, they hustle too.
Jimmy Butler’s attitude, switch-ability, and desire to man up every squad’s best perimeter option push the former Marquette player into our top-10 and also give the Heat a chance to win night in and night out.
7. Evan Mobley
The Cleveland Cavaliers have been the biggest surprise in the NBA this season. Last year, they were a lottery team, and most experts expected them to flounder again in 2021-2022. Instead, they’re in fourth place in the suddenly deep and talented Eastern Conference. Even more surprising, they’ve built their 19-12 record against the fifth toughest schedule in the association.
Their improvement has been based almost entirely on the less fun end. Last season, the Cavs were one of the worst defensive squads in the league, clocking in at a dismal 25th out of 30 teams in defensive rating. Cleveland has flipped the script this season, shooting up to second in DEFRTG.
How have the Cleveland Cavaliers gone from an awful defensive team to a top-5 unit with little roster turnover?
Evan Mobley, the only rookie to make our list, has been the lynchpin.
The former Trojan is long, mobile, and surprisingly agile for a big man. Even more importantly, he grinds as hard as anyone in the league.
Mobley leads the NBA in the most significant hustle stat, contested shots. He’s rushing around the court like a madman, bothering three-point shooters, mid-range attempts from wings, and all drives at the rim. Overall, He’s contesting 13.2 shots per game, and in the process, inspired his teammates to give everything they have on D.
Evan Mobley should be a mainstay in these Defensive Player of the Year rankings for years to come.
6. Myles Turner
Myles Turner leads the league in blocks with a total of 87 on the season, 21 more than second place Rudy Gobert. He’s also holding his assignments to a solid 47.1 field goal percentage and Turner’s 15th in the league in contested shots per game, at 10.4.
Going deeper into the advanced stats, his on/off splits are in the league’s upper echelon. The Pacers are 3.1 points stingier on defense with Myles Turner on the court, placing the sweet-shooting big man in the 68th percentile in the league among all big men.
There is one glaring problem on Turner’s Defensive Player of the Year resume. His Pacers are 14th in the league in defensive rating (108.5), the worst team ranking for any player on our top-10 list. Turner isn’t surrounded by subpar defenders either, like Rudy Gobert or Anthony Davis. Caris LeVert, Malcolm Brogdon, T. J. McConnell, and Chris Duarte man the perimeter in Indiana, and all four players are more than solid defenders.
Myles Turner is an excellent help defender, more than capable of cleaning up his teammate’s mistakes at the rim. His problems lie in his own one-on-one coverage, where he tends to get eaten up by bigger players in the lane. In recent losses to the Bucks and Timberwolves, Giannis had a field day against Turner, dropping a cool 25 points on 10 for 15 shooting, and Karl-Anthony Towns notched 32 points against him as well.
Turner’s ability to alter double-digit shots per game pushes him into our sixth position, but if he wants to move up higher, he’ll have to work on shutting down his contemporaries.
5. Mikal Bridges
Mikal Bridges joins Deandre Ayton on our list, making them the only twosome to rank in the top-10.
Mikal Bridges has become the best perimeter defender in the league. He takes on the opposing squad’s best guard or wing nightly, holding them to a ridiculous 39.9% field goal percentage.
39.9% from the best perimeter offensive weapons in the league!!!!!
This season alone, he’s held James Harden to a 4 for 15 shooting disaster and stymied MVP frontrunner Stephen Curry to his worst high volume shooting night ever (4 for 21).
Here’s what Bridges teammate Chris Paul, a legendary defender in his own right, had to say about the Suns’ top ballhawk:
“I don’t care if Mikal plays another game, he better be on that All-Defensive team this year. Every night, every night, man, Mikal does everything. Everything.”
Phoenix clocks in at number three in defensive rating, and they’re also number three in opponent points per 100 possessions at 104.4.
Mikal Bridges has shown the ability to propel his organization to victory this season by taking away the opposing team’s best perimeter option. He is like an excellent cover corner in football (think Deion Sanders) in his ability to shut down his man by himself. Bridges' teammates don’t have to worry about Curry’s gravity or Doncic’s first step in the lane when he’s on the court, freeing them up to focus on their assignment.
4. Anthony Davis
Early season injuries to LeBron James, Talen Horton-Tucker, Trevor Ariza, and Kendrick Nunn depleted the Lakers perimeter defense, making the Utah Jazz’s so-so collection of wings look like all-world defenders. Frank Vogel has had to rely on famously bad defenders, Carmelo Anthony, Wayne Ellington, and Malik Monk (although he’s improved tremendously on D).
At times during October and November, it seemed like AD was responsible for defending the entire side of the court by himself. Still, he never hung his head or stomped his feet. He dug in and did his best.
As reinforcements have arrived to help, Anthony Davis and the Lakers have soared up the defensive rankings.
Have a look at the Lakers last ten games:
The Lakers are 4th in the league in defensive field goal percentage, holding opponents to 42.8% shooting from the field.
The Lakers are 4th in the league in defensive rating at 104.2.
The Lakers are 6th in the league in opponent three-point field goal percentage (33.5%).
After all the noise about how porous the Los Angeles Lakers D was to start the season, they’re up to 9th in defensive rating for the season, only a few decimal points away from cracking the top-5.
Anthony Davis is eighth in the league in contested shots at 11.3 per game. He’s flown across the floor for the Lakers, covering the perimeter, mid-range shots, and attempts at the rim where he’s tied for 3rd in blocks per game. It’s clear that once the Purple and Gold are fully healthy, they should be a top-5 defensive squad with AD as their best ball-stopper.
Anthony Davis recently suffered an MCL sprain to his knee that should keep him out for at least a month. Still, his injury doesn’t affect his place in this edition of our rankings.
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo
Giannis has won one Defensive Player of the Year Award, and he’s been selected to the NBA All-Defensive squad four times.
The Greek Freak is up to his old tricks again in 2021-2022.
After a slow start, Giannis’s Milwaukee Bucks have risen to sixth in the league in defensive rating behind their best player’s work effort. Antetokounmpo hates losing—a common theme among our top-3 defenders—and that pushes him to go as hard as possible on the less glamorous end.
Giannis is a two-time MVP, yet he still grinds on every defensive play, an attitude that trickles down to his teammates. How can a player like Bobby Portis or Grayson Allen not compete on D when one of the best players in the world is digging in and ignoring the ache in his legs at the end of a tight game?
Tune into any Bucks game, and you’ll see Giannis energizing his squad by launching out to open shooters behind the arc (he defends 4.9 three-pointers per game), breaking up pick and roll actions at the rim, or sprinting to the rack and snatching a defensive rebound. Overall, The Greek Freak is 16th in the league in contested shots at 10.3 per game, a number that shows his game-to-game hustle and ability to cover the entire floor as a defender.
In the end, Giannis might not surpass Gobert or Green for best defender in the league, but he should be a lock for another NBA All-Defensive squad selection.
2. Draymond Green
Draymond Green’s Golden State Warriors have a 100.5 defensive rating, nearly three points ahead of the second-place Cleveland Cavaliers, making him the best defender on the stingiest team in the association.
The stats don’t love Green. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Warriors have given up +0.8 points per possession with Draymond on the court, placing him in the 55th percentile among big men. His defensive field goal percentage is seventh among all regular Warriors rotation players, and he ranks 12th on his own squad in defensive rating.
Sometimes, you have to throw the numbers out.
How do you put a figure on how he quarterbacks the Warriors defense? Or the intensity and swagger he brings to the less glamorous end?
You can’t quantify Draymond Green’s impact with advanced stats.
Green’s teammates, Andre Iguodala, Otto Porter Jr., Andrew Wiggins, and Stephen Curry, have played lights out on D. Still, the former Michigan State product is the engine that drives the Warriors’ number one defense.
Draymond Green is the most switchable player in the league, outshining excellent defenders like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, and Bam Adebayo. He has no problem shutting down an All-Star point guard behind the three-point line and then swapping onto a hulking center and muscling him out of his preferred post-up spot.
Green is probably the most intense defender in the league. Rudy Gobert indeed hates it when a player scores on him, but one gets the feeling that when Draymond has an off day on D, he carries it with him for months, letting it dig inside him, fueling him to go a little harder.
If the Warriors continue to outpace the rest of the league in team defense throughout the rest of the season, Green could easily take home some hardware at the end of the year.
1. Rudy Gobert
The Utah Jazz rank seventh in the league in defensive rating, and one shudders to think where they’d be without Rudy Gobert. The Stifle Tower is surrounded by ho-hum perimeter defenders.
Here’s a breakdown:
Mike Conley is allowing his assignments to shoot -0.3% worse than their average
Jordan Clarkson is allowing his assignments to shoot 1.3% better than their average
Donovan Mitchell is allowing his assignments to shoot 4.8% better than their average
Rudy Gay is allowing his assignments to shoot 6.5% better than their average
Bojan Bogdanovic is allowing his assignments to shoot 6.8% better than their average
Gobert is defending the most field goal attempts in the league at 18.4 per game, and he’s holding whatever player ventures into his territory to an excellent 40.6%, second among all centers (minimum 15 games played to clear out the noise).
The French Rejection cleans up more mistakes than any player in the league, defending the rim like a momma tiger holding back a pack of wolves. Donovan Mitchell, Jordan Clarkson, and Bojan Bogdanovic are special on the fun side of the ball, helping Utah build a historically good offense, but they consistently get beaten off the dribble or bullied on the perimeter when they dig in on defense. Gobert’s ability to alter shots in the lane is the only difference between the Jazz being a top-10 defensive organization versus landing somewhere in the bottom-10.
Gobert has played in all 27 Utah games, which is important, but even more crucial is his attitude. He knows nothing but going 100% on the less fun end. Watch him, and you’ll see him clap his hands in anger when an opposing player scores on him. The Frenchman fumes when even the most talented guards manage to drop a layup in his territory.
Gobert has the defensive stats and the right frame of mind. He’s been the best defender in the league in 2021-2022.
Defense Is Still Key
So much has been made about the special offensive weapons spread throughout this modern version of the NBA. Still, the old adage, “defense wins championships,” rings more accurate than ever in 2021-2022.
Nine out of the top-10 defensive squads in the league currently find themselves in playoff position, the lone exception being the Minnesota Timberwolves. Conversely, the top-2 three-point shooting teams—the Charlotte Hornets and Atlanta Hawks—have struggled to get stops and are on the outside looking in on a top-6 seed out East.
Our top-ten defenders will undoubtedly continue to give 100% on the less fun end, helping their organizations rack up wins the hard way, and one of them will land the coveted Defensive Player of the Year Award at the end of the season.