It seems like a forgone conclusion that the Houston Rockets’ James Harden will win the NBA’s MVP award. While that might be the highest prize a player can win, there is other hardware still up for grabs.
I’ll let you in on a secret: Anthony Davis has been tremendous defensively this year. Good enough to maybe win Defensive Player of the Year. I say maybe, because the race is much more wide open this year than in the past. But let’s take a look at how Anthony Davis has performed on the defensive side of the ball this year.
If you look at just the counting stats (which we aren’t going to do), almost only one player would qualify.
Davis is the only player in the league averaging at least 2 blocks and 1 steal per game. Davis is actually averaging 2.4 blocks and 1.5 steals per game. Playing a significant amount of minutes guarding opponent power forwards, Davis has the ability to roam around and get his long arms in passing lanes. Some of AD’s closest competition in Rudy Gobert and Joel Embiid don’t even average 1 steal per game, and Davis actually has more deflections per game than either center. It may not seem like much of a difference, but getting stops in the offensively explosive NBA is important, and steals end opponent possessions.
A forgotten aspect of defense is not sending opponents to the free throw line. Compared to those two other bigs, Davis succeeds. With all the minutes he’s played, and how much he does defensively, Davis only commits 2.1 fouls per game. Embiid and Gobert both commit at least one more per game than Davis.
It’s 2018 and we know shots at the rim are one of the most efficient shots in the league, so it might seem counter intuitive to say that the Pelicans’ recent defensive strategy is to funnel opposing players into the paint. But when opponents are only shooting 55.6% against Anthony Davis down low, it makes a bit more sense. That ranks Davis as 5th best in the league when it comes to Defended Field Goal %. He’s higher than Gobert and right behind Embiid.
Davis ranks in the 86th percentile in isolation defense, where opponents only score on him 32.2% of the time—that’s better than Paul George. Davis is stout in the post using his length to either block or alter opponent shots, and he does an excellent job taking away rim runs from opponents by allowing the roll man to score just 36.9% of the time. And he shows off his versatility by stifling opposing ball handlers on switches. Davis only allows the ball handler to score 37.5% of the time out of a pick and roll switch—an area where both Embiid and Gobert struggle.
Because Davis splits his time at both frontcourt positions he is able to impact the game all over the floor. Take a look at the block charts from this season.
— PhilJFry (@PhilJFry5) March 24, 2018
Davis is freed up by playing next to DeMarcus Cousins and Emeka Okafor. He can harass and trap guards in the backcourt; block shots on the perimeter with his ability to close out quickly; or lull guards into driving before blocking them from behind. Embiid and Gobert, because they play center, tend to stay around the rim. And they are great down low, but not nearly as dynamic as Davis is over the court.
This is where Davis will get knocked the most. But this category is also the one that is most influenced by the supporting cast. Outside of Jrue Holiday, the rest of the Pelicans roster is considered neutral or worse defenders. As the Pelicans tried to find their footing early on in the season, their defensive rating suffered. The Pelicans had the 25th worst defensive rating until December 31st. It can’t be ignored.
However, since the start of the New Year, the Pelicans have the 9th best defensive rating, putting the team at 15th overall on the year. It’s not the top 5 defense that the Jazz and 76ers have been sporting all season long, but there has been steady improvement despite a subpar defensive supporting cast compared to those two teams.
This defense wouldn’t even come close to ranking 15th without Anthony Davis. The Pelicans sport a 110.2 DRTG when Davis sits—that would rank 29th in the league. The team sports a DRTG of 104.3 with him on the court. That’s a difference of -5.9 with Davis out of the game. Embiid has a differential of -6.5, and Gobert sports a -7.4, but when both of those big men are on the bench their teams have a top 15 DRTG. Simply put, there is a talent gap here.
This area gets a bit murky but is worth looking at. Basketball-Reference.com’s Defensive Box Plus/Minus and ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus both rank the three big men as Gobert, then Embiid, then Davis—with Gobert winning by a big margin. There is some value here, but these stats are not the necessarily the most accurate (David West isn’t actually the third best defender in the NBA). However, it’s so significantly in favor of Gobert that it makes you think.
When you watch the Jazz defense you see how Gobert anchors them down low and allows everyone else to play overly aggressive because he is down there to clean up mistakes. And when he is on the court the Jazz have an unholy 97.9 DRTG. That is absolutely insane and makes me want to give him the Defensive Player of the Year award right now. However, I just can’t. And it’s not because the name of the podcast I host is called Locked on Pelicans…
The Best Ability is Availability
Let’s go back to May of 2016. Anthony Davis was left off the All-NBA teams because of 21 games missed due to injury. It cost him more than $24 million over his contract extension. But the message was clear: You need to be on the court playing.
This has to be one of the most ironic things I’ve ever written, but Anthony Davis should win defensive player of the year because of how many games he’s played. If Gobert plays in the final eight games of the season he’ll have still missed 26 contests (five more than Davis in 2016). That’s over 30% of the season. Meanwhile Davis is on pace to play 75 games this year.
As it stands today, Davis has played 2,436 minutes. Gobert is at 1565, and Embiid is at 1903. Davis has been slightly above Embiid defensively all year long. And while he may not have the eye popping numbers like Gobert, Davis has a greater impact simply because he’s done it for longer this season. The voters set the precedent a two seasons ago for why that matters. Now we have to wait and see if they’ll be consistent.