With many teams passing the 70-game mark earlier this week, the
2021-22 NBA season is coming to a close. The first day of the
playoffs is exactly one month away, and that's wild to comprehend.
Every year, the league cycle brings new moments, developments,
opportunities and an entirely different subset of storylines. I'd
be remiss if I didn't mention that this has probably been my
favorite season to cover thus far in my career. Basketball is
As I'm going throughout the season, I tend to keep running notes
on award races and improvements.
- Who's doing what?
- Who's on pace for Most Improved Player?
- What should the All-Rookie teams look like?
I kept coming back to Defensive Player of the Year and the
All-Defensive teams, and almost felt overwhelmed by the amount of
mental math going into the calculations this season. In past years,
the defensive side of the ball has been fairly straight forward for
me, but due to a plethora of injuries and extemporaneous
circumstances, this year felt different!
To parse through defensive thoughts, context and some of the
complex equations this season has brought about, I teamed up with
Nekias Duncan and Jackson Frank to create a consensus
defensive ballot and provide reasoning for our selections. We all
enjoy the defensive side of the ball, and couldn't avoid the
opportunity to celebrate those who have put together a really
special season on that end.
Note: Voting was done on March 14, and there is certainly
room for change in the last month of the season, but this is where
we came together as of that point. Anyone left off of the teams was
deliberated on for a long time, and I can promise we have
collaboratively stressed the success of each individual throughout
the year even if they did not make the team; this was
really hard to narrow to 10 names!
Defensive Player of the
A guard hasn't won the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award
since Gary Payton in the 1995-96 season, but there's real viability
in Marcus Smart bucking that trend. The Boston Celtics have been a
good defensive team for much of the year; they've ascended to dominant in 2022,
building a 23-9 record off that foundation since the start of the
Across five-man units that have played at least 250 possessions,
there is not a stingier group than the Celtics' starting lineup,
allowing just 93.8 points per 100 possessions, according to
Cleaning the Glass. That's 17.8 points below the league's average
Smart is the best defensive player on the best defensive team in
basketball. He's a menace at the point of attack, one of the true
"switch-all' players in the NBA. While every player on the court is
a positive communicator — a substantial part of great defense —
Smart reigns supreme as the defensive signal-caller by directing
traffic and calling out switches and pre-switches (the hallmark of
The passing lanes aren't safe as Smart excels as one of the most
disruptive off-ball players in the league, averaging 5.0 steals and
deflections per game combined (top-10 in both categories, per
Second Spectrum). He consistently toes the line of
overaggressiveness and controlled chaos, but his immaculate timing
makes that one of his greatest strengths. He knows his personnel
on-court and uses it to his advantage, abusing non-spacers or
seeking out blind spots of a ball-handler or post defender. If you
have a weakness, Smart will find it.
Despite the Milwaukee Bucks only sitting 13th in Defensive
Rating this season, Giannis Antetokounmpo is putting together
another brilliant defensive campaign. That ranking is far more a
reflection of injuries and limited personnel rather than some swift
decline from him. He remains the league’s chief weak-side
rim-protector, capable of covering ground with a degree of haste
and technique emulated by few others in NBA history. He’s rangy,
quick off the ground and constantly toggling between the action and
his man to stay ready.
Before Brook Lopez returned from injury, Antetokounmpo was
Milwaukee’s one true interior presence, and filled a number of
roles in pick-and-rolls — whether it be drop coverage, switching on
the perimeter or trapping at the level of the
screen. The Bucks’ rim-protection has cratered without him.
According to Cleaning The Glass, opponents shoot 6.3% better
without Giannis on the floor. He’s been exceptionally good, per
usual, this year, and is rightfully a leading candidate to take
home his second DPOY award.
- Jackson Frank
Remember that stretch of games that Rudy Gobert missed earlier
this season while he was injured? The Utah Jazz ranked 28th and
24th on defense in the league in those two stretches of play he was
sidelined in January, per Cleaning the Glass.
While the detraction of Utah's 10th-ranked defense is fair given
that its notable playoff flaws haven't been paved over, it should not be an indictment of
Gobert. He remains the best rim-protector in the NBA; the
opposition shoots 11.6% worse at the rim than the average when
Gobert is defending the rim — and defend it he does often,
averaging 8.74 rim contests per 75 possessions.
Gobert's instincts and positioning in help are exceptional, and
allow him to cover for the mistakes of Utah's perimeter defenders.
He's gotten even better on switches this season, sticking out on
the perimeter to shut down ball-handlers in late-clock situations
(whatever happens behind Gobert on a switch is between the switched
defender and his god).
I couldn't fault anyone for electing to vote for Gobert to win
his fourth DPOY award.
Let’s get the not-so-fun stuff out the way first: Bam Adebayo
has missed 25 games, which drops him out of the top three for our
exercise. It’s unfortunate, and it’s not his fault, but you have to
split hairs among the cream of the crop. He’s still worth talking
about in this space though.
On a per-possession basis, Adebayo has rivaled Draymond Green
(the other obvious missed-games casualty) as the NBA’s best
defender. His case revolves around his versatility. The 1-through-5
moniker is attached to many, but only earned by a few in the
Adebayo more than passes the smell test on that front. His
unique blend of size (6-foot-9), length (7-foot-3 wingspan),
lateral quickness, strength and discipline allow him to take on a
multitude of assignments. It’s why he’s given the Giannis
assignment (and does a better job than just about anyone), while
also being trusted to mirror wings and guards in space.
Only two bigs — Boston’s duo of Al Horford (149) and Robert
Williams (131) — have defended more isolations against guards than
Adebayo (101), per Second Spectrum. Not only has Adebayo switched
more ball-screens than any other big (539), he clears second place
by nearly 140 picks. Allowing less than 0.9 PPP in both situations,
with that kind of volume, is absolutely ridiculous. This might not
be *the* year for him, but it’s hard not to envision a DPOY trophy
in his future.
- Nekias Duncan
Jaren Jackson Jr.
(Scroll right for full table on
Mikal Bridges, a first time honoree this season (should be
second time!), has by and large been the best wing defender in the
NBA this season. He routinely guards the best player on the
opposing team, and guards them well. He's phenomenal off
the ball and as a rotational defender.
What sets him apart is his ability to completely neutralize
The number of players who can consistently slither around a
Jonas Valanciunas screen and reconnect in front of a skilled
on-ball guard before blocking the latter at the rim is pretty much
confined to this list. His body control and ability to avoid
fouling while still being aggressive is a skill in and of itself.
Bridges is a special defensive player on track to make many more of
these All-Defensive teams throughout his career.
Holiday's stout nature as a point-of-attack defender is just
ridiculous. There are times where I just have to flip on some of
his defensive tape to remind myself that, "Yeah, this is it." He
excels throughout as a defender, but his ability to completely halt
the progress of a downhill driver remains his standout
There are many 6-foot-3 guards you can power through on drives
in this league; Holiday is not one of them. He stonewalls wings on
the ball like a levee remains stalwart against the ocean.
His ability to regain connection off hard screens and contest
late, swiping in to tip a floater or shot at the rim, makes life
hell for any pick-and-roll operator. Just ask Donovan Mitchell!
Mitchell's 10-for-29 performance on national TV shouldn't be
solely attributed to Holiday, but Jrue's fourth-quarter defense
chasing him around screens and taking away his breathing room was a
The Bucks' defense has slipped this season from its
heights in years prior, but it's remained above league average
largely due to the heavy lifting of Holiday and Giannis.
When the Celtics went all in on Derrick White at the trade
deadline, I couldn't have been more ecstatic. He fits everything
"Boston." He can switch, he's hard-nosed at the point of attack,
he's incredibly active and intuitive off the ball and he makes
If someone asked me who I thought the most technically sound
defender in the league is, I'd probably go on a seven-minute,
glowing rave about Derrick White any day of the week. Being solid
is a good thing and also an incredibly hard thing to do. Defensive
awards are all about consistently being good — not just
overwhelming moments strung together. White navigates screens well,
but his fight to reconnect on the back end and contest late, and
tip or block a shot, is special.
The secondary and tertiary efforts set him apart. There are a
lot of players who tend to approach basketball in a segmented way
(not a bad thing, it's just natural!), but White attacks each
possession continually — always on a swivel, always roaming, always
filling the gaps.
Hebert. Freakin'. Jones.
Where do I even begin with him? What this guy is doing, and has
done all season, is just absurd — rookie or not.
He stood out at NBA Summer League. He stood out in the
preseason. He earned a starting position early. From the first tip
of his pro minutes, Jones has brought the heat. Whether it's the
third-string point guard or Zach LaVine (the first Chicago matchup
was amazing), Herb is locked in.
I'd argue he's the best screen navigator in the league who's not
a guard. His functional strength when stopping the ball can be
overpowering. His length and timing on contests is immaculate. He's
fantastic rotationally as well, rotating off the weak corner and
blowing plays up in the paint. He may as well be a barbed-wire
fence when he's at the nail, because good lord, I wouldn't have
any interest dribbling in his direction. He knifes the
ball like a spear-fisher.
To bring up intensity and "never giving up on a play" sounds
cliche, but Herb epitomizes that with his play. Watching opposing
players encounter his defense for the first time this season has
been one of my guilty pleasures. This will not be his last
Evan Mobley grabbed my attention immediately with his defensive
skills. Watching him at USC, I thought he had a real shot to
develop into a special defender, but to be one immediately from Day
1 in the league was not on my bingo card. One of the few hold-ups
with his defensive game as a prospect was inconsistent aggression,
and a switch just flipped once he became a pro.
He seeks out plays and disruption, but does it without
compromising himself; he hasn't fouled out of a game yet, and has
only accrued more than three fouls in a game six times
this season! That is legitimately mind-bending. Rookie
shot-blockers routinely struggle with fouling upon entering the
league, but Mobley has somehow ratcheted up that aggression while
maintaining his composure.
Mobley is incredible with his verticality and timing; it should
not be possible to get hit with the up fake and still catch the
Mobley's third in the NBA in contests (12.5 per game), and his
ground coverage and balance are the master key for the Cleveland
Cavaliers' defense. They can run three 7-footers (get well soon
Jarrett Allen) out at the same time due to proper scheming and
combined skill, but Mobley's ability to play the top of a 3-2 zone
and rover from baseline to the top of the key is what unlocks that
While the offensive jump many have been hoping for hasn't quite
hit for him (although there has been positive
improvement), Jaren Jackson Jr.'s defense has
popped in a way I wasn't prepared for this season. He showed real
indicators in his shortened year in 2021, putting it on in the
playoffs against Utah by flexing his instincts at the 5 when the
Memphis Grizzlies played small.
He's built upon that, and then some, this season.
JJJ's always had the length and recovery skills, but fouling has
been a real issue for him throughout his career. The fouling,
though not totally gone, is at the lowest rate of his career. His
coordination has really come along, and he's been more capable of
controlling multiple planes of motion at once. The way he's
impacted the game as a low-man and back-line rotator has impressed.
He's honed his timing; combine that with his improved body control,
and... woah, buddy.
His fourth quarter against the New York Knicks recently was one
of the best defensive quarters in basketball, period. The way he
swoops toward the rim and ebbs in and out of fluid-knifing jabs to
ball-handlers — a significant part of his growth as a drop defender
— is just a joy to watch.
This year has been special to me in covering the game and really
getting to wade fully into the world of basketball. I've grasped
and retained so much more defensive knowledge than I did in years
prior, and I expect to learn even more moving forward. Some of
these omissions were so tough, as Jackson and Nekias would echo;
Jarred Vanderbilt was our first
player off, and man, we wanted him on.
We royally fudged some of the positions to try and make the two
best and most fair groups we could (and we'll do it again!).
Injuries are an unfortunate part of the game that sapped some of
the best defenders in the world from a real shot to make our teams,
but that shouldn't take anything away from what these guys have put
together this season.
These teams have been a culmination of a year/season of work and
watching in the process. Just be sure to get the most out of what's
left of the regular season, and relish the awesome play on both
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