The NBA unveiled the 2017-18 All-Defensive Teams on Wednesday afternoon, two five-man squads that feature six first-time honorees, and a First Team led by Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert and New Orleans Pelicans everything Anthony Davis, two of the three finalists for the NBA’s 2017-18 Defensive Player of the Year trophy.
Dominance in the middle matters
Gobert earned 94 out of a possible 100 first-place votes from the voting panel of sportswriters and broadcasters, and 192 “award points.” (You get two points for each First Team selection, and one point for each Second Team nod.) He makes his second straight appearance as the center on the top squad, after finishing second in the NBA in total blocks and block percentage (an estimate of the share of an opposing team’s two-point shots a player swats during his time on the court) and seventh among big-minute bigs in defensive field goal percentage allowed around the rim, according to Second Spectrum’s player tracking data.
He led Utah to the league’s No. 2 ranking in points allowed per possession, and had the Jazz at No. 1 by a mile after he returned from a mid-December knee injury. Utah allowed a microscopic 97.7 points per 100 possessions with Gobert on the floor, providing the rim-protecting menace that fueled their remarkable second-half run to the playoffs.
Davis, a Second Team selection after the 2014-15 and 2016-17 campaigns, earned his first-ever First Team nod with 73 First Team votes and 163 “points,” both second-most behind only Gobert. He’s leading the league in total blocks (for the second time) and blocks per game (for the third time) and ranking fifth in defensive impact on shots at the rim, per Second Spectrum.
After All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins suffered a season-ending Achilles tendon rupture in late January, forcing Davis to slide more often into the role of back-line-commanding center for the Pelicans defense, New Orleans ranked sixth in defensive efficiency and was 4.5 points-per-100 stingier on that end with Davis on the court than when he sat.
Gobert and Davis are joined by three other first-time selections:
• Indiana Pacers All-Star Victor Oladipo (58 First Team votes, 136 points), who averaged a league-leading 2.4 steals per game and ranked in the top 10 in the NBA in several “hustle stats” — deflections, loose balls recovered and contested shots (among guards) per game — for an Indiana club that made a surprising playoff appearance in a season where many expected them to take a step back;
• Davis’ Pelicans teammate, guard Jrue Holiday (39 First Team votes, 105 points), who earned widespread recognition with his postseason breakout, but who was a defensive dynamo all year, ranking as one of just nine players to log at least 100 steals and 60 blocked shots, and joining Oladipo in the top 10 in those hustle categories.
Holiday finished the season third in the league in points allowed per possession used by ball-handlers in the pick-and-roll, and held his opponents about five percentage points below their typical shooting accuracy when he was checking them; this, despite the fact that, according to analysis by Jared Dubin and Krishna Narsu for The Nylon Calculus, nobody spent more time this season defending an opponent’s primary offensive option.
• Philadelphia 76ers forward Robert Covington (27 First Team votes, 90 points), who worked his way up from the G League to a $62 million contract in large part by playing the type of active, smothering defense that winds up leading the league in deflections and ranking you as one of just three players in the league with at least 120 steals and 70 blocks.
At 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot wingspan and quick feet, Covington emerged as the premier wing-defending option for a 76ers team that ranked third in the league in defensive efficiency. Philly allowed a whopping 8.7 more points-per-100 with Covington on the bench than when he was on the court to patrol the perimeter.
Draymond, Embiid lead the Second Team
Last year’s Defensive Player of the Year, Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors (26 First Team votes, 86 points), leads the All-Defensive Second Team. It’s his fourth total All-Defensive selection, but it also marks the first time in three years that he hasn’t gotten top honors. He received one fewer first-place vote than Covington, and two fewer second-place votes, after a season during which he and the rest of the Warriors sometimes seemed to be operating in second gear until they got to the postseason challenges that awaited them.
Green’s joined by fellow 2016 Olympic gold medalist Jimmy Butler (20 First Team votes, 79 points). He averaged a career-best two steals per game, fourth in the league, while acting as the tip of the defensive spear for Tom Thibodeau’s Minnesota Timberwolves, who allowed 105.2 points per 100 possessions with Butler on the court (which would’ve been good for 12th in the 30-team NBA during the full regular season) and a whopping 112.2 points-per-100 (which would’ve been dead last) when he wasn’t around to rally the troops. Like Green, it’s Butler’s fourth All-Defensive selection.
They were joined by three first-timers:
• 76ers center Joel Embiid (four First Team votes, 90 total points), the third finalist for Defensive Player of the Year honors, who captained Philly’s third-ranked defense and held opponents to just 52.4 percent on attempts at the rim, one of the league’s best marks.
• Boston Celtics big man Al Horford (24 First Team votes, 85 points), who manned both the center and power forward spots for Brad Stevens, helped hold the C’s steady after losing marquee free-agent acquisition Gordon Hayward on opening night and All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving a month before the playoffs, and served as the inside-out linchpin of a defense that led the NBA in points allowed per possession this season.
• Dejounte Murray of the San Antonio Spurs (32 First Team votes, 80 points), who took the reins from Tony Parker as San Antonio’s starting point guard midway during the regular season and began using his 6-foot-5, 170-pound frame, long arms and exceptional instincts to wreak havoc on opposing defenses. The second-year pro out of Washington posted the NBA’s fifth-highest steal percentage (an estimate of the number of an opponent’s offensive possessions you end with larceny) and allowed a minuscule 0.7 points per possession used by an opposing ball-handler in the pick-and-roll, frequently helping snuff out the first option to pace a Spurs defense that finished fourth in the NBA in defensive efficiency despite being without injured/estranged two-time Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard for all but nine games.
Five guys who weren’t necessarily snubbed, but miiiiight have a gripe
• Chris Paul, Houston Rockets 74 (20 First Team votes): Still an extremely good individual on-ball defender, all these years later, whose ball pressure and tenacity played a big role in Houston leaping to sixth in the NBA in defensive efficiency. That he missed 24 games due to injury likely slotted him in behind workhorses Oladipo, Holiday and Murray, but with Butler missing 23 and getting a combo “guard/forward” spot, you’d forgive CP3 and his fans for being a bit miffed here.
• Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder (22 First Team votes): On one hand, George set a career high for steals and proved capable of being a bona fide game-plan wrecker in his first season away from the responsibility of being Indiana’s top option alongside Russell Westbrook in OKC; on the other, the fact that the Thunder’s defense suffered mightily, even with him around, after the season-ending injury to Andre Roberson probably scuttled his candidacy. (Roberson was on pace to be a no-brainer selection, and perhaps a DPOY candidate, had he not gone down just before the halfway point of the season; as it is, he still got three First Team votes.)
• Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks (15 First Team votes): On top of everything else the Greek Freak can do, this season he more fully came into his own as the kind of individual defensive destroyer his frame always suggested was possible; with the exceptions of a fully engaged Green and Davis, perhaps nobody in the league can guard all five positions as ruthlessly and effectively as Giannis. That Milwaukee’s defense, self-destructing throughout the season thanks to the overly aggressive trapping scheme favored by the ousted Jason Kidd and former assistant/elevated interim coach Joe Prunty, finished just 17th in defensive efficiency probably hurt his candidacy; like Butler, though, the D was a tick above average (105.4 allowed-per-100) with Giannis on the court, and disastrous (111.1-per-100) when he sat. If the Bucks rise up the standings and defensive rankings next year under new head coach Mike Budenholzer, expect Antetokounmpo to push hard for a spot on one of the top two teams.
Josh Richardson, Miami Heat (three First Team votes): I wrote about Richardson’s defensive versatility and effectiveness a bit before the start of the postseason; the 6-foot-6 swingman has evolved into one of the sport’s most dogged and indefatigable perimeter defenders, a disruptor equally comfortable hounding point guards at the arc and fighting against taller marks (like, say, Philly’s Ben Simmons in Round 1) for every inch inside. He’s a special defender, one of the cornerstones of a Heat unit that ranked seventh in the league in points allowed per possession, and one whose profile could rise in the years to come should Miami position itself to make some noise in the East.
Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics (five First Team votes): He defends four positions — five, in a pinch, if Stevens really wants him to get into the legs of a waaaaaaaaay taller dude. He’s a 1980s power forward in a point guard’s body, an ornery fire hydrant with forever-active hands and chopping feet who never gives an inch, ever, and is perhaps the NBA’s premier chaos agent; no defender can turn a game on its head with quite as much flair and panache as Smart can. Horford’s the big brain behind Boston’s league-best defense, but Smart’s the burst of blood in its chest, the rush of heat that can overwhelm opponents and send the crowd at TD Garden into hysterics.
Against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday night, the Celtics will need Smart to fly around and break some things to put LeBron James and company on the brink of elimination. Maybe it’s best for the Celtics, then, that these lists came out a few hours before tipoff.
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