NBA Defensive Player of the Year: Can anyone stop Gobert from historic repeat?
After winning his third NBA Defensive Player of the Year award in four seasons, Rudy Gobert is on the doorstep of history. And in some ways, it's hard to imagine betting against him.
A season ago, the Jazz center became just the fourth player in NBA history to win the award three times after a stellar 2020-21 campaign. He enters this season as the +380 favorite to win for the fourth time in five years, which has only happened once in NBA history (Ben Wallace, 2001-02 to 2005-06).
And why wouldn't he be the favorite? Gobert has finished in the top three in defensive win shares in four of the last five seasons, including a first-place mark in 2016-17 (6.0) and 2020-21 (5.2). He also led the league in defensive rating (100.6), total defensive rebounds (720), and total blocks (190) last season while finishing second in blocks per game (2.7), marking his seventh consecutive campaign with at least two swats per contest.
Still, there are a few factors working against him. History tells us it's hard to win this award as often as Gobert has, and it only gets tougher with each subsequent trophy. Part of that is voter fatigue; part is attrition. Gobert played fewer than 31 minutes per game for the first time since 2014-15 and fought through various minor injuries down the stretch, which should come as no surprise given the physical nature of defending the lane.
There are also questions about whether the Jazz can win a title with Gobert as a centerpiece, which could prompt Utah to integrate more small-ball lineups in the regular season to prepare for the playoffs. Not only does that directly impact Gobert's production, but it also complicates his case as the league's most valuable defender if his team takes action to limit his playing time.
Gobert is still the safest choice on the board, and it shouldn't surprise anyone if he wins this award once again. Still, if you're looking to fade the Stifle Tower, here are the odds to win Defensive Player of the Year (shorter than 100-1) and a few intriguing alternatives:
|Wendell Carter Jr.||+6500|
|Jaren Jackson Jr.||+6500|
Ben Simmons, G, 76ers (+500)
Simmons had a legitimate case to win this award a year ago when he was the runner-up. The 6-10 guard was the only backcourt player to rank in the top 10 in defensive win shares (3.3) and defensive box plus-minus (1.9), allowing opponents to shoot 40.9% while guarding all five positions.
Simmons has a history of elite defensive production - he led the league in steals (2.1) in 2019-20 and ranked second in DWS (5.0) in 2017-18 - so it wouldn't be a surprise for him to replicate last year's stellar season, whether with the 76ers or somewhere else. At these odds, he's a perfect candidate for the "fade Gobert" camp as the league's premier perimeter defender.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, F, Bucks (+800)
It's surprising to see Antetokounmpo priced as the fourth option on the board after he won this award in 2019-20. It's even more surprising when you consider he was the runner-up in 2018-19 and finished fifth in 2020-21 through an injury-riddled campaign.
The Greek Freak has posted at least one block and one steal per game in each of the last six seasons and is the anchor for the Bucks' elite defense, which captured everyone's attention during its title run. Few players can marry production with narrative the way Antetokounmpo will be able to in his "victory lap" season in 2021-22.
Matisse Thybulle, G, 76ers (+2700)
A true guard hasn't claimed this award since Gary Payton won it in 1996. But if anyone can do it this season, it's Thybulle, who finished tied for 11th in DPOY voting a season ago and is quickly emerging as one of the league's biggest pests along the perimeter.
The 76ers' rangy shooting guard ranked ninth in steals per game (1.6) as a sophomore despite playing fewer minutes (20) than anybody in the top 50. Unsurprisingly, he led the league in steals per 36 minutes (2.9) and deflections per 36 minutes (5.6) while also blocking two shots per 36 - he's the only guard who ranked in the top 40.
If Philadelphia moves on from Simmons, the team will likely task Thybulle with a greater load defensively, which would result in more minutes, too. It feels inevitable he'll win this award someday; it could come as soon as 2021-22.
Paul George, SF, Clippers (+5500)
The logic here is simple: George has contended for this award before, and it's downright laughable to price him as a 55-1 long shot. The Clippers star had a strong case to win DPOY in 2018-19 when he finished third in the voting, ranking fifth in DWS (4.9) while leading the league in steals per game (2.2) as the Thunder's defensive anchor.
George hasn't been asked to assume such a defensive burden with teammate Kawhi Leonard flanking him each of the past two seasons. With Leonard likely sidelined for the majority of 2021-22, though, it'll once again be up to George to carry his team's defense, which should mean DPOY-level production at a long-shot price.