Midway through the Bucks’ Game 1 victory over the Bulls last night, the NBA announced finalists for its individual awards, meaning the top three vote-getters for each as determined by an electorate made up of league media figures. As expected, Giannis Antetokounmpo is indeed a finalist for what would be his third Most Valuable Player award:
2021-22 NBA Awards finalists: pic.twitter.com/CmpAs7tquF— NBA Communications (@NBAPR) April 17, 2022
For MVP and the other awards alike, the finalists are pretty similar to what several of us writers chose in our make-believe ballots. It seems likely we’ll be aligned with the end results in these with one notable exception (at least for Bucks fans): Defensive Player of the Year.
As you can see, Giannis is not among the top three finishers. Gobert’s inclusion there is never a surprise since he’s legitimately one of the most impactful defenders of all time, no matter how you slice it. The other two names surprise me a bit, though, as players thought to be defensively superior to Giannis in 2021–22.
Bridges is a deserving name for sure: the lead defender on the league’s top regular-season team who routinely guards the opponent’s best player (anywhere from 1–4, which is where so many teams’ top scorers play) obviously belongs in the discussion. Phoenix finished with the NBA’s third-best defensive rating at 107.3 and their wing stopper deserves a lot of credit for that. Beyond the eye test, some advanced numbers look favorably on his work this year as well. His 3.7 defensive win shares (DWS) are tied for eighth leaguewide with Giannis and Smart (plus Evan Mobley and Jaren Jackson Jr.). Though his 1.1 defensive box plus-minus ranks 27th and well behind each of those names, it’s good to take that with a grain of salt given that Nikola Jokic (who really improved as a defender this year, but is not yet elite) leads the field, something that can also be said of DWS.
As for Smart, Mitchell had a really good take on his candidacy in the aforementioned awards article last week:
There’s definitely a self-promotive element to Smart’s campaign: would he be there without grousing in the media about this perceived lack of respect for guards? He is one of the leaders (alongside Robert Williams and Jayson Tatum, who actually led the league in DWS) of the NBA’s top-rated defensive unit this year, though. Don’t get me wrong, Marcus Smart is an elite defender and there are few backcourt players in his class on that end. I do agree that he works his tail off there too and I’d be lying if I said I don’t admire that. However, there’s a reason that small guards don’t often win the award.
Smart may think he can guard all 5 positions, and while he can do that better than most guards, he’s no rim protector. Gobert, Giannis, Bam Adebayo, Williams, etc. are each far more impactful defenders in the grand scheme of a game because they are indeed rim protectors. Preventing opponents from getting shots off inside is still the single most important part of defense in today’s NBA, which is why big men still win the award. Big wings (Bridges, P.J. Tucker, healthy Kawhi Leonard, hybrid wings/bigs like Draymond Green, etc.) who guard elite scorers (Kevin Durant, Giannis, Jayson Tatum, etc.) also affect the game significantly by not getting blown by, and/or by forcing their marks into more difficult, often tightly-contested shots.
Smart is along the lines of that player type, but there’s an undeniable issue (as Mitchell alludes to) behind why he’s an as good or better defender than larger wings: a lot of Smart’s game is based on flopping and less on getting clean stops. Yes, he’s good outside of the acting, but he’s one of the worst in the league in that regard (see the video linked in Mitchell’s quote) and drawing charges accounts for a fair bit of his defensive numbers/reputation. When smaller defenders—especially ones who are very physical like Smart—match up with longer and taller scorers, it’s a reasonable option (not all guards take a fall, though, using strength and leverage instead). There’s often little recourse they have to make a stop other than to attempt drawing fouls, or if they lack that ability, fouling the opponent themselves. We see this first hand with how most opponents check Giannis. I know I speak for Mitchell (and probably a lot of basketball fans outside of Boston) when I say that I don’t believe in rewarding that kind of defense—while effective—over elite deterrents inside or perimeter stoppers.
Meanwhile, Giannis also ranks very highly in those advanced metrics while being palpably fearsome to any would-be scorer who dares near him but finished outside the top three. Perhaps he’ll still take home first-team All-Defense honors in recognition of this, but my read is that voters overlooked him to some degree based on his team defense’s mediocre regular-season showing. Milwaukee ended up at 14th with a 111.8 DRtg this year, but don’t blame Giannis for that: that number was a full point lower when he was on the court. While that may not sound impressive, recall how often he had to play out of position as the Bucks’ nominal 5 in defensive sets that weren’t their base drop-zone coverage, the scheme which helped them top the league in DRtg from 2018–20. Of course, that all became necessary with Brook Lopez on the shelf for several months due to back surgery.
In many ways, the circumstances of this season forced Giannis to be an even more versatile defender (which is saying something) than ever before, a challenge he responded to with one of the league’s best defensive performances. Those of us who watch the Bucks regularly know this, but national writers whose attentions are more diffuse likely don’t. That’s fine... but logically, this award should once again go to Gobert.