We are roughly three weeks into the NBA season. There’s a lot of basketball left to be played, but we are over halfway through the In-Season Tournament and over one-eighth of the way through the regular season. A lot of impactful, important basketball has already been played.
Defensive Player of the Year typically yields the least flashy award cycle. While debates rage about MVP and Rookie of the Year and Most Improved Player — the traditionally offensive awards — the Defensive Player of the Year winner tends to come and go. Jaren Jackson Jr. won last season, on the heels of his first All-Star campaign. But, the Memphis Grizzlies are 2-9, and there isn’t much talk about Jackson on the national stage. Rudy Gobert has won the award three times and there is a significant portion of the NBA fanbase that simply does not respect him.
That’s a shame. Defense is half the ballgame, literally, and it’s a hard truth that championship contention doesn’t come without a high-level defense. For as much as today’s NBA tends to skew toward high point totals and explosive offense, the best teams defend at a high level. It only becomes more important late in the season and into the playoffs, when games slow down and halfcourt slugfests become commonplace.
Here’s an updated look at where the Defensive Player of the Year race stands after three weeks of NBA action.
Honorable mentions: Evan Mobley, Scottie Barnes, Brook Lopez, Joel Embiid, Jaden McDaniels, Chet Holmgren, Ausar Thompson, Victor Wembanyama, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Mitchell Robinson, Franz Wagner, Alex Caruso
There’s ground for debate as to how much a player’s offensive workload should factor into this conversation. Does a player who focuses almost entirely on defense deserve less credit than a similarly impactful defender who also carries a primary burden on offense? There isn’t a better individual to hinge that debate on than Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who will populate MVP ladders all season due to his offensive output.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are 8-4, winners of three straight and home to the NBA’s seventh-ranked defense. Sam Presti has done a tremendous job of stuffing the OKC roster with long, versatile defenders. Chet Holmgren averages 3.1 stocks per game in the middle. Lu Dort is a classic on-ball stopper, built with the strength of a Mack truck and the screen navigation skills of a dragonfly. Jalen Williams also deserves a shout here.
But, it’s Gilgeous-Alexander who cracks the early-season DPOY rankings. He leads the NBA with 2.6 steals per game, constantly intercepting passes with his magnetic 6-foot-11 wingspan. He completely swallows ball-handlers at the point of attack and he’s a razor-sharp help defender, always in the right place to muck up a play.
At 6-foot-6, he’s comfortable defending up multiple positions, despite operating as OKC’s nominal point guard. He doesn’t necessarily get extra credit, but SGA also boasts one of the highest usage rates in the NBA. He’s a preternatural isolation scorer and the engine behind OKC’s offense. He’s a true two-way superstar and the rare guard who deserves legitimate consideration in this awards race.