From basically the moment he joined the Lakers last summer, Anthony Davis has made it clear that he wants to be the Defensive Player of the Year this season.
All year, his teammates have joined that chorus. LeBron James has tweeted about it. Head coach Frank Vogel and teammates Alex Caruso and Dwight Howard soon echoed that sentiment (this team really is in lockstep on everything). Rajon Rondo went even further, saying he’d be “angry” if Davis didn’t win the award. So watch out, awards voters.
But in all seriousness, all that was months ago, before a raging pandemic engulfed our nation and forced the NBA season to a halt. So on his post-practice Zoom call with the media earlier this week, Vogel felt the need to offer a reminder of Davis’ qualifications.
“Anthony Davis is the most versatile and dominant defender in the game. It’s just that simple. He’s the best rim protector, he can switch out and guard all positions on the perimeter,” Vogel said. “He just has a skill set that’s unlike everybody else in the NBA.”
The problem is that it seems not every voter agrees with Vogel’s thought process, or at least doesn’t agree that it makes Davis the clear-cut Defensive Player of the Year. The overwhelmingly favorite for the award right now is Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is also nearly a shoe-in for the Most Valuable Player trophy. But while Antetokounmpo is a great defender, there is a case to be made for Davis.
Davis averages more blocks and steals than Antetokounmpo, both per game and per 36 minutes, according to Basketball-Reference. Davis also has more defensive win shares and grabs a higher percentage of defensive rebounds while on the floor, as well as more per game and per 36 minutes.
On the flip side, Antetokounmpo’s backers have points as well. Giannis is probably the more versatile and certainly more mobile defender, guards a more important position, is excellent in both man defense and in help defense at that spot, and holds opponents to a lower shooting percentage (36.1%) than Davis does (38.5%), although to be absolutely fair, Davis also defends more shots closer to the rim by virtue of his position and the Lakers’ defensive system funneling people towards him.
That said, Antetokounmpo also makes a far more drastic impact on his team’s defense than Davis does. Among Bucks to play more than seven games this season, Milwaukee is never better defensively than when Antetokounmpo is on the floor, holding opponents to a stifling 96.5 points per 100 possessions. For context, that is over 5 points lower than the Bucks’ already league-best defense that allows just 101.6 points per 100 possessions, and far better than the 104.2 (which would still rank second in the league) that they allow when the Greek Freak is off the floor, which is the worst they fare when any player on their roster sits.
Davis is slightly less impactful on his team’s fortunes. The Lakers do have the third-best defense in the league, allowing just 105.5 points per 100 possessions, however, among Lakers to play more than 1,000 minutes this season, Davis ranks seventh on the team in defensive rating. The Lakers are also 2 points per 100 possessions better when Davis sits than they are when he plays, and while that’s obviously somewhat of an illustration of the limits of this stat and the level of bad bench defense Davis’ metrics have been tainted by (shouts to Rondo, who now knows who to be angry at if Davis doesn’t win), it still doesn’t help his case much.
All that said, the metrics aren’t everything here. The Lakers obviously aren’t a better defensive team without Anthony Davis. And there is something to be said for the issues he creates that may not be picked up by stats, something former Laker Larry Nance Jr. pointed out while making his case for Davis as DPOY.
Just from playing I feel like I have to be more aware of where AD is on the court compared to the others. Obviously all ridiculously good, but AD this year was a menace— Larry Nance Jr (@Larrydn22) July 24, 2020
I think AD had more to clean up after.. Giannis is more of a surprise defender where you lose track of him and he catches you off guard. You always know where AD is and the amount of drives, passes he discourages just by his presence is unmeasurable. Depends on what you prefer.— Larry Nance Jr (@Larrydn22) July 24, 2020
It’s also worth noting that the Lakers had a defensive system that drove players towards Davis due to his shot-blocking ability, whereas wing players are somewhat naturally discouraged from going at Giannis because of his skill in that area. There is a lot to factor in, and it’s honestly hard to say who should win.
The early returns don’t look great for Davis, with Zach Lowe of ESPN, Kevin O’Connor of the Ringer, Andy Larsen of the Salt Lake Tribune and Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com all voting Davis third behind Antetokounmpo (1) and Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (2). That’s just a quick straw poll based on a google search for people who publicized their awards ballots, but all four ballots chosen at random having the exact same order doesn’t exactly paint a promising picture for Davis’ candidacy.
The stuff Vogel and the rest of the Lakers (and Nance) have applauded is all valid. It just seems that it may not be enough in the eyes of many voters, and there is a genuine case for Antetokounmpo (less so for Rudy “Exposed As A Playoff Fraud Every Year” Gobert, in this bloggers’ opinion, but I also respect that voters are supposed to base it solely on the current season).
And whatever ultimately happens is probably good news for the Lakers. If Davis gets recognized for his efforts, that would be a fitting honor for him at the end of a stellar first season in Los Angeles. If he loses, then it’s just more motivation to throw on the fire for this already-locked-in team. We’ll see what happens when the awards are revealed later in the playoffs.