The NBA announced on Monday that Marcus Smart is this season’s Defensive Player of the Year (DPOY) after accumulating 37 first-place votes and 257 total points.
Smart became the first guard to win the award since Garry Payton in 1996. The Boston Celtic guard is a perennial perimeter defender and is a big reason why his team ranks first in defensive rating (106.2) in the league.
But for as impressive as Smart’s performance has been this season on the defensive end, several analysts and data experts believe that the award was given to him for PR and narrative purposes. After all, a guard hasn’t won the DPOY trophy in 25 years. This is also the second time in five years that the three-time DPOY recipient Rudy Gobert didn’t nab the award.
The same analysts and data experts also believe that the award should’ve gone to Rudy Gobert or other defensive juggernauts like Bam Adebayo, runner-up Mikal Bridges and even Giannis Antetokounmpo. Because according to the eye-test and league tracking data, Smart’s defensive impact on his team isn’t as significant compared to the names mentioned above.
What does the data say?
The data suggest that Gobert, who averaged a career-high 14.7 rebounds, 2.1 blocks, and 15.6 points per game this season, should’ve taken home the trophy. Why? Because the big man is literally the anchor of the Jazz defense.
The three-time DPOY awardee provides rim protection, covers his team’s atrocious point-of-attack defense (this is a knock on Donovan Mitchell), and cleans up his team’s defensive lapses on the wing and backline area. Gobert also led his fellow candidates in defensive rebounds, blocks, overall rating, and on-and-off the court point differentials.
If we consider the player’s analytical defensive impact on their team, then maybe Gobert deserves the award more than Smart.
This season, the Jazz’s defensive rating with Gobert on the floor is at 105.1, which ranks first in the league, but when the big man sits, the number skyrockets to 112.3, which is 21st in the league. Gobert’s case here is that the -7.2 difference when he’s in and off the court is the best compared to Smart, Bridges, Antetkounmpo, and Adebayo.
Is it time to reconsider the criteria?
Gobert’s stats above weren't used to discredit Smart for winning this year’s DPOY award. Smart is absolutely worthy of winning the award because he is one of the best defensive players in the league. But maybe it’s also time for the NBA to release the criteria on how voters should pick the defensive player of the year.
Do they base it on the player’s impact? Or the candidate’s overall team defensive rating? The player’s workload? This discourse wouldn’t happen if the NBA were more explicit about the benchmarks to win the DPOY award. But then, we wouldn't have so much drama that drums up interest.