Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors, the reigning defensive player of the year and three-time all-defense NBA team member, thinks this year’s choice for defensive player of the year is easy: teammate Kevin Durant.
“If I had a vote, I’d vote for him right now,” Green told Monte Poole of NBC Sports Bay Area. “I think he is, if not the leading candidate. I don’t think it’s really a race right now. The way he’s been playing on the defensive side of the ball has been spectacular.”
Durant is having a solid season as a rim-protector. His 3.1 blocks per 100 possessions is a career high and he is allowing just 0.9 points per possession against on shot shots around the basket, the 10th lowest among forwards defending at least 50 possessions of this type in 2017-18. Opponents are shooting just 44 percent on these attempts, the ninth-lowest in the NBA.
Unfortunately for Green, Durant’s case as the league’s best defensive player starts and ends there, with evidence suggesting Durant isn’t close to being an elite defender during this campaign.
With player tracking available, we can move beyond traditional defensive stats such as blocks and rebounds in favor of more in-depth analytical measures, like how good a player is at deterring shots, forcing turnovers and disrupting the offense, how the team’s defense performs with a player on versus off the court and statistically based measures such as ESPN’s defensive real plus-minus (DRPM), which looks at a player’s stats and adjusts them for teammates and opposition.
Now that Durant is focusing more on blocked shots, his defensive rebounding numbers have declined from 11 per 100 possessions last season to 8.8 per 100 in 2017-18, his lowest rate since 2013-14. On top of that, he’s not locking down opponents on the perimeter as well as he has in recent years. Opponents are taking 40 three-point attempts per 100 possessions with Durant as the primary defender this season, hitting 38 percent of those shots. Last season they managed 34 three-point attempts per 100 possessions with a 32 percent success rate. Only seven other players defending at least 300 possessions this season have seen a larger share of three-point attempts against them.
Durant’s defense against the ballhandler on the pick-and-roll is also far from elite. He allows a team to score on this play 44 percent of the time with close to one point per possession against, putting him in the bottom 20 percent of the league’s defenders. If we limit the list to only those defenders tasked with stopping at least 50 possessions this season, Durant falls to 149th out of 162 qualified players.
In addition, the Warriors’ defensive rating improves significantly without Durant on the court. This season, the Warriors are allowing 103.6 points per 100 possessions with Durant on the court. That drops to 98.3 with him on the bench. Green, by comparison, improved Golden State’s defensive rating from 104.1 to 99.3 last season when he was named the league’s defensive player of the year.
But wait, there’s more. ESPN’s defensive RPM numbers are very down on Durant’s defense, suggesting that his defensive impact is worth only 0.3 points per 100 possessions to the Warriors after factoring in who he plays with and against. That ranks Durant 193rd in the NBA this season, a far cry from the DRPM of the four previous defensive player of the year winners.
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Overall, Green’s endorsement of Durant appears to be tainted with bias for a teammate rather than based on a sound argument. Durant’s improved rim protection comes at the expense of his defensive rebounding and his ability to prevent three-point shots against, making the Warriors’ overall defense worse with him on the court. And once you adjust his defensive efforts for teammates and opponents, Durant is average, at best, putting him nowhere close to a player that should be considered a serious defensive player of the year candidate.
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