Should Kawhi Leonard Win Defensive Player of the Year?
By Ian Smith
Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green are the two best overall defensive players in the league. Determining which one ranks higher than the other is the difficult part.
The San Antonio Spurs rank as the top defense in the NBA, and Leonard anchors the unit. Green can guard multiple positions switching on pick-and-rolls and serves as the most valuable piece for the Golden State Warriors on the defensive end of the court.
Last season, Leonard won the Defensive Player of the Year, becoming the first non-post player to win the award since Ron Artest back in 2004. Green actually received more first-place votes than Leonard last season, but Leonard edged Green out in the final point total.
The defensive metrics between the two paint the battle as not having a decisive winner. Leonard has a defensive rating of 95.9 compared to Green’s 98.7, indicating that Leonard gives up about 3 less points per 100 possessions than Green does.
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Leonard also has more defensive win shares this season than Green. Leonard has accumulated 5.4 defensive win shares, while Green has 5.1 defensive win shares. Leonard has proven to contribute to slightly more Spurs wins due to his defense alone than Green for the Warriors.
Green beats out Leonard in defensive box plus/minus, however. This advanced analytic measures the estimate of the defensive points per 100 possessions a player contributed above a league-average player, translated to an average team. Green scored a 4.0, while Leonard trailed behind him at 2.8 defensive box plus/minus.
Green also squeezes out an advantage in defensive real plus minus, which is similar to defensive box plus/minus in that it seeks to measure player defensive performance per 100 defensive possessions. Green scores a 4.73 and Leonard is graded as 4.51 for this metric.
Much like last season, this two-man race really has no wrong answer with crowning one over the other. A compelling argument can be made for either candidate. Leonard brings the added gravitas of being the defending winner of this award, and has done nothing to relinquish his claim to it. The Spurs are the top defensive team in the league, and Leonard is the most versatile defender on the court for them.
The Warriors are on the brink of setting the wins record for the regular season, and that accomplishment would not have been possible without Green’s huge contributions on the defensive end. The Warriors’ offense gets most of the credit around the league for their success, but their defense is what allows them to be the top team in the NBA. They give up an inflated points per game due to an increased pace of play, but the Warriors are a top 5 team in defensive efficiency, limiting the amount of points they give up per 100 possessions.
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Each player is the most important defensive component on their historically successful teams. Leonard may have the slight edge over Green this season simply because the Spurs rate as a better overall defensive team than the Warriors. Their individual defensive calculations don’t do enough to conclusively separate one as the superior defender, so the tie-breaker may have to rest with Leonard because of his team’s defensive supremacy over the course of the season.