Deep dives on the top all-time players have been common in NBA analysis since the league announced their own top 50 in 1996.
In the 25 years since, many all-timers have made arguments in favor of this Crash list. Generally, these cases are based on the offensive end of the ground.
Since the beginning of basketball, defense has been the less glamorous half of the game. And that may be even more true in an era of truly outrageous offensive production – seven 2020-21 teams scored more points per 100 possession than the former record holder, the 2019-20 Dallas Mavericks.
But there is a unique superstar in the West , which shows every year what impact a defensive specialist can have. And the league has just awarded him his third trophy for Defensive Player of the Year.
Rudy Goberts @ utahjazz teammates surprise him with his 2020-21 # KiaDPOY trophy .. the 3rd of his career! #ThatsGame https://t.co/HD5ulBp4Q1
Rudy Gobert is now on a list of three-time DPOYs that include Dwight Howard, Ben Wallace and Dikembe Mutombo. The latter two have four – and are both Hall of Famers – which gives the 28-year-old Stifle Tower something to shoot for.
Keeping the above list would of course bolster his case, but just like it did in the top 50 Lists isn’t all about MVP stocks, the all-time ladder for defensive players isn’t just about DPOYs.
Defense is also harder to judge by numbers. Much of what we see on offense can be summed up pretty well in points, assists, field goal attempts, and other numbers. Statistics have a hard time adequately evaluating things like spinning, scrolling through screens, communicating, and deterring action.
As catchall metrics like box plus / minus become more popular, their owners generally recognize the difficulty started measuring defensive impact.
« Box Plus / Minus is good at measuring offense and is solid overall, but the defensive numbers in particular should not be considered final, » wrote Daniel Myers for Basketball Reference. « Take a look at the defensive values as a guideline, but don’t hesitate to devalue them if a player is known to be a good or bad defender. »
IT’S OFFICIAL: Rudy Gobert has records in 5 different metrics for defense set up.
Greatest. Defensive. Szn. Of. All. Time. https://t.co/ca5IkHPjhk
It’s also worth noting that most of these numbers are only tracked over the last 15-20 seasons (although FiveThirtyEights RAPTOR dates back to 1977), but they still draw in Image of dominance. And if they all agree, as they did in 2020-21, that probably means something.
« I think it goes way lower than the boxing score, » said Gobert Ben Dowsett of FiveThirtyEight. « I think these metrics are all different, but all similar – when you combine them all you have a pretty good idea of how a player affects the game of basketball on the court. »
This last season was perhaps the highlight for Gobert – which is impressive in itself, given the gaudy offensive production across the league – but it’s hardly a breakthrough. His influence on high-level defense goes back well before the first DPOY he won in 2018.
Gobert was number 27 in the 2013 draft (hence his jersey number). Despite Utah’s terrible record (the jazz ended this season 25-57) and encouraging defensive metrics, Gobert had to gain most of his experience in what was then the D-League this season. He wasn’t a starter until Enes Kanter was swapped for the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2014-15.
From that point on, Gobert has anchored the most consistent defense in the game. In these seven seasons, Utah ranks first in terms of points allowed per 100 possession, first in terms of the true percentage of shots by opponents and first in terms of defensive rebound percentage. And the team was better on all three points when Gobert was on the ground.
While the NBA has quickly shifted to a style that is more offensive, three-point, passing and poseless basketball, Gobert has the jazz with one old school defensive influence held steady.
He is a menace in color. And so much of what he does is never recorded in a box score or catchall metric. What he’s doing stops things from being counted. Generally, if a player goes into the alley and a U-turn comes out when they see Gobert, it is not measured. Nobody counts how often he calls out defensive instructions from the defense. Points are not awarded for being the foundation on which an entire defense system is built.
But we can see Gobert’s influence on the defensive by observing almost every jazz possession. And the guides popping up on the internet (these aggregate metrics) provide some supportive evidence of the sometimes unreliable eye test.
While there isn’t a perfect measure of a player’s defensive ability, it is clear that award voters are aware of the implications are. Again, he’s now on a list that includes just himself and three other legendary defenders.
Gobert may not be as well known as Mutombo, but the game isn’t as color-dominated today. Some may also refer to Howard and Wallace as more productive rebounders. When you compare the numbers of the five-year highs of all three, these distinctions are a little more difficult.
Again, when you factor in the stylistic changes that have taken place over the course of Gobert’s career, his numbers get a little more meaningful.
The classic rim protection / defensive anchor model is interesting for everyone in the three-time DPOY club, but more versatile wing defenders like Kawhi Leonard, Draymond Green and Michael Jordan deserve attention in this discussion. Guards like Gary Payton, Alvin Robertson, and Sidney Moncrief need a look too. And we haven’t even reached out to all of those prior to the award (which started 1982-83) or numbers like blocked shots (tracked since 1973-74) like Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Nate Thurmond, to name a few , a few came.
The fact that Gobert has established himself as the defensive face of the league at a time when the offensive dominates must be part of the debate at all times. And while he’s obviously nowhere near Russell’s title count, it’s worth noting that the NBA is roughly three times bigger (in terms of team count) what it was during the Boston Celtics legend’s career.
Any list or Basketball player rankings will be subjective, and this is especially true when trying to focus on defense. It might not be possible to say definitively that Gobert is the most successful defender of all time, but after his third Defensive Player of the Year it is also getting harder to explain.
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