Monday morning, it was announced that the San Antonio Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard repeated as Defensive Player of the Year. It’s an entirely deserved award, and the irony is that his win this year was probably more clearly his than last year, while the voting numbers aren’t that far off. Kawhi led voting with 547 points, with Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors coming in second with 421.
Leonard’s repeat this year is certainly defensible from a statistical standpoint: of players starting a significant amount of games this year, opponents shot a dismal 39.2% when he defended the attempt, down 5.7% from their regular average of 44.9%. That’s not all that different from Green, though, whose opponents shot 39.5% against an average of 45.6%, a differential of -6.2%. However, Leonard also sports a stellar Defensive Rating of 94.9, good for first in the league among starters who played 70+ games. Green, by comparison, sports a 97.5 DRtg. On top of that, Leonard accounts for just under a third of the Spurs’ steals when he’s on the court, with Green’s steal percentage clocking in around 22%. He also leads in Defensive Win Shares, .71 to .65.
All the numbers, while generally leaning towards Leonard, aren’t that terribly far apart. I’d say it’s more the things that are less easily tracked that place him ahead of the pack (and by the pack, I pretty much just mean Draymond Green). His off-ball defense is incredible. Opposing players are, and should be, wary to put the ball anywhere near him. Just check out his off-ball D on Lance Stephenson here. There’s only one set of hands that pass could ever possibly end up in, and it’s not Stephensons’. What’s more, it doesn’t even look hard. Lance looks like he’s expending twice as much energy. The numbers might even back this theory up a bit, since opposing players attempted a significant amount more shots per game against Dray than they did Kawhi, 16.5 versus 7.7. Nobody wants to shoot against the Klaw. No one. Dray is like a human version of one of those pads coaches use to push players around in practice: he’ll stick with you and push you around, generally making your life difficult. Kawhi is a straightjacket. It doesn’t matter whether you have the ball or not; you’re locked.
Another point in Kawhi’s column is is defensive specialty. He’s a wing defender by trade, whereas Dray is a 1-5 guy who really does better against big ben, enabling the Warriors’ “Lineup of Death” featuring him at center. The reality of today’s NBA is that guards and prolific wing scorers are at the top, meaning that two equally effective defenders’ value can depend on their ability to work the perimeter. Green does just fine, but he lacks the speed and wingspan to quite keep up with elite guards and wings. He’s better down low. Kawhi, on the other hand, destroys perimeter players. You may not like it, but at the end of the day, the latter is more valuable because he’s more effective where more of today’s offense lives.
Finally, maybe the best argument for Leonard over Green as DPOY this year is one of some fans’ least favorite argument for the MVP award: best player on the best team. This year’s Spurs team is one of, if not the, greatest defensive team of the modern era. Leonard is the linchpin of that defense, and the best defender on it. Therefore, he is the Defensive Player of the year. Ironically, this was a big argument for Green getting robbed last year when the Warriors led the league in defensive efficiency.
Kawhi Leonard is a 2-time Defensive Player of the year, NBA Champion, Finals MVP, and All-Star at age 24. He’s going to be (if he’s not already) the most important member of a perennially successful franchise entering its latest phase. Fear him, bow to him, love him, hate him, he won’t care. Even if he did, you wouldn’t see it on his face. He won’t celebrate or taunt. He’ll just rip the ball (and victory, often) away from you without any expression. Here’s where players and fans have one thing in common: there’s nothing we can do about it except watch.