Does Rudy Gobert have a legitimate shot at a record-tying fourth Defensive Player of the Year award this season?
The answer, like the title of the debut studio album from Mancunian rock band Oasis, is “Definitely Maybe.”
To assess the Utah Jazz center’s chances of equalling the hardware feat set by Dikembe Mutombo and matched by Ben Wallace, The Salt Lake Tribune reached out to NBA beat writers and awards voters to gauge their thoughts on how the 2022 DPOY race is shaping up.
The short answer? Draymond Green’s midseason injury has made this a chaotic competition, perhaps more wide-open than it’s been in years.
While Gobert remains the betting favorite, conversations with the media members made it clear that there are plenty of candidates under consideration (including the Frenchman), but no real consensus at this point, with the regular season ending April 10. None of the respondents had yet settled upon a final choice — though one did pretty much (if not outright) rule out voting for Gobert.
Here’s what they had to say about some of the issues and players they’re considering:
The Draymond Green conundrum
Widespread opinion seems to be that the Warriors forward and 2016-17 DPOY was the frontrunner for the award this year before a lower back injury kept him out for an extended stretch.
“I say this kind of lightheartedly, but also this is true — that it felt in the first half of the year like Draymond was going to make life easier for us in that race,” said Sam Amick of The Athletic. “And then, obviously, that changed drastically.”
As of this writing, Green has missed 34 games this season. Undeterred, the Warriors forward has claimed he should have already had the award sewn up by then:
“I don’t know what league everybody else has been watching, but I have not seen anyone solidify themselves as Defensive Player of the Year,” Green recently told media. “Unless you’re just going by, ‘Oh, this guy played this amount of games and their team had this record.’ Great. Yeah.”
Unfortunately for him, many do seem to view his low number of games played as disqualifying.
“Draymond can say what he wants, but he’s going to play way too few games to win that award, in my opinion,” agreed Steve Aschburner, who writes a monthly “Defensive Player Ladder” column for NBA.com.
“Draymond, middle of the year, would have been the leader. And the Warriors were the best defensive team in the league,” said NBC Sports’ Kurt Helin. “He’s just missed so much time — too much time. There is a value to having played enough games.”
Not every voter has settled upon writing him off, though.
“I don’t know yet what I’m going to do about Draymond,” said Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com. “I think that’s a really complicated conversation.”
The other candidates
Part of the problem this season is that there are a relatively high number of perceived worthy candidates, and apparently not much real separation between them.
“Most years, by this point in the season, I pretty much knew,” said Helin. “Like, Sixth Man of the Year is gonna be Tyler Herro, right? I don’t think there’s a whole lot of debate. Most years, it’s maybe been not quite that runaway, but you pretty much knew what direction you were going. This year, it’s much tougher. No one ran away with it.”
Some very familiar names are, of course, in contention.
“As of now, I’d guess it’s a debate between Rudy and Giannis [Antetokounmpo],” said ESPN’s Tim Bontemps.
“The usual suspects are always involved: Giannis and Draymond and Gobert are three guys you almost have to consider every year at this point,” added K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago. “The body of work is the body of work.”
But there’s also some new blood joining the conversation.
“I probably would say that Mikal Bridges is the guy I’ve been thinking a lot about. Jaren Jackson is somebody I have high on my list — maybe not quite as high,” said Seerat Sohi of The Ringer. “I just love Mikal’s versatility — he’s kind of the perfect modern defender.”
Johnson also likes the Suns forward.
“Mikal Bridges is getting some buzz this year, and rightfully so — his ability to guard multiple positions and how critical he is to that Suns defense is hard to overlook,” he said.
While some voters have it reduced it down to just a couple players — Helin, like Bontemps, believes it’s between Gobert and Antetokounmpo — others are having difficulty trimming their lists.
“I haven’t narrowed it down too much yet — I know the guys that I’ll probably have on the All-Defensive Team, so like five guys,” said Brian Mahoney, an Associated Press writer in New York City. “… Jaren Jackson’s up there. I’m still considering Rudy. Probably not Giannis anymore. Bam Adebayo is another one, too — I’m not sure if he’s missed too many games.”
Fedor, the Cavs writer from Cleveland.com, finds himself in the same boat.
“I’ve narrowed it down to like five different guys,” he said with a laugh. “… I keep going back and forth — I can make an argument for Rudy. I can make an argument for Marcus Smart, the best individual defender on the best defensive team in the NBA. Giannis, and the kind of workload he’s had to take on in the absence of Brook [Lopez] and keeping Milwaukee top half of the NBA defensively. Jaren Jackson Jr. leading the league in blocks. Bam Adebayo, even though he’s missed a lot of time, he’s so important to Miami defensively in the number of different guys he can guard. And again, I’m trying to figure out what to do with Draymond.”
Factors for and against Rudy Gobert
Part of the reason it’s all so convoluted is that even if everyone involved thinks they’re considering the same criteria, they’re all viewing it from a unique perspective.
“If I have a guiding philosophy, it’s how integral is the guy defensively to his team, and how good is his team defensively overall? If you take that guy out, how good are they?” explained Ric Bucher of FS1.
“My criteria is probably the same cliché that everyone else has — the impact they have on individual defense, team defense, winning,” added Mark Medina of NBA.com. “Sometimes those aren’t as clear-cut.”
Indeed, what matters to one voter is unimportant to another. Some prefer classic rim-protectors while others value versatility and switchability. In some cases, history plays a role while others prefer a completely clean slate.
Bontemps, of ESPN, invoked one such issue of disparate voter values.
“It’s a choice of how you look at the award. The on-off numbers say Rudy is incredibly impactful, and their system is built completely around Rudy. In the playoffs, you can argue you’d rather have Giannis because of his ability to do multiple things,” he said. “Here’s the prism: Do you look at the guy who’s best through the regular season, or the guy who has the opportunity to be the most versatile in the playoffs?”
What else might help or hinder Gobert’s chances?
It’s been suggested that, in a season with no particular standouts, a desire not to go with the same-old, same-old could hurt the Jazz center. These voters seemed vehemently opposed to that idea.
“I wouldn’t have any problem voting for him. And, in fact, the whole idea of voter fatigue maybe even gives me a nudge to vote for him,” said Aschburner. “I’m stubborn that way, and I don’t want that to decide the award.”
“I haven’t decided yet, but every time that Rudy’s gotten the award, I’ve voted for him,” Medina added.
Working in the big man’s favor is that the respondents involved expressed pretty universal respect for what he brings to the table.
“I think the world of what he does,” said Amick.
“Gobert is the one guy in the league that makes All-Star teams based on his defense,” added Aschburner. “That still says a lot about what the coaches think of him, and I pay attention to that.”
“I don’t get hung up on the trend of being multi-positional, of guys needing to switch to be the best defender, needing to be able to guard in space on the perimeter,” concluded Johnson. “… I would never hold that against Rudy. He’s a great rim protector, and that’s still a huge part of defense.”
So then, what are the biggest problem areas?
Well, it’s really more of a problem area. Singular. It was the primary issue among those casting doubt on Gobert’s chances. Basically, the Utah Jazz’s defensive rating not being among the league’s elite this year is creating the narrative that his defense quite simply can’t be that valuable, as a result.
“The collective numbers do matter to me. I would feel better if, like always, Rudy was the captain of a top-five defense,” said Amick. “The fact that they’re in the bottom half of the top 10 and not as dominant as they used to be, certainly that comes into play. But it’s such an inexact science. He’s doing everything he can, but I don’t know if it’s enough to bring it home.”
“There’s just this perception that the Jazz aren’t as good. Last year, the Jazz were a No. 1 seed, and this year they’re … a 4? Three? Five?” added Mahoney. “… It’s almost like ‘Defensive Player’ has become a team award. If you have a great [team] defense, you get credit for that. That’s helped Rudy in the past, and there’s just a perception that there’s a slippage this year that’s ultimately going to hurt him a bit.”
Even those who support Gobert’s case see the merit in the argument.
“I’m leaning heavily Rudy right now at this point, but Utah’s defense statistically, as a team, isn’t as dynamic, isn’t as good as it has been,” said Helin. “That’s giving me pause, even if that’s not on Rudy. But it is a consideration that he’s only been able to lift this team so far.”
Meanwhile, it’s absolutely a strike against Gobert for Sohi, the one voter on record as unlikely to pick him.
“Right now, I don’t think I would vote for him — just the season Utah’s had is a big part of it,” she said.
So, where does all that leave him?
Nobody really knows. But they’re certainly hoping that, by the time the regular season concludes on April 10, someone will give them all some more clarity.
“I would say he’s certainly in the mix. … I’d be shocked if he’s not on my ballot,” said Bucher. “Whether he’s going to be No. 1 or not is something I still have to work on.”
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