Stats & Information
In an extremely close vote, Kawhi Leonard of the Spurs was selected as Defensive Player of the Year over the Warriors’ Draymond Green and the Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan. The voting was quite close among those three players, with Green actually receiving more first-place votes than Leonard, but the reigning NBA Finals MVP won the award by 16 voting points.
The selection of Leonard isn’t shocking because he was undeserving; it’s more surprising because of how unlikely it was that he would win based on past voting trends and the perception of his candidacy. According to the ESPN Forecast panel, which has been pretty accurate with award predictions the past couple of years, Leonard was given only a 1 percent chance of winning the award.
As others have noted, the evaluation of defense has improved considerably in recent years. Instead of focusing almost exclusively on traditional defensive stats like blocks and rebounds (which would heavily favor Jordan this year), more in-depth measures are being considered.
• How specific opponents perform vs. the player in question, using manual video tracking like Synergy or automated player tracking like SportVU.
• How a team’s defense performs with a player on vs. off the court, using play-by-play data.
• More sophisticated, statistically based measures like defensive real plus-minus (RPM), which looks at on-off court stats and adjusts for teammates and opposition, among other things.
In the case of this year’s race, Synergy notes that Leonard allowed the fewest points per play when defending pick-and-roll ball handlers among the 71 players who faced at least 200 such plays this season. That speaks to how well he performs in his defensive role, going beyond the basics (like Leonard leading the league with 2.3 steals per game).
On-off data also supports Leonard’s candidacy, as the Spurs' defense was about five points per 100 possessions better with him on the court than off -- and that difference took them from about average without him on the floor to elite when he was playing. The difference was similar for the Warriors' defense with and without Green, but the Clippers’ defense was actually slightly better with Jordan off the court.
Specific to the case of Jordan, back in March Tom Haberstroh did a great job of explaining why the Clippers center shouldn’t have been a DPOY candidate. That article got a lot of attention, in large part because Doc Rivers blasted it -- while admitting he hadn’t read it. Perhaps that influenced voters to look beyond the basics that would traditionally favor the big man’s candidacy over the others.
Finally, the defensive RPM numbers are very high on Leonard, saying that his defensive impact is worth nearly five points per 100 possessions to the Spurs, controlling for who he plays with and against, among other things. Green’s impact is of a similar magnitude, while Jordan is much further back.
Evaluating defense in basketball is quite difficult for many reasons, but vast improvements have been made to NBA defensive metrics over the last few years. Leonard winning the Defensive Player of the Year award may be kind of shocking in terms of historical precedent, but it shows that a sizable portion of the media is beginning to pay attention to those better methods of evaluation and making smarter choices as a result.
ATLANTA -- “16-2,” DeMarre Carroll said.
The Atlanta starters had waxed the reserves in the intrasquad scrimmage during practice on Friday, which wouldn’t be a revelation, except that it’s far less common than you’d think. As he made note of the margin, Carroll pointed to the scoreboard in the Hawks’ practice gym.
“The bench usually takes care of us in practice,” Carroll said. “Ask Elton [Brand] about it. He pushes them -- and he always brags about it. But today the energy [among the starters] was so high. It was amazing.”
To a man, each Hawk who spoke on Friday emphasized the intensity level during the workout. The declarations weren’t statements of pride -- players 1 through 5 should beat players 6 through 10 -- so much as acknowledgements that it felt good to ready themselves for some games with serious table stakes. For the better part of a month, the Hawks have been locked into the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. Though they’d never insult fans who paid their hard-earned shekels to watch professional basketball, getting through the back end of their schedule was an exercise in mild indifference, especially coming down off the adrenaline of an improbable midseason run, a winner’s remix of the Nuggets’ “1-2-3 ... six weeks!”
“It does feel like we have not played a meaningful game in a long time,” Kyle Korver said. “It feels that way. But we had a great practice today. Guys had super-high energy. We’re ready to go.”
Their opponents are the 38-44 Brooklyn Nets, at least to most. To the Hawks, they’re the gift that keeps on giving. On July 2, 2012, one week into general manager Danny Ferry’s tenure, the Hawks traded Joe Johnson and the nearly $90 million remaining on his contract to Brooklyn for a trove of expiring contracts, a first-round pick, a second-round pick and the right to swap picks in 2014 and 2015. The deal created a trade exception for Atlanta, as well. John Hollinger broke down the trade the morning after, and had this to say:
“With two landmark moves in a period of hours Monday that wiped nearly $90 million off the payroll, the Hawks went from a franchise that considered losing in the second round of the playoffs to be the pinnacle of human achievement to being one that could matter -- I mean really, truly matter -- for the first time since Dominique Wilkins was making nightly highlight films.”
The Hawks now really, truly matter and the foundation of that relevance is the dividends of the Johnson trade. The Hawks used that exception to acquire Korver from Chicago. The payroll flexibility created by the deal enabled the Hawks to sign Paul Millsap, to retain Korver when his contract expired the following summer, to make a reasonable offer to Jeff Teague that wouldn’t cramp their style and to bolster the roster with a nice complement of reserves.
The Nets can’t begrudge the Hawks that, but having to fork over their draft pick this summer to a flourishing team while they creep closer to old age can’t be an affirming experience. The Hawks, meanwhile, have the pleasure of enjoying their best season in franchise history and still picking in the top half of the draft.
The Hawks are the anti-Nets, a franchise that values long-range planning and constructing a roster with purpose. Korver and Carroll might not be complete players, but they’re so perfectly suited to the system in Atlanta that you can imagine the “Korver-Carroll” wing tandem becoming a league model: Throw an elite defender who can shoot a little bit and an elite shooter who can defend a little bit out at the 2 and the 3, and you’re set. They’re also considerably cheaper than Johnson, a prolific isolation threat who nevertheless constricts an offense. The Nets didn’t care. For them, building a team comes from the accumulation of individual talent. For the Hawks, it comes from the adoption of collective principles.
All that sounds precious, but the Hawks rode that ethic to 60 wins. For nearly six months, they’ve been the NBA’s fair-haired child, one who defied 100-1 preseason title odds and the September dust-ups with owner Bruce Levenson and Ferry to close up the top seed in late March. But the moment they take the court at Philips Arena late on Sunday afternoon, the Hawks officially calibrate their expectations. Their regular season was a real achievement, and there probably hasn’t been a full appreciation. But a Southeast Division Champs banner is still a lousy return on 60 wins, even if it looks pretty in contrast to the woeful fortunes of the Nets.