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NBA

Who are the leading candidates for Defensive Player of the Year?

A couple of weeks ago, three Defensive Player of the Year candidates took the floor when the Los Angeles Lakers hosted the Milwaukee Bucks.

Those players? Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez.

They aren't the only players in the running for the award this season, of course. In addition to them, Ben Simmons, Bam Adebayo, Rudy Gobert, Kawhi Leonard, Joel Embiid and Marcus Smart have each built cases.

With that in mind, eight members of our NBA Global staff joined forces to rank their top-five DPOY candidates based on what they've seen to this point of the season. The player in first place in each ballot received five points, the player in second place received four points, the player in third place received three points, the player in fourth place received two points and the player in fifth place received one point.

Those points were then added up to determine the following order...

5. Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat (12 points)

Highest rank: 4

Lowest rank: Not ranked

What Adebayo did against Antetokounmpo earlier this month was an example of why he deserves to be recognized as one of the best defenders in the league.

According to NBA.com's tracking data, Adebayo guarded Antetokounmpo more than anyone else on the Heat and limited the reigning MVP to four points on 2-for-11 shooting from the field in the minutes they were matched up together. Antetokounmpo had to settle for more jump shots than usual against Adebayo because the Heat centre has both the speed to stay in front of him and the size to keep him away from the basket, where Antetokounmpo does the bulk of his scoring.

Adebayo's impact showed on possessions like this:

The end result? Antetokounmpo had his least productive game of the season and the Bucks suffered a rare loss, albeit on the second night of a back-to-back.

Players don't win Defensive Player of the Year based off of one game, but Antetokounmpo isn't the only All-Star who has struggled against Adebayo this season. He's had success against a variety of other players, such as Davis, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Pascal Siakam. It's contributed towards Adebayo ranking fourth among big men in ESPN's Defensive Real-Plus on the season.

While our staff doesn't think Adebayo will win the award - the Heat haven't been quite good enough defensively for him to beat some of the other players on this list - he's showing why he is going to be a strong candidate for Defensive Player of the Year in the years to come.

T-3. Brook Lopez, Milwaukee Bucks (14 points)

Highest rank: 2

Lowest rank: Not ranked

Antetokounmpo might be the best defender on the Bucks - more on him soon - but Lopez finds himself in the Defensive Player of the Year discussion on the strength of his rim protection numbers.

Not only is Lopez among the league leaders in blocks for the second straight season, opponents are shooting only 44.1 percent against him around the basket. That's one of the best rates in the entire league, better even than Utah Jazz centre Gobert, who has won it each of the last two seasons.

That isn't based on a small sample size either. Only four players have defended more shots than Lopez in those situations, those players being Gobert, Hassan Whiteside, Andre Drummond and Nikola Jokic. He's mastered the art of how to contest shots without fouling, which is an important skill for any centre in today's NBA, particularly ones who don't have the foot speed to guard multiple positions like Adebayo.

With Lopez serving as their anchor, opponents rarely get to the rim against the Bucks. And when they do, it rarely ends well for them. It's been a driving force in Milwaukee's success on the defensive end both this season and last season, as Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer's primary focus has been keeping opponents out of the paint.

T-3. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers (14 points)

Highest rank: 3

Lowest rank: Not ranked

Simmons is among a rare group of players who can legitimately guard four and sometimes even five positions thanks to his unique combination of size, speed, length and athleticism.

His versatility shows when looking at his matchup data. According to NBA.com, Simmons has defended Butler, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Morris Sr. and Siakam the most this season. Following them: Spencer Dinwiddie, Khris Middleton, Bradley Beal, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Malcolm Brogdon.

That's a group of two point guards, two shooting guards, three small forwards and two power forwards. As Senthil Natarajan of Nylon Calculus wrote before last season, Simmons has been a plus defender against every position for basically his entire career. There simply aren't many players in the league who can jump from position to position as seamlessly as he can.

In addition to being able to guard multiple positions, Simmons has grown into one of the league's more disruptive defenders. He's currently leading the league with 2.1 steals per game and ranks third in deflections per game and second in loose balls recovered per game.

Whether or not he ends up being a finalist for Defensive Player of the Year remains to be seen - the amount of time he misses with his current injury could play a role in that - but he's made a strong case to make one of the two All-Defensive Teams, at the very least.

2. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers (32 points)

Highest rank: 1

Lowest rank: 3

Davis is no stranger to the Defensive Player of the Year race. He's never won the award, but he's been a finalist for it a couple of times and has one All-Defensive First Team selection to his name, as well as two All-Defensive Second Team selections.

This season, Davis has helped transform the Lakers into the third-best defensive team in the league. His on-off numbers aren't as stark as some other players in the league, but his ability to guard both power forwards and centres has allowed the Lakers to get away with playing another big alongside him, whether it's JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard.

When he's at his best, there isn't anything Davis can't do defensively. His size makes him a tough player for wings to score against and he's long been one of the league's best rim protectors, both as a shot blocker and a deterrent around the basket. Him being one of seven players in NBA history with career averages of 2.0 blocks and 1.0 steals per game speaks to his defensive dominance.

So why isn't he our favourite for Defensive Player of the Year this season? For the same reason as why LeBron James isn't our favourite for MVP - most members of our NBA Global staff agree that Antetokounmpo has been slightly better than Davis from start to finish.

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks (38 points)

Highest rank: 1

Lowest rank: 2

I alluded to Antetokounmpo's case for Defensive Player of the Year in Lopez's section: He's the best defender on a historically dominant defensive team.

Everything I wrote about Simmons and Davis applies to Antetokounmpo. Similar to Simmons, he's capable of guarding every position due to his freakish size, speed, length and athleticism. Similar to Davis, he uses those physical tools to shut down passing lanes and protect the rim, basically alternating between a guard and a centre as needed.

Antetokounmpo is averaging fewer blocks this season than he has in each of the last five seasons, but opponents are shooting only 41.9 percent against him at the rim, which is the best rate among players who have contested at least 50 shots at the rim on the season.

That's insane!

Antetokounmpo doesn't contest as many shots as Lopez in those situations, but it's because he spends far more of his time flying around the court as a free safety.

If Antetokounmpo were to be named MVP and DPOY as our NBA Global staff expects, he'd join Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon as the only players in NBA history to win both awards in a single season.

Honourable Mention

Kawhi Leonard, LA Clippers (8 points) - The days of Leonard being the runaway favourite for Defensive Player of the Year might be over, but he showed in the playoffs last season that he's capable of shutting down anyone when he's locked in. If this were a discussion over which player you'd rather have if you needed a stop with the game on the line, the answer might still be him.

Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz (2 points) - Our NBA Global staff has soured on Gobert because the Jazz have slipped defensively this season - they currently rank 11th defensive efficiency after ranking second in 2018-19 and first in 2017-18 - but he's still one of the best rim protectors in the league. In fact, ESPN's Real Plus-Minus still points to him being the most impactful defender in the league. He probably deserved more love.

Voters: Scott Rafferty, Carlan Gay, Micah Adams and Kyle Irving from NBA Canada, Kane Pitman from NBA Australia and Juan Estévez, Agustín Aboy and Leandro Fernández from NBA Argentina.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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