By Eric Apricot
On Christmas Day, Kevin Durant made a high-profile case for Defensive Player of the Year (DPOY), finishing the big Cavaliers-Warriors showdown with five blocks and two steals while insisting on guarding LeBron James down the stretch of the game.
On two straight possessions, he (at least as ruled on the court) stopped James on two drives to salt away the win, including a block of a late James layup. Even if his stops were later ruled fouls on the infamous NBA two-minute report, he certainly reminded NBA fans he could credibly guard James one-on-one. National reporters began to murmurs that perhaps Kevin Durant was the DPOY. Let’s look at Durant’s case through narrative, statistics and video.
The Case for KD as DPOY
This year’s DPOY candidate list is thin. Pre-season favorites Kawhi Leonard and Rudy Gobert have missed a lot of time due to injury, and Draymond Green has missed a little time and also been hampered by a shoulder issue. The only other players to receive second place votes last season were Robert Covington, who continues to excel under the public radar, and LeBron James, who has been very uneven defensively as the leader of one of the worst statistical defenses in the league.
So almost by default, Kevin Durant has risen to the top of the DPOY discussions. Draymond Green himself threw his support behind Durant for DPOY.
Durant has been arguably the most thrilling defender in the NBA this season as the league’s most prolific shot blocker (first in total blocks and fourth by blocks per game). The Warriors have the No. 2 defensive rating, averaging a colossal 8.4 blocks per game, which projects to 688 blocks for the season, which would be third all-time. (Interestingly, the all-time top seven blocking teams have records no better than barely above .500, which foreshadows the rest of this article.) And many of the blocks are memorable, either for their violence, or for KD’s immediate counterattack on the fast break.
Two weeks ago, Justin Jacobs computed the number of kills (blocks causing change of possession) and the top three players were Clint Capela (34), Anthony Davis (33) and Kevin Durant (30), so many of KD’s blocks are the most useful kind.
Durant has also chipped in 25 steals, good for the 73rd percentile, with many of those steals also ending up in highlight fast breaks. So, between the lack of high-profile competition and Durant’s ultra-visible defense, he has become a leading and worthy candidate for DPOY.
KD’s Defense By The Numbers
Let’s have a closer statistical look at Durant’s defense. NBA defensive statistics have significant weaknesses, so none of these are definitive. But they do paint an interesting picture to illuminate later through video. (All leaderboards only admit players with >800 minutes.)
ESPN’s Real Plus Minus is computed from player on-off comparisons informed by a proprietary mix of box score statistics, past performance and other secret sauce. The top 5 players by DRPM with reasonable games and minutes are Andre Roberson (+3.53), Robert Covington (+3.41), Draymond Green (+3.37) and Joel Embiid (+3.13), and Andre Drummond (+3.05).
Kevin Durant has a Defensive RPM of +0.37, which is in the middle of the pack, above average (60th percentile overall, 31st out of 69 small forwards), but certainly not DRPM’s defensive player of the year. RPM is eccentric (for instance, it hates Klay Thompson, always rating him negatively, like this year’s -0.62 mark), probably from an overreliance on box score stats like rebounds to inform its model. It also tries to account for sets of players playing together consistently, but is vulnerable to that still. Kevin Durant has tended to not play with Draymond Green and more with Stephen Curry, which could be dragging his defensive on-off stats down.
But Durant also has had some games without Draymond playing, and Ben Falk’s numbers show without KD, the Warriors defense has been +6.4 PPP better, and opponents have +2.0 percent lower eFG%, turn over the ball less and offensive-rebound better. Durant’s on-off defensive contribution rates in the bottom quarter of the league.
Defensive Box Plus Minus is a formula relying on box score stats meant to model player on/off performance. Its leader is Andre Drummond by a lot (+5.7), followed by Russell Westbrook (+3.3), Pau Gasol (+3.2), Draymond Green (+3.1), Ben Simmons (+3.1) and Al Horford (+3.0). Durant is a respectable 26th of 151 with +1.5, 83rd percentile. KD is very good, but not near the top. As visible from Westbrook’s very high rating, DBPM loves rebounds.
Synergy tracks play outcomes and types from video. There are certainly limitations to their system. For instance, the player who is closest to the shooter gets credit for the result. But it’s an interestingly different perspective. Synergy regards Kevin Durant’s defense as Very Good overall, at 0.868 points per possession, the 69th percentile. When broken down by play type, Durant is regarded as Excellent at defending post-ups (0.467 PPP, 98th percentile), as the big switched onto a small on pick and rolls (0.382, 98th percentile), and isolation (0.500 PPP, 96th percentile). These are the most visible kinds of defense: on-ball or rotating as weak-side help on a driver.
So, what is dragging down Durant’s defense rating? KD is merely Good at guarding Spot Ups (0.967, 59th percentile) and Below Average at guarding the pick and roll ball handler (not as the big) (0.982, 17th percentile). These are plays where the defender has to fight through screens and stay alert off-ball. And these possessions are the top two more common types, with Spot Ups taking about 40 percent of his defended possessions.
So, while these stats are not in any way definitive, they do make us look closer at Kevin Durant’s defensive game. The numbers, from four different perspectives, paint a picture of an outstanding on-ball defender whose off-ball work and awareness significantly lessen his impact.
KD’s Defense on Video
Here is a Christmas sampler of Durant’s defense from the Cavaliers-Warriors game. You’ll see the highs of elite defense against post-ups and isolation, thrilling weak-side help defense, and the lows of sloppy switches and softness in defensive rebounding. Sometimes all in one play.
Kevin Durant has had a very heavy workload in the last three weeks without Curry and Draymond Green for stretches. Durant has had to carry the Warriors offense and intimidate on defense. Christmas was the end of a very tiring stretch, so it shouldn’t be surprising he had lapses.
But it’s worth noting these issues aren’t new. For example, in analyzing the Dec. 18 Lakers-Warriors game, we noted Durant’s sloppiness on switches and issues defending the defensive glass.
There is some harmony between the story from the numbers and from the video. This is also early in his second year in the unusually switch-heavy Warriors’ defense, so expect continuing improvement in his team defensive contribution as he matures in it. Durant said he’s only started to see himself as an elite defensive player since coming to the Warriors, and this mentality will likely continue pushing his growth.
So, Who IS the Defensive Player of the Year?
Kevin Durant has elite aspects to his defensive game with some issues lessening his team impact. He is an intimidating rim protector who can instantly counterattack on a block or steal. He can bang with large players in the post, and his agility and length let him stay with smaller drivers. This is a key part to the Warriors’ switching defensive scheme, and he’s the leading blocker in a great defense. So KD would be a reasonable DPOY.
However, there are other players worthy of more consideration than they’re getting, and who deserve a longer article. Here are some players loved by the advanced stats mentioned above who are also playing for a top 5 team defense:
- Andre Roberson is a strong, sturdy on-ball wing stopper for the fifth-ranked OKC defense, but his counting line of 1.1 STL, 0.9 BLK per game won’t turn heads and even a defensive wizard needs enough offense to be playable. His bad offensive reputation may put him out of the running.
- Draymond Green doesn’t appear as intense and focused as last year, but he is still highly ranked by stats and is also the undisputed captain of the #2 Warriors defense.
- Andre Drummond, runaway beloved of DBPM and high in DRPM, gets honorable mention for leading the Pistons’ No. 8 defense while averaging 10.3 DREB, 1.4 STL, 1.3 BLK per game.
- Pau Gasol has good stats for the third-ranked Spurs, but is probably too old with too few minutes to overcome an unfair soft reputation.
- And the dark horse is… Al Horford. His 1.1 BLK/G and 0.6 STL/G will not wow anyone, but he is the defensive captain of the No. 1 Celtics’ defense. All year, the Hayward-less Celtics have been carried by a shockingly stout defense, so it’s possible Horford’s marginal defensive contribution to winning has been the biggest in the league.