Jaren Jackson Jr. was voted the 2022-23 NBA Defensive Player of the Year . It was the expected choice, and a fair one. Jackson's rim-protection stats were historic. He blocked a league-leading three shots per game, and he added one steal per night in the process. Opponents shot a staggering 13 percentage points worse at the rim on Jackson compared to the league's average, and a Grizzlies defense that ranked 20th on Nov. 15, the day of his season debut, ultimately finished the season ranked third.
But that missed month will mean quite a bit more moving forward. Jackson only played in 62 games this season. The NBA's new CBA includes a 65-game minimum for awards eligibility. More distressingly, Jackson played only 1,787 minutes for the Grizzlies this season due to a combination of foul trouble and Taylor Jenkins' philosophy of maintaining deep rotations. That figure represents only around 45% of the total minutes that the Grizzlies played this season.
The voters ultimately proved comfortable overlooking that fact, and Jackson won pretty easily. But that same lenience wasn't granted another of the NBA's top defenders. When the full ballot was released, 12 players received votes, including Alex Caruso, who played even fewer minutes than Jackson at 1,575. Not among the dozen or so players to receive a vote? Los Angeles Lakers center Anthony Davis.
Davis may not have been the NBA's best defender this season, but it's hard to imagine he didn't rank among the top 12. Several all-in-one metrics placed him there, including FiveThirtyEight's RAPTOR (which ranked him No. 2), B-ball Index's D-LEBRON (9th), NBA.com's Defensive Win Shares (10th) and Dunks&Threes' EPM (11th). He compares favorably to Jackson in a number of important defensive categories, including:
- Deflections. Davis averaged 2.1 per game. Jackson average 2.
- Contested shots. Jackson averaged 10.9 per game. Davis averaged 10.6.
- Defensive rebounding. Davis averaged 9.1 defensive rebounds per game. Jackson averaged 5.
- Fouling. Davis averaged 2.6 fouls per game. Jackson averaged 3.6.
- Defensive rating splits. The Lakers were 5.5 points better per 100 possessions defensively with Davis in the game. The Grizzlies were 5 points better per 100 possessions defensively with Jackson in the game.
This is not to suggest that Davis was indeed a worthier choice than Jackson. Again, Jackson was a fair pick as the winner. His rim-protection numbers lapped the field, and while Davis hit defensive peaks this season that may have been unmatched by any other player, he wasn't quite as consistent on a night-to-basis as Jackson was.
It is instead meant to highlight a double standard. Jackson won the award playing 1,787 minutes. Caruso got two votes playing 200 fewer minutes. Yet Davis didn't appear on a single ballot. Considering how he stacks up against the actual winner, it'd be hard to attribute his absence strictly to defensive merit. Team performance was likely a factor to some extent, as the Lakers were a No. 7 seed... but Caruso, Bam Adebayo, O.G. Anunoby and Jimmy Butler all received votes from the play-in round. The simplest explanation here is that Davis, by most measures one of the best defenders in the NBA, was left off of ballots because of the time that he missed.
This, in itself, would be reasonable logic. Davis missed 26 games. It'd be fair to hold missing one-third of the season against an awards candidate. Yet by the time the dust had settled, Davis wound up playing 1,904 minutes on the season. That's 117 more than Jackson. If missing one-third of the season was held against Davis, why wasn't missing 55% of Memphis' total minutes held against Jackson?
There's no firm answer here, and awards voting is ultimately subjective. Perhaps voters felt that Jackson was so much better than the competition that his limited playing time shouldn't matter, and that while Davis was excellent, he wasn't quite good enough to overcome his absences. It's also possible that voters overestimated the time Davis missed. Frankly, it would be hard for them not to when one of the hosts of the league's most prominent pre-game show frequently calls him "Street Clothes."
This isn't even the first major honor denied to Davis seemingly because of missed games. When All-Star teams were announced in February, Davis missed the cut despite playing more minutes than Jackson had at the time and having significantly better numbers across the board. Here were their stats as of Feb. 2
|Anthony Davis||Jaren Jackson Jr.|
Points per game
Rebounds per game
Assists per game
Are minutes or games played the better mark of availability? There's no clear answer, and the truth is that both teams probably preferred what they got. The early season Lakers were so thin that they needed Davis playing significant minutes just to have a chance on any given night. The Grizzlies were so strong for most of the year that they could win games without him playing the kind of minutes that Davis did.
That this is even a debate is noteworthy, though, because the gap between Davis and Jackson in defensive performance this season was not "winner vs. off of the ballot" sized. If voters were comfortable giving Jackson the trophy at 1,787 minutes, there wasn't really a good reason for them to ignore Davis entirely at 1,904.