Are we witnessing the beginning of a dynasty? History says yes. Jaren Jackson Jr., still only 24 years old, just won his first Defensive Player of the Year award behind a dominant season of rim protection. When a new dominant rim protector emerges, a steady stream of trophies tends to follow.
Dikembe Mutombo won his first Defensive Player of the Year award in 1995. By 2001, he had four of them. Ben Wallace took the crown in 2002 and had four trophies of his own by 2006. Dwight Howard won the belt in 2009 and didn't relinquish it again until 2012. By the time Rudy Gobert took three out of four awards between 2018 and 2021, the concept had grown stale. This is the dynasty award. When a new star takes it, he tends to hold onto it. That is the primary trend dictating Defensive Player of the Year, but not the only one:
- This is, for the most part, a big man's award. However, an exception tends to be made once or twice per decade at a somewhat steady pace. Michael Jordan won in 1988, and the next perimeter player to do so came eight years later in 1996 when Gary Payton earned the hardware. Eight years after that, Ron Artest won the 2004 trophy. It took 11 years for Kawhi Leonard to nab his two awards, and then another six for Marcus Smart to get his. As Smart won in 2022, history suggests that voters will still favor big men in 2024.
- Team defense is the single biggest determinant of a player's candidacy. Every winner since 2008 has played for a top-five defense. Last season's top-three finishers all played for top-four defenses. Let's say you include a minor allowance for close finishes in the defensive rankings. Realistically, no player on a defense that finishes outside of the top seven or eight is going to be a candidate here. If you don't trust a team's defense, do not bet on that player.
- Historically speaking, this award has had the greatest allowance for missed games and low-minute totals. Leonard played 64 games in one of his Defensive Player of the Year seasons. Gobert played just 56 in one of his. Jackson, Dennis Rodman and Michael Cooper have all won this award by playing less than 30 minutes per game. The new 65-game minimum for major awards will temper this trend slightly, but don't let the fear of injuries scare you off too much. The award, notably, is not Most Valuable Defender. It's Defensive Player of the Year. Greatness tends to trump availability here.
So, will Jackson be the next dynasty winner here? Or should you bet on a new champion? Here are Sam Quinn and Ameer Tyree's best bets for Defensive Player of the Year.
All odds courtesy of Caesars Sportsbook
Players listed here have odds no longer than +1000
Quinn: Let's start by addressing the defending champion. Jackson Jr. (+500) is not among my best bets. The biggest reason for that is the new 65-game minimum for awards consideration. Jackson has played five NBA seasons, and even if you adjust for 82-game schedules in the two COVID-shortened seasons, he would have been eligible for this award in only one of them. He is also notorious for playing limited minutes. Last season, he averaged just 28.4 of them per game. He's already proven he can win under those conditions, but it's a knock against him that other candidates don't have to worry about that. Couple it with his notorious fouling and rebounding issues and there are just too many reasons to look elsewhere.
Evan Mobley (+650) has the second-shortest odds at most books, and for good reason. He averaged six more minutes than Jackson last year and hit the 65-game threshold in both of his NBA seasons. He comes with neither of Jackson's major on-court weaknesses of fouling and rebounding and while he isn't near Jackson's equal as a rim protector, he is far more versatile on the perimeter. Mobley led the NBA's No. 1 defense a year ago, and he had them at No. 5 as a rookie. His presence seems to guarantee a baseline of team defensive competence that will have him in the running for this award.
And then there's Bam Adebayo (+1000), perhaps the only "winner" of the Damian Lillard sweepstakes in Miami. Yes, Adebayo obviously would have preferred to have Lillard on his team, but without the star point guard in Miami, Adebayo has a far better chance of getting Miami back into the top five on defense, where they were during the 2021-22 season. Josh Richardson is a defensive upgrade on Max Strus, and the Heat have finished in the top 10 on defense in five of Adebayo's six seasons. Like Mobley, he is not going to match Jackson's gaudy block numbers, but he makes up for it by blowing up pick-and-rolls and covering as much ground as any defender in the NBA.
Tyree: My top pick among the favorites is Mobley. Jackson's fellow All-Defensive first-team forward finished third in DPOY voting last season and didn't add a former recent DPOY to his squad over the offseason. It's unclear how much more of a factor Jackson will attempt to be on offense while Ja Morant serves a lengthy 25-game suspension to kick off the 2023-24 season and I'm skeptical about his ability to stay healthy.
I know I knocked Jackson for his health, but I also can't help but be interested in Anthony Davis at +1000. The injury-prone Los Angeles Lakers big man struggled to stay on the court as usual last season, but his defensive numbers were impressive. Only Jackson averaged more stocks (steals and blocks) per game last season and Davis kept up his defensive dominance in the playoffs by leading all players with 50 blocks in the postseason. The Lakers' team defensive rating without Davis last season was 119.2. Only the San Antonio Spurs were worse. However, Los Angeles boasted a 112.4 rating with Davis.
Giannis Antetokounmpo (+1000) is another player who I think can claw his way back to the top of the pile. He won DPOY the year before Holiday arrived and now his team added a poor defender in Damian Lillard. Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez will certainly lighten the load, but Antetokounmpo could surge back to the forefront as the defensive anchor of a Milwaukee Bucks team that has the whole basketball world's attention right now. He had the league's best individual defensive rating (107.7) last season.
The Middle of the Pack
Players listed here have odds between +1001 and +2500
Quinn: If you're looking for a counting stats candidate outside of Jackson, Nic Claxton (+1500) is your man. He averaged 2.5 blocks per game a season ago, second only to Jackson, and he did so while racking up just as many total steals (65 apiece) and far more deflections (173 to 124) and defensive rebounds (518 to 426). He's also on a team that may be devoid of offense, but comes with two recent All-Defense choices (Ben Simmons and Mikal Bridges) as well as another wing who came relatively close in Dorian Finney-Smith. This might be the best half-court defense in the league. If it can limit the transition opportunities that come out of its own misses on offense, Claxton will be a candidate here.
The legacy candidate is off to a slow start. Draymond Green (+2000) has already sprained an ankle, and at 33, age is a concern here. Green would have been eligible in just two of the past four seasons, and he was the runaway favorite in 2022 before an injury limited him to 44 games. Still, the Warriors brought back their best perimeter defender at the trade deadline last season when they reacquired Gary Payton II. They also swapped their worst defender, Jordan Poole, for a brilliant albeit physically limited defender in Chris Paul. Despite all of last season's apparent struggles, Golden State finished with an above-average defensive ranking of 14th. It's not out of the realm of possibility that Green and Payton lead them back into the top five, and if they do, Green will garner serious consideration here.
Tyree: The two players I'm looking at as middle-of-the-pack candidates play for the Brooklyn Nets. Claxton was a fringe All-Defensive player last season and has little competition at the five. Jackson was one of the four players who topped Claxton's mark of 3.0 blocks per 36 minutes last season. He's a premier disruptor at the rim and could take another leap in 2023-24.
My second choice is Mikal Bridges (+2000), who finished second in DPOY to Marcus Smart two seasons ago. His new role as the Nets' offensive engine could lessen his defensive impact, but now he's had time to mesh with his team over the offseason. Bridges was regarded as one of the league's most versatile perimeter defenders early on in his days with the Phoenix Suns. Like Claxton, Bridges was on the outside looking when the All-Defensive teams were announced. However, he was on the first team not long ago and has all the tools to get back to that level.
Players listed here have odds of at least +2501
Quinn: We already covered a Net at +1500, so why not a Net at +5000? Simmons was the runner-up for this award two calendar years ago. We have no idea how he'll hold up physically after two injury-riddled seasons. We have no idea how many minutes the offensively-deficient Nets will be able to play him. But a 27-year-old former runner-up for basically any major award shouldn't be available at 50-to-1 unless you know with relative certainty that he won't be able to stay on the court. This is a home run swing worth taking.
Alex Caruso (+4000) breaks all of the rules we covered above. He's a perimeter player. He misses games and plays limited minutes. On paper, the Bulls should be one of the worst defenses in the NBA. But last season, they somehow wound up ranking No. 5 when the dust settled. I have no cogent explanation for that besides Caruso. It generally helps a defense to have one player capable of guarding anyone in the league not named Nikola Jokic or Joel Embiid. If the Bulls post another top-five defense Caruso should be tried for witchcraft. He won't be, so he'll have to settle for a fringe Defensive Player of the Year candidacy.
Tyree: Jrue Holiday (+3000) is the best longshot bet you can make to me. He was a member of the All-Defensive First Team last year and joined a Boston Celtics team that Smart won DPOY with two seasons ago. It is hard for guards to win this award, but Holiday could elevate Boston's already impressive defense. People have raved about his defense for years and playing on an elite team with no other legitimate DPOY candidates could help his case quite a bit. Jaylen Brown is very capable, but he's no Giannis Antetokounmpo. I guess Boston's assortment of top-notch defenders could water down Holiday's argument, but that didn't stop Smart from coming out on top.
There's no reason to be super confident in any longshot bet, so I have no problem sprinkling a little something on Kawhi Leonard at +4000. The former two-time DPOY is reportedly completely healthy after recovering from the knee injury that ended his last playoff run with the Los Angeles Clippers. He looked like prime Kawhi in the two games he played against the Suns last postseason and the Clippers had a respectable defense despite him missing 30 games last season. The NBA's new policy on resting players and the Clippers' limited championship window could lead to us seeing a lot more of Leonard this season. When he's on the court he can anchor defenses like few others. Availability could work wonders for his odds.