The NBA is full of excellent defenders, which makes it tough to whittle the list down to just a few names. However, the players listed here have separated themselves from the pack over the course of the season, either because of their prowess on the perimeter, their ability to protect the paint, or a combination of both. Some of the players named here have previously won the award, while others are looking to do so for the first time. The one thing that's consistent across all the candidates though, is that they've had an enormous impact on the defensive end for their respective teams.
Here's a look at the five top candidates for the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year award for the 2020-21 season.
When it comes to his defensive prowess, Philadelphia 76ers All-Star forward Ben Simmons isn't afraid of tooting his own horn. Simmons has said several times over the course of the season that he thinks he's the best defender in the league and in turn deserving of the Defensive Player of the Year award. "I take pride in guarding the best player on the floor every night," Simmons said after a game against the Trail Blazers in February. "... I feel like I'm the best defender in the NBA."
"Best" is a vague term, but Simmons is probably the most versatile defender in the entire league when you consider that he's tasked with guarding a plethora of positions. No other player is asked to guard the same array of top-tier talent on a nightly basis. This season, Simmons has guarded the likes of Bradley Beal, LeBron James, James Harden, Jerami Grant, Dame Lillard, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Doncic, among others. He can switch seamlessly between guarding bigs and guards, and he makes life difficult for everyone he defends thanks to his combination of size, strength, length and speed. An added benefit of Simmons' stifling defense for Philadelphia is that it often leads directly to solid offensive opportunities, as it does in the play below against the Nets:
STATEMENT game from Ben Simmons going against James Harden: pic.twitter.com/0zsvcW3Fns— NBC Sports Philadelphia (@NBCSPhilly) February 7, 2021
Given the fact that many of the league's other top defenders -- guys like Rudy Gobert, Anthony Davis, and Antetokounmpo -- are largely lauded for their ability as help defenders, and aren't typically tasked with locking up perimeter players, the argument could also be made that Simmons is the league's best perimeter defender. He's fifth in the NBA in steals per game (1.6) and third in deflections (3.6) and he's an enormous part of the reason that the Sixers have the league's top-ranked defense heading into postseason play. If Simmons ultimately wins the award, he would be the first Sixers player to do so since Dikembe Mutombo in 2001.
Gobert is no stranger to winning the Defensive Player of the Year award. He has done so twice previously (in 2018 and 2019) and he has an excellent opportunity to win the award for a third time this season. Gobert is arguably the best paint protector in the entire NBA as he serves as the anchor for one of the NBA's most dominant defenses. He leads the NBA in defensive rebounds per game (10), he's second in the league in blocks per game (2.8) and seventh in block percentage (74.6), but these numbers don't fully encapsulate just how impactful Gobert is as a rim deterrent. Due to his size and relative mobility, Gobert alters countless other shots that don't show up on the stat sheet, something that Sarah Todd of the Desert News touched on in a recent article:
And while defensive rating, real defensive plus-minus, on-off numbers, and other even further advanced analytics do paint a pretty good picture of how impactful Gobert is, there's not a stat that properly describes the ability to scare off opposing players... It's not just that Gobert can intimidate players from entering the paint. He also guards in space, blocks shots before running the floor and leading a break to draw in the defense, is a roll threat and then defends the pick-and-roll with ease. Sometimes he puts a lot of those things together in the same play.
Here's an excellent example of Gobert singlehandedly stopping a transition opportunity for the Spurs by deterring three different players from making a move toward the rim:
Your quick version of Rudy turning back 3 Spurs in the 1st quarter, then nodding to tell them "That's right!" pic.twitter.com/CZOPJczRdg— Ken Clayton (@k_clayt) May 4, 2021
Utah's defensive approach is largely predicated on funneling opponents to Gobert, and the fact that they have a top-three team defense in the league is a testament to just how good Gobert is at protecting the paint. If he wins DPOY this season, he'll become just the fourth player in NBA history to win the award three times.
Simmons isn't the only Sixers player that has publicly stated that he believes that he should be the Defensive Player of the Year. Sixers center Joel Embiid did the same last month. "I want to be Defensive Player of the Year," Embiid said in April. "I should be Defensive Player of the Year." Embiid went on to say that Simmons was also deserving of the award and that he would be happy as long as one of them won it.
Together, Embiid and Simmons form the league's best defensive duo, with Simmons hawking the perimeter and Embiid patrolling the paint. He's 16th in the league in blocks per game (1.4) and eighth in defensive rebounds (8.4), but like with Gobert, those numbers don't tell the whole story when it comes to Embiid's ability to protect the paint. Offensive players have to think twice about driving into the lane when Embiid is out there, and more often than not, they decide against it.
Embiid also has excellent foot speed for his size, which makes it less enticing for opposing offenses to try to target him in switch scenarios -- a viable tactic against most of the big men in the league. Just look at how Embiid is able to keep up with Bucks guard Jrue Holiday on this play:
Not a ton of positives for the #sixers tonight, but this was some great individual defense from Embiid on Jrue Holiday. pic.twitter.com/88Q3V2ahX5— Michael K-B (@therealmikekb) April 23, 2021
Not only does Embiid shut off all driving lanes and force Holiday to pass, but he also sticks with him and forces Holiday to take an incredibly difficult shot after he gets the ball back. Plays like this one are not an outlier for Embiid. Ultimately though, the number of games that he missed this season could work against him in the race for Defensive Player of the Year, just like they might in the MVP race. Fair or not, voters for both awards are likely to used games missed as a distinguisher in races that are extremely close otherwise.
Antetokounmpo won the Defensive Player of the Year award last season thanks to his ability to seemingly do it all for Milwaukee's defense, and he's been nearly as impactful this season. Antetokounmpo is one of only 10 players in the league averaging at least one steal and one block per game – Antetokounmpo is averaging 1.2 of each – and the Bucks again have a top 10 defense in the NBA. Like Ben Simmons, Antetokounmpo has the size, strength and speed to bother almost any offensive player, and he can guard several different positions on the floor as a result. Antetokounmpo is also one of the few players that we've ever seen block a jump shot from Kevin Durant – something he did when the Bucks and Nets faced off earlier this month.
This whole sequence is WILD. pic.twitter.com/delOV17Mzh— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 2, 2021
After he won the award last year, Antetokounmpo said that he still had room to grow as a defender. "I think I can get way better. I can be more active," Antetokounmpo said. "I can block more shots. I can be in the passing lanes more. But going back again, having the best defensive team in the NBA, making your team being the best defensive year, I think it's been my best year, but you can always get better. You can always improve."
Despite playing fewer games, Antetokounmpo has indeed recorded more blocks and steals than he did last year, and while the Bucks haven't been quite as good as a unit defensively, Antetokounmpo has been as good, or perhaps even better, than he was last season.
Pacers center Myles Turner was right in the thick of the Defensive Player of the Year conversation until he was forced to the sideline indefinitely with a partial plantar plate tear in April, and despite the games he's missed, he's still in that conversation, albeit on the outskirts. No one has blocked more shots per game this season than Turner (3.4) or had a higher block percentage (8.9). He's also had three games this season where he recorded seven blocks, which leads the league. The guy basically throws his own block party every time he's out on the court.
third game of the season with 7+ blocks for @Original_Turner 😤— Indiana Pacers (@Pacers) March 27, 2021
🗣️ DPOY pic.twitter.com/NJvMOLRdIx
Pacers guard Malcolm Brogdon may be a bit biased, but he's on record saying that Turner should be the league's DPOY. "I think that's what people don't talk about with our team is Myles and his impact," Brogdon said. "His impact is astronomical... His ability to block shots, it deters people from even driving to the rim, so he's Defensive Player of the Year."
Unfortunately for Turner, he's in the same boat as Embiid, in that he will likely be docked by voters for missing a good amount of games, as he has played in just 47 games for the Pacers this season. If he had stayed healthy he might be the odds-on favorite for the award, but as it stands he looks like a longshot.