Milwaukee Bucks bigs climb NBA Defensive Player of the Year Ladder 4.0

Milwaukee Bucks Brook Lopez Giannis Antetokounmpo (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
Milwaukee Bucks Brook Lopez Giannis Antetokounmpo (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images) /
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NBA Brook Lopez
NBA, Milwaukee Bucks (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images) /

Big men dominate voting for NBA Defensive Player of the Year. In the 21st century, only two wings have won the award. Bigs are climbing to the top once again.

Of the five major NBA player awards, perhaps none is as difficult to quantify as is the NBA Defensive Player of the Year honor.

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Rookie of the Year is relatively simple — best rookie, with some occasional intrigue thrown into the mix when a Philadelphia 76ers first-round pick misses what should be his rookie year due to an injury and instead is left to compete against a future draft class. That was the case for Blake Griffin in 2010-11 and for Ben Simmons in 2017-18, among others.

NBA Sixth Man of the Year predominantly goes to the top bench scorer from a decent team. Most Improved Player can be perplexing at times, but voters have become more discerning in recent years about separating between improvement and simply a greater volume of opportunity.

The NBA MVP? It has suffered in recent years due to narratives becoming established when there are still 20, 30, 40 or more games remaining in the regular season, a problem that has become exacerbated by the NBA opting to delay the announcement of the awards for 300 years or the end of the playoffs, whichever comes last.

But Defensive Player of the Year has always been a challenging choice because for all the dozens of ways there are to clearly break down what players do to affect games on the offensive end, defense has tended to be more art than science. You can’t define great defense, but you know it when you see it — that sort of idea.

Big men with their rim protection have historically had an advantage with voters. A blocked shot, or even an attempted block, is perceived to have a more direct impact on the outcome of an offensive possession than a steal or an attempted steal, simply because those gambles to swipe the ball on the perimeter can often lead directly to opposition points when they go badly.

Since the turn of the millennium, only Metta World Peace (when he was the Artest known as Ron in 2003-04) and Kawhi Leonard in 2014-15 and 2015-16 have broken through the big man stranglehold on the award.

Dial it back a bit further and you find that after wings won five of the first six times the award was given after the 1982-83 season (Sidney Moncrief in 1982-83 and 1983-84, Alvin Robertson in 1985-86, Michael Cooper in 1986-87 and Michael Jordan in 1987-88), it’s been a big man’s world.

Besides the aforementioned Artest and Leonard, the only other non-big to be named DPOY since 1988 was Gary Payton in 1995-96.

You can make an argument for Dennis Rodman being classified as a non-big during his wins in 1989-90 and 1990-91, but for all his notoriety for taking on Jordan in those classic Bulls-Pistons battles, the truth was Rodman was matched up with 4s and 5s as often or more than he was with 1s, 2s or 3s, in part because — yes — he was just that good a defender.

One thing I’ve tried to do as I’ve monitored the award races this season is to steer clear of narratives because those so very often tend to take root in lieu of things such as facts, truth and actual results.

As the NBA season heads into the home stretch, with less than six weeks remaining in the regular season, there’s been a substantial shuffle on the latest DPOY Ladder. Two players have fallen off and only one occupies the same rung as he did four weeks ago. Barring some late changes over the final 20 games or so, these five should remain the top contenders.

Both of the new additions are from the same team — the Milwaukee Bucks. Milwaukee holds the best defensive rating in the NBA by a wide margin (101.0 points allowed per 100 possessions, far ahead of the second-place Toronto Raptors at 105.0).

Shane Young of Forbes Sports made an astute observation about the Bucks that spoke a great deal to their defensive dominance this season, while also showing how the defensive performance of big men can be more readily illustrated.

The three best at contesting attempts at the rim all on the same roster. Heck, two of them are from the same family.

That statistical dominance is certainly a big reason — pun potentially intended — why Milwaukee remains on pace for just the third 70-win season in NBA history.

Time to climb the ladder, with nods to Jayson Tatum and LeBron James, each of who, has fallen off it.