Should Kristaps Porzingis be the Defensive Player of the Year?

How Should We Determine the Defensive Player of the Year?

Short answer: I don’t know. Long answer: I maybe kind of know.  Kristaps Porzingis never seems to be mentioned in discussions about the best defensive players in the league. NBA-writing demigod Zach Lowe left him off both of his All-Defensive teams and his Defensive Player of the Year ballot. None of Mark Schindler, Nate Georgy, nor Jackson Frank listed him as a top-three for DPoY. NBA Twitter favorite Ben Taylor ignored Porzingis in his discussion with Mo Dakhil. Why is nobody talking about his defense?

The easy conclusion would be that he’s simply not one of the best defensive players in the league, but the million-dollar followup question is what does that mean? I don’t plan on answering that today (this will definitely be an article someday, so stay tuned), but I do plan on showing why Porzingis should at least be considered when talking about the most impactful defensive players in the league. However, I’ll also discuss why he still shouldn’t win the league’s most coveted defensive award this season.

The Statistical Case for Porzingis (Eye-Test Truthers Can Skip This)

As difficult as defensive impact is to capture with statistics, one can still draw strong conclusions based on a preponderance of evidence. However, one can easily drown in the sea of available statistics, so I’ll pick and choose to avoid being overwhelming.

Game-Level Impact

At the simplest level, Porzingis’ teams suffer defensively when he misses games. During the 2017-18 season, the Knicks were an astronomical 9.6 points per 100 possessions worse on defense in the 34 games that Porzingis missed. This season, they were 5.1 points worse in Porzingis’ missing 16 games. Here is how that stacks up compared to other historically dominant players (numbers from a combination of Ben Taylor’s top-40 GOAT list and my own calculations).

Player Season(s) Change in Defensive Rating (lower is better) Games Missed
Porzingis 2017-18 -9.6 34
Porzingis 2019-20 (pre-bubble) -5.1 16
Rudy Gobert 2017-18 -10 26
David Robinson 1991-92 -8 19
Ben Wallace 2003-05 -7.7 18
Kawhi Leonard 2014-15 -5.7 18
Kevin Garnett 2009-11 -4.9 19
Andrei Kirilenko 2004-05 -2.9 41
Tim Duncan 2003-04 -2.5 13

Now, this table comes with a dissertation of caveats, but the most important one is that we can only use this statistic when a player misses substantial time. Moreover, it isn’t conclusive unless we see repeated statistical impact. Therefore, we can somewhat deduce that Porzingis’ two straight years (he missed all of 2018-19) of defensive impact being worth between 5-10 points indicates a player with a historically great defensive footprint.

Comparison to Peers in the Paint

Basketball Index’s Player Profiles and other tools might be the most comprehensive data packages available to regular folks. Among their cornucopia of data is a section measuring interior defense. Here is how Porzingis stacks up among six of the most discussed defensive players this season (compared by percentile in the statistic).

Rim Deterrence % Rim Shots Contested Blocks/75 Poss Rim dFG% vs. Expected Adj. Rim Points Saved/36 min.
Porzingis 98% 87% 96% 87% 98%
Rudy Gobert 94% 96% 95% 85% 100%
Brook Lopez 94% 99% 98% 92% 100%
Giannis Antetokounmpo 83% 63% 76% 96% 94%
Anthony Davis 75% 68% 96% 88% 93%
Bam Adebayo 95% 74% 82% 75% 89%

The main takeaway here is that Porzingis hangs with the big boys when it comes to defending the paint which is often viewed as the most impactful skill for a defensive player. According to this, he is literally the best at deterring shots at the rim (meaning opponents shoot fewer layups when he’s on the court).

Even if you can’t conclusively think that Porzingis deserves Defensive Player of the Year because of this, you have to admit that it’s odd he’s not in the conversation.

The Most Damning Statistic Against Porzingis

At the end of the day, numbers shouldn’t mean much unless they translate into results for a team. If a player scores 50-points a game, does it matter if that player’s team has a sub-par offense? I think it should, so it’s necessary to compare how the Mavericks’ defense compares to teams with other top defensive players. Along with relative defensive rating (how much better/worse a teams’ defense is than league average), I have also included on/off numbers to see how much better/worse a team’s defense is when a given player is on the court versus on the bench. Note that all data is pre-bubble.

Teams rDRtg (negative is good)
On/Off DRtg difference (negative is good)
Porzingis +0.4 -0.8
Rudy Gobert -1.2 -5
Brook Lopez -8.4 -2
Giannis Antetokounmpo -8.4 -7.6
Anthony Davis -5 +1.9
Bam Adebayo -1.1 -1.5

In a year that has one of the greatest defenses in NBA history, the Mavericks’ defense is actually worse than league average. Not only that, but even with Porzingis on the court, their defensive efficiency barely squeaks by league average. Furthermore, none of Porzingis’ teams (including the Knicks) scraped by the league average mark on defense as opposed to juggernauts like Duncan, Garnett, and Russell. This is a far cry from the impact metrics above that paint Porzingis as being an all-time defensive stud.

So what do we do with this information? Well, like every good analyst, after checking the numbers, we go to the video.

Porzingis Defensive Film Study (Eye-Test Folk Can Uncover Their Eyes)

First of all, Porzingis’ physical profile is astounding. At 7’3″, Porzingis boasted a 37-inch vertical with a max vertical touch of 12’2.5″ (though judging from the video in this article, I’d say that his standing reach is higher than 9’4.5″ which would lower his vertical a couple of inches).

Regardless, Porzingis is impressively athletic and nimble for his size. This sets him apart from other lumbering brutes who just form a wall at the rim.

In the first play, Lonzo tries to attack the gap, but Porzingis easily recovers and meets him at the rim. In the second, Jordan McLaughlin tries to use the rim to protect the ball against Porzingis, but again, Porzingis erases any sort of advantage with his length and athleticism.

As evidenced by being in the 98th percentile of saving points at the rim, Porzingis still made shotmaking around the rim a nightmare even if he didn’t block the shot. In this first clip, he contests Nicolo Melli‘s shot at its apex with only a slight gather.

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Against smaller guards, he could contort his body to avoid fouls and still use his length to bother the shot. We know from our very own Scott Levine that Malik Beasley is as agile as they come, but Porzingis counters by jumping backward against his drive.

Contesting on the Perimeter

Like the Bucks with Lopez, the Mavericks use a drop coverage against pick-and-rolls. This is primarily to prevent teams from shooting at the rim, and it forces long pull-up jumpers. Against lumbering centers, this can prove to be a Kryptonite, but Porzingis weaponizes his length and leaping ability to contest shots that initially seem open. Here, D’Angelo Russell hits a pull-up three, but with Porzingis’ back foot near the free-throw line, Russell didn’t expect to face such a strong contest.

The same thing happens against T.J. Warren who sees Porzingis giving him plenty of space, but by the time he’s at the apex of his jumper, Porzingis has pounced quickly enough to force a miss.

Rim Deterrence

Porzingis’ mere presence in the paint is enough to force awkward shots or completely deter a layup attempt at all. DeRozan, a usually slippery finisher, twists in the air for a kickout rather than face Porzingis.

Sure, you could argue that an Aldridge three is still a good shot, but the point is that Porzingis completely shut off the paint as a viable option.

In one of my favorite plays, Russell steals an errant pass and bursts about ten feet in front of Porzingis who puts on the burners. Instead of gambling for a block, Porzingis runs through the play which completely throws off Russell’s balance, resulting in a botched layup attempt. Porzingis’ anger with the ref in the middle of the play is fun too.

Granted, Russell is an infamously slow guard, so it’s not like Porzingis caught up to a streaking De’Aaron Fox, but I still don’t know of many seven-foot centers who could do this.

Slow Reactions

Keeping Porzingis near the rim with a drop coverage is a double-edged sword though. Especially compared to more mobile centers like Bam Adebayo, Porzingis could be a bit slow-footed on stepping out for contests. For example, Porzingis is caught in no man’s land as he watches Aldridge effortlessly bury a midrange jumper (a shot he hits at 54.8% when wide open).

Even if the defense worked and a player was funneled towards the basket, Porzingis relied too much on his length and not enough on his body positioning. Clearly this strategy is effective for him, but it’s the difference between being in the top-6 defenders and being the best defender. Watch his hips as he faces Oladipo‘s prodding too much. By the time he can turn back and contest Sabonis on the roll, it’s too late. Had he shifted his hips to be somewhere between the two, he could’ve stifled this play.

I noticed these sorts of positioning mistakes often enough that it would certainly improve his and the Mavericks’ defense if he worked on this.

Ultimately though, this feeds into his biggest flaw as a defender.

Porzingis Doesn’t Like Contact

I was shocked by how much Porzingis doesn’t like contact. Honestly, every game has multiple instances where he gives up a rebound or an easy shot because he doesn’t want to body an offensive player. Like I discussed in my article about the Clippers defending Anthony Davis, it’s imperative to keep post players from setting up near the basket. Porzingis fails to do this against Aldridge who easily turns and scores.

Against the more physical Sabonis, Porzingis struggled a few times to prevent easy post position. In this particular play, Sabonis both starts with the ball near the charge circle and throws his shoulder to create enough separation to finish a simple layup.

Finally, in what I consider to be one of the most egregious defensive lapses in NBA history, Porzingis COMPLETELY avoids making any contact at all with Jonas Valanciunas. Valanciunas easily skips to the basket for the finish.

NO CONTACT! NONE! I’m actually impressed by this.

Should Porzingis be the Defensive Player of the Year?

No. Right now, he clearly has all of the tools to be one of the most impactful defenders in the league. In fact, I would go as far as saying that he is the best (full stop) help defender in the league. When running downhill to pick-up a driving guard, leaping to contest a teammate’s post assignment, or just standing near the basket, Porzingis is a horror near the rim. His world-class size, length, and athleticism are enough to cover lapses in body positioning.

However, because of his slow lateral speed and reluctant physicality, I can’t see him being more impactful than someone like Rudy Gobert right now. None of these issues are irreparable though. I find that many post players begin mastering defenses around their age 28-30 seasons, and Porzingis just turned 25. With his natural length, I’m not worried about him losing impact as he ages. If he commits to fighting more in the paint and understanding how his body positioning can be more effective than relying on his reach, then I like his chances of winning Defensive Player of the Year in a few years.

Cody Houdek is a writer for Premium Hoops. He is also a senior writer at Overtime Heroics where he also runs their YouTube channel.

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