Who is the Defensive Player of the Decade?

  • As Double Clutch’s look back over the 2010s, the team take a look at who were the NBA’s best defensive players of the decade

Defense is more difficult to measure than the Most Valuable Player of the Decade. Sure, you can look at blocks and steals, or take plus-minus, which is not perfect, but even some of the world’s best stat nerds don’t have the ultimate way to determine the Defensive Player of the Year each season. For that reason, the Defensive Player of the Decade was much more difficult to determine, and divided votes in the Double Clutch slack channel.


CANDIDATES

Tony Allen by Justin Quinn

When it comes to talking defense over the NBA’s last decade, one of the first names on the lips of any avid basketball fan is Tony Allen.

Allen’s coverage was so renowned, he was nicknamed The Grindfather for his defensive contributions to the Memphis Grizzlies. So much so, the grit’n’grind era was in large part built by Allen’s smothering defense, seeing the Chicago native take home All-NBA All-Defensive Team honors six of 10 eligible years.

Only Chris Paul exceeded that total with seven such seasons, and none others matched that year-to-year longevity in that span. He is among the league’s greatest defensive players in recent decades, if not ever.

Kobe Bryant counted him as his toughest defender, and Allen would later apply those clamps to Kawhi Leonard using what he learned from guarding one of the game’s most lethal offensive threats to counter one of its newest.

When Boston’s current defensive specialist rips the ball out of the hands of a much stouter opponent, shades of the Grindfather shine through his fellow Oklahoma State alum. While sans the braggadocious swagger afterwards most nights, there is every bit of Allen’s intensity and fearlessness to mug players much bigger than he.

While the Naismith Hall of Fame might be a bar too high given Allen’s limited accolades and successes on the other side of the ball (he won a ring with the Celtics as a rookie, but did not have a major role in it), he will forever be associated with the hard-nosed defense Memphis built their decade around, and left an indelible mark on the game over the last 10 years.


Rudy Gobert by Karl Moon

No one has been a more dominant defensive force over the last decade than the man from Saint-Quentin, Rudy Gobert. The corner stone of the grittiest team in the NBA at present, the Utah Jazz, the Stifle Tower stands at a huge 7’1, but it’s his love for the defensive fundamentals that sets him apart from his peers. 

Gobert is a defense-first and defense-second player. Scoring points is not his priority, but if a shot is to be taken it must provide the best odds of success. This means he has a career field goal career percentage of .632 and a total of 0 three-point attempts over his seven seasons in the NBA. Gobert knows his strengths and the strengths of his team mates. 

He has proven himself a vital piece of the puzzle for the Salt Lake City outfit, seeing a team evolve around him. A natural leader and a terrifying presence in the paint for any opposition player in the league, Gobert is as reliable as a Breguet watch, posting a career double-double average in points and rebounds, and can regularly be seen among the stat leaders in blocks with a career average of 2.2 a game. 

Perhaps most shocking of all is that the Frenchman is still only 27 years of age and is only getting better. In an age where we see hybrid roles, small ball and seven footers putting up threes, Gobert focuses on just one thing, stopping the opposition scoring at the rim. And he does it better than anyone else in the NBA.


Marc Gasol by Huw Hopkins

The best defense is not flashy. The best defenders don’t need to beat their chest with every forced turnover or wag their fingers with every block. Because defense shouldn’t be part of the highlight reel, it should just happen, every time down the floor.

Marc Gasol will be overlooked by many, because he has the traits described above. The only highlight of him showing over-the-top emotion that comes to mind is a shot he hit to give his team the go-ahead bucket that would beat the Los Angeles Clippers. The big man started to walk off the floor like Conor McGregor, but remembered who and where he was before getting his mind right to focus on the next play: a defensive possession.

Gasol’s career plus-minus average is 3.4. When you consider that in five seasons during this decade, he has been a been a minus on the offensive end, that shows how effective he is at being a positive contributor on the defensive end.

He has averaged at least one block in every season of his career, but Gasol’s true mastery comes from positioning. His awareness and instinct means that when offensive players have a move in mind, the Spaniard has already read the floor to understand what they want to do and where they want to go before they do it. 

He is also a great communicator and his teammates always know what direction to shade their assignment in order to push them toward or away from danger.

Gasol won the Defensive Player of the Year during the 2012-13 season, but he was the backbone of the grit’n’grind Memphis Grizzlies – probably the best defensive team in the league – for their entire run and was the defensive presence the Toronto Raptors needed last season to slow down Joel Embiid and win the NBA championship. 

Consistency matters. Dependability matters. Winning matters. Gasol matters on defense.


RUNNER UP

Draymond Green by Nick Whitfield

Certain players are so influential in their contribution to a championship team that their style and attributes become a template for those in the chasing pack. Draymond Green became a defensive template for what it means to be an elite defender in the front court in the 2010s. With the importance of high percentage shots at the rim there’s obviously still room for elite paint protectors like Rudy Gobert, but with the high prevalence of three-point shooting and high pick and rolls, unless you’re a top 10 rim protector, your team will want you to be capable of switching on anyone and everyone.

This is where Green has excelled. As comfortable challenging a forward at the rim as chasing a point guard on the perimeter. Listed at just 6’6 inches, he is the defensive zeitgeist coming out of a decade in which the most influential power forwards (Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki) hovered around seven feet and primarily roamed the paint defensively. If you can turn the other team’s primary weapon (in today’s NBA, usually a high pick-and-roll to force a mismatch or create an opening for a guard to get downhill) into a disadvantage then your team has a great chance of winning any given game. Combined with an ‘I’d rather kick you in the nuts than let you score’ attitude, this is what Draymond Green has represented in the 2010s.


DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE DECADE

Kawhi Leonard by Mike Miller

Ah, Kawhi Leonard… the destroyer of dynasties. The man responsible for ending the two “eras” of this decade, the Heatles and the Super Team. 

Leonard, the ever-unwitting superstar, shot to the forefront of NBA fans’ minds as he collected the 2014 NBA Finals MVP, largely due to his defensive presence, as the San Antonio Spurs romped to a 4-1 victory over the Miami Heat. His assurgence continued, as he became the only wing to win Defensive Player of the Year in the decade. A feat he achieved twice. Say what you want about his injuries and games missed detracting from his case, but only two other players have won two DPOY awards this decade (Dwight Howard and Rudy Gobert).

En route to his second NBA title and second Finals MVP with the surprising Toronto Raptors, Leonard had to go through the seemingly unstoppable Giannis Antetokounmpo in during his MVP season. Despite giving up four inches in height and about 15lbs – though Kawhi’s 7’3 wingspan is amazingly the same as Antetokounmpo’s – Leonard’s efforts on both ends of the floor effectively ended Milwaukee’s run at a chip.

But perhaps the greatest indictment of Leonard’s case for Defensive Player of the Decade is that he has more total steals than turnovers or personal fouls.