Defensive Player of the Year has almost always been an award for the anchors of a NBA defense, the big guys down the middle who hold together systems with their overwhelming interior presence. Dikembe Mutombo won the award four times, as did Ben Wallace, and Dwight Howard took the award home three years in a row from 2009 to 2011. In fact only seven non-bigs have broken the mold and won since the award began following the 1982-83 season.
When it comes to wings and DPOY, at least in my eyes, it takes a very special perimeter force who is capable of anchoring a defense in their own unique way outside of the paint. It's incredibly difficult to do, making Kawhi Leonard's back-to-back titles one of the most stunning accomplishments in league history. Only Sidney Moncrief has won back-to-back defensive awards as a wing player before Leonard, who stepped up once again as an anchor with his stellar all-around defense that helped lead the Spurs to one of the most dominant defensive seasons in league history.
When Leonard was on the court, San Antonio posted a defensive rating of 94.9 as opposed to 99.2 without him, a significant factor on the team that led the NBA in that area. For that effort, he was able to dominate the voting field once again over impactful bigs like Draymond Green (second-place finish for second straight year), Hassan Whiteside, and DeAndre Jordan.
But beneath Leonard and the bigs was a player whose defensive magnitude will truly begin to be felt through his absence for the rest of the first round: our own Avery Bradley. Among guards Bradley led the field in Defensive Player of the Year ballots with 11 third-place votes, making him the only player at that position to crack the top ten outside former Celt Tony Allen, a usual suspect for this award.
Bradley's appearance caps off a year of defensive brilliance often under-appreciated among fans I've talked to who scold his offensive inconsistencies. But for the first time since 2012, it seemed like he regained the confidence to get back to who he was when he first entered the league on an elite team with no offensive pressure on him. Bradley has returned to ruthlessly aggressive perimeter defense, calculated risks that lead to turnovers, and a natural knowledge for that area of the game that empowers everyone around him.
Nine of the ten lineups Bradley was involved in this season were net positives in points (+4.5 overall), and his 2.8 defensive win shares was a career high. That stability was great, but what set Bradley apart as a near-anchor was that he was a driving force behind Boston's strong tendency to force opponents into turnovers. The Celtics led the league in 15.8 turnovers forced per game, and only Memphis had a better own/opp. turnover ratio, which was a heavy result of Bradley's elevated aggressiveness.
Bradley's return to defensive greatness was thanks in large part to the completion, or at least the likely height, of his offensive game finally being reached. As he began to focus more on that part of his game when 2013-14 began, his defense took a hit as the team needed his offense more and more. This year with career highs in effective FG%, points per game, and assists, the former tenacity we once knew and loved was able to return. Between his effectiveness on both ends of the floor, Bradley was a crucial reason the Celtics scored 1542 points off turnovers in 2015-16 for an astonishing 17.7% of their 8669 points (5th in NBA).
AB truly became a great two-way player in 2016, and while his defense didn't anchor a historically great unit like Leonard's did with the Spurs, he was crucial in the Cs' ability to turn quick defensive stops into points as a team.
Kevin Garnett (5th, 44 points) was the last Celtic to place this high in the voting in 2011-12, when he moved to center and sparked a second half run that turned into an improbable rush to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals vs. Miami. Rajon Rondo had previously soared in the voting in 2010-11, placing 5th with 45 points to give some guard perspective.
There's so much that goes into battling with the big boys for Defensive Player of the Year and Bradley's multifaceted effect on a basketball game that stems from his defense allowed him to get praise from players all over the league, including likely MVP candidate Damian Lillard:
"I told him he was the best perimeter defender in the league...he's strong. Good anticipation. And a lot of guys just, people say they're defenders. They look like defenders on some possessions, but that's what he does. That's what he wants to do. He's there every possession. He doesn't get screened. He's tough. You've got to give credit where it's due."
While today would be a day of celebration for such an accomplishment, which I'd expect to be followed up with an announcement that he'll be first team All-Defense for '16, it ironically coincides with the news that the Celtics will likely be without Bradley for the entirety of this Hawks series. If anything, his absence will definitely make everyone appreciate what a special talent (at a special price albeit) we had starting at shooting guard this season.
Bradley was no Leonard defensively, but his impact in combination with other hustle plays from the likes of Jae Crowder (who received a single third-place vote) came together to make the Cs one of the scrappiest defensive units in basketball and thusly a 48-win team. Without AB? We'll see what they're made of starting tonight.