Can AD's defensive versatility finally bring him the DPOY award?

After being drafted first overall in 2012 by New Orleans Pelicans (then called Hornets), Anthony Davis has delivered great performances year in and year out. However, that success was more on a “personal” level, as the Pelicans only made the playoffs twice, in 2014-15 and 2017-18 season. AD was great in those playoff performances, but the furthest Pels reached is 2nd round in 2017-18.

Through his first seven seasons, Davis has been recognized as one of the best defenders in the league, and yet he only made an All-Defensive team three times (he was named two times on second, and once on first All-Defensive team). Did the team success (or lack of it) throttle Davis in possibly winning a DPOY or two? Or he just wasn’t that good?

Defensive Feats During Early Career

Even before the NBA, Davis was already famous on a nationwide level. Davis was player of the year in College and won the award for the Defensive player of the year, also on collegiate level. After that, he was elected to be a member of the 2012 Olympic team, which is a big feature for any athlete.

He quickly got to the main stage, earning All-Star appearance in his sophmore season, after a good rookie season for such a young and raw player.

In 2014-15 we got a real glimpse of what AD was capable of doing, as he led the team to the playoffs and received multiple votes for MVP and DPOY (ending 5th and 4th in voting, respectively). That was also the first year he earned himself a spot in an All-Defensive Team.

anthony davis defensive chart 2014-15

The following season was another good one by Davis, but not good enough as they missed out on playoffs. That also resulted in poor voting results for AD in both of the previously mentioned awards. It is worth noting that starting with 2015-16, and all the way up to this season, Davis spent more time at Center than he did at Power Forward (according to Basketball-Reference), which is his natural and preferred position.

Even when DeMarcus Cousins played for Pelicans, Davis spent most of the time at Center (but that was probably because of Cousins’ mid-season trade in 16/17 and injury in 17/18). They were destined to be the next Twin Towers, but Boogie’s injury stopped them in achieving that status. Davis put up an amazing season after that injury, and led the Pelicans to already mentioned 2nd round.

Also, those two seasons with Boogie on team were the other two which yielded him the spot on All-Defensive Team.

anthony davis defensive chart 2017-18

The 2017-18 season was especially impressive, and one in which Davis ended up 3rd in voting for DPOY award behind Gobert and Embiid.

What did hinder AD’s chances at DPOY award?

One could argue that Davis would acquire even more accolades had the Pelicans been a better team, but in the past 10 years some of the DPOY award winners weren’t even playing for the top 4 teams in the conference. Chandler was even playing for Knicks who ended 7th in 2011-12.

But what have they done differently than Davis?

Table of winners’ and AD’s stats

Here are some basic stats, DWS, DBPM, Defensive On-Off (negative is better), and record.

There are more stats that could represent a player’s impact even better, but these are the easiest to find and compare through so many seasons (I’ll touch on some other stats later).

Season Winning Player DWS DBPM On-Off Record AD DWS AD DBPM AD On-Off AD Record
11/12 Tyson Chandler 3.6 1.1 0.0 36-30 / / / /
12/13 Marc Gasol 5.4 3.1 -4.5 56-26 2.4 0.7 0.8 27-55
13/14 Joakim Noah 6.6 3.6 1.2 48-34 3.2 0.8 1.6 34-48
14/15 Kawhi Leonard 4.4 3.1 -3.6 55-27 4.2 2.3 -3.6 45-37
15/16 Kawhi Leonard 5.5 3.0 -3.2 67-15 2.8 0.4 0.5 30-52
16/17 Draymond Green 5.4 3.9 -3.5 67-15 5.1 1.4 -5.5 34-48
17/18 Rudy Gobert 3.9 2.5 -6.9 48-34 4.9 1.4 -6.3 48-34
18/19 Rudy Gobert 5.7 2.5 -1.1 50-32 3.1 2.3 -2.2 33-49

All players in this table have something in common (except for Chandler), they were all in Top 5 in either DBPM or DWS in the year they won DPOY. And their teams were playoff contenders. So basically, even in the years when AD performed really well, it just wasn’t enough. Also, these stats don’t tell the whole picture, because Green and Leonard do so many other things really well and oftentimes opposing players just straight up avoided matching up with them.

AD made the All-Defensive team in 2014-15, 2016-17 and 2017-18 season, and that correlates well with the success of the team. 2 out of 3 of those seasons were winning seasons, and seasons in which Pelicans made the Playoffs.

And while the overall Pelicans’ record might be bad, their defensive side was even worse. The Hornets/Pelicans ended up 28th, 27th, 22nd (*), 27th, 9th (*), 14h (*) and 23rd in team defensive rating through Davis’ career. Those numbers are just horrendous. Only one top 10 finish, and that was in their losing season (2016-17).

To conclude AD’s chapter with Pelicans, it is safe to say that he only had one real opportunity at the DPOY award, back in 2017/18 season, when he was amazing on the offensive side of the ball as well.

Player Name Defensive Efficiency (Playoff) Defensive Efficiency (vs Miami)
Jaylen Brown 3.9/11.6 (34%) 3.0/11.7 (25.7%)!!!
Jayson Tatum 4.3/11.5 (37.3%) 5.7/12.7 (44.7%)
Marcus Smart 3.9/9.1 (42.2%) 6.0/12.7 (47.4%)
Kemba Walker 5.8/14.0 (41.3%) 7.0/15.0 (46.7%)

Back to the Present Time

Unlike the previous seasons, AD is finally on the Championship worthy team. The team that excels at both offense and defense. Lakers are 3rd in Defensive Rating, and currently leading the Western Conference in standings. And Davis plays a big part in that, let’s take a look at how.


Lakers allowed Davis to slide into his natural position, Power Forward position, and they provided him with two quality rim defenders in McGee and Howard. Even though both are out of their prime years, they provide quality rotation.

Davis also fills in as a small-ball center, especially in late-game situations.

anthony davis playing position

That also coincides with AD saying that he doesn’t mind playing as a center if it makes sense.

Defensive Versatility

We have come to the main topic of this article and the characteristic that makes Davis a phenomenal defensive player. Throughout his career, Davis has shown how he can defend all positions at all distances from the basket.

Whether he had to spend time on a perimeter against a forward, take on an opposing guard after a pick and roll, or simply defend a big man in the post, Davis was stringing together success after success (as you can see on his defensive charts).

anthony davis defensive chart 2019-20

But this season, he has taken that versatility to another level. He spends most of his time on the three-point line where he either defends players who try to create their own shots, or covers the players who shoot from spot up/off screen plays.

The following chart shows how much time AD has spent on defending each specific position.

anthony davis positions covered

He is mostly matched up with forwards, after that with guards, and only then he is matched up with centers. That changed during the years, he was always matched up with big men and only then with guards, but he really plays as a true Power Forward this year.

Davis is an elite Perimeter Defending Big Man, I think I saw that term on BBall Index in a tweet once, so credit to them.

Let’s take a look at another graph showing the change of defended shots depending on the distance of that shot.

anthony davis distances covered through years

When looking at three point shots, you can see the spike in 2017-18 and then the drop in last year’s numbers. Had they brought in a different player alongside him last year (not Julius Randle), Davis might still be with Pelicans. But we’ll never know now, and both sides turned out to be profitable from the trade it seems.

Blocking Machine

Throughout his career, Anthony Davis has secured three “titles” for most blocks in a season. He led the league in that segment in 2013-14, 2014-15 and 2017-18 season.

This season he is tied 3rd overall with Brook Lopez (and Jonathan Isaac, who missed out a lot of games though) with 2.4 blocks per game.

But the interesting thing here is that AD is leading the NBA in blocks outside of Restricted Area.

restricted area blocks davis

The following few players are Robinson, Whiteside, Lopez, and Gobert, all of them are elite shot blockers. After them, there is already mentioned Jonathan Isaac, who shined in that aspect and could be an AD-like player on the defense.

So with that fact in mind, let’s take a look at AD’s block chart.

anthony davis block chart

This looks almost like Zion’s normal shot chart. Davis is all over the floor on defense, and it is not often that you see someone block so many shots outside of RA and Paint.

So is it Time for DPOY?

Probably not.

Even though his season is again great and probably the best so far, Davis should lose in the DPOY race. The reason is rather simple…

giannis antetokounmpo defensive chart

Giannis’ defensive season is simply amazing. He, as well as the Bucks as a whole, is historically good at defending the paint. Allowing only 41% is almost unprecedented.

One could say that Giannis doesn’t carry the biggest load on the defensive side and that Brook Lopez is the cornerstone of the defense, but his advanced metrics are absolutely amazing…

Stats Breakdown, Giannis vs Davis

Stat Name Davis stat Giannis Stat
DWS 4.1 (2nd) 4.8 (1st)
DBPM 2.8 (3rd) 4.1 (1st)
DRTG 101 (5th) 96 (1st)
DRTG ON/OFF +2.0 -7.7 (!!!)
DEF RAPTOR 3.7 (5th) 4.0 (3rd)
DEF PIPM 2.47 (10th) 4.46 (1st)

In this table, I used some of the already mentioned stats, along with two more advanced stats, Raptor and PIPM. So it’s not that Giannis has a slight edge, he is crushing AD and everyone else in DPOY competition.

Towards the Playoffs

With all this being said, if the NBA season continues and we manage to reach playoffs, I’m excited to watch AD play probably the best basketball of his career. He has shown throughout the seasons various ways of scoring the basketball and ability to take over the game. Add in LeBron on Point Forward, and the pick and roll options are infinite.

On the other side of the ball, AD’s defensive versatility will allow Lakers to explore numerous ways of matchups, both with tough opposition on West, and Bucks in the potential finals…

Written on July 7, 2020