Since its inception in 1983, the Defensive Player of the Year award has typically been awarded to a center or forward. The only guards to ever win the award are Sidney Moncrief (’83 and ’84), Alvin Robertson (‘86), Michael Cooper (‘87), Michael Jordan (’88), and “The Glove” Gary Payton (‘96). That’s right. It’s been 25 years since the last guard won DPoY. However, the game was completely different then.
Shooting threes, slam dunks, and crafty playmaking are all sexier parts of basketball, as highlighted by All-Star Weekend events like the Skills Challenge, Three-Point Contest, and the Slam Dunk Contest. Defense isn’t present during All-Star Weekend and although he made a strong case for inclusion, Fred VanVleet wasn’t either.
The correlation between Fred VanVleet and defense is stronger than you think.
You can’t afford to blink when Freddy’s on defense because you might miss how impactful he is, not just as an individual, but also as a teammate. His hands are so active, he could steal an opposing player’s wallet without them even noticing. For a player of his size, his defensive numbers are outstanding, making him the best pound-for-pound defensive player in the league. Beyond that, his team is much better whenever he’s on the court, as evidenced by his stellar on-off numbers. Add it all together, and he should be the 2021 NBA Defensive Player of the Year.
As a smaller guard, he needs to move quickly in order to cover as much of the court as he can. It helps that he covers the sixth-most miles per game in the league on the defensive end. He doesn’t have the size of Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, or Kevin Durant. So he needs to maximize his physical traits, squeezing out every last ounce of effort like the toothpaste we know will never run out.
Take a look below at how he manages to subdue the opposition with hands and feet that never stop churning.
His hands are ridiculously quick. He wrestles for the ball with Malcolm Brogdon and forces the Indiana Pacers into a shot-clock violation. He goes from playing suffocating defense on Ja Morant to taking advantage of Jonas Valanciunas’ terrible ball security (we still love you JV!) within a four-second span.
Then we see a voracious two-time reigning MVP and DPOY, stopped by a dude half of his size. VanVleet then proceeds to rip the ball out of his hands in a basketball recreation of David versus Goliath. His February 2 game against the Orlando Magic is memorable, of course, because of his magnificent 54-point effort. But peep the full stat line:
Obviously, the hoopla surrounding VanVleet’s effort was because of him breaking the Raptors’ franchise record for points. However, that accomplishment overshadowed his still-impressive three steals and three blocks. As you can see in the video above, he was everywhere across 94 inches of the court that night.
That’s true every night, no matter how many points he scores.
When it comes to deflections, VanVleet ranks second in the league with 3.8 per game. He’s tipping away the ball at a much better pace than Giannis Antetokounmpo in his 2019-20 Defensive Player of the Year campaign. He’s a magnet not just for steals, but also for digs and tipped passes; he’s always finding ways to disrupt offensive sets, even if it doesn’t result in a change of possession.
Another key indicator of why VanVleet is such a foil for other teams is due to his ability to recover loose balls and defensive loose balls. He recovers 1.3 loose balls per game, fifth best in the league. It’s rarely the players creating deflections who actually gather the ball afterwards, and VanVleet’s success there is another point in his favour, showing his effort and level of focus.
These numbers are reflective of how he utilizes his size so well. That VanVleet manages to shrink the court despite his limited wingspan shows his incredible mind for the defensive end, as well as how well he uses his physical tools. He exerts energy on the defensive end like no one else in the NBA.
Former DPOY Guards
Whether he’s diving for those loose balls, directing his team on defensive sets, or covering one of the toughest assignments in the league, VanVleet’s leadership is key to the Raptors’ winning chances.
When discussing DPoY, it’s important to note that only five guards (one guard won it twice) have claimed the hardware. It’s interesting that guards took five of the first six DPoY awards and have only won it once since. It’s time for Freddy to bring it back.
Among that group, Freddy ranks fifth in rebounding, is tied for fourth in steals, and is second in blocks. It’s indisputable how different the game is today compared to 25 years ago, but the league actually averages fewer steals and blocks in a single game now than in the 80s. That VanVleet’s numbers are comparable to the greatest defensive guards in the NBA is proof that he’s at least in the same conversation.
His numbers among current NBA players paint a favourable picture for him as well.
Rebounds and steals are always a huge consideration when contemplating who wins DPoY. But the number that sticks out is 0.8: the amount of blocks VanVleet accumulates per game. Let’s analyze that number closer and shorten the list of players to guards under six-foot-four; VanVleet is first in total blocks with 27. That’s ahead of players like six-foot-11 Ben Simmons (22), six-foot-seven Luka Doncic (22), six-foot-nine Kyle Anderson (21), or six-foot-six Lonzo Ball (20).
All this talk about size takes us to our next point.
It’s not just the numbers that make VanVleet a worthy candidate for DPoY. When you consider he’s well below the league average in height and weight, his case is strengthened by his ability to maximize his physical capabilities.
VanVleet is the best pound-for-pound defender in the league.
At 6-6.5 and 218 pounds, Cleveland’s Taurean Prince most closely resembles the league averages of 6-6 and 219 pounds. Prince is a behemoth compared to VanVleet.
He’s producing these numbers despite being (a generous) six-foot-one and 197 pounds. That’s extraordinary considering that the behemoth sizes in the NBA. Compared to even large guards in the NBA guards, VanVleet is elite in defensive production.
As mentioned before, players like Ben Simmons, Luka Doncic, Kyle Anderson, and Lonzo Ball are all bigger than Freddy. Despite that, VanVleet averages more blocks and deflections and conjures up more loose balls than all four of those players. He does it not just as a help defender who roams the court to gather numbers, but also as Toronto’s choice to defend opposing lead guards.
The Toronto Raptors are a paradox within the NBA given their win-loss record. Yet, they’re still maintaining an above-average net rating. That wouldn’t be true without Freddy and his tenacious, pesky defense.
On defense, the Raptors are simply much more active when Freddy’s on the court. As seen above, he’s active, jumping, directing traffic, and assuming a role similar to what Marc Gasol provided Toronto. VanVleet is the Raptors defensive anchor in a mumber of ways, and it shows through his hustle, gameplay, and numbers.
He eliminates opponents’ best offensive players while also helping his teammates, directing traffic, and forcing turnovers. That’s what puts him in line for the DPoY award.
The great Jay-Z once rapped that “men lie, women lie, but numbers don’t.” The numbers for Freddy’s defensive impact are indisputable. While it’s been an undeniably bizarre season, a number of firsts have occurred. A first for this millennium should be on the horizon when as a guard, Fred VanVleet’s name is engraved into the 2021 NBA Defensive Player of the Year award.