Kawhi Leonard was named the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year this week for the second consecutive season. Draymond Green was the only other player that had even an outside shot at the award, but the feeling amongst most NBA followers was that Kawhi was a no-brainer.
The Warriors will get the last laugh when it comes to the individual awards category this season when Stephen Curry raises his second MVP trophy in as many years — Leonard will likely finish as the runner-up. But while all the hype has been focused on how rare a talent Steph is, Kawhi’s been perfecting his craft on the other end of the floor too.
Whatever Curry is doing for 3-point shooting, Leonard is doing the same for perimeter defense. It’s just that nobody wants to talk about it.
The DPOY award has always been for centers. The last non-rim protector to win the award before Leonard was Ron Artest back during the 2003-04 season. Since then the winners have been Ben Wallace (twice before Artest and then another two times after), Marcus Camby, Kevin Garnett, Dwight Howard (three-peat), Tyson Chandler, Marc Gasol and Joakim Noah … you get the idea by now.
The last perimeter defender to win DPOY back-to-back was actually a young Dennis Rodman from 1989-1991 with the Pistons — who even went on to play some center later in his career. Going back even further, the only other example is Sidney Moncrief of the Bucks, who was the DPOY from 1982-84 (the inaugural two seasons of the award).
Kawhi is a unicorn, as we say these days in the NBA, which inspired a list that rarely gets any love — the Top-10 Perimeter Defenders of All-Time:
10. Alvin Robertson
Robertson came into the league as a first-round pick by the Spurs in 1984. After showing potential as a rookie, he broke out in his second season — winning the first ever Most Improved Player award and the DPOY. Robertson would make the All-Defensive First Team twice and Second Team four more times. Aside from leading the NBA in steals three times, he also played in four All-Star games.
9. Michael Cooper
Cooper was the lockdown defender for the Showtime Lakers. Everyone remembers “Magic vs. Bird,” but Cooper was the guy that spent a lot of his time covering Larry Bird back in those days. Aside from winning the 1987 DPOY, Cooper was on five All-Defensive First Teams and won five championships in his career.
8. Ron Artest
Was Ron Artest a dirty player? Sure, but sometimes it takes someone crazy enough to change their name to Metta World Peace to be an elite perimeter defender. Artest won the award in 2004 during a time when perimeter scorers were scattered across the league after MJ left. Shaq and Duncan were still in their primes, but between Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, Tracy McGrady, Paul Pierce, Vince Carter, Ray Allen … and the list keeps going, there may not have been a harder time to play D against wings.
7. Sidney Moncrief
If the DPOY award had been established before 1982 Moncrief would probably have won more than two of them. Not only was he one of the best shooting guards in the league, but he was the first of his kind when it came to being the guy everyone thinks about when they think of a lockdown defender. So much so that Michael Jordan often complimented him for his ability to hold him in check.
6. Dennis Rodman
Joe Dumars may have started every showdown with the Bulls covering Jordan, but it was Rodman that gave him the most trouble. What’s really amazing about Rodman, though, is the fact that he had the athleticism to play MJ so tough before totally changing his career after the two became teammates. Above is film of Rodman on Jordan from his Pistons days, but as a member of the Bulls you may recall Rodman holding his own against Shaquille O’neal in Orlando and Karl Malone in those Utah Finals.
5. Kawhi Leonard
Kawhi still has a lot more of his story to write before it’s over, but at 24-years old he may be off to the best start of the group. Throwing Leonard on Curry in the playoffs is going to have a huge impact on that series. Over time Leonard is going to become an all-time great defender. But for now, let’s all keep watching the clip that’s become so popular over the last couple days — Kawhi frustrating the hell out of Lance Stephenson.
4. Kobe Bryant
Sometimes Kobe doesn’t get the credit he deserves as a defender. Maybe it’s because he never won a DPOY award, but let’s not forget he was on NINE All-Defensive First Teams. Maybe it’s because he was so great on offense, but much of it was fueled by the same competitiveness he brought on defense. Either way, there’s no question Kobe is a top-5 perimeter defender.
3. Gary Payton
“The Glove” is the only point guard ever to win DPOY; however, it’s almost surprising that he wasn’t able to win more. Payton was not only shutting down opposing point guards, but at 6’4” GP had no problem guarding other positions, including locking down on MJ. And talk about consistency … Payton was on the All-Defensive First Team from 1994-2002 … “The Glove” was ruthless.
2. Scottie Pippen
Like Kobe, Pippen shockingly never won DPOY, but is widely renowned as one of the (if not the) greatest perimeter defender ever. His length combined with versatility and quickness made him a matchup nightmare for practically any opposing wing players. Pippin did make the All-Defensive First Team for eight consecutive seasons in the ’90’s, so he was well recognized for his skill set and rewarded with six championships.
1. Michael Jordan
Jordan isn’t the greatest player of all-time just for his offensive accomplishments. He might have been even better at defense when he needed to be. I say that because it’s impossible to carry the offensive load Jordan did and be able to lock down on every possession when playing 40 minutes. You need plays off no matter how great you are. But when MJ needed to lock down he did just that. Everyone forgets he won DPOY in 1988, a season he averaged 37.5 PPG on the other end. That’s unthinkable today.
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