June 25, 2018
Individual hardware might be on the horizon for Joel Embiid, but it was not to be at the awards ceremony on Monday night. Embiid fell just short of Defensive Player of the Year honors at the 2018 NBA Awards, finishing behind standout Utah center Rudy Gobert.
I don't think there's a whole lot to take issue with here, given the degree to which Gobert drove Utah's success this season. Embiid had a clear case to take home top honors prior to the injury he suffered at the end of the season, which left him at just 63 games played. That was a great number for Embiid given past context, but left the door open for Gobert (or someone else) to take the award on merit.
And here's what it really came down to: Gobert was marginally better in a comparable amount of games. Gobert only played seven less games than Embiid, and volume is just one piece of the puzzle.
There are lots of good-to-great defenders in the NBA, but Embiid and Gobert are two of the only guys who are transformative by themselves, one-man wrecking crews who tilt the floor for opponents. They are so imposing at the rim and so capable of deterring jump shooters on switches that they end up forcing teams into a lot of undesirable mid-range shots.
In terms of protecting the rim, Embiid was arguably the better player during their time on their floor this season. His DFG% at the rim was among the best in basketball, a few full percentage points better than Gobert's.
But in a lot of the major stat categories, Gobert emerged on top, besting Embiid in Defensive Win Shares, Defensive Box Plus-Minus, Defensive Real Plus-Minus — where he's the leader by almost a full point per 100 possessions — and simpler measures like blocked shots. The Jazz ended the year with a better defense than the Sixers, and it is largely because of the efforts of Gobert, despite Embiid having Robert Covington and Ben Simmons helping him turn the Sixers into an elite unit.
These two are going to battle for top honors for years to come as long as they're both healthy, and their efforts on that end are among my favorite things to watch in the league.
If nothing else, this should serve as another point of motivation for Embiid in the middle of his first healthy offseason of his NBA career. He has made no secret of the pride he takes in playing defense, and coming so close only to come up short will no doubt add fuel to his fire.
And by the way, all things considered, this is quite an achievement for a player in his second season, especially considering all the time Embiid has missed due to injury. The defensive awareness and athleticism it takes to perform at this level is considerable, and it's a big reason why Philadelphia is a major free agent destination over the next two summers.
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