Why Robert Williams Deserves Defensive Player Of The Year: Individual and Team Impact

The DPOY race does not have a clear favorite like the ROTY or MIP race. With the final stretch of the season occurring, multiple players can claim the award through a dominant run. If the award was given out today, my choice would be Robert Williams of the Celtics. Not what you were expecting? Rudy Gobert, who has won three of the last four DPOY, is the favorite on DraftKings, but his case is not as strong as in previous seasons. In order to justify my pick, I am going to break down stats and impact on both an individual and team level. 

*Stats from 3/11/22

Individual Stats & Impact 

Robert Williams is 6’9” with a 7’5” wingspan.  Williams can slide his feet defensively and defend in spurts on the perimeter. His shot-blocking skills are legit because he can jump out of the gym and anticipates well. Due to his size and hyper-athleticism, Williams is the perfect combo big man who can defend multiple positions at an elite level. 

The chart below contains 16 of the top 17 betting favorites to win DPOY according to DraftKings. I did not include Draymond Green because he has missed too many games to have a legit shot at winning DPOY. Defensive Field Goal % (DFG%) is the FG% that the opponent shoots when that player is the primary defender. Therefore, a lower number is better because it means the player is making opponents miss shots. Steals and blocks are not always the greatest indicator of defense, but they do show defensive activity. Plus, awards are won because of flashy numbers, not necessarily subtle intrinsic value. With that being said, it is desirable to be located in the bottom right of this chart because that means a player has a large amount of blocks+steals while also forcing opponents to miss shots.

Top DPOY Candidates: Individual Impact

As you can see, Robert Williams fares the best from this measurement. He is 2nd in both blocks+steals and DFG%. Thybulle, a perimeter defender, has a better DFG%, but Robert Williams is an interior defender. Opponents are much closer to the basket for Williams, so they are getting higher percentage shots. Thybulle guards the perimeter where opponents inherently shoot worse from the field. Because of this, I would consider Williams’ DFG% more impressive than Thybulle’s. Jaren Jackson Jr and Rudy Gobert are his toughest big man competitors for the award, and he beats both of them. Jackson Jr has a slight edge in steals+blocks, but the discrepancy in DFG% is larger.  

One problem that could be raised is the lack of standardization. Maybe Williams plays more possessions, and that explains his great volume stats. With that in mind, here is a chart of defensive performance per 100 possessions, so it is an equal measure of defensive value. Defensive Rating is used instead of DFG% because DFG% would not change from introducing per 100 possessions. The Defensive Rating used is individual rating, not a team measurement. A lower Defensive Rating is better because it means the player gives up fewer points. Being in the bottom right of this graph is the desirable location. 

Top DPOY Candidates: Individual Impact Per 100 Possessions

Standardizing it shoots Thybulle up the steals+blocks measurement, but Jackson Jr and Williams are still the top two in the category. Williams and Gobert are tied for the lowest Defensive Rating per 100 possessions; however, Williams has a sizable lead in the counting stats. The individual markers clearly point towards Robert Williams as the DPOY, but does it translate to team success? Individual defense is important, but whether it has an impact on the team is arguably just as significant. 

Team Stats & Impact 

How do the Celtics do defensively? They are 1st in Defensive Rating (105.6) and 3rd in Opponent PPG (104). Williams is putting up the best individual stats on the best defensive team in the NBA. A counter argument could be that the perimeter defense of Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum drive this defensive success, not Robert Williams. However, the Celtics are an inside-out defense, and Williams’ paint protection allows the wing defenders to closely stick to outside shooters. The chart below shows the Celtics DFG% and NBA rank based on area of the court.

Celtics Rank of DFG% By Area

The Celtics have great numbers across the board, but Williams’ impact can be seen here. They are 5th in DFG% from 0-5 feet, which shows his rim protection. They are 1st in DFG% from 5-9 feet, and 2nd in DFG% from 10-14 feet. This dominance is significant because it shows the range Williams has. He provides elite defense in a far greater area than someone like Gobert does. They are 2nd in 3PT DFG%, but a lot of that stems from being 1st in 2PT DFG%. The perimeter defenders know they have a security blanket behind them, so they can be more aggressive. 

DPOY Odds

Overall, Robert Williams has the individual stats and impact, but it also translates to a dominant team defense. He deserves to be DPOY because of his incredible impact in a variety of ways. Voters can see the flashy stats they love – 1st in BPG and 2nd in SPG+BPG. They can also witness the team success they crave. His odds actually jumped from +2200 to +1000 since I started diving into his case, but +1000 is still great value. Will Williams actually win the award? I don’t know since Gobert and Giannis have a better reputation. Perception sometimes trumps reality, and it may sway the DPOY choice. If he wins or not, Robert Williams deserves the DPOY award. 

I am currently a junior at University of Pennsylvania majoring in Psychology. I have spent the last few years working with various UPenn athletics teams and contributing to the UPenn Sports Analytics Group. My primary interests reside in NBA, NFL, and College Football.

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