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Mikal Bridges' unconventional case for Defensive Player of the Year

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
April 11, 2022

Now that the regular season is over, NBA awards voting closes on Monday. Perhaps it’s too little, too late, but Mikal Bridges’ unconventional case for Defensive Player of the Year deserves to see the light of day nonetheless.

This year’s race feels underwhelming and wide open compared to recent years. Voter fatigue with Rudy Gobert helps, as does the Utah Jazz’s regression on that end of the floor. The Phoenix Suns’ second-ranked defense, per Cleaning the Glass, solidifies their best defender in Bridges as a legitimate DPOY candidate.

Listen to his coach or his teammates talk about it, and there’s no question who they think should receive the award.

“He should be Defensive Player of the Year, number one,” coach Monty Williams said. “He doesn’t duck a matchup, he plays every night, he guards everyone, plays 50 minutes, still produces on offense. I don’t get into the iron man thing, I just think the young man loves to play, he loves to work, and he’s a winner.”

“He’s Defensive Player of the Year, no doubt,” Devin Booker agreed. “The criteria just varies so often, so it’s kind of hard to pinpoint who the NBA wants it to be. But I think it’s pretty obvious and what he’s doing, the versatility of it, from guarding point guards to 4-man to 5-men sometimes, and doing it for 50 minutes a game.”

Let’s start by taking a look at that “criteria that varies so often” to see where Bridges stacks up.

Mikal Bridges’ case doesn’t revolve around the usual stats

Sifting through defensive metrics is hard enough as it is. Unlike the offensive end, where there’s an overwhelming number of stats that can help paint the picture of a player’s impact, the defensive end is harder to quantify and qualify.

“I’m not quite sure who should be in that position, because it’s hard to say when you don’t have a criteria that you can look at and say, ‘Okay, he checked this box, he checked that box,'” coach Monty Williams said. “I don’t think there’s a template that we can all follow, so therefore, it’s hard to make an assessment.”

The catch-all metrics on that side of the ball are imperfect (as all stats are when employed without proper context), which makes the eye test more important for DPOY than any other award. It’s within this sweet spot that Mikal Bridges will need to dominate to emerge as the Defensive Player of the Year frontrunner, because most of the numbers simply aren’t on his side.

Voters who will cast their ballot based on the most basic defensive stats (steals and blocks), won’t even locate Bridges on their radar. Finishing his season with 96 steals and 36 blocks, the “Man of Steal” finished with just 132 stocks.

Only four of the previous 39 DPOY winners ever finished with a lower number of steals plus blocks. One was Giannis Antetokounmpo, in a 2019-20 season shortened by 10 games due to the COVID pandemic, and the other three instances (Michael Cooper in 1986-87 and Dennis Rodman in 1989-90 and 1990-91) featured arguably the greatest defender of all time and the signature defender on a 65-win Los Angeles Lakers team.

Basically, it’s been more than 30 years since the last award winner recorded such a low number of stocks in a full season, and DPOY winners have averaged just under 272 — more than double Bridges’ figure. Compared to this year’s other top competitors, Bridges trails everyone but Adebayo, who played significantly fewer minutes and games:

  • Jaren Jackson Jr.: 250 stocks
  • Matisse Thybulle: 183 stocks
  • Rudy Gobert: 180 stocks
  • Joel Embiid: 176 stocks
  • Evan Mobley: 167 stocks
  • Giannis Antetokounmpo: 163 stocks
  • Marcus Smart: 136 stocks
  • Mikal Bridges: 132 stocks
  • Bam Adebayo: 124 stocks

Seventeen of the 39 DPOYs have led the league in either steals, blocks or rebounds. At 4.2 boards, 1.2 steals and 0.4 blocks per game, Bridges is nowhere near the top of any of those categories. Kawhi Leonard and Ron Artest are the only wings to win the award in the last 30 years, and Gary Payton was the last guard to do so, way back in 1995-96.

Before that, Michael Jordan, Michael Cooper, Alvin Robertson and Sidney Moncrief were the only non-bigs to win DPOY. It’s been a while since voters prioritized perimeter defense without the gaudy blocks and/or steals to back it up.

“He guards the toughest guys every single night without a blink, and everybody in that locker room appreciates what he does every single night,” Williams explained. “I’ll say it again: He should be Defensive player of the Year, ’cause he’s guarding guys from the outside in. That is really hard to do. The guys that come to mind are like Michael Cooper, Ron Artest, Metta World Peace, Alvin Robertson — those guys did it every night, and he’s just like that.”

In terms of frustrating opposing players into worse shooting numbers, however, those figures won’t support his case much either. NBA.com’s tracking data is hardly gospel when it comes to defensive field-goal percentage, but Bridges won’t rate well in the eyes of casual observers, since opponents actually shoot a slightly better percentage against him:

  • Mikal Bridges: 46% (+0.3% differential)
  • Marcus Smart: 45.2% (-0.3%)
  • Evan Mobley: 45.5% (-2.4%)
  • Joel Embiid: 46.9% (-2.8%)
  • Giannis Antetokounmpo: 44.6% (-3.3%)
  • Bam Adebayo: 42.8% (-4.9%)
  • Matisse Thybulle: 40.7% (-5.0%)
  • Jaren Jackson Jr.: 41.8% (-6.0%)
  • Rudy Gobert: 42% (-6.7%)

It’s the same story with on/off-court numbers. While candidates like Gobert and Adebayo watch their teams’ defensive ratings plummet whenever they sit, Phoenix’s D-rating actually improves from 106.9 with Bridges on the court to 101.1 when he rests. When Smart, Gobert, Adebayo, JJJ, Giannis, Embiid, Thybulle and Mobley sit, their teams all sport a worse defensive rating or at least stay the same.

Surprisingly, the advanced metrics don’t help Mikal Bridges either.

In ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus, he ranks 23rd in the league, ahead of only Thybulle, Smart and Antetokounmpo in our pack of DPOY candidates. On Dunks & Three’s Defensive Estimated Plus-Minus, he ranks 143rd, well behind the rest of the group. Consult FiveThirtyEight’s Defensive RAPTOR stat, and he’s 77th. Per StatMuse, he’s tied for 20th in defensive rating, trailing Gobert, Embiid, JJJ, Antetokounmpo, Smart and Mobley.

Simply put, if you want to make a case with the tried and true statistics — basic or advanced — you may have a hard time justifying Mikal Bridges for Defensive Player of the Year. Thankfully, there’s more to it than that.

“I think from an NBA, bigger picture, and when it comes down to awards and all that stuff, it can be a bit confusing, just because it could be a totally different metric from team to team,” Williams said. “And then you have what the NBA voters or whomever does all that stuff is looking at. So I think it hurts the player, because the player could be trying to do everything we asked them to do, but it may not look right in the metric, which is why I’ve always been confused by a lot of the analytics.”

Finding the right context

As always, analytics need context, and in Mikal Bridges’ case, that background sheds light on why his numbers don’t match the eye test.

For on/off-court ratings, Bridges’ heavy minute load and the Suns’ depth produces a misleading number. According to The Bball Index, the 25-year-old wing tied for 13th in matchup difficulty, putting him in the 97th percentile. That means he was drawing the toughest assignments in the league on a nightly basis, all while playing the most minutes.

That sets the table for the Suns’ top-three defense, while negatively impacting his own metrics:

“I think all of the metrics are based on an NBA thing, but they can’t be based on what we want,” Williams said. “So for us, it’s about, one, winning, and two, the schemes that we’re trying to implement every game, and then seeing the results based on what we know about the player and what we’re trying to do.”

What the Suns are trying to do is be an elite defense, which they are, thanks to Bridges’ willingness to take on the toughest perimeter or wing assignment.

“Makes me feel like I can guard 94 feet because I got so much help back behind me,” Ayton explained. “Not a lot of people can say that. Everybody making that second effort. Not the first one, but the second effort to make sure their brother’s not left on an island and stuff like that. That’s why Mikal needs to be that Defensive Player of the Year, man. That boy right there? Mind you, I’m shadowing the dude, and I’m seeing what he do.”

Ayton said the quiet part out loud: As much as bigs can call things out to their defenders while sitting back, the more difficult job is chasing ball-handlers and scorers around the perimeter. Bridges said as much recently, when he called it “crazy” how many times big men have won DPOY over guards.

“I think people take it for granted how tough it is to guard the top perimeter players in this league and not be able to really touch them because they’re going to get the foul call,” he told Yahoo! Sports’ Chris Haynes. “I feel like as a defender on the perimeter, you just get disrespected. I’m not even talking about me personally, but I don’t understand how guards in general don’t win it. These guards are shooting off ball screens, they get isos with the offense spaced out and a lot of shooters on the court. You’ve got to guard these matchups one-on-one, and I think we just get taken for granted.”

For his part, Williams agrees with that assessment. He’s noticed how often opponents are desperately trying to screen Bridges, manipulating their own offense to get him off their best player — the ultimate compliment for any great defender.

That ability to hound opposing stars from the point of attack has become a central part of Williams’ argument every time he’s advocated for Bridges as Defensive Player of the Year.

“Look, man, I’m not a politician, nor am I eloquent with pushing people, but I don’t know how you can’t look at the effort that that young man puts forth every night on that end of the floor and then do what he does on offense,” Williams said. “I’ve been saying it all year, he does it from the outside in. He’s not in a coverage, which a lot of the bigs are in coverage, he’s actually guarding people and running around and giving up his body and getting deflections and blocked shots and steals, and he guards the toughest guy every single night.”

Bridges may not rank well in Defensive EPM, but that stat places Jae Crowder and Frank Kaminsky as the Suns’ best defenders. He may be average in Defensive RAPTOR, but another grain of salt is needed if Crowder, Deandre Ayton, Cam Johnson and JaVale McGee are all ahead of him. The same could be said for a team-based stat like D-rating, which has Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Luka Doncic and Stephen Curry all ahead of Bridges.

Many of these stats require events like blocks, steals or rebounds go function, but Mikal Bridges’ value on that end doesn’t always show up in counting stats. Chasing guys around, hounding them and still managing to produce on the other end speaks to his two-way importance.

“I get so excited about it because I know what that’s like,” Chris Paul said. “For so many years guarding, you know what I mean? Like guarding guarding, chasing around Steph, guarding James [Harden], guarding Kyrie [Irving], Russ[ell Westbrook], all that. It’s a different type of approach coming into the game. A lot of games, guys are coming into the game just having to think about making their shots and getting to their spots, but when you have to think of ‘How am I going to make the game tough on this guy?’ it’s a whole different approach to the game, and he one of the best obviously I’ve seen do it.”

Making the case for Mikal Bridges

Simply put, nobody defends at an elite level while managing the workload that Mikal Bridges does.

“If he played 47 minutes, he’d be wondering why he didn’t play 48,” Williams joked. “Like, that’s Mikal.”

This season, Bridges led the entire NBA in total minutes and distance traveled on defense (1.29 miles per game). His minutes absolutely stumped our other DPOY contenders:

  • Mikal Bridges: 2,854
  • Evan Mobley: 2,331
  • Joel Embiid: 2,296
  • Marcus Smart: 2,296
  • Giannis Antetokounmpo: 2,204
  • Jaren Jackson Jr.: 2,126
  • Rudy Gobert: 2,120
  • Bam Adebayo: 1,825
  • Matisse Thybulle: 1,685

Playing in all 82 games this season, Bridges is now the NBA’s most reliable iron man, playing in all 309 possible games since he was drafted four years ago — the league’s longest active streak.

“I think that’s something that goes unnoticed and that all of us take for granted, just his availability, him bringing it every night, and just any task or any job isn’t too big for him,” Booker said. “You’ll never see him complaining, you see him with his head down working. So I’m inspired by it.”

Despite logging those heavy minutes and being available every night, Bridges’ 2.2 foul percentage ranked in the 83rd percentile at his position, per Cleaning the Glass. According to The Bball Index, he ranked in the 99th percentile in defensive possessions, 94th percentile in defensive position versatility and 97th percentile in matchup difficulty.

Only one of our DPOY candidates (Thybulle) ranked higher than Bridges in matchup difficulty, and he played nearly 1,200 fewer minutes.

“If all he done did all this season ain’t spoke enough, you talk about requirements or whatnot for awards and all that, shit, one of them requirements — not requirements, but something going for him, should be the fact that he plays every night,” Paul said. “Like, I don’t want to hear nothing about no stats, no percentage, scoring and winning on the court; the eye test. The man plays every single night.”

Bridges ranks in the top 20 in deflections and 3-point shots contested. He’s in the 83rd percentile in Defensive Box Plus-Minus 2.0, 83rd percentile in Defensive LEBRON, 91st percentile as an off-ball chaser on defense and 82nd percentile as the defender of ball-handlers in screens.

Getting reps against elite talent for the first three years of his career helped him grow, but after heeding Chris Paul’s complaint that “guys don’t watch basketball enough,” all the games Bridges watches are giving him a glimpse of players’ habits.

“Now his ability to understand scouting reports, player tendencies, is so much better than it was from the first year that we got a chance to coach him,” Williams said. “Now he’s telling us what guys are doing, and that’s a sign of confidence and growth.”

That expertise shows up on the game tape and on the stat sheet. Just look at how Bridges has fared against some of the game’s elite scorers, shot creators and playmakers when matched up on them this season, per NBA.com:

  • Damian Lillard: 28 points on 12-25 FG (46%)
  • De’Aaron Fox: 8 points on 4-13 FG (30.8%)
  • LeBron James: 15 points on 6-13 FG (46.2%)
  • Stephen Curry: 4 points on 2-12 FG (16.7%)
  • CJ McCollum: 16 points on 5-12 FG (41.7%)
  • Reggie Jackson: 9 points on 4-12 FG (33.3%)
  • LaMelo Ball: 11 points on 4-11 FG (36.4%)
  • Anthony Edwards: 7 points on 3-10 FG (30%)
  • Russell Westbrook: 11 points on 4-10 FG (40%)
  • Pascal Siakam: 7 points on 3-10 FG (30%)
  • James Harden: 8 points on 1-9 FG (11.1%)
  • Zach LaVine: 13 points on 3-8 FG (37.5%)
  • Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: 8 points on 3-8 FG (37.5%)
  • Total: 145 points on 54-153 FG (35.3%)

The film backs up how often he shoulders the toughest assignments while still coming out on top. Watch him follow Kyrie Irving, one of the association’s shiftiest scorers and ball-handlers, like Peter Pan’s shadow:

Or how about sticking with James Harden’s every move before forcing the tough, missed layup?

And this, of course, says nothing about his 7-steal game against the Brooklyn Nets in November, his game-saving block against the Orlando Magic last month or holding Donovan Mitchell to 0-of-6 shooting in the fourth quarter on Friday:

“His ability to cover ground is a lot different than a lot of people in the league,” Williams said. “He covers ground and he’s so doggone long, sometimes you think you have a shot like that. Or in contesting shots in pick-and-roll, if he’s pursuing a guy in pick-and-roll, those guys are always looking over their shoulder because Mikal’s so long he can affect their shot.”

Mikal Bridges for DPOY

There’s a reason it’s not just his teammates advocating for Mikal Bridges as Defensive Player of the Year.

Aside from ranking third on NBA.com’s DPOY ladder and second on The Ringer’s latest awards dump, ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith made his case for Bridges. J.J. Redick did it on his podcast. Even the former DPOY himself, Draymond Green, picked Bridges as his frontrunner.

After saying he’d go to Mars if Monty Williams doesn’t win Coach of the Year as the no-brainer favorite, Deandre Ayton added that he’d go to Pluto if Bridges doesn’t win DPOY. Devin Booker paid him the highest compliment possible when he said, “He’s somebody I wouldn’t want to guard me, I’ll tell you that.”

For his part, Bridges would clearly like to win the award, but it won’t change his outlook or his approach if he comes up short.

“Obviously I want that, but control what you can control,” he said. “I just gotta keep playing my way, keep defending, keep doing what I do and try to help my team win. Even if I don’t win, it doesn’t define who I am. I know I guard every day, and my teammates and coaches know that, so that’s all I really can say.”

We can say a lot more, however: Unconventional though it may be, it’s time for the pendulum to swing back to the point of attack with Mikal Bridges as the frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year.

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