When Draymond Green played his last game, he was well on his way to locking up the Defensive Player of the Year award. He’d already crossed the even-money threshold at most books by early January despite starting the season as a roughly +2500 underdog. He was still favored for weeks after his Jan. 9 injury when the assumption was that he was missing time with a relatively minor calf injury. But as the weeks passed and a calf injury turned into a back injury, he slowly began to lose ground.
Now, he’s almost fallen out of the debate. Caesars Sportsbook has him at a preposterous +6000 due to the time he’s missed. Six defenders have better odds than he does, suggesting that the books no longer have any faith in Green’s candidacy whatsoever. While he’s clearly surrendered his favored status, the notion that he should fall out of the race entirely seems a bit farfetched in context.
Green is expected to return Monday against the Washington Wizards. If he does so and plays in every remaining Warriors game, he would finish with 48 games played total (47 if you don’t count his seven-second stint in Klay Thompson’s return). Let’s assume he sits out half of Golden State’s three remaining back-to-backs. That would leave him with 45 (really, 44) total games played. This would, obviously, be an enormously low number for any major award winner. The fewest games a Defensive Player of the Year has played during an 82-game season was 56. That was Rudy Gobert during the 2017-18 season. Pushing the precedent down 11 games to just 45 would be bold. That’s less than 55 percent of the season, and let’s not forget that he was averaging fewer than 30 minutes per night when he was healthy.
But Gobert took home 89 of the 100 available first-place votes in 2018, suggesting that he had a big enough margin for error to miss more games if he’d needed to. The award, after all, is titled Defensive Player of the Year, not Most Valuable Defender. That has given voters a fair bit of leeway to choose winners based on how well they’ve played while on the floor rather than weighing both the quality and quantity of their contributions. Green knows this well. He lost the 2015 Defensive Player of the Year award to Kawhi Leonard despite playing 15 more games.
The margin in a possible Green victory in 2022 might not be that much bigger. Virtually every major candidate has missed games. Here are the six that are currently ahead of Green:
If we are being absolutely technical, the most valuable defender this season has probably been Jackson or Bridges. Neither are as valuable while on the floor as Green or Gobert, but by virtue of being on the court more often, they’ve likely provided more overall defensive value. If the award was simply given to the best defender in the NBA, Green would likely remain the favorite. Where this gets tricky is that the reality of the voting process is that the award tends to be an uncertain mix of both.
Just consider those odds. Adebayo has missed 25 games. That puts him only one off of Gobert’s record for a Defensive Player of the Year, yet at this moment, he has the second highest-odds at Caesars Sportsbook (+175). Green has missed only nine more games to this point, but Caesars hardly considers him a viable candidate. Are nine games really enough to eliminate a superior player? If that is the case, why wouldn’t the 11-game gap between Adebayo and Gobert knock Miami’s big man out of the running? Would those nine games matter if Adebayo had played 82 games and Green 73? History suggests no. But the voting process is cruel, subjective and arbitrary. The books are betting that voters will view Adebayo’s 50-something games played as enough to win the award and Green’s 40-something as not enough.
That logic is going to be the biggest obstacle Green needs to overcome. His loss to Leonard in 2015 suggests that voters are willing to ignore a wide margin between specific candidates, but the 56-game threshold is not something that has ever really been challenged. That is fairly faulty logic when examined with any degree of scrutiny. In a world in which Gobert, Adebayo and Antetokounmpo all played 82 games, but Green was closer to 60, he’d probably have a significantly better chance at winning this award.
The silver lining to his extended absence is that it has only emphasized his importance to Golden State. His Warriors were 29-9 before he went down with an NBA-best 102.2 defensive rating. Since then, they are 15-13 and allowing 110.4 points per 100 possessions. Gobert’s on-off splits are even more preposterous, and most advanced metrics paint him as this season’s most impactful defender as they have for the past several years. Gobert would be a deserving winner.
But if Green was the favorite before he got hurt, two months off shouldn’t have removed him from the conversation entirely. All of the arguments that were being used to support him in January still largely hold true now. Whether or not his injury should be held against him is subjective, but historic voting trends suggest that even now, he’s a much stronger candidate than he is getting credit for.