A Beginner’s Guide to Bam Adebayo’s Case for Defensive Player of the Year
Bam Adebayo has blossomed on the offensive end this season, averaging career highs in points per game, field goal attempts per game, and overall usage. But don’t let this offensive surge avert your eyes from the other end of the floor.
Despite the considerably larger load on offense, Adebayo is anchoring a defense that ranks 3rd in the league by Dunks and Threes adjusted DRTG. In January alone, the Heat defense is leading the league with a 108.4 DRTG, and this is largely because of Adebayo’s prowess on that side of the court.
While other bigs around the league are receiving a generous amount of hype and fanfare for their defense – Brook Lopez, Jaren Jackson Jr., Jarrett Allen, and even Nic Claxton have all had moments in the sun – Adebayo’s case for DPOY has received less attention.
Luckily, the numbers, the tape, and the narratives sing in chorus; 2023 should be Adebayo’s year.
The numbers and the tape
As is usually the case, a superficial glance at just a handful of individual advanced stats does not tell the full story of Adebayo’s defensive impact.
His Defensive Estimated Plus/Minus on Dunks and Threes comes in at just plus-0.9, good for the 78th percentile among all qualifying players in the league. According to this metric, he’s just an above-average defender. Nothing special. He’s also posting a modest Defensive Box Plus/Minus of plus-0.8 per Basketball Reference. This would be the second-lowest DBPM of his career.
To understand the magnitude of Adebayo’s imprint on the game, we should look at a few other metrics. For one, it’s worthwhile to note that the Heat boasts the second-lowest rim rate in the league – per Dunks and Threes, they only allow opponents to attempt 30.5% of their total shots within four feet of the rim.
Adebayo is the most essential ingredient in the Heat’s rim deterrence formula. Within six feet of the rim, he’s limiting attackers to a 62.6 DFG%. This might not seem impressive when you compare him to other rim protectors like Rudy Gobert (56.0 DFG%), Brook Lopez (55.3% DFG%), or Jarrett Allen (56.3% DFG%).
However, what should stand out as impressive is that offensive players only attempt 4.9 FGA per game within 6 feet of the rim against Adebayo. (For comparison, all of the players mentioned allow at least two more FGA within the same range.) He’s turning attackers away from the restricted area at a superior rate.
The tape bears this out. Notice how Adebayo walls off the restricted area. Offensive players are typically content to offer up awkward floaters and short mid-range jumpers instead of testing him at the rim.
Another key to understanding Adebayo’s DPOY case is his one-on-one defense. He frequently matches up with other teams’ best players regardless of their position. These are just a few highlights from his’s laundry list of 1v1 excellence:
- In 26.2 partial possessions, he held Pascal Siakam to 4/11 shooting and forced 1 turnover
- In 46.2 partial possessions, he held Nikola Jokic to 4/10 shooting and forced him into 3 turnovers
- In 16.6 partial possessions, he held Paul George to 2/7 shooting and forced 1 turnover
- In 8 partial possessions, he held Luka Doncic to 3/7 shooting
As well as limited ignitable guards like:
- Anfernee Simons to just 1/5 from the field
- De’Aron Fox to 0/4 from the field
- Klay Thompson to 1/6 from the field
It’s cute when other bigs step out onto the perimeter after a switch and force a guard into a tough shot. What Bam is doing is different. He’s often playing the role of primary defender on opposing stars.
In addition to Adebayo’s excellence guarding 1 through 5 in isolation, he is without a doubt the anchor of one of the top defenses in the league. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Heat allow 4 fewer points per 100 possessions when Bam is on the court and that their effective field goal percentage dwindles by 1.5%.
In contrast to some of the other top defenses around the league (think Cleveland, Memphis, and Milwaukee), he does this without another true frontcourt player next to him. Behind Adebayo, you’ll find no true big helping at the rim or gobbling up rebounds to prevent a fresh 14 on the opponent’s shot clock.
He is simultaneously the Heat’s most reliable perimeter defender, their most effective backline helper, and their most fearsome rim protector. He is a fusion of the ideal tendencies you want in your team’s best guard, wing, and big defenders, respectively. Moreover, he wears all of these hats in a number of coverages; on any given night you can catch him playing the drop, switching against the pick ‘n’ roll, and manning the back line of the zone.
In sum, the stats and the tape tell us that Adebayo is practically an omnipresent and omnipotent force on defense.
Unfortunately, stats and tape rarely move the hearts of voters. As last year’s results showed us, narratives drive the race for Defensive Player of the Year. So let’s think beyond the numbers and the film. What narratives are driving Adebayo’s case for DPOY?
Here’s one: Adebayo carries a star’s load on offense. Among centers, Dunks and Threes logs Adebayo in the 95th percentile of field goal attempts per 75 possessions (17.1 FGA/75) and in the 94th percentile in Usage Rate (26% USG). This compares favorably to other DPOY front runners such as Nic Claxton (9.8 FGA/75; 16% USG), Brook Lopez (13.2 FGA/75; 18% USG), and Jaren Jackson Jr. (15.1 FGA/75; 22% USG).
Other DPOY candidates carry a measurably smaller load on offense – to the point that some are extremely limited role players on that end. Adebayo, in contrast, anchors a top-5 defense while shouldering an all-star’s offensive burden. While you might think that offense has nothing to do with Defensive Player of the Year considerations, we cannot overlook this when contextualizing Adebayo’s impact and load on the defensive end. Other DPOY contenders simply do not have to worry about shouldering significant weight on the offensive end. Meanwhile, Adebayo leads his team on both ends of the floor.
Another narrative has already been referenced above: Unlike other DPOY candidates, Bam Adebayo anchors his top-flight defense as the lone big on the floor. There is no Steven Adams or Kevon Looney to rack up defensive rebounds and present another large body in the paint behind him. He can’t rely on another seven footer like Kevin Durant to provide rim protection from the weak side. He doesn’t play alongside another perennial all-league defender the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo. Adebayo is a one-man top-five defense machine, and he has been season after season.
On that note, a final narrative to consider is Adebayo’s career leading up to this point. The Heat is annually among the top 5-10 defenses in the NBA. In fact, since Adebayo’s rookie season, the Heat have only finished outside of the top 10 in DRTG once (11th in 20-21). If the results of this season stand, the Heat will have more top-5 defensive seasons than non-top-10 defensive seasons throughout Adebayo’s tenure as a starter. During this time, Adebayo has already racked up 3 All-Defensive team nods for good reason: He’s been the heart and soul of one of the most consistently dominant defenses in the league for nearly his entire NBA career.
It’s time to reward him for his defensive excellence. There currently is not, and likely will never be, another center who can dominate that side of the court quite like he can. It’s time to crown Bam Adebayo Defensive Player of the Year.