If the season ended today, you'd have to think that Celtics' big man Al Horford would be in the Defensive Player of the Year (DPOY) conversation. In a two-week sample size, Horford is boasting an impressive resume on the defensive end and has his team locking down opponents.
In the new era of the NBA, guarding multiple positions is essential for defensive success. That's why the last three DPOYs have been versatile wings like Draymond Green and Kawhi Leonard who can guard just about anyone on the court at a given time. While Horford has been an anchor for the Celtics' defense down low, he has also been locking up perimeter players. Here's his (way too early) case to take home the season award for DPOY.
It starts with Boston's defense as a whole. A team's average points allowed is a solid indicator of the impact that their best defender has. The Spurs allowed the fewest points in the league when Leonard took home DPOY in 2015-16, and were top three when he won it the year before. The Bulls were No. 1 in the league in opponent scoring when Joakim Noah was named DPOY in the 2013-14 season. Same with the Grizzlies when Marc Gasol was honored in 2012-13.
Coming into Friday night's game with the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Celtics are allowing the fewest points per contest in the league at 93.8. That alone makes Horford, their best defender, look pretty dang good so far, and the rest of the stats agree. Check out some notable defensive stats for Horford as of October 31st, before Boston's victory over the Kings:
Al Horford’s playing some pretty stout defense against top competition early in the year. Crunching some of his early season numbers: pic.twitter.com/0L5R2tQ9vl
Since then, his opponent field goal percentage has slightly increased from 31.6% to 36.1%, but is still 6th best in the NBA out of players who have played at least five games and have defended at least 10 shots per game. His points allowed per play is extremely impressive, especially given the talent level that he has faced.
When you look past the numbers on paper and watch the actual film and specific matchups, it only further strengthens Horford's DPOY case.
Horford has drawn some very challenging matchups in the first eight games of the season. One of those was on October 24th verse the unicorn, Kristaps Porzingis. I have already dissected Horford and the rest of Boston's lockdown defense on the Knicks star, but will quickly reiterate the main points. Porzingis came into that game as the second-leading scorer in the league averaging 32 points and torching every opponent in his way. Horford kept up with the size, speed, and athleticism of Porzingis all game and prevented him from scoring a single field goal when he was covering him, shooting 0-10. That is amazing given the unicorn's rare and diverse skillset.
Perhaps the greatest challenge thus far has been the Milwaukee Buck's Giannis Antetokounmpo, the early MVP favorite. They call him the Greek Freak for a reason - the seven-footer has inspector gadget-like length, Russell Westbrook-like handles, and virtually plays every position for his team. Yet, Horford contained him well in both meetings. While Giannis still got his average point totals against Boston, it was the dropoff in shooting percentage that indicated his difficulty with Horford and the Celtics:
Absurd stat: Through eight games, the Celtics are the only team to hold Giannis to less than 60-percent shooting. They've done it twice.
Full disclosure: Since then, the Hornets have also joined that list after holding him to 5/16 from the floor on November 1st. Still, you typically have to throw a lot at the Greek Freak in order to get in his way. He's been toying with defenders much of the year so far by putting the moves on them and blowing by with ease. Not against Horford, though!
Then, most recently, there was a red-hot LaMarcus Aldridge who came into town on October 30th. Through six games, Aldridge was putting up 26.7 points on 50% shooting and grabbing nine boards on a nightly basis. He was the clear focal point of the Spurs, who were still playing without Kawhi Leonard. Horford gave the experienced big man trouble all night long, holding him to under half his scoring average (11 points) on just 5/13 shooting (38%). His five rebounds were also his fewest on the year.
Horford shadowed Aldridge all over the court, contesting all of his effective turn-around jumpers and drives to the rim:
How long till we can talk about Al Horford running for DPOY? LMA came to Boston averaging 22.3 points on 50.8 FG%, scored 11 pts on 5/13 FG. pic.twitter.com/hOT8OKbyOm
Other notable guys that Horford has put the clamps on include Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons of the Sixers, as well as Kevin Love and LeBron James of the Cavs. Despite the significant talent level and workload, Horford has been one of the best defenders in the league and is setting the tone for the rest of Boston's players on the defensive end.
It's probably unlikely that Al can maintain this elite level of defense over 82 games, but if he did, he could be a legitimate DPOY candidate. What would hurt his odds the most right now are his low number of blocks and steals compared to other elite defensive players like Rudy Gobert and Kevin Durant. Outside of that, though, Horford has been right up there with the best of them in terms of defensive impact.