Pacers

It’s Time to Talk About Turner as DPOY

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Indiana Pacers center Myles Turner is playing some ridiculously impressive defense to start 2021. If the young season ended today, Turner should be Defensive Player of the Year.

 

Turner, the longest tenured Pacer, spent the past calendar year in and out of trade talks. Two centers in the starting lineup? Can’t be done, they said. Ultimately the verdict is still out on Turbonis (Turner + Domantas Sabonis on the court together) but Turner has certainly shut up his doubters this early season, with no sign of slowing down. In fact, in each of his last five games, Myles posted at least three blocks – smothered chicken, as Fox Sports Indiana broadcaster Quinn Buckner says. Below is an iconic smothered chicken from years prior.

Recent performance

Numbers aren’t everything, especially with the regular season at 15% completion- but they don’t lie either. Turner has been a machine. Through (10) games, Myles averages a league-high 4.2 blocks per game and is also nabbing 1.5 steals an outing. For reference, two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert checks in at second in the NBA with 2.6 blocks per game

4.2 blocks per outing may not seem like a whole lot more than 2.6 so keep this in mind: Wizards wing Bradley Beal leads the league in scoring at 34.9 points per game, outpacing second-place CJ McCollum by just south of seven points per contest (a huge margin, historically). In order to outscore CJ by relatively the same amount Myles Turner out-blocks Gobert, Beal would need to average 40 points per game, outscoring McCollum by 12 points per contest.

As with all statistics, points and blocks are not apples to apples, but they do offer a direct glimpse at how well Turner is performing relative to his similarly-skilled peers: he is destroying them.

Blocking shots better than his peers is nothing new to Myles, though. The 2018-19 NBA season saw Turner lead the league in blocks, beating out the award-winning Gobert, though the statistical difference in blocks was much closer than this season. Should Turner have won 2018-19 Defensive Player of the Year?

No. Solely judging individual performance on statistics is notoriously flawed. There is no one statistical measure of defense (or offense for that matter). Pace, team defensive strategy, rule changes and a host of other seemingly endless factors influence defensive statistics. However, producing numbers close to on par with league leaders often gets a player’s foot in the door for DPOY conversation. To win the award, though, other boxes must be checked.

Why DPOY? 

Turner’s size 21 shoes are firmly in that DPOY door right now. An award frontrunner typically has impressive basic statistics, such as total and per-game blocks and steals, as well as elite advanced metrics like defensive win shares and defensive box plus/minus. Myles checks in at third league-wide for each of those advanced metrics, leads the league in blocks by a stupid amount, and averages 1.5 steals per game. Frankly, his defensive stats are out of control. However, the NBA acknowledges that statistics aren’t everything and implores 124 media members to choose a Defensive Player of the Year each season (which is an imperfect system in itself but that is another conversation).

When media members makes their choices for Defensive Player of the Year, narrative, the eye test, and well-roundedness also play important roles in the selection process.

Narrative

Narrative is inherently subjective, but this is Turner’s: he was counted out last season– even by many Pacer fans, was on and off the trade block, and now returns with a new coach and system to wreak havoc on opposing offenses. If Myles puts together a couple of clutch defensive highlights against popular teams in meaningful games, that may just solidify him as the DPOY.

One issue with Turner’s narrative is that he struggles to get national exposure. As a Pacer, the vast majority of games are watched almost entirely by just local fans. This takes us back to a legendary Roy Hibbert press conference:

Small-market teams like Indiana are often lost in the league-wide narrative sauce. However, national groups such as StatMuse are starting to recognize Turner’s greatness, as seen in the tweet below. As long as the Pacers remain competitive and Myles stays healthy and consistent, his personal comeback narrative and winning should only help his odds.

Plus, after trading for Caris LeVert in the blockbuster deal of the season, Turner and the Pacers find themselves a bit more in the national spotlight. With casual fans and media members now paying closer attention to Indiana, Myles’ defense should receive more exposure.

Eye Test

Turner is not the most fluid mover but somehow is all over the court on defense. His switches are timely, he seems to never be out of place, and his blocks are fundamentally beautiful (think Hibbert verticality). Emphatically swatting shots three rows back is sexy, but Myles would rather lightly tap the ball to a teammate to start a fast break. Casual fans might not love it, but such a play is one 11-time NBA champion and Hall of Fame center Bill Russell preached for decades. Below is how Turner looked in his most recent game.

In years prior, Turner was bodied moved on the low block– there is no way around it. Almost any good opposing big got the better of him when possessions came down came to brute force. This season, though, Turner and Sabonis are being played more to their strengths, which cover each other’s weaknesses.

On defense, Sabonis’ advantages are strength and positioning around the low block. Turner is better at perimeter switching, covering quick players, and rotating over to block shots near the basket. Head coach Nate Bjorkgren seems to have picked up on this, and thankfully places both bigs in complementary defensive roles.

Well-roundedness

Outside of his per-game statistics, Turner’s best claim to DPOY rests on his well-roundedness. He stays in front of quicker players as well as any big man in the league, maybe save Heat forward Bam Adebayo. Turner guards perimeter players much like a power forward or big wing, then somehow manages to protect the rim better than anyone in the league. When opposing players dribble out past the three-point line for an iso with Turner, as a Pacer fan, I get excited. For practically any other big in the league, including Gobert, the most-recent center to win Defensive Player of the Year, such a switch is nightmarish. 

Competitors

Likely DPOY contenders include Andre Drummond, Anthony Davis, and reigning DPOY Giannis Antetokounmpo. Rudy Gobert somehow usually finds his way into that race as well. The last guard to win was Gary Payton in the 90s, so it is generally fair to rule out small players. While the competitors are more popular than Turner, a crazy statistical season like he’s having, mixed with well-roundedness, intriguing narrative, and passing the eye test should be enough. The season is young, yes, but Turner is performing and looks to only be improving. Put him as the frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year.

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