EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
Can Suns’ Mikal Bridges win DPOY? Booker, Williams think he should
PHOENIX — It’s awards season in the NBA and the Phoenix Suns have candidates across the board.
As fans of the league know, a player’s case to win something starts from a buzz, whether it’s the team talking about it or the media talking about it or the media talking about the team talking about it. From there, it’s a matter of if it sticks.
For example, nothing has for Devin Booker in the MVP discussion or a First Team All-NBA spot. Is what it is.
But someone who has been in the conversation for one accolade through most of the season is Mikal Bridges. The fourth-year wing has had his name thrown into the Defensive Player of the Year discussion. ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith, a voice with one of the largest platforms in the country, recently said Bridges is his pick.
A few prominent members of the Suns agreed after Phoenix’s overtime win over the Sacramento Kings on Sunday when Bridges played a game-high 50 minutes and scored 27 points.
“He should be Defensive Player of the Year, number one,” head coach Monty Williams said. “He doesn’t duck a matchup, he plays every night, he guards everyone, plays 50 minutes, still produces on offense. … He guards the toughest guys every single night without a blink and everybody in that locker room appreciates what he does every single night. … He’s guarding guys from the outside in. That is really hard to do.
“Guys that come to mind, Michael Cooper, Metta World Peace, Alvin Robertson –– those guys did it every night and he’s just like that.”
Booker is with Williams.
“He’s the Defensive Player of the Year, no doubt,” he said. “The criteria just varies so often so it’s kinda hard to pinpoint who the NBA wants it to be but I think it’s pretty obvious. The versatility of it, from guarding point guards to 4-men to 5-men and doing it for 50 minutes a game.
“He plays a lot of minutes also and we win games, we win close games and I think we’re up nine, 10 games on whoever is in second place so it’s pretty obvious to me.”
Bridges, as usual, isn’t one to tout his own play or cape for awards. He did appreciate Smith’s nod, though.
“I think winning it or [not winning] it doesn’t mean nothing,” Bridges said Tuesday of the award. “because I know my teammates, my coaches, they know what I do for the team. Even if it don’t happen, it doesn’t show that I don’t play hard for my teammates and coaches. It’s just an award. It doesn’t tell the whole story.”
To go off of what Booker and Williams said, the case for Bridges comes down to the incomparable job he does defensively, a big word that we can make pretty simple.
As of mid-March, Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert, Miami Heat center Bam Adebayo and Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo have emerged to form what looks like a three-horse race on most sportsbooks.
None of those players, though, are primarily perimeter defenders. Bridges is on a different playing field. He’s marking for guys up and down the chart, and covers the primary initiators for nearly every offense the Suns’ No. 2 defense in defensive rating will come up against.
Let’s do a brief exercise and create a list of the perimeter players that will be up for serious consideration on All-NBA spots.
Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant, Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic, Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry, Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell, Los Angeles Lakers guard LeBron James and Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young make up most of the backcourt nominees not on the Suns. On the wing, we’ve got Chicago Bulls forward DeMar DeRozan, Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum, Brooklyn Nets wing Kevin Durant, Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler, Raptors forward Pascal Siakam and Antetokounmpo.
Outside of Antetokounmpo, Bridges has spent time covering 11 of those 12 that make up some of the best basketball players in the world.
Bridges will track through on-ball screening actions for Morant or Doncic, fly around off-ball screening actions with Curry and square up with DeRozan or Tatum in isolation situations.
The work rate is extreme and unlike anyone else’s in the league.
Bridges moves around the court for 1.30 miles per game on the defensive end, per NBA.com’s tracking data, the most leaguewide.
A portion of analytics isn’t kind to Bridges, which will unfortunately affect his chances of winning the award, even though a few simply come down to Bridges almost always being on the court when that opposing All-Star is too. His off-court defensive rating is 99.7, the lowest on the team.
But he’s rarely sitting. While Bridges’ 35.3 minutes per game are ranked 20th, everyone above him has missed at least a game, and Bridges’ 2,544 minutes are tops in the NBA. He holds that spot while extending his No. 1 ironman streak of 299 games, a.k.a. every possible game of his NBA career.
Most importantly, he’s keeping Chris Paul and Booker off those matchups that expend the most energy defensively, allowing the All-Star backcourt to avoid a workload most NBA guard pairs find unavoidable. Bridges is also helping Paul, Booker and Jae Crowder stay in spaces of the defense where plus defenders can be maximized that maintain a premier defense.
There are different ways to chart impact and value in basketball, an arduous task that becomes even more grueling when doing it on the defensive side of the ball. And when it comes to making arguments for awards, as Booker has said, the criteria seemingly always changes.
Usually, the award is for centers. Draymond Green and Kawhi Leonard were the last two perimeter players to win it, and including World Peace in 2004 and Gary Payton in 1996, it has been a non-rim protector just five times in the last 33 years.
But Bridges’ case is a great one and a unique one. It’ll be on the voters to decide if it’s the one for them.