October 9, 2021
Who wins Defensive Player of the Year in the WNBA?
Looking at the award's history, one position tends to be favored, winning 17 of the 25 awards to date
During the 2021 WNBA season, guards Natasha Cloud of the Washington Mystics and Brittney Sykes of the Los Angeles Sparks both planted a stake in the ground: They wanted to win Defensive Player of the Year.
“You don’t see any other point guards in this league facilitating their teams, guarding the other team’s best offensive player … being able to switch, being able to facilitate and being able to score,” Cloud told reporters on Sept. 19.
Although Cloud and Sykes are widely considered two of the league’s top defenders at their position, they faced an uphill battle in winning the award. The award ended up going to Minnesota Lynx center Sylvia Fowles, extending a streak in which no player who is listed exclusively as a guard has won the award since 2001.
Why do frontcourt players dominate the award—and what attributes, beyond position, do Defensive Players tend to have? I answered some of these questions about the Most Improved Player award last year, and I’m back to do it again with the game’s premier defensive award.
(Unless otherwise noted, all statistics, including players’ listed positions, are from Basketball-Reference.com and represent the regular season only. You can view a full list of WNBA Defensive Player of the Year award winners here.)
Who wins Defensive Player of the Year?
Defensive Players of the Year tend to be tall, experienced starters who play heavy minutes. The winners have an average height of 6’2 and have had an average of 6.7 years of WNBA experience at the time they won. That amount of experience may be slightly misleading, though, because in the early years of the league, no one had much WNBA experience. In the past ten years, the award has gone to players with an average of 8.9 years of WNBA experience, even as the winners’ average age has remained steady, around 30 years old.
In addition, all but one winner started every game in which she appeared during her winning season, and the outlier—Sheryl Swoopes in 2003—started 30 of 31 games. They rarely came out of the game, either, averaging 32.0 minutes per game; no winner has ever averaged fewer than 25 minutes per game.
As previously mentioned, the award tends to go to frontcourt players: In 25 seasons of the award, players who were listed as forwards and/or centers won the award 17 times, guard-forward hybrids won five times and guards won three times. New York Liberty guard Teresa Weatherspoon won the first two awards in 1997 and 1998, but then-rookie center-forward Yolanda Griffith won in 1999, beginning an extended run of frontcourt dominance. (Miami guard Debbie Black in 2001 is the only other pure guard to win the award.)
This positional breakdown is not meant to suggest that the frontcourt players have been undeserving; in fact, they have been some of the best players in league history, widely represented on the WNBA’s list of its 25 best players all-time. There are limited statistics available to quantify defensive contributions, but the Defensive Players of the Year winners averaged 5.5 defensive rebounds, 2.0 steals and 1.4 blocks per game. They have also consistently topped the charts in defensive rating, which aims to measure the points they give up individually per 100 possessions. Over the years, WNBA offenses have gotten more efficient, so it’s not fair to more recent winners to compare the absolute numbers, but per Her Hoop Stats, all but two winners have ranked in at least the 93rd percentile in defensive rating in their winning season, and nine have ranked in the 100th percentile.
In seven seasons, voters have had an easy choice, as the best defensive team in the WNBA also had a player who ranked in the 100th percentile in individual defensive rating. Indiana Fever forward Tamika Catchings has been that player three times, and Fowles did it most recently in 2016. But even when the choice hasn’t been so clear-cut, the award has gone to a player on one of the top three defensive teams, as measured by WNBA.com’s team defensive ratings, 80 percent of the time. The outlier is Seattle’s Lauren Jackson in 2007, as the Storm ranked 11th in a 13-team league in defensive rating.
Jackson is also an outlier in another respect, as she has the highest scoring average (23.8 points per game) in her winning season of any Defensive Player of the Year. The winners have averaged 14.9 points per game as a group, but their offensive contributions have ranged from a few points per game to Most Valuable Player-level offense.
Looking at win shares also helps illustrate the range of offensive abilities among the award winners, at least in their winning seasons. The winners have earned about 47 percent of their total win shares on the defensive end, on average—but individually, they have earned anywhere from 16.8 percent (Jackson) to 93.3 percent (Alana Beard in 2018) of their total win shares on that end. The most balanced winner? Catchings in 2009, when she got 50.8 percent of her win shares on defense.
Finally, while not every Defensive Player of the Year has been a bona fide star, it’s rare that a player wins that award without winning other awards in the same season. Twenty-one winners have been All-WNBA selections in their winning seasons—a number that will increase if Fowles makes one of the All-WNBA teams this season. Fourteen winners have been All-Stars in their winning seasons, and the number would likely be higher if the All-Star Game had been held every season. And five have won MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season: Griffith (1999), Swoopes (2000, 2002), Lisa Leslie (2004) and Jackson (2007). In contrast, just three Defensive Players of the Year have not won any of those honors, most recently Beard in 2018.
Why do guards (almost) never win?
Several WNBA coaches posited that the limited defensive statistics that are available contribute to why guards rarely win Defensive Player of the Year. “Post players tend to get favored in stats that affect the defense,” Minnesota Lynx head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve said. “And so right away [voters] go, ‘Okay, I’m voting for it. What do I look at? Well, they defensive rebound, they block shots, looks like they get some steals.’”
“Guards get assists; that’s not defense,” added Las Vegas Aces coach Bill Laimbeer. “It’s hard to measure a guard’s defensive capabilities unless they’re steals, which is not a very high-profile category, and there’s not many of them. The leader in the league in steals, they’ll [have] two point something.”
Chicago Sky head coach and general manager James Wade added that frontcourt players sometimes have an advantage when it comes to the eye test, too. “They’re a safety net for the entire defense, so whether they’re cleaning up straight line drives or whether they’re securing the rebounds, they impact the game in a lot more visual ways than guards do,” he said. “… We’re not talking about guards’ help on the perimeter as much as we talk about on the inside, especially when it comes to protecting the paint … You’ll notice a big guarding a guard more than you’ll notice a guard guarding a big on the inside and actually getting the stop.”
But, according to Sykes, the available statistics don’t capture the essence of defense—and the eye test can fall short, too. “Rebounding and a couple of steals, that’s not defense,” she told Winsidr’s John W. Davis in July. “[Defense is] having your presence felt. Every night I step on that court, that coach on the other side, they are trying to figure out how the heck can I get my player open, how the heck are we going to figure out these offensive sets with Brittney on the court. That’s my goal every game.”
That begs the question: Is Sykes right? How should we actually evaluate individual defense?
What makes a good defender?
For Laimbeer, good defense boils down to team defense. “I’ve had outstanding team defenses [in] my career, always number one or two in percentages, and never really get any defensive people on the [All-Defensive] team,” he said wryly. The percentages that matter most to him are opponent field goal shooting percentage and defensive rebound percentage.
Phoenix Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello also emphasized team defensive principles as part of individual defense. Are players versatile enough to switch onto bigger or smaller players and smart enough to adjust to those matchups in real time? She pointed to her own Defensive Player of the Year candidate, forward Brianna Turner, as someone who has those abilities.
Reeve sounded similar notes about Fowles, who has evolved over her career from a back-to-the-basket player to a much more versatile player on both ends of the court. Now, Reeve said, Fowles is “not only worried about her own matchup, but the entire scheme of [the opponent] because she’s going to be involved in most of the action, either a fight [in] the post, which is more rare, defending pick-and-roll, highly frequent, and then also coming from the help side … So the frequency with which she’s involved in possessions, and she’s affecting and impacting possessions, is really, really high.”
Citing a story by The Next’s Natalie Heavren about the best two-guard in the WNBA—widely considered to be Briann January of the Connecticut Sun—Reeve added that the ability to disrupt an opponent’s schemes is a hallmark of an elite defender. “That [story] talked about [how] you can’t get a lot of things done against Briann January. Well, Sylvia Fowles is very similar in that, if you have a post player that you want to enter the ball on the block to, it’s just going to be really hard for you to get that done. You can’t count on that offense when you play against the Minnesota Lynx and Sylvia Fowles.”
Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault and Sun head coach Curt Miller further dissected the attributes that set great defenders apart from their peers. Thibault listed athleticism—“strength or quickness or both”—as a prerequisite given the high levels of talent and athleticism in the league, but he also emphasized the mental side of the game. “Part of it is being willing to lock in every day to learning the players in the league, learning tendencies and how to take away certain things,” he explained. “… You have to be so in tune to the players you’re defending. And then … you’ve got to have mental toughness, be willing to every night say, ‘Okay, I got another tough one. That’s part of my job.’”
Miller added that “their tenacity, their want-to [and] their will” separate the players who have won Defensive Player of the Year from others. “They play their guts out … They also are proactive thinkers and not reactive. They understand the game and see the game before it happens; the game slows down to great defenders.” That often comes with individual film study, he said, above and beyond the film that the team watches together.
And then there is what Sykes mentioned, looking to players and other people around the league to evaluate defenders. As Miller put it, “The best credit that Bri January can get is from her peers: People do not like to be guarded by Bri January. … There’s no one that’s more physical from the guard position and stays in plays and makes life tough for off-guards.” The league’s general managers largely agreed in a 2021 preseason survey, choosing January as the league’s best on-ball defender.
Who’s got next?
Could January break the streak of frontcourt players winning Defensive Player of the Year? It’s very possible—though her teammate and fellow guard Jasmine Thomas, voted the second-best on-ball defender in that preseason survey of general managers, could steal some of her votes.
Perhaps it will be Turner, a young forward who seemingly only needs more experience to fit the prototype perfectly. Or an MVP candidate such as Seattle Storm forward Breanna Stewart, who could follow in Jackson’s green and gold footsteps. Or even Aces center Liz Cambage, another MVP candidate and a player who tied with Turner in the survey of general managers for the best interior defender.
Alternatively, as the WNBA becomes increasingly positionless, perhaps the next Defensive Player of the Year will be someone who further challenges those categories. Maybe Alysha Clark, a 5’11 forward who improved the Mystics’ defense without even playing this season, or Rebecca Allen, a 6’2 forward who plays like a guard and whose defense decided multiple games this season?
Or perhaps the award will go to Cloud or Sykes, who so boldly manifested it in 2021—and showed the world that it’s cool to aspire to be Defensive Player of the Year.
Written by Jenn Hatfield
Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. (She also writes the "Family Rivalries" series for The Next.) Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats and FanSided.