Offensive players are getting more and more attention in the modern game, at the expense of elite defensive stars. But the biggest games are usually won on defense.
With less than a week until the start of the Playoffs, now is the perfect time to look at our contenders for Defensive Player of the Year.
Coty Clarke (Avtodor)
When Clarke signed with UNICS last season, he was seen as a poor man’s Draymond Green. That’s pretty high praise, considering Draymond is one of the NBA’s best defensive players and known for his versatility on the court.
But after struggling to reach his potential in Kazan, Clarke signed with Avtodor over the summer, where he has blossomed into one of the League’s most feared players. The American helped Saratov to a club-record 5th-place finish, while putting together an MVP-worthy campaign.
Clarke’s versatility may be his biggest advantage in the MVP race. He’s dangerous on offense (20 points per game, 46.2% from inside the arc, 49.3% on the perimeter) and extremely valuable on defense. Clarke is a true two-way player, unafraid to get physical, lock down opposing scorers with one-on-one defense and dominate the defensive glass (1st in the League, 6.1 per game).
For an offense-minded team like Avtodor, the Coty Clarke acquisition was a godsend, giving the team a much-needed identity on defense. The team’s success this season is proof.
Dmitry Kulagin (Lokomotiv-Kuban)
This was a breakthrough season for the talented Russian. He began the year as a free agent, in search of a team. It took a while, but he ultimately settled on Lokomotiv-Kuban, where he’s quickly become a star, signing a four-year contract earlier this spring with the Red-Greens.
Kulagin’s passion on the court is inspiring to watch. He’s had some ups and downs, but no one will ever accuse of him lacking drive or confidence. On defense, he’s a monster. The Russian guard is one of the best one-on-one defenders in the League, and the leader of a rugged Krasnodar backcourt. He’s shut down plenty of opposing stars already this season and would like to add a few more scalps in the Playoffs.
Stephane Lasme (UNICS)
Lasme won EuroLeague Defensive Player of the Year in 2013. Since then, his speed and explosiveness have declined a little, but he’s still one of Europe’s top defensive players. Over time, Lasme has learned to use both his physical tools and his brain to shut down opponents.
The Gabonese big man has a knack for knowing when to help on defense and when to take someone one-on-one. He leads the League in blocks (1.8 per game) by a wide margin and ranks in the top seven in defensive rebounds (4.4 per game). More impressively, he’s the anchor of a Kazan team that tops the League in two-point field-goal defense (44.6%).
Lasme’s impact is easy to observe. Over and over again, opposing players are forced into low-percentage jumpers or rushed shots under the basket for fear of a Lasme block. It’s no surprise opposing teams struggle to shoot vs. the White-Greens.
Kyle Hines (CSKA)
The CSKA center is a regular on Defensive Player of the Year lists, including the EuroLeague and VTB United League. Last year, Hines conceded his VTB League title to teammate Nikita Kurbanov. Now he has a chance to take it back.
The Red-Blues have largely thrived on offense this season with several uncharacteristically poor performances on defense. But when Hines is available, the numbers improve significantly: 77.1 vs. 82.6, an average of 5.5 fewer points allowed per game.
It’s not surprising. The athletic center fits ideally in Dimitris Itoudis’ system. He can match up with anyone in the frontcourt, which comes in handy given the amount of switching CSKA does on defense. Hines is the glue in the paint for the defending champs.
Frank Elegar (Lokomotiv-Kuban)
Kuban was the best defensive team in the League this season (71.8 points allowed per game), largely because of a well-designed team approach. But the club also has several individual stars. Dmitry Kulagin spearheads the backcourt, while Elegar takes center stage in the frontcourt.
Last season, Elegar was honored as the League’s top center. His personal stats have declined this season, but that shouldn’t detract from his impact in Krasnodar. Like Lasme at UNICS, Elegar is the cornerstone of Loko’s interior defense. He’s the final line of protection and the team’s best blocker.
Loko’s explosive, long-limbed center is ideally suited to shut down anyone who wanders into the paint. UNICS may have a better defensive percentage on two-point field goals (44.6% vs. 48.2%), but Krasnodar gives up the fewest two-point field goals (15.0 per game). The Elegar factor is one of the biggest reasons.