Should the 76ers face the Suns in this year’s NBA Finals, one can imagine a scenario where, in Game 7, Phoenix coach Monty Williams switches perhaps the league’s best on-ball defender, Miles Bridges, onto James Harden, who proceeds to continue his career-long trend of faltering in big games, handing the Suns their first-ever title.
If this situation comes to pass, it will be doubly painful for Sixers fans because the team actually drafted Bridges, a Villanova product, back in 2018 — only to trade him for Zhaire Smith and a future first-rounder that would later be included in the Tobias Harris trade.
Smith played all of 13 games with the Sixers before he was traded for journeyman center Tony Bradley and promptly washed out of the league. Bridges, meanwhile, is a versatile ironman who leads the NBA in minutes played and is among the favorites to win this year’s Defensive Player of the Year award.
And to further salt the wound, if you took Bridges off the Suns’ roster and inserted him into the Sixers’ starting lineup, it would be Philadelphia (currently 10/1 at PointsBet PA to win it all), not Phoenix (+275), that would be favored to hoist a championship banner into its arena’s rafters.
“It would be very close between Phoenix, Milwaukee, Golden State, Philadelphia, and I suppose the Celtics with an outside chance,” PointsBet Senior Trader Sam Garriock said of how Bridges’ hypothetical jersey switch would impact his sportsbook’s title odds. “Bridges is probably worth about a 5-point swing — 2.5 points to either side. So Philly would be the slightest of favorites.”
Off-ball defense a big factor in DPOY race
When it comes to the Defensive Player of the Year race, Celtics guard Marcus Smart has emerged as a solid favorite (-300 at PointsBet, with the best value found at DraftKings at -140) in what was basically a pick ‘em with Bridges (8/1 at PointsBet, 4/1 at DraftKings) and Miami’s Bam Adebayo (8/1 at PointsBet, 3/1 at DraftKings) as recently as last week.
“We think that Smart’s a much better off-ball defender than Bridges, and that’s kind of been borne out in plus-minus statistics, which really value help defense,” said Garriock, in explaining his handicapping process. “You’re really only going to be guarding the ball about a third of the time, even when you’re guarding someone like LeBron [James].”
Moreso than the highlight steals, the last 3 mins is the perfect encapsulation of why Marcus Smart should probably win Defensive Player of the Year.
Top locking elite shooters, switching to kill, off ball rotations to save baskets. Off ball guard defence is massively underrated
— Sam Garriock (@Sam_Garriock) March 31, 2022
While Smart ranks among the league leaders in steals at 1.7 per game, neither his nor Bridges’ defensive counting stats are as gaudy as those of, say, Sixers wing Matisse Thybulle, who averages 1.8 steals and 1.1 blocks in just 25.4 minutes per game. But Thybulle is a relatively woeful offensive player, and DPOY voters tend to gravitate toward candidates with more well-rounded games.
“Matisse Thybulle just can’t play as many minutes as Smart or Bridges,” explained Garriock. “The reason for that is his offense just hampers the amount of minutes he can play, and value is heavily impacted by how often you can be on the floor. If you’re not a good offensive player, you can’t be out there long enough to make an impact on defense.”
If the standings finish the same as they were entering Thursday night’s play, Philadelphia would face the Toronto Raptors in the first round of the playoffs. And, as Sixers fans learned on Wednesday, Thybulle is not eligible to play in Thursday’s game in Toronto, where PointsBet has Philly favored by 1.5 points, because he has declined to get the COVID vaccine. Should he remain unvaccinated, he will likely be ineligible to play in Toronto during the playoffs, a development that could imperil his team’s postseason chances while making Sixers fans pine for Bridges all the more.
The case for Bridges
In surveying the DPOY field, The Ringer’s Dan Devine recently wrote of Bridges, “I’m not sure anybody in the league equals his ability to battle top offensive threats and do it night after night. … Having an answer for the scariest perimeter question makes Monty Williams’ life a lot easier; it also makes Bridges the linchpin of the NBA’s no. 2 defense.”
Herein, Garriock said that, over the course of the past five seasons, DPOY voters have tended to favor the best defensive players on the league’s best defensive teams, criteria that Adebayo, Bridges, and Smart all meet.
“It’s all about how a player impacts their team’s defense rather than individual box-score statistics,” observed Garriock. “The voting bloc can be split. Some are much more analytically focused — Zach Lowe, Tim Bontemps — and then there are the Kendrick Perkins and Stephen A. Smiths, who are much less analytically inclined.”
But despite Bridges’ underdog status heading into his team’s final two games, he holds the advantage of playing for the league’s best squad, which provides a path to victory.
“Regular season success is very important,” said Garriock. “Because the Suns don’t really have any other candidates apart from Monty Williams to win an award [Coach of the Year], voters could try to reward Phoenix for a very strong season [by naming Bridges DPOY]. The other way it could happen is if there’s a total paradigm shift in what voters are valuing. If they decide to value very viral one-off moments, like Bridges putting the clamps on Steph Curry, or minutes played, those are two areas where Bridges has been superlative.”
Photo: Brad Penner/USA TODAY