DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR:
With Dwight Howard caught in the vortex of the Lakers' bad luck and still recovering from back surgery, the race broke open this year. And it's a wonderful one. Most people struggled to establish a leader for this one until late in the year.
Then everyone looked around and said, "Hey, Marc Gasol's really awesome at defense!" like this hadn't been the case for two years.
Before we get to the central debate of this year, I wanted to go through some other candidates who deserve recognition.
Points allowed per-possession via Synergy Sports:
|Post||Pick and Roll|
Noah and Hibbert: The two beasts have about equal cases. They're both super-active defenders who anchor two of the best defenses in the league. Their responsibilities are wide ranging and all-encompassing, and they have to make up for perimeter guys blowing assignments regularly (Hibbert less so than Noah; Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli play a lot together this year for crying out loud). Either would be a tremendous choice.
The only separation is Noah's injury issues and Hibbert's lack of mobility at times. Hibbert's quick, no doubt, but Hibbert would be a great defender back in the days when the brontosaurus roamed the earth in the '90s. He's a great help defender and pick and roll stunter, but we're talking inches here, and those small differences are what keep him back.
Tim Duncan: Duncan's tricky. The old man has taken his game to amazing levels this season -- a great feat at his age (36), or any age for that matter. He's averaging a career-high block rate (6.5 percent) and without him, the Spurs would be left to defend inside with Tiago Splitter, Matt Bonner and DeJuan Blair. So yeah, Duncan's pretty valuable.
But individually, he still has some problems related to the part where he's, you know, 400 years old. It happens. I honestly think Duncan is worthy of being third, but the top tier is just too much.
Larry Sanders: LARRY SANDERS! as he's known on the Internet made monster strides this season and became the best blocking force in the league. Sanders was good on and off ball, able to make rotations and snuff out penetration or block shots, and did a great job in the post, too.
But Sanders also had to get minutes, had to split time with Samuel Dalembert, had an unfortunate back injury, and he's still young. He makes mistakes young guys do. But man, if this kid keeps improving (and cuts down on the ejections), look out NBA. You've got another Mutumbo on your hands.
Dwight Howard: Here's the argument for Howard. He has the most intimidating phyiscal presence of any player in the league -- when healthy. He's the best center in the league, defensively -- when healthy. He's the best overall defender in the league -- when healthy and the effort is there.
He was not healthy this year. He did not have great effort this year. You can make a pretty strong case for why those are related. You cannot deny that the production wasn't there. He was complacent in pick and rolls. He was slow on rotations. He struggled to make the right play. He got caught out of position.
Do I think Howard will win DPOY next year and likely four more times in his career? Absolutely. Do i think he deserves it this season? Absolutely not.
Serge Ibaka: Ibaka is a great pick-and-roll defender and blocks a lot of shots. He also gets caught out of position, goes for blocks when he should stay home, and has huge issues in the post or in space vs. good scorers. Ibaka's a great defender who suffers from a bizarrely inflated reputation. He's great. He's just not greater.
Tony Allen: Allen might never wind up winning a DPOY award, and let me tell you how nuts that is. The guy is just an animal. Attacks every possession, dives for every opportunity, harrasses and then manages to get back while disrupting the pass. His timing on passing lanes is the elitist of the elite, and he's tough in the post, on the drive, on the rebound, everywhere. He's a monster.
The only reason he's not the winner is because part of his style is reckless, and it works phenomenally well for Memphis, but only because their scheme is good. If you put him on a team that doesn't have the coverage help, there will be layups (and blood). He might reach a point in future years where he just locks guys up to that degree. But until then, he's too reliant on one of his teammates (who's in the top two) for help.
Avery Bradley: No one harrasses the ball-handler like Bradley. I marvel at what he's capable of on a night-to-night basis in terms of getting under the grill of the best players in the league without fouling. So much so that I have to wonder if his rep is helping him there. But there's no question his technique is excellent, and being a tough defender is a good thing. His off-ball work needs some help, not a lot, and he sometimes gets too eager. But man, in three years, this kid...
LeBron James: He's a monster. He just is. If you told me I need one guy to shut down any player on the other team, no matter who it is, I'm saying James. So why isn't he DPOY? Because for a good two-and-a-half months of the season, he coasted. He wasn't giving good enough effort on the defensive end, and the Heat struggled defensively. He just wasn't locked in.
James at 70 percent is still better than 80 percent of the league. But the other guys on this list brought it defensively every night. If James wanted to, he could win this award. But he's too busy being MVP and stuff.
Now for the last two. But first, here's what the other members of EOB had to say:
1. Marc Gasol -- Second best defensive team in the NBA is anchored by a guy who can play both inside and outside whilst calling out where to be.
2. LeBron James
3. Andre Iguodala
4. Tony Allen
5. Roy Hibbert
1. Joakim Noah -- The impact Noah has on one of the league's best defenses is always incredible, especially when you consider he's covering Carlos Boozer's butt half the time.
2. Marc Gasol
3. LeBron James
4. Tony Allen
5. Andre Iguodala
It came down to Marc Gasol vs. Andre Iguodala for me.
And this is a monstrous debate because it involves challenging something which even NBA players and coaches think.
The general idea is that NBA big men are more valuable than wing defenders. A big man inside locks off penetration when he gets past a wing defender. He recovers off of his man and sometimes back over. His presence can dissuade a player from driving, making him take a less efficient shot. He helps in pick and rolls, in the post, on the weak-side, everywhere.
And Gasol is just that, everywhere.
On pick and rolls, Gasol will hedge the ball handler out, out, out, past where they usually turn the corner or reset, all the way to the edge of the court sometimes, then recover back, disrupting the passing lane with his waving arms and then getting back into position for the pick and pop. When assigned he covers all the way to the rim and deters the shot. He is a wall for guys trying to score inside. He swipes at guys who have snuck in behind the defense, causing steals, he muscles players out of position, he hammers guys to ensure there's no score when he has to.
He does it all. He is, without a doubt, the best overall, from physical presence to technique, big man defender in the NBA.
So if that's the most important thing, and Gasol's the most important thing, then why isn't he the winner? Well, he is.
See here's the problem. I worried a lot about whether my preference for Iguodala, who doesn't even register on some smart-minded people's lists and who certainly won't win the award because, well, BLOCKZ AND REBOUNDZ, was based on the fact that I watch him on the regular in Denver. I've watched him up close and personal lock down James Harden and make his life miserable. I've seen him force Kobe out of rhythm on shots he always makes. I've seen him muscle Carmelo and annoy LeBron. I've spent time with him breaking down these elements of his game.
But when you start to talk to coaches around the league, you get a sense of how good he is. He's as disruptive as Tony Allen without the gambles. He drives players to help, consistently and away from their strong hand or tendencies. He interupts key plays, an he guards multiple positions on the floor, often in the same possession.
That last part is where I start to wonder about the bigs vs. wings argument. In the NBA now, based on the fact that there are about 10 useful NBA big men in offensive sets, a lot of the pick-and-roll action is moving to the wing creating a mismatch. Here's the thing with Iguodala. You can't create a mismatch
He switches from pushing Chris Paul away from his right, to switching onto Blake Griffin to deny the post pass, then rotating to the corner shooter. He goes from denying the catch for the shooter to showing on the drive to deter the penetration to recovering and stealing when the ball gest swung back to the shooter. He strips, annoys, blocks, challenges and otherwise smothers the opponent when they decide to try to take him one-on-one.
If you deny the initial penetration, which forces your big to cover for you in the first place, meaning everone gets to stay home, isn't that more valuable?
Given that the league has become progressively more and more dominated by wings like the elite point guards, shooting guards, and small forwards, isn't having a player who can guard those guys to deny their playmaking and scoring opportunities more valuable?
When you add in the fact that Iguodala's been the primary factor that has taken Denver from a porous defense to a good one, isn't that a pretty good case for those intangible effects everyone (especially George Karl) talks about?
The Nuggets play at the second-fastest pace in the NBA. Typically, but not always, defenses struggle in fast-paced system. It's pretty simple. If you're always running up and down the court you're a.) more likely to be caught out of position and allow scoring; b.) more likely to give up cherry picking and c.) more likely to turn the ball over. It kind of comes with the territory.
Yet the Nuggets enter Tuesday night with the 11th best defense in the league. OK, you say, but that's not all that great. No, it's not. But since January, when the schedule evened out, the Nuggets have the ninth best defense in terms of defensive efficiency (points per 100 possessions). Since February, they are eighth and since March first. The Nuggets, at that crazy pace, have the fifth best defensive eficiency in the league. And most of that is due to the play and leadership of Iguodala.
You take all of this, and you consider my only complaint with Gasol's defense (oddly, his rebounding, which I typically don't care about in defensive conversations because it doesn't actually have anything to do with how they defend; Gasol's allowance of extra possessions, though, puts a bigger weight on the Grizzlies' offense to score, which of course, it can't), and you have the only conclusion, and the one that makes the most sense.
In a year like this, where the favorite is unavailable due to injury (Howard) and the field is this close, and the shifting trends of the league's scoring continue toward the wing with the symbiotic relationship down low, and there's one good option.
Let's split the award.
I advocate this a lot. I think when you spend as much time as I have looking at this stuff (and if you made it this far, at least you can say I've done the research), and it's this close? Why make one winner? Why not reward Gasol for being the best big man down low and most effective overall big defender in a league with poor big men where big defenders are needed? Or why not reward the best perimeter weapon who can shift a game and make it to where the Nuggets can survive defensively with JaVale McGee and Kenneth Faried as his bigs?
Marc Gasol and Andre Iguodala are two of the smartest defenders in the league, two of the most focused defenders in the league. They are also the two best defenders in the league. And they each deserve a share of the Defensive Player of the Year.