About a week ago, I was watching NBATV’s “Open Court” program when Shaquille O’Neal was asked about Dwight Howard. Astute NBA fans know all about the ongoing “feud” â€” if we must call it that â€” between O’Neal and Howard, and so it came as no surprise that Shaq unleashed a torrent of criticism toward the freshly anointed Laker. He claimed Robin Lopez was better than Howard, then quickly corrected that to twin brother Brook Lopez â€” a rare analytical double fault. Furious, I turned the show off.
A great many things were wrong with O’Neal’s clearly biased breakdown of Howard’s faults (which, to be clear, certainly exist), but most egregious was his complete dismissal of defensive impact. What’s arguably the most important part of basketball â€” and Howard’s defining skill â€” wasn’t even worth a passing mention in Shaq’s eyes. Luckily, we have awards like Defensive Player of the Year to recognize the skills O’Neal deems unimportant â€” the towering blocks, the feisty steals, the frenzied help and recovering on pick and rolls. As part of its weeklong celebration of a new season, Dime is projecting the major NBA awards all week, and today we look at the top defensive candidates.
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10. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Hornets
History doesn’t favor Davis’ chances here. Since the NBA began handing out the Defensive Player of the Year award back in the 1982-83 season, a rookie has never taken home the honor. The award is, in many ways, based on reputation, and Davis has only a single dominant year at Kentucky to point to. He also arrives in a league chalk full of defensive standouts.
So why is he even on this list? Well, anyone who watched the national championship game between Kentucky and Kansas this year knows how special Davis is. He scored just six points but somehow still dominated the game while racking up 15 rebounds, six blocks and three steals. He’s just a force of nature, with his pterodactyl arms and hyper quick reaction time. College-to-pro translated statistics are always questionable, but Basketball Prospectus projects a block percentage of 6.5 percent for Davis this season â€” a number that would have been third overall in the league last year. He’s the real deal, and while he won’t win the award this season, it’s safe to say the hardware will grace his mantel sooner rather than later.
9. Josh Smith, Atlanta Hawks
You probably associate Josh Smith’s name more with high-flying dunks and ill-advised three pointers, but he’s also an underrated defender. An elite defensive rebounder, he grabbed 24.7 percent of the boards available to him on the court last season according to Hoopdata, and his block and steal percentages (3.8 and 2.1 according to Baksetball Prospectus) were indicative of his rare versatility as a big man. He actually works best as a center, where he held opponents to a below average Player Efficiency Rating of 12.4 last year, per 82games.com. But he was solid at power forward, too (opponent PER of 15.7) and there’s no doubt that he can change games with his abilities. With Al Horford back in the fold, Smith will play the majority of his minutes at the four this year unless head coach Larry Drew opts to go small. In a contract year, expect big things from Smith on the defensive end regardless of position.
8. Omer Asik, Houston Rockets
Asik’s defensive genius was buried to a certain degree as a member of Chicago’s “Bench Mob” last season, and he’ll have a chance to really make a name for himself in 2012-13 as a foundational starter on the new look Rockets. Assuming that his otherworldly statistics translate alongside a much higher minutes count (he averaged just under 15 minutes per game last season), Asik could emerge as a surprise contender for the award, ala Tyson Chandler with the Knicks last season. A legit 7-footer, Asik is quick for his size and capable of at altering practically every shot at the rim, even if he doesn’t block it. Per 82games.com, the Bulls gave up 7.6 fewer points per 100 possessions with Asik in the floor last year, and MySynergySports.com reported that opponents shot just 33.9 percent overall against the Turkey native. He’s a beast in the paint, and though he won’t have Taj Gibson next to him and will be playing substantially more minutes, Asik should push a Houston defense that ranked precisely average (15th overall in defensive rating last year) a bit closer to elite status.
7. Andre Iguodala, Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets, for all of their glorious fast breaks and three-point barrages, were just a bad defensive team last year. The acquisition of Andre Iguodala this past offseason was meant in large part to stop the hemorrhage on that end of the floor, and he’s perfectly capable of that. It’s difficult for a single perimeter player to change the identity of a defense â€” really, only a select few post mammoths are capable of such large scale overhaul â€” but Iggy will still be a difference maker. He grabs steals at an elite rate (tied with LeBron James in steal percentage last year, according to Basketball-Reference.com) and is relentless on the ball. He’s the type of player who can change the culture of a defense, and make even minus defenders try a little bit harder. That can be much more important than it sounds, and it’s likely that Iguodala will grab some third place votes simply as a result of Denver’s team-wide improvement.
6. Tony Allen, Memphis Grizzlies
Perimeter players simply don’t win this award. According to Basketball-Reference.com’s database, the last time it happened was in 2003-04, when one Metta World Peace (Ron Artest at the time) picked it up as a member of the Pacers. In all, just six perimeter players have won the award throughout the league’s history, and one of them was Michael Jordan. So it’s safe to say Tony Allen won’t be winning the hardware this year, but damn if he doesn’t deserve some sort of honor for his efforts. Opponents shot just 33 percent against Allen in isolation plays last season according to MySynergySports.com, and 82games.com shows that Memphis’ defense was stingier by 5.2 points per 100 possessions with him on the court. Some players, like Howard and Smith, make defense seem effortless, a second nature that requires little thought. Allen is the opposite: a relentless pest who never gives up an easy basket. There’s something to be said for that, even if he’s never properly rewarded for his efforts. Guess that $3.3 million salary will have to do.
5. Kevin Garnett, Boston Celtics
Garnett took home this award for the first time after his first season with the Celtics, which of course resulted in a championship. That was just before Dwight Howard began his reign as the league’s premier defender (with three straight DPOYs to prove it), but Garnett’s defense really hasn’t faltered even as his body has. Last season, Boston’s top three most used lineups featured Garnett, and each of them gave up less than a point per possession according to 82games.com. In the aggregate, 82games.com showed that the Celtics gave up 6.4 fewer points per 100 possessions with Garnett on the floor, and while playing the majority of his minutes at power forward the Chicago native held opponents to a below average 14.1 Player Efficiency Rating. Younger, flashier players are ahead of him, but Garnett remains a force and is perhaps the best team defender in the league.
4. Serge Ibaka, Oklahoma City Thunder
Ibaka may well win the award this year. When you consider his second place finish last year, Howard’s post-Magic backlash, and the media’s likely reluctance to vote for Chandler again, Serge is right there at the top of the heap. And with a full offseason this time to improve, there’s little doubt he’ll come back smarter and better than ever. That’s pretty scary, given that he led the league in total blocks by an insane margin (241 to second place DeAndre Jordan’s 135) as well as blocks per game (3.7) and block percentage (an incredible 9.8). Another year like that may be enough to convince voters to award him the top spot. But as Grantland’s Zach Lowe broke down on Monday, great defenders like Garnett do much more than block shots, and Ibaka has a long way to go in that regard. MySynergySports.com ranked in 280th as an overall defender in terms of points allowed per possession (0.88), and though Ibaka is much, much better than that number indicates, he still has plenty of room to grow. Since he’s just 23 years old, that’s bound to happen, and the rest of the league should be frightened by the prospect.
3. Tyson Chandler, New York Knicks
Last year’s surprise winner, Chandler’s effect in his first year as a Knick was similar to that of Garnett. Though other factors, such as emergence of rookie Iman Shumpert and departure of defensively-challenged coach Mike D’Antoni, certainly played a role, Chandler rightfully absorbed the bulk of credit for New York’s improvement from 22nd to fifth overall in defensive rating. Like Howard and Garnett, Chandler is big and skilled enough to both lock down his own man and clean up the (frequent) mistakes made by Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony. He wasn’t a shot-blocking extraordinaire like Ibaka, or Mr. Versatility like the next guy on this list, but Chandler did more than enough to deserve last year’s award and he should contend this season, too. The problem is that expectations are much higher for New York now, and Chandler is already dealing with a sore knee to start the year. The loss of Stoudemire for the first six weeks serves as something of a perverse benefactor defensively, but his eventual return will force Chandler to be every bit the force he was last year. If he is, a repeat DPOY is not out of the question.
2. LeBron James, Miami Heat
Remember what I said earlier about perimeter guys not winning this award? This is the guy who could buck the trend. The popular consensus is that James barely functions as a perimeter player anymore in Miami’s “position-less” scheme, but for now he’s still listed as a small forward and would win any award under that moniker.
Fretting about positions is missing the point, though, as James has distinguished himself as by far the most versatile defender in the league â€” and perhaps ever. He’s guarded everyone from Derrick Rose to Pau Gasol and Kevin Durant, keeping each more or less in check. Lesser players stand no chance. Last season, according to 82games.com, James opponents to a ridiculously low 10.6 Player Efficiency Rating while playing at small forward, and that number was just slightly higher at power forward (14.8, still below average). He’s big enough to guard even the league’s most powerful post players, and agile enough to bottle up the lightning bug point guards.
The chasedown blocks and crafty steals are what stick out, but James is actually more devastating in the half court. Miami is arguably the best defensive team in the league right now, despite starting rail thin Chris Bosh at center and possessing basically no other traditional post protectors aside from Joel Anthony. Watch James’ tireless play this year, and you’d be hard pressed to say he doesn’t deserve to add DPOY to his city-sized trophy case.
1. Dwight Howard, Los Angeles Lakers
The backlash will be fierce. Really, it already has been, though not quite at the LeBron James level of hate. Tuesday’s opening loss against a Dirk-less Mavericks team didn’t help at all, but after being denied a fourth straight DPOY last season, Howard still opens up as the favorite this year. Like Chandler last year, he has a new team to help turn around on the defensive end, and though the Lakers never reached Knicks-level futility, they were still middling last season with a 13th ranked defensive rating. With Metta World Peace on the downside of his career, and Kobe Bryant mostly saving his energy for offense now, Howard is arguably the only plus-defender in the Lakers’ starting lineup. He’ll be asked to clean up a lot of mistakes, but when fully healthy he’s more than capable of doing it.
Even amidst all of last year’s turmoil, Howard held opponents to a Player Efficiency Rating of 14 according to 82games.com, his block percentage of 4.4 remained elite, and he led the league in defensive rebounding percentage (33.1). Now that he’s presumably happy and healthy, there’s no reason not to expect a dominant defensive season from Howard, enough to just barely surpass James’ versatility at season’s end.
Maybe even Shaq will notice.
Who do you think will win DPOY?
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