Does Kevin Garnett Have a Case for Defensive Player of the Year?

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Does Kevin Garnett Have a Case for Defensive Player of the Year?
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Kevin Garnett’s defensive significance for the Boston Celtics may indeed be unmatched by any individual player-team relationship in the NBA.

His merits when considering the league’s end-of-year defensive prize, the Defensive Player of the Year award, may be affected by the exact interpretation of those words. It is a reasonable argument to say that Garnett is the most valuable defender in the league, as the Celtics would be an absolute sieve without him. 

However, if we are to understand that the award is statistics-based and awarded to the most impressive defensive season there was, it will be tougher for Garnett to gain enough consideration. 

After the 2007-08 season, the Celtics star was awarded the Defensive Player of the Year for the first time. There were a lot of factors weighing on that decision that are harder to see this year.

The Celtics won 66 games, seven more than the next closest team in the NBA. They were completely dominant and went on to win the NBA Finals. This year’s Celtics are just 30-27 and stuck at the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. 

That was Garnett’s first year with the franchise, and his stats had yet to start deteriorating. He averaged 32.8 minutes per game, while grabbing 9.2 boards and 1.4 steals. He was also still blocking 1.3 shots a night. As a unit, the Celtics held opponents to just 90.3 points per game on 41.9 percent shooting.

With all the injuries Boston has suffered this season, Garnett’s minutes per game have ballooned over the 30-minute plateau. He is playing 30.3 per game now, but most of his numbers have atrophied over the last five-plus years. 

At 7.7 per game, Garnett is just an average rebounder. His blocks and steals per game have dropped slightly as well. For what it’s worth, and it’s worth more than you’d think, his points per game have fallen from 18.8 to 15.1. 

When considering the team as a whole, Boston still is a top-10 defensive unit. However, instead of being the dominant force it was in 2007-08, it is merely a very good defensive team. Is that slip from historically great to very good in an individual season too much for Garnett to overcome in this race?

It is no secret to the league that the time to attack the Celtics inside is when Garnett is on the bench. When on the court, the Celtics are a top-five or better defensive team. Per 82games.com, Garnett holds a plus-74 mark this season. That is second on the team, but given that he has played 60 percent of Boston’s minutes this season, it's an impressive number.

The year he won this award, Garnett led the league in defensive rating, allowing just 94 points per 100 possessions, per Basketball-Reference.com. In 2012-13, that number has inflated to 98. His defensive win shares have shrunk from 6.2, the second-highest of his career, to a measly 3.2, his lowest mark since 1999.

To fully know his chances, we’ll also have to examine the competition for the award. 

Looking at some more advanced statistics at Basketball-Reference.com, it is actually Garnett’s biggest rival who boasts the league's top defensive rating. Tim Duncan, who has never won the award, is allowing a league-low 94 points per 100 possessions. Guys like Roy Hibbert, Larry Sanders and Joakim Noah are right behind him, followed by Garnett.

The same names obviously float to the top in defensive win shares, with the Indiana Pacers’ Paul George holding the top spot at 4.8. He’s immediately followed by a couple of the other top contenders, in Noah, Hibbert, Duncan and Marc Gasol.

Who is the NBA front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year?

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Sanders just doesn’t play enough, averaging 25.9 minutes per game. The same may go for Hibbert, who’s 28.2 minutes have been riddled with putrid offensive showings. Duncan is also averaging a tick under 30 minutes. The last five winners all averaged well over 30 minutes per game, including Garnett in 2008. 

The stiffest competition will come from Joakim Noah and Marc Gasol. Only one player, (Ron Artest) has won the award as a non-center/power forward in the last 16 years. That makes blocking off perimeter stoppers like Paul George and Luol Deng, as well as pick-pockets like Chris Paul seem sensible.

Unfortunately for Garnett, the Memphis Grizzlies and Chicago Bulls are two of the top-three defensive teams in the league, along with Hibbert’s Pacers. If the Celtics can lop a few more points allowed per game off their current number, I’ll be a lot more confident that Garnett will receive consideration. 

Until then, there aren’t a lot of individual stats right now to back up giving Garnett this award a second time. It is a shame in a way, as there are eight players who have won the award more than once.  

Are we sure there are eight better defensive players in the history of the league than Kevin Garnett?

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