Does Marc Gasol Winning NBA Defensive Player of the Year Prove Award Is Flawed?
The staunch Spaniard, who pulled in 212 ballot points, was the anchor of a Memphis Grizzlies defense that ranked among the stingiest in the league all season. Among players who featured in at least 60 games for no fewer than 20 minutes per contest, Gasol checked in third in defensive rating (i.e. points allowed per 100 possessions that a given player spends on the floor), behind only Tony Allen and Mike Conley Jr.—both of whom are his teammates—per NBA.com. Gasol also ranked seventh among centers in steals (1.0) and 12th overall in blocks (1.7)
On a team-wide level, the Grizzlies forced turnovers more frequently, rebounded a higher percentage of missed shots, held their opponents to a lower field goal percentage and yielded fewer free throws per field goal attempt with Marc on the court. Moreover, Memphis gave up 95.4 points per 100 possessions during the regular season when Gasol played and 102.2 when he sat. The former number would've led the NBA, while the latter would've been on par with that of the Milwaukee Bucks: respectable, but hardly elite.
Of greater concern to those who would question Gasol's primacy in this regard, though, is the absence of noteworthy wing players from legitimate consideration for the award.
LeBron James finished 12th in steals, guarded all five positions for the Miami Heat's seventh-ranked defense, and has long since emerged as arguably the best perimeter defender on the planet. The Denver Nuggets jumped from 19th in defensive efficiency in 2011-12 to 11th in 2012-13, with Andre Iguodala as their only major addition. Chris Paul led the league in steals for the fifth time in six seasons for a Los Angeles Clippers squad that was a top-10 defensive outfit. Tony Allen is widely regarded as a perimeter pest. And Mike Conley, Jr. finished third in steals.
Surely these guys were all worthy of serious consideration. And yet, LeBron, who came in second with 149 ballot points, was the only perimeter player among the top three vote-getters. Tony Allen finished fifth, Iguodala ninth (just behind Paul George), Chris Paul 11th, and Conley, Jr. 21st.
This is hardly a new phenomenon. Gasol's DPOY victory marks the ninth straight for a player featured primarily at either power forward or center. Ron Artest was the last guard/wing to earn the honor, when he did so with the Indiana Pacers in 2003-04. But he's about as big and bulky as any swingman not named LeBron James, and he now goes by the much friendlier moniker of Metta World Peace. Artest's seizure of the DPOY still stands as only the seventh by a perimeter player since the award's inception in 1982-83.
What's going on, then? Is there an institutional bias against wings and/or toward big men? Are power forwards and centers just better, more impactful defenders on the whole? Is there something inherent in the game of basketball itself that favors one subset over the other on the defensive end?
The truth is, basketball has always been a big man's game on both ends of the floor. Over the years, the NBA has done its darndest to mitigate the extent to which the tallest players, by sheer force of genetics, can dominate a game: A wider key, the institution of a 24-second shot clock, the arrival of the three-point line, and the tightening of restrictions governing perimeter contact (among other changes) have all contributed to a steady leveling of the playing field.
Not that size doesn't matter anymore. If anything, there's an even greater premium on quality big men now than there has ever been, in part because it takes far more energy, effort, skill and preparation for an interior player to impact the game to the same extent that he might've years ago.
Nowadays, playing the position, particularly on the defensive end, requires an understanding of complex offensive schemes built around the pick-and-roll, three-point shooting and myriad misdirection plays, all of which are designed to apply pressure and force a defense to shift as the offense seeks a quality look at the basket.
Let's not forget, either, about timing, in terms of both understanding when and where to hedge, as well as when to enter and exit the key so as not to invite a technical foul.
But even if you don't particularly care about the emergent complexities of the modern game, it's still easy to see why the DPOY has been and continues to be a big man's honor. Simply put, big guys tend to play closer to the basket on both ends. Scoring requires that an offensive player put the ball through the basket, and it's typically easier for said offensive player to score on shots that are closer to the basket.
Hence, those who spend more time next to the basket on defense have more opportunities to challenge shots and, in turn, have a more substantial impact on the central pursuit of any defense: to make scoring a difficult endeavor.
This is what makes defenses like those from the playbook of Tom Thibodeau so effective. In today's NBA, teams go out of their way to clog the middle, overload the strong side and force the opposition to settle for tougher, lower-percentage shots.
The Grizzlies employ these same principles in their own stifling scheme, though it'd hardly be possible without a big man as skilled and well-schooled in the subtleties of NBA defense as is Marc Gasol. He's the heart, the soul and the brains of Memphis' system, directing traffic with his hands and his voice like an oversized crossing guard.
Without him, the Grizzlies' defense doesn't work, just as the New York Knicks' wouldn't have without Tyson Chandler last year, or as the Orlando Magic's wouldn't have without Dwight Howard the three years prior to that—or those captained by Kevin Garnett, Marcus Camby, and Ben Wallace before that.
Of course, measuring a single player's impact or value on the defensive end is still a tricky, imprecise endeavor. Far more so than offense, defense requires all five players working in unison, communicating and coordinating, understanding the angles and where the help is coming from at all times. No one man, no matter how great an impact he makes, can be a defense quite like a transcendent scorer can, to an extent, be an offense.
That's much of what makes the Defensive Player of the Year a "flawed" award to begin with. If anything, it'd be more appropriate to bestow such an honor upon a team, though conferring hardware to an entire group is the domain of the postseason.
Then again, the fact that Marc Gasol, of all players, gets the nod this year is a testament to the widespread growth in the media's understanding of NBA defense by way of observation and advanced statistical analysis. Gasol's stats are anything but gaudy—he didn't challenge for the league leads in blocks or steals, and hfinished with fewer rebounds per game than did LeBron James and Kevin Durant—and he's hardly anyone's idea of an athletic specimen.
Did Marc Gasol deserve to win the Defensive Player of the Year award?
But none of that dampens the overall appreciation of what Marc does for a defense. He's the proverbial "Guy Who Does Things That Don't Show Up on the Stat Sheet," except he does so many of those things and does them so well that he's established himself as not only an elite center, but also one of the 10-to-20 best basketball players on the planet.
It's not that guards and wings aren't capable of impacting the game in a manner that's on par with that of a big man. Great perimeter defenders can make life so difficult for opposing dribblers as to keep the ball from ever entering the paint. The very best (e.g., LeBron, Dwyane Wade, Tony Allen) can and certainly do protect the interior as well, be it by crashing down as help defenders or by bodying up players of different sizes in the post.
But just as being a quality big man has become a more difficult chore in light of the league's ever-evolving rule book, so too has dictating the defensive terms of a game always been tougher and required a higher level of performance for "smaller" guys, if only because they're not as tall, their arms aren't as long, and they don't play as close to the basket. Only the best of the best of the best perimeter defenders are so good as to be the most valuable defensive players on their respective teams and, thus, earn consideration for DPOY.
Really, then, when considering the demographics of the award, perhaps we shouldn't bemoan the preeminence of power forwards and centers as the standard-bearers. Instead, we should applaud and stand in awe of those few who were such transcendent defenders that they didn't need to man the middle to control the flow of play.
Rather than wonder whether Marc Gasol, Dwight Howard, Kevin Garnett, Ben Wallace, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo, Hakeem Olajuwon and Dennis Rodman (among others) have been given the honor on account of their size, why not consider how good Michael Jordan, Ron Artest, Gary Payton, Alvin Robertson and Sidney Moncrief must've been on that end to beat out some of the most effective defensive giants of their respective eras?
Why complain about LeBron missing out on the award when we can celebrate his close, second-place finish to Gasol? Why worry about Tony Allen when he came in ahead of Tim Duncan? Why fixate on Andre Iguodala, Mike Conley and CP3 when Tim Duncan (sixth) and Roy Hibbert (10th) also got hosed, at least as far as relative finish is concerned?
Not until size is either rendered obsolete by rule changes or flushed out of the game by demographic shifts will those with more of it cease to possess the keys to a great defense and, thus, to the Defensive Player of the Year award.
Or, until LeBron James finally gets his due as the DPOY, because clearly, his excellence has gone unrecognized.
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