Is LeBron James the Favorite for Defensive Player of the Year?

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistFebruary 15, 2014

Miami Heat's LeBron James pauses after a team timeout after the Phoenix Suns took an early 12-point lead during the first half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

By now LeBron James pretty much has it all.

One of the few missing pieces in his collection of accomplishments, however, is that elusive Defensive Player of the Year award. It might seem inconsequential enough, but it's also a glaring omission for a defender of his caliber.

Even more glaring for a player who openly contends it's his turn (via ESPN's Brian Windhorst): “That’s why I should be Defensive Player of the Year,” James said. “No one has ever done this before.” 

The "this" James refers to is the incredible versatility he demonstrates on the defensive end of the floor, often guarding multiple positions over the course of a game—or all five positions as he did against the Los Angeles Clippers, when he proclaimed his right to DPOY honors. 

James certainly fits the description, at least if you ask any of his opponents. You can also ask his coach (via Windhorst): “LJ displayed his entire arsenal defensively. Guarding 1-through-5, on the glass, in the post, on the perimeter. He even had one of his famous chase-down blocks, one that most players would give up on.”

MIAMI, FL - JUNE 18:  Tim Duncan #21 of the San Antonio Spurs has his shot blocked by LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat in the fourth quarter during Game Six of the 2013 NBA Finals at AmericanAirlines Arena on June 18, 2013 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Defensive prowess of this variety is more than a matter of opinion. James has been selected to the All-NBA Defensive first team every year since 2009. Before that, he was twice a member of the second team.

But when it comes to taking home the most esteemed defensive honor, James has thus far come up empty. 

Much of that has to do with his competition. Dwight Howard claimed the award for three straight seasons from 2008 to 2011. After that, big men Tyson Chandler (2012) and Marc Gasol (2013) took turns accepting it. Slam Online cites an interview on NBA TV in which James says he was snubbed by two of those selections: “To be honest, I feel I’ve been snubbed two years in a row, and I’m serious. And that’s one selfish thing about me...I feel like I should have won it.”

It doesn't take a codebreaker to figure out which years he's talking about. Nor would it be especially controversial to agree with James. 

The history of the award certainly works against James. Not since Ron Artest in 2004 has a wing player won DPOY. Big men like Ben Wallace, Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo each took the award home multiple times.

Precedent clearly works in favor of post defenders and rim-protectors, and there's certainly a logic there. Even when they aren't blocking shots, bigs are deterring penetration and altering shots by their presence alone. They also secure possessions via defensive rebounds and play instrumental roles in stopping the pick-and-roll. It's hard to argue against those kinds of contributions.

But it's even harder to argue against what LeBron brings to the table.

Besides his aforementioned versatility, the Miami Heat's four-time league MVP regularly checks the other team's best scorer, especially when games are on the line. His ability to patrol the paint like a free safety in football is supplemented by some of the league's very best perimeter defense. Come the playoffs, that's a dangerous weapon to deploy against elite point guards and post scorers alike.

And while James doesn't rack up blocks like other DPOY candidates (e.g. Anthony Davis, Serge Ibaka, Roy Hibbert) his defensive statistics are respectable. His .3 blocks per game are down from a .8 career average, but the 1.5 steals are on par with his typical production on defense. James' length and hoops IQ make him especially dangerous in passing lanes, which in turn makes him such a dominant threat in the open court.

There's little doubt that James is an elite defensive player. The final analysis will ultimately be a referendum on whether anyone else has had a better defensive season. This isn't a lifetime achievement award.

That calculus bodes well for James. You can count previous winners like Chandler and Gasol out, largely because both the New York Knicks and Memphis Grizzlies have had disappointing seasons. Ibaka's all-around defense has improved, but he's averaging just 2.6 blocks per game as opposed to his 3.7 swats in 2011-12. That's still plenty respectable, but it's not outrageously good.

The 7'2" Hibbert is averaging 2.5 blocks, but just 7.7 rebounds. Again, impressive but not amazingly so.

Perhaps the most significant argument in James' favor is that he's exerting tremendous energy on the defensive end in addition to scoring over 26 points a game. That scoring won't factor into a DPOY nod, but the fact that LeBron continues to work so hard defensively speaks volumes about how deeply he cares about winning.

He's not a defensive specialist, but that hasn't stopped him from playing like one.

And it certainly hasn't stopped him from caring about the award itself. James' most recent lobbying isn't an anomaly. After losing out to Gasol last season, James was candid about his disappointment. Writing for The Palm Beach Post, Ethan J. Skolnick quoted him as repeatedly saying, "It sucks," and later, "I don’t know if there’s one player in NBA history who’s guarded one through five (positions). It’s over with now, but that’s cool.” 

LeBron's detractors—or anyway, what's left of them—might suggest that there's more to the award than versatility, but this versatility is of a qualitatively different order than what we're used to witnessing.

In other words, it's not that James is merely versatile. He's also highly effective, strong enough to defend the post and quick enough to lock down penetration on the perimeter. In short, it's nearly impossible to find a weakness in his defensive game, save maybe the occasional ball-watching.

Of course, who wins an award and who ought to win it are different questions. Even if James is deserving, the voters still have to be convinced. That's where Kevin Durant comes in. His dominant season has put MVP odds in his corner and as a result, potentially given James the edge in the DPOY race.

That's assuming people view DPOY as a consolation prize, and they probably should. By just about any metric, James would be having yet another MVP season were it not for Durant's heroics in Russell Westbrook's absence. By losing out on the big prize, James could take home one he's coveted. 

In a game where defense wins championships, LeBron's has been instrumental in Miami's success—and it's finally time for us to acknowledge that he's not just a great defender. He's a singular and unique defensive asset.

If that's not sufficient grounds for being awarded DPOY, it's hard to say what is.


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