Minister of Defense: Is Ron Artest the NBA's Top Man-To-Man Defender?
When attempting to compare the top defensive players in the NBA, it's important to note the differences between help defense, and man-to-man defense.
Help defense is easier to gauge because most defensive statistics such as steals and blocks occur as a result of help defense, while great individual defense is more difficult to explain with numbers.
Recognizing great individual defense demands more of an a person's attention, because it involves observing the more fundamental aspects of defense.
Footwork, posture, instincts, and court awareness are a few traits of a superior defender, and in a league based on man-to-man defensive principles, there are few players who actually stand out in that category.
Last season's NBA All-Defensive first team consisted of Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Rajon Rondo, and Gerald Wallace.
All five players are competent individual defenders, but Bryant and Rondo are really the only ones that have a reputation as great man-to-man defenders.
Howard was the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year, and he earned the award due to his dominance in the paint, which mainly consisted of vicious blocks and strong defensive rebounding.
Howard's size, strength, and athleticism make him an ideal help defender in the paint, and he is one of the better players in the NBA when it comes to guarding the rim.
But as far as man-to-man defense goes, Howard is still learning the nuances of playing solid post defense, and he has a habit of crossing his feet instead of sliding when he is forced to guard a player on the perimeter.
One of the reasons Howard is whistled for so many fouls is because he consistently gets beaten off the dribble, and he often finds himself trying to block the opposition's shot from behind.
That's not to take anything away from Howard though, because his impact on the defensive end can be game-altering for the Orlando Magic, and his accolades are well deserved.
However, once Howard is able to gain a grasp on defensive fundamentals and the principles of individual defense, he could very well be one of the greatest post defenders to ever roam the paint.
James is simply the best help defender in the game today, and although his signature defensive image may be his acrobatic blocks, he is just as good at recognizing the opposition's strategy and adjusting accordingly.
James was usually the last line of defense during his time in Cleveland, and his superior physical attributes made him a defensive nightmare all over the court.
Although James is an above average man-to-man defender, he has not yet reached the elite level, but it would be silly to think that plateau is not in his immediate future.
In Miami, James will not be forced to play such a prominent role on the help end because he has another elite defender playing alongside him in Dwyane Wade. This should allow James to focus his attention on individual defense.
Wallace and Rondo, like James, are also superior help defenders and either player is capable of dominating a defensive stat sheet when it comes to steals, rebounds, and in Wallace's case, blocks.
But Wallace and Rondo are also excellent man-to-man defenders, and Wallace is the rare talent who is just as effective on the perimeter as he is in the post.
Rondo is arguably the top defensive point in the NBA, and it's scary to think that he still has room to improve as an individual defender.
Rondo has excellent defensive fundamentals, but he does have a tendency to get a little lazy, and instead of staying in front of his man, Rondo has a habit of reaching from behind in order to create turnovers.
Sometimes Rondo is successful, but his technique also results in petty fouls which could be avoided by simply sticking to solid defensive principles.
Bryant is the standard by which most great perimeter defenders are measured, as illustrated by his eighth career selection for the NBA's defensive first team.
Bryant may be the most fundamentally sound man-to-man defender in the NBA, but age and injuries have diminished some of the physical gifts that made him consistenly great on the defensive end.
Bryant is still a superb individual defender mostly because of his court intellect and instincts, and the presence of Laker teammate Ron Artest has helped Bryant transition to a more efficient help defender.
Which brings me to a very interesting point about Artest.
The four finalists for the league's Defensive Player of the Year award were Howard, Wallace, Atlanta's Josh Smith, and Artest. And of the four only, Artest failed to make either of the NBA's All-Defense teams.
Most Lakers' fans would admit that Artest's impact on the defensive end played a major role in the team's championship last season, and some would even say his impact on that end was far greater than Bryant's.
That point may be debatable, but Artest was unquestionably the most consistent individual defender for the Lakers last season.
Artest's career has been defined by his defensive prowess, and for the majority of his time in the league Artest has been a shining example of what a complete defender really is.
Artest has been an All-League defender a total of four times, and he was named the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year during the 2003-2004 season.
Artest has also led the NBA in steals twice, finished second in that category on three other occassins, and managed to carry a 2.0 steals per game average throughout his career.
What's more impressive about Artest's theft totals are the fact that many of them occur because of solid man defense as opposed to help defense.
Artest is blessed with quick, strong hands, excellent footwork, and a fierce, aggressive style that is based on allowing as little room as possible for the opposition to operate.
Artest's strength also allows him to defend larger players in the post, and he is exceptional at using his body to dictate an opponent's movement in the paint.
Time has robbed Artest of some of his quickness on the perimeter, but he is still regarded as one of the elite man-to-man defenders in the NBA, if not the very best.
Which makes it a puzzling coincidence that Artest failed to make either NBA defensive team.
The NBA's defensive teams are decided by the votes of the league's 30 coaches, and Artest missed out on joining the second team by a total of three votes.
Artest garnered 11 votes overall and finished behind Thabo Sefolosha of the Oklahoma City Thunder who garnered 14 total votes.
Not to take anything away from Sefolosha, but few observers would consider him to be in the same class of defenders as Artest, and the same can be said for Cleveland's Anderson Varejao who also made the second team.
Some people say Artest deserved to make the first team over Bryant, and even though that is only opinion, its' hard to justify the logic of him failing to make either team.
Artest's defense against Kevin Durant and Paul Pierce during the 2010 postseason proves he still resides among the league's top individual defenders, and he has a very strong case for the NBA's best.
Of course, that is a subjective matter, and although I tend to sway more towards the coaches when it comes to judging a player's effectiveness, I believe the people who picked Artest as a finalist for Defensive Player of the Year got it right.
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