The NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award has been around since 1983. As far as honors go in the league, it is the defensive equivalent of the Most Valuable Player Award.
While teams cannot win without putting points up on the board, most analysts feel that a strong defense is necessary for a team to win a championship. At the very least, defense in the game of basketball is just as important as the offense.
But is this prestigious award given to the most deserving candidate each year? Are the greatest defensive players recognized on a consistent basis? The evidence seems to suggest otherwise.
Part of the issue is based on how the award is decided upon. Each year, the winner is selected by a panel of 124 sports broadcasters and analysts throughout the United States and Canada.
Unlike the All-Defensive Team that is selected by NBA coaches who see up-close the best defensive players in the game on a nightly basis, sportswriters and broadcasters are one step removed from the game. It is possible, without fully realizing the impact players have on the defensive end of the court, that they could be swayed by impressive defensive stats and crowd-pleasing plays.
In my opinion, a great defender at any position on the court can excel at both help defense and one-on-one defense. The best players can play well in their team’s defensive system and also be assigned to slow down the opposing team’s best scorers.
But it is odd when one looks at the winners of the Defensive-Player-of-the-Year Award. During the first few years, the award was given out to players at a variety of positions. This included Sidney Montcrief (shooting guard), Mark Eaton (center), Alvin Robertson (guard), Michael Cooper (guard/forward), and Dennis Rodman (power forward).
In the 19 years since 1992, however, a center has been the winner 16 times. These players include David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo, Ben Wallace, and Dwight Howard. Kevin Garnett, who won in 2008, can almost be considered a center as he stands seven feet tall. Did all of these players deserve to win the award at least once? Absolutely.
But the absence of guards and small forwards winning the award is an alarming trend. Besides Garnett, the only non-centers to win the award since 1992 are Gary Payton (1996) and Ron Artest (2004). It appears that the way to win the award is to be among the league leaders in rebounds and blocks.
This is not to say that players like Dwight Howard who led the league in blocks and rebounds do not have an impact on the game. His mere presence intimidates players and changes the way shots are made near the basket.
This impact on the game was perhaps first emphasized with the Celtics’ legend Bill Russell. To illustrate this, NBA great Bob Pettit once spoke of Russell’s impact when he spoke of one playoff game and remarked, “I went in for four layups in the fourth quarter. He blocked the first two and I missed the next two looking for him.”
But Russell’s impact was different than most centers in the modern era. While players like Mutombo, Mourning, and Howard love to swat the ball off the court and into the stands, Russell was a master at blocking shots by tipping them in a way so that either he or a teammate could get the rebound and start a fast break offense.
Centers in Russell’s day also had a greater impact on the game defensively. With a narrower foul lane (12 feet as opposed to 16 feet) and no three-point line, most offensive sets were designed to get shots as close to the rim as possible.
Having a defensive-minded center like Russell could thus impact the game in a greater way than centers today, who have to deal with a wider lane and offenses designed to get longer shots. Some teams, like the Phoenix Suns, may shoot up to half of their shots from the perimeter.
Blocks are impressive to watch as a basketball fan, but if the opposing team gets the ball back and then scores, do they truly have the impact that the sportswriters and broadcasters seem to think?
Consider the winner of the last two years in Dwight Howard. While he may be one of the best players ever at help defense, his one-on-one defense is average. When he went up against Pau Gasol in the 2009 NBA Finals, Pau clearly outplayed him as he shot 60% from the field and outscored him (18.6 ppg compared to 15.4 ppg). The NBA’s Defensive-Player-of-the-Year simply struggled to slow down Gasol.
When looking at the All-Defensive teams, there seems to be more fairness in the selections. I believe this is due to the facts that coaches vote for players and that multiple positions can be honored at the same time.
One of the best indicators of the greatest defensive players may be the number of times selected to the All-Defensive team. Tim Duncan holds the record with thirteen selections. Followed closely behind are players like Kobe Bryant and Scottie Pippen with ten selections each, and Bruce Bowen with eight selections.
All four of those players rank among the best defensive players ever. Duncan was very effective through much of his career at slowing the multitude of talented offensive scoring frontcourt players in the Western Conference.
During the Bulls dynasty years, it was Scottie Pippen who was usually assigned to guard the other team’s best perimeter player. In fact, it wasn’t until Pippen guarded NBA legend Magic Johnson in the 1991 NBA Finals that the Bulls were able to beat the Los Angeles Lakers.
Unlike the 1980s and 1990s, the NBA has few dominant scoring centers today. The best scorers of the past decade—players like Dwyane Wade, Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony, Vince Carter, Chris Paul, Allen Iverson, and Tracy McGrady—all operate on the wings or the point position. Hence, it is arguable that top defensive wing players like Bryant and Bowen have a bigger impact on the game if they can slow the opposing team’s best scorers and playmakers.
Regarding Kobe Bryant, his defensive impact could be seen in the 2010 NBA Finals where he held the Celtics’ best player in Rajon Rondo to by far his worst series of the playoffs. In the 2008 Olympics, Bryant guarded the best players on the opposing teams and served as the defensive catalyst for Team USA.
The problem with being convinced with leading statistic numbers, which the award nominators appear to do, is that players with unimpressive stats like Bruce Bowen can get overlooked. Steals are great if they can lead to an easy score for the team. However, if a player goes for a steal and misses the opportunity, the opposing player is often left wide open which can lead to an easy basket.
It is a shame that deserving players like Pippen, Duncan, Bryant, and Bowen have not won the Defensive Player of the Year Award. While this may be unfair, I remain hopeful that the panelists who select the award in the future will be able to recognize the defensive abilities of a wider variety of players besides centers.