Handicapping the 2012-13 NBA Defensive Player of the Year Field

Bryan Toporek@@btoporekFeatured ColumnistOctober 21, 2012

Handicapping the 2012-13 NBA Defensive Player of the Year Field

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    Now that Dwight Howard has joined the Los Angeles Lakers, is there anyone who can stand in the way of his fourth Defensive Player of the Year Award?

    The 2011-12 NBA season marked the first time in four years that Howard didn't walk away with the DPOY trophy, with Tyson Chandler of the New York Knicks winning instead.

    After the Knicks acquired Chandler in the summer of 2011, he immediately made his presence felt on the defensive end of the court, leading New York to the fifth-most efficient defense in 2011-12, according to HoopData.

    With Howard now in one of the media capitals of the NBA, Chandler faces long odds for a repeat DPOY performance, however.

    In reverse order, the following 10 players are the most likely DPOY candidates in the 2012-13 season. 

Honorable Mention

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    Anthony Davis, New Orleans Hornets

    The Hornets didn't just draft Davis No. 1 overall to have him sit on the bench and learn for a few seasons. He's going to be thrown into the fire from the very first day, and his performance with the U.S. men's Olympic basketball team proved that he's up for the challenge.

    The Hornets will call upon Davis to immediately become their tone-setter on defense, hoping he can come anywhere close to the 4.7 blocks per game he averaged for the Kentucky Wildcats in 2011-12 en route to the Naismith Player of the Year Award. For that, he'll earn a vote or two in the Defensive Player of the Year race, even as a rookie.

    Luol Deng, Chicago Bulls

    Deng has become a quick favorite of defensive-minded Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, as he led the team in minutes (38 per game) in the 2011-12 season. He played 79 percent of the Bulls' total team minutes at small forward, holding opposing 3's to a PER of only 11.3 (the league average is 15).

    Based on reports from training camp, Deng looks great despite not getting surgery on his injured wrist. At the Bulls' media day, however, Deng said the wrist will be an issue all year, according to ESPNChicago.com, which could very well hamper his defensive effectiveness.

    Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies

    Gasol finished eighth in the league in terms of defensive win shares (4.0) in 2011-12, according to Basketball Reference. He should only stand to improve this coming season with a healthy Zach Randolph back in the lineup.

    He received a handful of 2011-12 DPOY votes, and he likely won't improve enough defensively to rise much further in the 2012-13 DPOY race.

    Al Horford and Josh Smith, Atlanta Hawks

    With Joe Johnson gone, the Atlanta Hawks have officially turned the team over to Smith and Horford, who each stand a chance at nabbing a few DPOY votes in 2012-13.

    Smith finished 10th in DPOY voting in 2011-12, as he's one of only nine NBA players who finished with more than one block and one steal per game last season, according to Basketball Reference.

    Now he'll have a healthy Horford back in the lineup, which should save him from spending too much time at the 5 this season for Atlanta.

    Horford, meanwhile, should quickly remind the NBA community of his massive potential this coming season (after missing a solid chunk of 2011-12 with a pectoral injury).

    Assuming he can remain healthy, Horford should earn himself at least a handful of DPOY votes by the time the 2012-13 comes to a close.

    Rajon Rondo, Boston Celtics

    With Ray Allen now playing for the Miami Heat and Avery Bradley currently on the mend, the Celtics will rely on Rondo for leadership in the backcourt, especially on the defensive end.

    He held opposing point guards to a per-48 minute PER of 10.7 in 2011-12, according to 82games.com, but he didn't garner a single DPOY vote. He should earn a few votes this season, but he would need to stop gambling so much defensively to be considered a serious DPOY candidate.

10. Tony Allen, Memphis Grizzlies

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    You won't find many wing players on this list of Defensive Player of the Year candidates, but the Memphis Grizzlies' Tony Allen makes a deserved appearance.

    To put it simply, Allen is one of the top three or four wing defenders in the league. Per-48 minutes in 2011-12, Allen held opposing shooting guards to a PER of 14.1 and opposing small forwards to a PER of 11.4, according to 82games.com.

    Allen only played just over 26 minutes per game last season due to his offensive liabilities and the presence of O.J. Mayo on the bench, but Mayo now plays for the Dallas Mavericks.

    Unless Wayne Ellington or Josh Selby can seize the backup 2 spot and secure 20 minutes per game for themselves, Allen could be in line for a considerable boost in minutes this season.

    If Allen could improve his offensive prowess, he'd be an easy sell for 30 minutes per game. He averaged nearly two steals per game in 2011-12 and made life generally miserable for whichever opponent he was guarding.

    Allen finished sixth in DPOY voting in the 2011-12 season but will likely slip a few spots this coming season, unless he can average roughly one block and over two steals per game. He should make one of the NBA's All-Defensive teams as a consolation prize, at the very least.

9. Kevin Garnett, Boston Celtics

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    Since coming to the Boston Celtics in the summer of 2007, Kevin Garnett has served as the backbone of Boston's defense.

    Five years later, with the 36-year-old Garnett having just signed a three-year extension this summer, the Celtics will still be calling upon him in 2012-13 to anchor their defensive rotations and intimidate opponents.

    The Celtics slid Garnett over to the 5 in the middle of the 2011-12 season after Jermaine O'Neal went down with a season-ending injury in February.

    After moving Garnett to center, the previously 15-16 Celtics went 24-11 through the remainder of the season, advancing within one game of the NBA Finals before falling short against the Miami Heat in the Eastern conference finals.

    After averaging only 31.1 minutes per game during the 2011-12 regular season, Garnett jumped up to nearly 37 minutes per game in the playoffs, and his averages jumped accordingly. During the 2012 playoffs, Garnett averaged 19.2 points, 10.3 rebounds, 1.5 blocks and 1.2 steals per game, reminding everyone that old age hasn't yet taken away his talents.

    Like last season, the thing that will keep K.G. from winning Defensive Player of the Year in 2012-13 is the likely minutes restriction Celtics coach Doc Rivers will place on him.

    The Celtics replenished their big-man rotation in the draft and free agency this summer by adding Jared Sullinger, Fab Melo and Darko Milicic (yeah, yeah), which should help keep Garnett down around 30-32 minutes per game in the regular season.

    If, for whatever reason, Garnett starts averaging around 35-37 minutes per game, he'll deserve to shoot up this list as a much more realistic candidate for 2013 DPOY.

8. Bismack Biyombo, Charlotte Bobcats

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    The Charlotte Bobcats' Bismack Biyombo could very well be this year's version of Serge Ibaka from the 2011-12 season: A young, springy forward whose shot-blocking ability gains him an undeserved amount of Defensive Player of the Year hype.

    That's not to say that Ibaka or Biyombo are necessarily bad defenders. Ibaka steamrolled the league in terms of blocks per game in 2011-12 with 3.65 (in only 27.2 minutes per game!), while his closest competitor, JaVale McGee, finished with 2.16 BPG.

    Biyombo, in only 23.1 minutes per game as a rookie last season, averaged 1.8 BPG. As ESPN.com's John Hollinger noted in his preseason analysis of Biyombo, he's great at causing problems for right-handed shooters by blocking shots with his left hand. He wasn't too shabby on the pick-and-roll as a rookie either.

    Offensively, Biyombo didn't show much last season, and his rebounding numbers (5.8 per game) certainly could stand to improve too. If Biyombo can't take a step forward offensively, the Bobcats won't be likely to give him more than 30 minutes per game, which could greatly stunt his chances at DPOY.

    Still, if Biyombo averages over two blocks per game in 2012-13 and continues to improve his pick-and-roll and low-post defense, his DPOY candidacy could become difficult to ignore. 

7. Andre Iguodala, Denver Nuggets

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    Remember how I said Tony Allen was one of the best wing defenders? Depending on what you now classify LeBron James as, Andre Iguodala could very well deserve the title of best backcourt defender in the entire NBA.

    In 2011-12 with the Philadelphia 76ers, Iguodala held opposing small forwards to a ridiculous per -48 minute PER of 8.7, according to 82games.com. He also finished sixth in the NBA in defensive win shares with 4.2, according to Basketball Reference.  

    Iguodala's smothering defense was rewarded with the first All-Star appearance of his career, which he followed up with helping guide the Sixers into a Game 7 against the Boston Celtics in the second round of the Eastern conference playoffs.

    The Sixers fell short there, but Iguodala then flew to London to help Team USA win a gold medal in the 2012 Olympics.

    While over in London, the four-team Dwight Howard blockbuster trade went down, sending Iguodala to the Denver Nuggets and the Los Angeles Lakers' Andrew Bynum back to Philly.

    Now, in Denver, Iggy won't be asked to be the No. 1 option offensively—a role he was ill-suited to play while with the Sixers—as Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari should be shouldering the offensive load for the Nuggets.

    Instead, like JaVale McGee in the frontcourt, Iguodala will be asked to be the Nuggets' primary defender on the wing—also known as the designated LeBron James or Kevin Durant stopper.

    If Iggy can make the same impact on Denver's defense that he did for the Sixers, he'll be in the thick of the Defensive Player of the Year race in 2012-13 due to his new surroundings.

6. LeBron James, Miami Heat

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    LeBron James already starts the 2012-13 season as the reigning Most Valuable Player, reigning NBA champion and Finals MVP, and reigning Olympic gold medalist. He'll enter the year as MVP favorite for 2013 too.

    So, you'll have to excuse me for not anointing James as the presumptive Defensive Player of the Year favorite as well. Someone else has to win one of these awards every once in a while, right?

    That's not to say James won't be deserving of DPOY; quite the contrary. In 2011-12, he finished second to only Josh Smith in terms of defensive win shares with 4.5, while ending up fourth overall in DPOY voting.

    No other player in the league besides James can successfully guard every single position, but James' improvement in the post has given him the confidence to do just that.

    He averaged nearly two steals and a block per game for the Heat in 2011-12, and he could easily maintain those totals this season as the Heat seek to push the tempo against opponents.

    Unfortunately for James, DPOY tends to traditionally be an award for big men like Dwight Howard and Ben Wallace. The last time a wing player took home the DPOY was Ron Artest in the 2003-04 season.

    If the Heat decide to sic James on an opponents' leading scorer on a nightly basis and let him focus his energy there, he'd likely be a runaway DPOY. Instead, Miami will rely too much on James for his offensive output to have him draining himself defensively in that manner too.

5. Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls

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    Joakim Noah's placement may be the first big surprise on this list, as he finished 11th in Defensive Player of the Year voting in 2011-12, with only six total votes.

    But with Derrick Rose sidelined by a torn ACL indefinitely and only Nazr Mohammed to back him up, Noah should be in for a career year in 2012-13.

    Noah has averaged a double-double per game in two of the past three seasons (he fell 0.2 rebounds per game shy in 2011-12), but he hasn't ever scored more than 11.7 points per game over the course of a full season.

    The Bulls haven't ever played him more than 32.8 minutes per game (in 2010-11), but with Omer Asik now in Houston, Noah should get at least 32-34 minutes per game as long as he stays healthy.

    Knowing Rose will be out for the first few months should give Noah the frame of mind to step up both offensively and defensively to make up for Rose's absence.

    If Noah can anchor the Bulls defense and keep them relatively afloat in the Eastern conference playoff race while Rose continues to rehabilitate, he's going to be a serious DPOY candidate in 2012-13. 

4. Andrew Bogut, Golden State Warriors

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    Scoff at the thought of a Golden State Warrior winning Defensive Player of the Year at your own peril, because Andrew Bogut could be exactly what the Warriors have been missing the past few seasons if he can stay healthy.

    That's a big if. He's only played 82 games once in his seven-year career.

    Bogut dislocated his right elbow and broke his right hand in April 2010 on a gruesome dunk against Amar'e Stoudemire and struggled with injuries ever since. In 2011-12, he broke his ankle in late January, then was traded to the Warriors in March.

    In that 2010-11 season, though, all Bogut did was lead the NBA with 2.6 blocks per game and hold opposing centers to a PER of 13.9, according to 82games.com.  He finished sixth in DPOY voting that year despite missing 17 games.

    If Bogut can play 70 or more games this season, he'll be the defensive centerpiece that the Warriors have been sorely lacking in recent years. His presence will allow David Lee to drift out to the perimeter, which should only boost Golden State's offensive performance too.

    As long as Bogut stays healthy, he'll be one of the favorites to win DPOY, especially if the Dubs can sneak into the Western conference playoffs as a No. 7 or 8 seed.

3. Serge Ibaka, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    I touched briefly upon Serge Ibaka when discussing Bismack Biyombo earlier, but let's quickly recap: Ibaka finished a close second behind Tyson Chandler in 2012 Defensive Player of the Year voting after leading the NBA with 3.65 blocks in only 27.2 minutes per game.

    Per-36 minutes, Ibaka blocked nearly five shots per game for the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2011-12 season. He's already one of the best shot-blockers in the league, and he's only played three seasons in the NBA.

    The defensive picture isn't all rosy for Ibaka, however. He could use some work in terms of defensive rotations. He's also not the world's best defender when opponents stretch the defense and make him guard a mid-range jump shot.

    If the Thunder ran into the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals, Kevin Garnett would have a field day with that aspect of Ibaka's game. (Spencer Hawes nods silently.)

    Look, if Ibaka keeps averaging nearly five blocks per 36 minutes and the Thunder bump his playing time up a few minutes per game, he's going to finish in the top three of DPOY voting once again.

    It's a matter of how much he improves the other aspects of his defensive game that will ultimately determine just how far he can climb in this year's DPOY race.

2. Tyson Chandler, New York Knicks

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    Tyson Chandler enters the 2012-13 season as the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, but a repeat performance will be a tall task.

    He single-handedly keyed a defensive culture change with the New York Knicks after being traded there in the summer of 2011, leading the Knicks defense to rank fifth in defensive efficiency in the 2011-12 season.

    His per-game averages of 11.3 points, 9.9 rebounds and 1.4 blocks don't do justice to the job Chandler did as the Knicks' man in the middle. The fact he only allowed opposing centers to manage a per-48 minute PER of 12.6, according to 82games.com, does.

    This coming season, the DPOY voters won't be caught off-guard by a defensively efficient Knicks team, which means higher expectations for Chandler and the rest of his teammates.

    Unless Chandler can boost his per-game averages to somewhere around 10-12 boards and two blocks per game while leading the Knicks to a 50-plus win season, he's going to fall short of this next player.

1. Dwight Howard, Los Angeles Lakers

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    Is it a cop-out to predict that a three-time Defensive Player of the Year is the favorite to win his fourth DPOY award in five years? Even if he's five months removed from back surgery?

    From all reports out of training camp, Dwight Howard looks healthy and happy, having finally resolved the year-long Dwightmare by being traded to the Los Angeles Lakers over the summer.

    Now, instead of Jameer Nelson, Hedo Turkoglu and J.J. Redick, Howard gets Steve Nash, Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant as teammates. His days of needing to score 20-25 points a game to give his team any chance of winning have come to an end, if he so desires.

    With the Lakers' former starting center, Andrew Bynum, now playing for the Philadelphia 76ers, the Lakers will count upon Howard to immediately set the defensive tone that he's become known for over the past few NBA seasons.

    During the 2010-11 season, where Howard won his third and most recent DPOY award, he held opposing centers to a PER of 11.8 per-48 minutes, according to 82games.com. If Howard can control the paint like that for the Lakers, it'll allow Gasol to cause mismatch nightmares for opponents on both ends of the court.

    Assuming Howard truly is healthy and doesn't suffer any setbacks between now and the end of the season, he's going to be the DPOY favorite in 2012-13 unless the Lakers suffer a catastrophic meltdown.  

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