The blocked shot.
The swat of the basketball off the gargantuan hand of an immovable object standing 6-foot-10 or -11 — or even towering over 7 feet — is the most spectacular defensive play in the game, and easily the most appreciable.
We can see a blocked shot. We can hear it by the oohs and ahhs from the crowd. We know the result. We can measure its impact in fastbreaks. We can tabulate it. So it’s easy to want to judge the league’s best defensive player by how many swats he has. If he’s blocking a lot of shots, he must be a tremendous defender.
But there’s much more to defense than blocking shots, which is why Oklahoma City’s Serge Ibaka, an improving all-around player to be sure, won’t win the Defensive Player of the Year award despite being well on his way to leading the league in blocks for a second consecutive season.
Ibaka finished second in DPOY voting last season, largely on the strength of his impressive shot-blocking, behind Knicks center Tyson Chandler, who ended Dwight Howard’s three-year reign while finishing tied for 17th in blocked shots.
There will again be a new defensive champion this season, and the pick here is Marc Gasol, the burly, 7-foot-1 center and anchor of the Memphis Grizzlies, who have the stingiest defense in the NBA.
Gasol’s closest competition for the award may come from within his division from the apparently ageless Tim Duncan. The San Antonio Spurs’ All-Star once more has been a rock. If you want to talk blocked shots, Duncan is swatting 2.7 per game, his highest mark in a decade. He’s also on the cusp of averaging double-digit rebounds (he’s at 9.9 a game) for the first time since the 2009-10 season, a feat he accomplished in each of his first 13 seasons.
The Chicago Bulls’ energetic Joakim Noah and the runaway MVP candidate LeBron James are also in the blue-collar defensive mix. James, who plays everywhere on the floor from point guard to power forward, has become the one non-center (or center-like player) candidate to make an annual run at a traditionally big man’s award.
The 265-pound Gasol ranks 12th in blocks per game (1.74) and is tied for 10th in total blocks with 136 (entering Monday’s games), one fewer than Charlotte’s Bismack Biyombo. So be it.
What a blocked shot total doesn’t reveal is the number of shots a properly positioned defender alters or prevents altogether. Gasol, hardly the quickest or most athletic center in the game, might be the most intuitive, and his ability to read, react, recover and make the right play is second to none.
Gasol’s 7.8 rebounds per game are bit on the low side considering he averages 35.2 minutes a game. But teammate Zach Randolph (11.2 rpg) cleans up a lot of the boards on plenty of shots Gasol goads into clanking off the rim or backboard.
“He anchors the defense, he talks in the back, he recognizes what’s going on that the other team is doing to us,” Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said. “He’s also pretty decent in pick-and-roll, going to help, and knowing when to double, when to stay home. He just has good basketball instincts and that carries over offensively and defensively as well. Probably a lot of guys are deserving, probably guys that are quicker than him, more athletic than him, but what he does for us, it works.”
His defensive rating is an excellent 95.5. Since the All-Star break it’s been significantly lower at 92.2, a stretch that the Grizzlies have gone 21-8.
The Grizzlies allow just 89.4 points a game, the lone team to limit opposing offenses to less than 90, a mark they’ve upheld despite roster upheaval caused by the Rudy Gay trade. Memphis ranks third in overall field-goal percentage defense (43.7), second in 3-point field-goal percentage defense (33.7), fourth in allowing fewest assists, fourth in creating turnovers and sixth in allowing the fewest free-throw attempts per game.
Memphis’ excellent team defense begins with rigorous perimeter defenders Mike Conley and Tony Allen. But it’s the burly Gasol — the anchor, the quarterback or what have you — that keeps the entire thing on a string.
The other candidates:
Tim Duncan — He’s had a remarkable 16th NBA season and, interestingly, the oldest player on the Spurs appears to be the healthiest as San Antonio heads into the postseason with plenty of uncertainty. Duncan has been key in the Spurs’ improved overall team defense, which ranks in the top 10 in points allowed, field-goal percentage defense and 3-point field-goal percentage defense.
LeBron James — What’s a smallish perimeter player to do when he’s got the ball and a the 6-foot-9, 250-pound James attacks on a double-team? James is almost inarguably the greatest two-way player in the game. He can guard any position with relentless aggression and when he traps up top, his size and quickness are daunting.
Joakim Noah — It’s a shame he’s played in only 64 of the Bulls’ 80 games — the same number he played during last season’s 66-game schedule — because he’s that good and mostly because he makes watching defense incredibly fun. As they say, his motor never stops. He’s lunging, jumping, leaping or diving somewhere at all times to grab the basketball. His rebounding is at a career-best 11.4 a game, up nearly two from last season.