HANG TIME, Texas — These are the dog days of summer. They get their name from Sirius, the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major (Large Dog), which long ago used to rise just before the sun at this time of year.
The Romans believed that during the dog days, the sea boiled, wine turned sour and dogs grew mad, causing diseases, fevers and hysterics among men.
Today we just see them as a reason to pop open another cold one and pop open our imaginations to look ahead and come up with the 2013-14 NBA award winners.
Today we’re celebrating the dog days by barking out my top candidates for Defensive Player of the Year. Send me yours.
Dwight Howard, Rockets — Assuming he’s healthy, assuming he’s happy, assuming he wants everyone to put the bad memory of last season with the Lakers in the rear view mirror, this is one race that should be no contest as Howard reestablishes himself in Houston to prove a point. With no pains in his back, shoulder and posterior (compliments of Kobe Bryant) to hold him back, the former three-time Defensive Player of the year takes control under the basket for the Rockets and lets the world know that he’s back. Yes, there is all the buzz and excitement about what Howard can do off the pick and roll with Jeremy Lin and James Harden at the offensive end. Yes, he’ll work with Hall of Fame tutor Hakeem Olajuwon to try to expand his post moves. Yes, he’ll get to see up close every day in practice from his coach how Kevin McHale carved out his place in the Hall of Fame with solid fundamentals. But if Howard just goes back to being the monster who used to roam the middle for the Magic, he’ll be worth every penny of his four-year, $88-million contract.
LeBron James, Heat — After four MVPs, back-to-back titles and a pair of Finals MVPs, what is there left for James to do to polish his legacy? Why not win MVP award No. 5 in the same year that he is named Defensive Player of the Year? It’s a feat accomplished previously only by Michael Jordan (1988) and Hakeem Olajuwon (1994) and shows that level of greatness that James has achieved. He’s big, he’s strong, he’s fast, he’s quick and you don’t want to see his shadow coming from behind when you’re at mid-court with the ball and trying to get to the basket to finish. There are those who say he takes too many possessions off. There are those who criticize by saying he only gets the toughest defensive assignments in the fourth quarter. The truth is they are only picking nits, because that’s pretty much all that’s left to do. His competition now is strictly with the history books and if James decides to set his mind to being the best in the league at this end of the court, he could pull off the MVP-DPOY double.
Serge Ibaka, Thunder — Three-time former winner of the award Dwight Howard said that it should have gone to Ibaka over Marc Gasol last season. His reasoning was that the guy who blocks the most shots is the best defender. Ibaka did set the pace with an average of 3.03 per game. The Thunder big man is clearly the best rejector in the league, at least and until Howard returns to form. In a league where quick, slashing guards are constantly trying to get to the hoop, rim protection is key for any would-be contender. But Ibaka really should improve on his help defense, rotations and overall court awareness in order to be considered the top defender in the league. For flash and the big block, Ibaka’s got everything but the Dikembe Mutombo finger-wave and that attracts the notice that will always have him among the top three on most ballots.
Tony Allen, Grizzlies — Teammate Marc Gasol received the votes, the notoriety and the award last season, but those closest to the Grizzlies and to inner workings of the game itself — i.e. head coaches — will tell you that it’s Allen who puts the real sharp edges and teeth into The Grind House. There is nobody in the league who relishes a 1-on-1 matchup more. He’s in your face, in your game, practically in your jersey, a nettle that becomes more painful and bothersome as the games get late. There is nobody who will throw himself into a defensive challenge more. If the Grizz are going to keep that defensive identity that was instilled in them by former coach Lionel Hollins, it’s probably going to be a result of Allen working the locker room, working the huddles and working his buns off on every defensive position. There is a reason that the league’s head coaches, who vote for the All-Defensive teams, gave Allen the highest number of first team votes, tying LeBron James.
Andre Iguodala, Warriors — If you were stitching together the ideal wing defender in a laboratory, the 6-foot-6 Iguodala with a 6-11 wingspan might be the product that would eventually climb down off the operating table. He gets plenty of credit for being one of — if not the best — on-ball defenders in the league with his size, speed and quickness. But that is also the end result of his excellent off-ball defense as he uses video study and his own sharp, calculating mind to deny players from getting the ball in positions where they want it in the first place. He understands angles, tendencies and rotations. Coach Mark Jackson has been preaching defense for two years with the Warriors and adding a ballhawk like Iguodala to a lineup that already includes Harrison Barnes and Klay Thompson is going to produce turnovers, steals, transition buckets and a Defensive Player of the Year profile that could rise as the Warriors continue to improve.