DPOY award pits big apples vs. on-the-ball oranges

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: The Starters discuss the leading candidates for the Defensive Player of the Year

Quick, pick your winners: Range Rover or Porsche 911? Golden retriever or Jack Russell terrier? Leonardo Da Vinci painting “Mona Lisa” or Nat King Cole singing “Mona Lisa?”

It’s an apples-and-oranges world when it comes to choosing “the best” this or that, certainly when the categories are so broad – vehicle, acting performance, piece of art – as to include wildly disparate entries.

And then there are those moments when the choice might as well be kumquats vs. lug nuts. That’s the case annually when voters stare at the three blank ballot slots for the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award.

It’s difficult enough ranking candidates by criteria that essentially requires you to prove a negative. Great individual defense is … holding an opposing star under his scoring average? Denying someone the ball? Racking up big steal totals? Blocking, contesting or even altering shots?

Defensive statistics, even in this advanced age, still trail the offensive numbers in what they can authoritatively tell us. Then there’s the whole element of team defense – it is a team sport – and a player’s contribution to that in helping, rotating, diving to the floor or otherwise claiming the so-called 50/50 balls.

And in none of the league’s major awards does it get stickier to sort out the issue of size: Big vs. small. Rim-protecter vs. perimeter defender.

“Those are mutually exclusive concepts,” San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said on a recent stop in Chicago. “When you think MVP, most people just look at the points , and that’s a valid entity, I guess. But with defensive players, the big guys, they usually just look at blocks.

“There are some guys who block shots but can’t play a lick of D, but get credit for blocking shots. When I look at the bigs, I look at somebody like Joakim [Noah] who can guard ones, twos, threes, fours and fives. He can switch onto people and people can’t go by him. I watched him guard LeBron [James] the other day and, my gosh, it was pretty impressive.”

Impressive enough that two days later, Houston coach Kevin McHale – who has three-time DPOY Dwight Howard at his disposal – went public with his choice of Noah for the award this season. (For the record, media folks vote for DPOY and NBA coaches select All-Defensive teams.)

And yet James, in his interview with NBA TV’s Steve Smith, admitted that the vacant space on his trophy shelf cleared for the DPOY bugs him.

The basketball world knows why Miami coach Erik Spoelstra refers to James as “1-through-5″ as a defender – he can guard everyone from point guard Chris Paul to center DeAndre Jordan, and did just that when facing the Clippers this season. But over the past five years, James has finished second twice, fourth twice and ninth.

Nearly a decade has passed since anyone other than a big man has won the award. Metta World Peace wasn’t calling himself that back in 2004 when he earned the trophy with Indiana. Gary Payton was well-established as “The Glove” when he broke up in 1996 Dikembe Mutombo‘s stranglehold of three DPOYs in four years (1995, 1997, 1998).

Kevin Garnett in 2008 was a special case. By the time he picked up his lone DPOY honor, Garnett was – if not strictly a rim defender – pretty much a paint protector. That was the role he embraced in his first year in Boston and it’s likely the award went his way because, short of the MVP (Kobe Bryant), there had to be some acknowledgement of his impact on the Celtics.

Big men have won 22 of the 31 DPOYs, led by Mutombo and Ben Wallace with four each. Howard had a three-year run in Orlando (2009-11). Mark Eaton, Alonzo Mourning and Hakeem Olajuwon won two each, while Marcus Camby, Tyson Chandler, David Robinson, Marc Gasol and Garnett each won once.

Naturally, some of the leading candidates for Defensive Player this season play center or power forward, including Noah, Jordan, Indiana’s Roy Hibbert, Oklahoma City’s Serge Ibaka and New Orleans’ Anthony Davis.

But it wasn’t always so. Seven of the first nine DPOYs went to guards or forwards. Average size: 6-foot-4, 190 pounds. Milwaukee’s Sidney Moncrief was downright spindly when he won the first two in 1983 and ’84. The Lakers’ stopper, Michael Cooper, was even skinnier (6-5, 170) as the 1987 recipient. And Dennis Rodman was undersized and frenetic when he won seven rebounding titles and the DPOY in 1990 and ’91.

Among the perimeter defenders deserving of DPOY consideration are Memphis’ Tony Allen, San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard, Indiana’s Paul George, Boston’s Avery Bradley and James.

But they’re swimming upstream in a league where specialists such as Bruce Bowen, Raja Bell, Shane Battier, Joe Dumars and Scottie Pippen never won the award. The DPOY probably was created too late to catch the likes of Bobby Jones, Dennis Johnson or Norm Van Lier and other worthy choices in their primes.

It’s almost tempting to suggest two separate awards – one for rim protection, one for the on-the-ball guys – until you hear Popovich boil down NBA defense:

“A defender to me is somebody who can defend the ball, can rebound and can react, weak side to strong side, whether he’s small or whether he’s big.”

Size matters, but not just in physique. Everyone in the Grizzlies’ locker room, for instance, knows of Allen’s heart and defensive hunger. And Memphis is one of those teams blessed with elite versions of both types of defender.

“I would have not won that award, probably, with any other team in the NBA,” Gasol said recently. “Without having TA, without Mike Conley on my team. Having the teammates I have and the system we have allowed me to defend the way I do. As soon as I won it, I told them, [it was] Tony’s hands, Mike’s legs and kind of like my brain, that’s the way I broke it down.”

The Memphis center finished with 30 first-place votes to James’ 18, a 212-149 points spread. Gasol benefited from some advanced analytics tracked by NBA media folks, but felt he was helped more by the familiarity on the Grizzlies’ roster and in former coach Lionel Hollins‘ system.

“We’ve been playing for so long together, I’m behind them so I know their tendencies defensively so I can help,” Gasol said of teammates. “This is not boxing, where it’s only one guy. If the team benefits and feels confident with you, that’s what matters. Some days TA is gonna be the guy who shuts somebody down. Sometimes it’s gonna be Mike Conley or me.”

Said Allen: “You get beat on the perimeter, Marc Gasol has it in his memory bank to know ‘I’m the last line of defense and all I have to do is either take a charge or jump up and not get the foul.’ He’s big, he’s long and he’s good at blocking shots. I’m pressuring the perimeter and digging at the same time.

“We just feed off each other defensively. We understand the court is only so big, and we play off each other.”

Given their druthers, most NBA coaches would start their defense with a towering master of verticality like Hibbert or, maybe better, a versatile, mobile big man like Noah.

“Your bigs organize your defense,” said Jeff Van Gundy, ABC/ESPN coach-turned-analyst. “They’re asked to make multiple efforts, because so much of this game now is pick-and-roll defense, not post defense. So you need a guy who is intelligent enough to recognize situations, athletic enough to defend them and has the energy to make multiple efforts. That’s why today you need a big guy who can be the captain of your defense.

“But you also need the guys who can keep the ball in front of them…”

Which puts us right back where we started, trying to rank Marlon Brando‘s Don Corleone vs. Meryl Streep‘s Sophie. Now that’s a real Sophie’s choice.

41 Comments

  1. patrickmarc says:

    Yoakim, not far from Mutombo, but not so funny,
    Manute Bol was extra!
    It’s tough to say, because they are small defenders,
    they make things so fast!
    Of course the man who realise 10 blocks in the game is my man.

  2. bodjee says:

    I think we should add steals to the stats for the DPOY!

  3. Rangers says:

    The def rtg, def ws, blockspg,stealpg, team def rtg, and who they guard should all be taken into consideration.

    Also, big men score at a lower rate in today’s game because there are simply less dominant big men. Their def rtg is inflated.

    People putting lebron in the conversation proves they have 1) no idea of defense and 2) are extremely biased. He is not top30 defenders let alone top 5 lmao

    1)Noah (guards multiple positions, great def rtg, def impact, def win share, and 2nd overall best def team)
    2)Paul George (94 def rtg is insane for a SF)
    3)Anthony Davis (highest overall impact def rtg)
    4) Hibbert(best rim protect %, but def rtg inflated)

  4. ivysaur23 says:

    the deserving players to win it is;

    1.JOakim Noah..he’s chicago’s anchor on defense..
    2. Roy Hibbert..same as noah..making PG look good on defense
    3. Serge Ibaka…same as the two above..making KD also look good on defense
    4.D12…making the whole Rockets team look good on defense
    5.Tony Allen…making Gasol the DPOY last year
    6. last but not the least..Lebron..without a rim protector..

  5. Brad says:

    Guarding 1 to 5 and guarding 1 to 5 EFFECTIVELY are different. Every NBA player can guard every position but not everyone can do it effectively. So I take Noah over Le Bron.

  6. theCHI2014 says:

    Take a look at every single advanced defensive statistic for Durant and Lebron. Durant ranks higher in nearly every category. Think twice before you crown Lebron as some elite defender. My picks for DPOY include 1. Noah 2. Durant 3. Paul George 4. Serge Ibaka 5. Deandre Jordan

    • Harris says:

      People crown Lebron as an elite defender based on what he has done in the past, not what he is doing this year.
      Lebron was 2nd or 3rd in defensive win share for 4 consecutive years from 2009~2012.

      Durant is better defensively than Lebron this year but is nowhere close to being 2nd.
      Lebron shouldn’t be in top 5 at all unless DPOY is a ‘lifetime achievement’ award. I think he should have won DPOY instead of either Chandler or Gasol. But this year, his defense has regressed significantly. Lebron is still a versatile defender but is not as good as he was before.

  7. okc2014 says:

    Noah deserves it. Hands down. And Serge Ibaka 2nd place.

  8. iamironman says:

    No mention of MJ?

  9. RealMacarooni says:

    My vote is in on Noah, but I Kawhi Leonard deserves a shoutout on for his defense. He’s the only individual player that can make LeBron struggle offensively, and I think that’s saying a LOT since many people regard LeBron as the the new MJ.

  10. Drae Oates says:

    No love for my man Anthony davis

  11. 90percentftm says:

    Yeah LeBron can guard CP3 and DJ….

    I’m pretty sure Blake Griffin had a game high 43. Why not stop their number one scorer?

    • LearntheGame1st says:

      Because it still resulted in a Lost. Why wear down your best player guarding a monster like BG especially when it results in a lost.

  12. JM says:

    Joakim Noah should be 2014 DPOY. He can defend in the perimeter as well as clog the lane and grab the ever important defensive rebounds. He isn’t just a big apple but an on-the-ball orange too.

  13. Franck says:

    As long as awards are not given out as a lifetime achievement award.
    Lebron is a beast as a defender. He argueably should have won the past two DPOY awards. no offesne to chanlder (WHO DID NOT DESERVE IT or Gasol who also probably didnt deserve it either.

    This year I would probably have to give it to Roy Hibbert, he really changes the game on the defensive end.

  14. lol says:

    just a question, does anyone take these guys serious? As good as D12, Hibbert and Noah are; the real defensive player of the year is Lebron James… he should’ve won it last year but this season again; he is just so good at defending all the 5 positions. He can defend a Center to a PG. No1’s aint got **** on Lebron.

  15. ImJusSayin says:

    Gotta disagree with the outlook of this article. Everyone loves when the little engine that could pulls the load with all his heart but the facts are the big train could easily make more difference. The Bigs can and do affect the whole teams defensive presence something an on the ball defender is incapable of doing no matter how much heart he has. The league may have tried to eliminate the true big men with its rules in the paint and brought guards to the front with allowing dribbling that should be called carrying on every play but they are still the cornerstone of defense in the league and now you want to hand that to the little men too.

    • ImJusSayin says:

      BTW I think many coaches have earned that award over they players that received them if you want to be truly fair.

      • LearntheGame1st says:

        That last part was dead on but the first was way off. Length on the perimeter can sometimes be an even bigger issue than a rim protector. When you have dogs out there that hound the ball it keeps teams from initiating their offense. If you can’t start your O then getting to the rim is not even in play so if you have GREAT first line defenders like the Heat has had the past 3 years you bigs can be damn near bum. Think about it Mike won with Longley, Bill Wed, Bill Cart, Scott Williams, etc.. all because their perimeter d was ron harper(6’6) MJ (6’6) Scottie (6’7) all 3 of them had over 7′ wingspans. My point is they never need a Great defensive big because they wings were dumb long and athletic. TA is just as valuable as Marc Gasol. But James never had a top flight defender in his prime (shane Battier way out of is prime) share that load. Like MJ had scottie and Dennis. Like Kobe had 2- 7 footers and MWP and phil. Lets give LBJ Phil Jack and all the help and see where this convo would go. He trying to 3 peat on Wade’s bad knees, Oden’s bad knees. a PF playing Center, And Spo as a coach. I would say he’s done more heavy lifting than anyone else Not named Michael Jordan.

  16. Jay says:

    Seeing how this is the first in depth article on this subject in many many years, I can see that the push from the media fanboys of Lebron has begun. We get it. You guys love Lebron. But he’s not the best defender in the league, not even the best perimeter defender. While James pads stats, you wanna pad his resume so you can hoist your king to the heavens. It’s funny to watch.

  17. emoney says:

    well since LBJ didn’t win defensive player of the year the past two years the NBA should be fined 100,000 flat out !!! If LBJ doesn’t win MVP this year he should win defensive player of the year

  18. Mike says:

    This year, I think you need to go with Noah. He’s taken his game to a whole new level, and watching him defend some of the quickest players out of the pick and roll is awesome.

    That said, last year it clearly should have been Lebron. He’s a great defender, but I couldn’t take him over Noah or Anthony Davis this year.

    But what it really comes down to is that the media votes for DPOY while coaches vote for first team all defense. Let the coaches vote and it’ll be much more accurate.

  19. Kristian says:

    No Jimmy Butler?

    • Say, whaat?! says:

      No mention of Jimmy Butler..?
      Not saying he is the dpoy, but definitely deserves some mention in this conversation..

      To me, it should be a 2 horse race between Noah and Leonard for DPOY.

  20. ScubaSteve says:

    I think Paul George is as good a defender as LeBron. That said, I think Noah should get it this year. Yeah he’s a big man and perimeter defenders are overlooked but he’s not just blocks, he’s great on the ball. If you watch him you see how few mistakes he makes and how often he affects the other teams possessions. A lot of the things he does won’t ever show up in the stats.

    • psamcool says:

      In your wildest dreams, he is. Paul George is a decent defender but not even close to James. Hibbert just makes him look good! If James had Hibbert protecting rim, he would like Tony Allen. I am a huge James fan but the way Tony Allen locked down Durant was just impressive!! He needs to win at least once!

    • psamcool says:

      Paul George is as good as James – ROFL! Now way he is even close. Hibbert just makes him look good!

  21. LearntheGame1st says:

    This award is the most bogus every these days. LBJ honestly should have won it the last two years. I honestly don’t understand how the last two guys to win this award (Gasol and Chandler) wasn’t even first team defense. That’s crazy!!! LBJ had more 1st place votes the last two years than anybody. And this year Noah does defend like LBJ did last year. He actual guards the CP3’s and Durants and Melo’s nightly. Noah guards them for a possession or two or switches on pick and roll. But he still guarding Centers. LBJ was actually guarding D rose for a full series and guarding durant and guarding paul george and guarding paul pierce. Noah is a beast no doubt but if you leave him out there to guard CP3 or Melo or Durant he would give up 40 nightly. he can’t guard smalls for a full game. LBJ can guard bigs for a full game which lets us know how weak Noah’s position is. LBJ would never be able to guard a Barkley or Malone or Duncan in those days and Noah can’t guard guards these days. so tough call but LBJ definitely snubbed the last 2 years.

  22. ?????? says:

    lebron is a skilled and capable defender, and probably should have won it at least one of the past two years. but this year, his heart just hasn’t been in it. he has spurts of playing good defense, and when he is locked in to the game, he is a top of the league defender. but this year i’m having trouble justifying him even getting on the all defensinve teams, because knowing he is capable is not enough. he needs to perform to get rewarded, and in terms of forwards, i would put paul george, iguodala, leonard, ibaka, and davis ahead of him.

    • psamcool says:

      Your comment was awesome untill the last statement where you put those others ahead of james. I would probably put only Tony Allen and Ibaka before him.

  23. Leo says:

    Joakim Noah should win that hands down he stays infront of anyone and he is a beast in owning the pain protecting the rim.

  24. John says:

    I find it amazing that Anthony Davis is so overlooked for this. If you look at his defensive stats they are better than Howard’s and he is an amazing defender.

    On another note I believe perimeter defenders are overlooked because it is so much easier to score at the basket without someone in your way where as a perimeter shot has a higher chance to miss making it easier to disrupt.

  25. Suriken says:

    And again not a word about Pat Beverly. And again Lebron is a premium defender. Media people should better start watching games and play basketball at times too. And may be a short nba players poll could be helpful at times.
    Defensive five: Beverly, Sefolosha, Leonard, Ibaka, Noah. DPOY – Beverly (his grit, heart and skills r just incompatible to anyone’s defensive efficiency).

    • LearntheGame1st says:

      You must be joking about Beverly being DPOY. You mean the guy that talked trash to WestBrook and got torched. He score 2 points to Russ’s 25. All is his mug. His problem is he is getting a rep as a dirty player and honestly how great do you have to be with The big Green Mile behind you. You can press up on the 3’s and dwight will cover. DPOY is actually NOAH only bc his team is not good and they are winning games on Defense ALONE! and he is the Catalyst. Defensively remove him and they are one of the worse teams in the league.

      • psamcool says:

        Since you are pointing the plusses. Noah also play in Tom Thibs team – who is a defensive mastermind, and you must be joking if you said Jimmy Butler, Kirk heinrick are bad defensive players. Bevery is great but not DPOY great. He can’t guard bigger guards. If we went just by grit, he would win the award hands down.

  26. q says:

    I don’t know if anyone knows but there is this one guy who defends EVERY teams best player night in and night out and plays EVERY position almost EVERY game, shouldn’t he be DPOY? just asking. LBJ.

    • psamcool says:

      Huge James fan but his defense has regressed this year to say the least and Dwyane Wade’s has forgotten defense totally! James was robbed of the award last year when he gave it his all!

  27. krishawn-MIA says:

    I really hate this award! Perimeter defenders get overlook faaar too often- DPOY screams two things 1. Big Man and 2. BLOCKS!!!! Its like every other defensive work goes out the door once a player leads the league in blocks

  28. Eaham says:

    This is such a tough award to hand out. Noah and Lebron are both defensive beasts, but Anthony Davis is a good defender too. I guess I will go with Noh too just because he is one tough son of a &*%&