Outside of the honor for Most Valuable Player, the award for Defensive Player of the Year in the most significant trophy the NBA bestows on its players. This article is an attempt to portray my thought process in deciding on one player who represents the best defensive qualities in the NBA. Particular categories used are not of a traditional defensive fare but, in my opinion, play a crucial role in determining the overall defensive prowess and ability of a player and how it affects the overall defense of the player’s team. Hopefully it has been laid out in a reasonably understandable, albeit rather lengthy, fashion with the eventual pick of who is the best defensive player in the Association being clear.
Crunching the numbers is never easy, especially when research begins to go down a path that takes a turn dangerously close to Hollinger Highway. However, numbers are key (as they are in most sports when performance is evaluated) when it comes to determining the recipient of the NBA’s most challenging and hard to decide award. The Defensive Player of the Year Award is the most deserving honor of extensive research and should not be blindly handed out after looking at two categories alone. Much more thought and input must to go into the decision. Picking a popular player who has a marketable face value due to various endorsements and commercial appeal seems great, but it is not what this honor stands for. This award deserves to go to the most tenacious defensive player who hustles on every possession, makes the plays that elevate their team thereby making them better, and gives their teams a chance to win with lockdown determination while defending the opponent’s best player. Grit defines players; it helps them impose their will on games and helps them establish a reputation as superb defenders. It is these factors that have been evaluated and looked over again and again to determine The Kobe Beef’s choice for Defensive Player of the Year.
Player names that instantly come to mind when defense is mentioned are Ron Artest, Ben Wallace, Dwight Howard, Lebron James, Bruce Bowen, Kobe Bryant, Dennis Rodman, Michael Jordan, David Robinson, Tim Duncan, Alonzo Mourning, Hakeem “the Dream” Olajuwon, Dikembe Mutombo, Kevin Garnett, and Marcus Camby. Each of these players has exemplified defensive prowess but only eight of them still play in the league and out of that group only half have maintained a competitive level of play on the defensive end of the hard court. Our affinity here at The Kobe Beef for the Tru Warier is especially biased (this is this writer’s opinion and not that of the other founder of the Beef) and based on this bias, the award should be named in his honor and awarded to him forever, even posthumously if Artest ever dies (NBA and QB gods forbid!). Unfortunately, his numbers with the Lakers this season do not warrant his inclusion in the top five players that will be discussed in choosing defensive player of the year. Sorry, Ron Ron. I wish it did not have to be this way but it is just the way it is this year. Is the Lakers’ team defense substantially better than it was last season because of the inclusion of the Tru Warier this year? Yes, but his numbers unfortunately do not support inclusion.
Who is in consideration then? Players were narrowed down by looking at the top twelve performers in each defensive statistic category and other notables from the field who have proven themselves quality defenders over their careers. The categories that were used to glean information are as follows: A player’s total defensive rebounds to date (DREB TOT), defensive rebounds per game (DREB/GM), defensive rebound percentage (DREB %), total steals to date (STL TOT), steals per game (STL/GM), steal percentage (STL %), total blocks to date (BLK TOT), blocks per game (BLK/GM), block percentage (BLK %), defensive rating (DR), defensive win shares (DWS), total turnovers to date (TO TOT), turnovers per game (TO/GM), and turnover percentage (TO %). Many of these categories seem straight forward because they deal with a player’s performance strictly on the defensive end of the floor, so you may wonder why we included turnovers as a statistic to consider when it is mostly associated with offense. Turnovers directly correlate to defense and therefore should be considered. If a player is turning the ball over at a high rate then he is giving the opposing team more opportunities to score, thereby hurting the overall defensive performance of himself and of his team. It would be completely unheard of for a player to intentionally turn the ball over just so he could get it back to boost his defensive numbers. This does not happen. Turnovers hurt defenders and for this reason they must be considered when defensive numbers are looked at.
Most of the categories used are straight forward and are familiar to everyone who has ever read a box score or played fantasy basketball. Others, however, are more complex and require some explanation. Here is a list of definitions so that they may be better understood (all definitions taken from basketball-reference.com):
- Defensive Rebound Percentage: An estimate of the percentage of available defensive rebounds a player grabbed while he was on the floor.
- Steal Percentage: An estimate of the percentage of opponent possessions that end with a steal by the player while he was on the floor.
- Block Percentage: An estimate of the percentage of opponent two-point field goal attempts blocked by the player while he was on the floor.
- Defensive Rating: An estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions.
- Defensive Win Shares: An estimate of the number of wins contributed by a player due to his defense.
- Turnover Percentage: An estimate of turnovers per 100 plays.
These statistics may not appear in ordinary box scores but they have been a part of the league for some time and are becoming more and more accepted as teams search for more complex ways to measure a player’s on court performance. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has invested in a numbers think-tank and Houston Rockets general manager, Daryl Morey, will not publicly discuss or release the statistics that the team reviews and collects concerning player performance. The fourteen categories used to determine the NBA’s best defender in this article are but a mere fraction of what is out there. Think about crunch time numbers, or a steal or block on a key possession, or how often does a block result in the blocking team receiving the ball as opposed to it going back in the hands of the other team. It is regretful that these specific statistics will not be used here but they will be generally noted.
Getting past all of the statistical pomp and circumstance; out of all the players that appeared in each category, only six have initially chosen for consideration. These players are Andrew Bogut of the Milwaukee Bucks, Marcus Camby of the Los Angeles Clippers and Portland Trailblazers, Dwight Howard of the Orlando Magic, Lebron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Josh Smith of the Atlanta Hawks, and Gerald Wallace of the Charlotte Bobcats. Sorry, Thabo Sefolosha, love the way you play D but the numbers and minutes are not there just yet.
Numbers used in this article will change before the year’s end, especially a player’s totals, but averages should not dramatically change. All statistics used in this article are based on number totals as of 25 March 2010. These numbers do not reflect Marcus Camby’s statistics during the Blazers’ victory against the Mavericks as they were taken into consideration before the game began. Camby’s numbers are also the mean average taken from his totals on both the Clippers and Blazers.
How does each of these players stack up against one another? Player positions will be assessed as well as traditional statistics eventually leading into more advanced statistics. Bogut, the Cambyman, and Howard are all centers while King James, J-Smoove, and Wallace are perimeter swing players. It is easy to assume that the centers, because of their position duties, would completely dominate the defensive board numbers of all players but Gerald Wallace creeps into the board conversation totaling 558 and averaging 8.5 a game. His average is second only to Howard’s impressive 9.8. Smith and James pull down an above average number of boards for swingmen but cannot be part of the conversation when it comes to what Wallace is doing this season. When looking at defensive rebound percentage, Smith’s and Wallace’s stick out dramatically over other more traditional swingmen. Both pull down better than twenty percent of their teams total defensive boards and they do it from wing positions. Both Smith and Wallace play untraditional wing positions, however, they generally glide between the three and four spots with Smith also playing the five at times. Dwight Howard, of course, dominates this statistic pulling down 31.1 percent of the Magic’s defensive rebounds while he is on the court. Camby’s average is not far behind.
Centers should naturally lead in all the block statistics, too. Dwight Howard leads the way with 197 totaled so far this season at a clip of 2.7 blocks per game. Josh Smith, however, ranks third in most blocks among the six candidates. For a swing player to have such grand numbers here is rather unusual. We are all used to seeing highlights of Lebron streaking down the court and swatting any (we are led to believe every) fast break layup but he is only averaging 1.1 blocks per game. Josh Smith averages 2.1 blocks per game which is only one tenth behind Camby’s average this season and Camby has been a leading shot blocker in the NBA for quite some time. Camby’s block percentage on the season is 5.55 percent, placing him third overall on the list of six. One might think that Dwight Howard would lead in this statistic but no, Andrew Bogut dominates here. He averages a block on an opponent’s field goal attempt 6.1 percent of the time.
It is also expected that the tree swingmen should get more steals than centers with clumsy hands. They do. All are relatively even paced in this category with Smith leading the way having totaled 120 to this point in the season. LeBron and Wallace are not far off this total and they all average about the same amount of swipes per game. The only one of the centers that comes close to the numbers of the swingmen is Marcus Camby. So far this season, Camby has totaled 87 steals with an average of 1.4 per game. These are very impressive numbers for a center to put up in this category. His steal percentage of 2.35 percent is actually higher than both that of Lebron James and Gerald Wallace who come in with 2.2 percent and 2.1 percent respectively. Impressive indeed.
If this award was to be given out on the basis of defensive rating alone, Dwight Howard would win with a rating of 95 and Andrew Bogut would come in second with a rating of 98. Awards, thankfully, are not given out based on a single statistical category alone. The whole picture must be observed. Howard’s numbers are impressive but he is a detriment to the defense of the Orlando Magic. Because of Dwight Howard, the Magic must play more defensive possessions per game due to his turnovers. For a player that is not the focal point of the offense, Howard coughs up the ball over 19 times during the course of 100 plays. Lebron James, who is very much the focal point of the Cavaliers offense, only turns it over just over 12 times during 100 possessions. Putting a team in defensive jeopardy is not a quality that reigning Defensive Player’s of the Year should have, nor should they be awarded for such things. Dwight Howard is a good defender in the post. His ability to alter and block shots is uncanny, but he is a liability to his team because he gives opposing teams more offensive opportunities rather than preventing them. He is not going to make up for this by getting steals as he averages just one per game. Even when he blocks a shot the opposing team is likely to get the ball right back because he thinks that swatting the ball into the crowd helps his team. It does not. Blocking a shot and gaining possession of the ball helps the team, giving the opposing offense another opportunity to score is not good defense. For these reasons, Dwight Howard is dethroned from his paper pulpit.
Who, then, shall it be? James’ turnover rate is also high, as with Howard, giving the ball back to the opposing offense is not good for defense, so unfortunately he will not be the king of this award but I have no doubt that he will not go home empty handed after all the awards are handed out. James is also more of an offensive threat with much of his defense coming on the fast break rather than in a half court set. Marcus Camby also has a high propensity to turn the ball over when in his possession despite having low overall turnovers and turnovers per game and his defensive win shares is the lowest of the six players. Bogut holds good numbers across the boards, outstanding block percentage, good defensive rating, low turnovers but he only defends one position. He, like the other centers (except maybe the Cambyman) cannot step out and guard the wing. This makes his defensive ability one dimensional. This leaves Josh Smith and Gerald Wallace.
The defensive numbers that these two players put up and their versatility to guard a variety of possessions on the floor are the reason that these two players are the two that should be seriously considered for defensive player of the year. Both match up fairly evenly across the categories under consideration with Wallace out rebounding Smith and Smith blocking more shots than Wallace. It would be a thing of beauty to have co-winners but it just is not in the cards this season. Like the Highlander, there can be only one.
What is the deciding factor is defensive rating and defensive win shares. Gerald Wallace’s defense has meant more to his team this season than it ever has. His play on the defensive end of the floor has elevated the Bobcats from a joke in the east to a playoff contender. Wallace’s defense is estimated to have contributed to just over five games this season but it has more than likely led to more than just that. They say that defense wins games and championships and his statistics have led the Bobcats to the most wins in franchise history. It is for these reasons that Gerald Wallace is the Defensive Player of the Year.