This is the fifth installment of our 2011 NBA Awards coverage. You can also read about the MVP, Rookie of the Year, Most Improved Player and Coach of the Year awards. The Sixth Man award breakdown will be posted on Thursday.
Because many young players have a love affair with scoring, they can develop poor defensive habits early on. Often, those habits become uncorrectable. Gone are the days of true team enforcers like the Pistons “Bad Boys” contingent or the Bill Russell Celtic heydays. There are, however, still a few superb defenders around today -– guys that have an indelible impact on the game, even when they're not scoring. That's the beauty of playing “D.” Even when the shot isn’t falling and rhythm is lost, the defense is always there. Nobody in the league today better exhibits this than Dwight Howard, my pick for Defensive Player of the Year -- his third in a row.
1). Dwight Howard (Orlando) – Howard has become one of the most dominant defensive centers in the history of basketball. The ultimate interior enforcer, Howard creates problems for the offense by using his quick feet, leaping ability, length and -- perhaps the most underrated element of any great shot blocker -- timing. Howard is a freak athlete, but what separates him from other shot blockers is his ability to read when shots are going up and know exactly when to time his jump.
The importance of Howard to Orlando’s defense cannot be overstated. Unlike most elite defensive teams, the Magic do not have any great perimeter defenders. Considering their best wing defender is probably J.J. Redick –- yes, that’s correct -– it's understandable just how special a presence Howard is. While Redick has greatly improved his defensive tools since his Duke days, he is still at best an above-average defender. And despite perennially terrible defenders like Hedo Turkoglu, Jameer Nelson, Ryan Anderson, Gilbert Arenas and Jason Richardson roaming around, Orlando remains third in the NBA’s defensive efficiency ratings.
Typical defensive possessions for Orlando go something like this: Turk, Arenas or J-Rich get beat on the drive, Howard rotates over and a) forces a bad shot, b) blocks a shot or c) forces the extra pass, which is then followed by a combination of late defensive rotation and Howard somehow getting to the other side of the lane and either blocking or altering the shot. The 25-year-old is averaging 2.4 blocks per game, good enough for fourth in the league.
But it’s never just the blocks with Howard -- it’s the fear factor. He prevents drivers from entering the lane and alters countless more shots during the course of a game. The result: When teams can't drive, they can't properly execute offensive sets. That translates to errant jumpers and fast-break opportunities for the Magic.
According to NBA.com's StatsCube, the Magic are the best defensive team in the league in terms of guarding the NBA’s best post players (thanks to Howard), giving up a measly 48.8 percent True Shooting percentage. Considering that premier big men shoot in the mid to high 50s (Pau Gasol – 52.9 percent, Al Horford – 55.8, Howard – 59.4, Kevin Garnett – 52.8), that is a remarkable number.
Just as important are Howard’s 10.1 defensive rebounds per game (his 1,072 defensive rebounds is second only to Minnesota’s Kevin Love), which consistently limit the opportunity for second and third chances at the basket.
Orlando will close the season ranked 5th in points allowed. This is an incredible clip for two reasons: first, the Magic lack any plus defensive wings. Second, the Magic run, and they run a lot. That means Howard is consistently not just shutting down half-court offenses, he also is sprinting back to prevent easy transition buckets and in turn, rebound misses.
Superman has recorded at least 1,000 rebounds and 100 blocked shots in six straight seasons, making hissecond only to Moses Malone, who accomplished the feat seven times. Simply put, there is nobody better.
2). Kevin Garnett (Boston) – KG is no longer the same defensive master of old, but with his unrivaled intensity and intelligence, he remains one of the premier defensive weapons in the NBA.
As efficient on offense and dangerous as Boston has been since 2008, Doc Rivers still bases his team on sound man-to-man defensive principles and help “D.” Nobody executes this better than Garnett.
An excellent post defender who rarely gambles, he consistently uses his wiry body to pester other bigs on the block. Even at an arthritic 34, Garnett still bodies people in the post better than anybody around -- even Howard. And, after all these years, he remains one of the best and most dependable guys at boxing out. Whether he actually gets the rebound is immaterial at this point, because it usually translates to a Celtics defensive board. With Rajon Rondo pushing tempo, there's often a bucket at the other end.
Garnett is a physical nightmare in the paint and uses the element of fear to his distinct advantage. He is not the shot blocking maestro that Howard is, but Garnett uses his dexterity and extremely long arms to annoy offenses and force them away from the basket. Quick, decisive and always aware of his assignments, he is far and away the best double-teamer in the league, something that is even more important now that the Celtics are missing Kendrick Perkins in the middle.
While KG may not have the direct impact on a game that Howard has, he is every bit the defensive whiz with his trademark intensity, vicious work in the paint and constant organizational abilities as the team quarterback. Garnett is the main reason why old and creaky Boston is the No. 1 defensive team in the league.
3). Tony Allen (Memphis) – Chicago’s Ronnie Brewer and Philly’s Andre Iguodala both made strong cases here, but Tony Allen has become one of the game’s most suffocating perimeter defenders in his first year at Memphis and has been instrumental in helping the Grizzlies earn their first playoff berth since 2006.
Using a rare blend of strength and quickness, Allen provides the same impact on the wing that Howard and Garnett do on the block. A pure lockdown artist, he bothers No. 1 scorers every night with his unlimited supply of tenacity and desire. His ability to funnel drivers into corners and force contested shots in the lane has helped Memphis transform from a woeful defensive team that allowed 104 points per game last season into a respectable 11th in the NBA in points allowed at 97.4.
Allen’s 3.51 steals per 40 minutes is a sensational number, and creates immediate fast break opportunities for a Grizzlies team desperately missing the injured Rudy Gay to bail it out in the halfcourt. Furthermore, his minus-7.2 defensive differential rating means teams score that many fewer points when he’s on the floor -- one of the best clips in the league.