Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol was awarded the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award today. Gasol is arguably one of the most durable and imposing big men in the league and was well deserving of high praise for anchoring one of the league’s best defenses this past season. Yes, it is true that the Grizzlies gave up a league-low 89.3 points per game, but there is more to being the league’s best defensive team than how many points you give up.
If Gasol won the award solely for anchoring the league’s best defense, then there is a big problem with how this award is being, well, awarded. When you dive into the statistics, the Grizzlies were not in fact the best defensive team in the league; and this is an individual award, not a team recognition. Gasol played in 80 of his teams 82 games and played those games at a clip of 35.0 minutes per game — incredible durability for a 7′ 1″ center. And his overall numbers on the defensive end were very impressive too; 1.7 blocks per game and 1.0 steals. But there are players far more deserving of the trophy than Gasol.
Let’s start with Larry Sanders of the Milwaukee Bucks. Sanders wasn’t given any recognition for the award for the precise reason Gasol won it; Sanders’ Bucks were middle-of-the-pack as a team — at best — defensively. Sanders hardly collected any votes for the award, despite his numbers: 2.8 blocks per game and 0.7 steals in 71 games. And when you look at the combined rating of defensive plays, which factors blocks+steals+charges, Sanders led the league with a rating of 3.79. Gasol didn’t place in the top-ten in this ranking.
The next candidate is 23-year-old PF/C Serge Ibaka of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Ibaka has led the league in blocks for two consecutive years and was on the NBA All Defensive team last year, and will likely land there again this year. But he has failed to bring in the ultimate defensive award. Playing alongside Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, who this year were 2nd and 6th respectively in the league in scoring, gives almost no chance for the Thunder to give up the fewest points in the league. However, the Thunder were the fourth most defensively efficient team in the NBA, with a 99.2 rating coming just 1.8 behind the Grizzlies. Ibaka led the league in blocks this year with 3.03, for a total of 103 more than Gasol. And to top it off, Ibaka came in at 5th in the overall defensive rating at 3.39.
There’s another consideration here: pace. The reason why the Grizzlies were able to give up the fewest points per game was due in part to the fact that they are the the second slowest team in the NBA, meaning they use fewer possessions per 48 minutes than most teams, thus inevitably giving up fewer points per game. The Indiana Pacers gave up the second fewest points per game at 90.7, just 1.4 points per game more than the Grizzlies. But the Pacers did so with a much higher number of possessions. The best defensively efficient team in the NBA were the Pacers at 96.6 (points allowed per 100 possessions) whereas the Grizzlies were second at 97.4. The Pacers also came in first for opponents’ points scored, opponents’ true shooting percentage, opponents’ true field goal percentage, and opponents’ three-point percentage. And who anchored this team? Roy Hibbert. Hibbert had a letdown on the offensive end of his game this year, but he averaged career highs in both blocks and steals with 2.6 and 0.5 respectively and also finished top-five in defensive wins shared and overall defensive rating.
Gasol was by no means a bad choice. But when it comes down to best defensive player in the NBA, he was far from the most deserving.