has been the anchor for Memphis' outstanding defense this season. (Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
With the end of the regular season fast approaching, we’re taking a closer look at each award race. We’ve already hit on the Sixth Man Award and the Most Improved Player Award. Here, Rob Mahoney examines the race for the Defensive Player of the Year.
Defense is largely considered to be the stodgier end of the NBA court, mostly for reasons defined by its very objective. We love to see superstars pile up points, we praise those teams that move the ball freely and we get lost in the celebration of highlight-reel plays. But defense looks to take all of that and strangle it -- denying points to an opponent, but often limiting the game's aesthetic wonders in the process. There ultimately just isn't much surface-level appeal in two defense-first teams grinding one another to a halt in sequence, and so little satisfaction in a verdict rendered in bumbled passes and broken plays.
Yet a high-functioning team defense has a life and music all its own. It may not be as viscerally captivating as the flight and finish of a power dunker, but there's a certain beauty to the way that a finely tuned defensive operation moves in step and in time, beating back each of the offense's best efforts with cohesive movement. Some players are instrumental components of that flexible system, while other more limited defenders are merely party to it. But those in a select group are the true defensive conductors -- those who not only bark orders to maintain a union of focus and purpose, but keep the entire system in rhythm with the bounce of their rotations.
Memphis' Marc Gasol is one such player, and for that reason he stands as the top defensive force in the league this season and my pick for Defensive Player of the Year.
There are those who defend by way of veteran know-how (Tim Duncan), dogged persistence (Tony Allen) or boundless energy (Joakim Noah), but Gasol's gift comes in the form of clairvoyance. He's neither quick nor explosive, but manages to connect the dots of offensive action to give him the jump on a particular play's progression. With a preternatural knack for timing, he slides into place to contest opportunities just as they become available.
Once in place, Gasol excels in quickly executing the kind of internal calculus that stands as a hallmark of the league's top team defenders. For an on-ball perimeter stopper, defense is generally as simple as challenging an assigned mark and making some select rotations in help. But the bigs at the core of a defensive system are tasked with managing all of the threats on the floor at once while moving in a way that helps to minimize the damage that those threats might cause. Allen and Mike Conley are terrific perimeter defenders, but on the occasions in which they get beat off the dribble, it's Gasol that's largely expected to rotate into position to wall off the rim. Even while generally being one of the slowest players on the court, Gasol's sense of anticipation -- and gradual movement over the course of a given play -- allows him to slide into place at the perfect moment to accomplish that goal:
That same mental process is at the crux of every type of pick-and-roll defense, and particularly that of the Grizzlies. Whether hedging, trapping or sagging back below the screen, big men across the league are forced to make decisions on every pick-and-roll play (and really, every play of any kind) regarding when and how to affect the ball before rotating back to their man. Some have more trouble with the particulars of that timing than others, but Gasol does well to contain and recover against all kinds of opponents. That's true, in part, because he plays like a walking scouting report, signaling his opponent's strengths and weaknesses with the respect and attention he pays them on the court. Some guards warrant the slightest bit of additional pressure, even at the cost of surrendering a potential mid-range jumper to another player. Others can be left to their own devices for a split second, as they don't stand to do much damage from their particular place on the floor. The best defenders in the league make those distinctions and ultimately understand that no individual or team can ever completely lock up a mechanism like the pick and roll. All they can do is gum up the action as much as possible and attempt to mitigate the potential risks involved.
Once those determinations are made, it's up to the big man to apply pressure where needed and recover as effectively as he can. Gasol is unbelievably good at this, as he transfers his attention from one player to another with relative ease:
Gasol often steps up higher to defend screens than most players his size, but can get away with such deliberate pressure because of the way he navigates these transitions. It's not always as simple as a sprint up to the ball-handler and a sprint back to his man; often it makes more sense to play the recovery a bit more patiently, with Gasol keeping an eye to the ball as he floats back into position. That allows him to manage any kind of delayed dribble penetration in the case that his man isn't an immediate threat. Gasol's body and his brain are constantly moving, and though his maneuvers are never quite as frenetic or obvious as some of the league's more active interior defenders, Gasol's gradual movements are the perfect vehicle for his thoughtful defensive game. When on the floor, the Grizzlies hold opponents to 95.6 points per 100 possessions -- a mark that would rank as the best in the league relative to other team averages.
All of this preventative work doesn't totally encompass Gasol's defensive value. He's also incredibly good at locking down potential scorers and altering their attempts. When opponents see Gasol, many think they can exploit him off the dribble. Yet he shuffles to block off the basket as well as any big man reasonably could, and makes things incredibly difficult for the offensive player by maintaining excellent position at every juncture:
That's just as true in defending post-ups (where even moving Gasol is a challenge, much less scoring over his outstretched arms), or face-ups, or any play type you could imagine. Gasol is all over it, moving his feet and perfectly anticipating whatever comes next. According to Synergy Sports, Gasol's defense rates as superlative in all categories, save one: the defense of spot-up jumpers, which ultimately brings us back to the assessment of individual threats. Good as he is, Gasol can't be everywhere at once; he's vulnerable to the spot work of pick-and-pop bigs, who get fairly decent looks even as Gasol tries to recover and challenge shots. But those are exactly the attempts that Memphis is willing to sacrifice as a means of better protecting the paint, which they do as effectively as any team in the NBA. Gasol's mandate is to focus on the opponents by order of their projected threat, and ultimately seeing foes shoot about 45 percent on predominantly two-point jumpers is an acceptable risk to a player and defense that takes away almost everything else.
With Gasol's case made, here's a look at my full sham ballot:
1. Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies
See the 1,200 words or so above.
2. Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls
The choice between Gasol and Noah would be a near-impossible dilemma had the Bulls maintained a slightly better defense overall this season and if Noah had played a few more games -- two factors that are undeniably related. Yet as it stands, Noah will have missed roughly a quarter of the season due to injury. That makes for a rather lame disqualifier, but with two outstanding defenders that are otherwise so comparable, the deficit in games played gives Gasol the slightest leg up. Noah will have to settle for merely being one of the best defensive players on the planet rather than the definitive best this NBA season, a bothersome turn which I suspect will keep him up in the wee hours of the night.
3. LeBron James, Miami Heat
It's become impossible to define James' position as his offensive role continues to evolve, but the same could be said of all that he's asked to do defensively. Whether he's classified as a wing player or a big, James is essentially both; he's an outstanding source of help from the perimeter, capable of taking an opponent's best offensive player in coverage when necessary, rebounds incredibly well and may be the most fearsome trapping defender in the entire league. His combination of size and speed serves him just as well defensively as it does offensively, and at the very least makes him the NBA's most unique defensive specimen.