Grizzlies center Marc Gasol took home the NBA's 2013 Defensive Player of the Year award earlier this week, a selection that was widely hailed as appropriate given Memphis' superlative defense and the Spaniard's amazing statistical impact on opposing offenses.
There have been dissenting voices. Thunder center Kendrick Perkins publicly championed teammate Serge Ibaka (who finished third), Spurs guard Manu Ginobili stood up for teammate Tim Duncan (who finished sixth) and now, one of the league's most influential voices has spoken up on behalf of himself.
“It sucks,” James said. “It sucks. It sucks.”
James was asked if his candidacy for other awards — notably the MVP — hurt his chances. “I don’t know,” James said. “It definitely sucks, though. Finishing second? Who wants to finish second?”
Was this his best defensive season? “Probably,” James said. “I mean, I guard everybody on the floor. I don’t know if there’s one player in NBA history who’s guarded one through five (positions). It’s over with now, but that’s cool.”
It's hard to read that without immediately thinking of Kevin Durant's recent "I'm tired of being second" declaration to Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins, but it sounds a bit odd coming from James, who has won damn near everything over the last 12 months (2012 Finals, 2012 Olympics, 2012 MVP, 2012 Finals MVP, 2012 Sports Illustrated's Sportsman Of The Year and, soon, another MVP).
In the face of all that finishing first, it's tempting to react by saying: "Jeez, let someone else win something for once and let it go." Gasol is surely a worthy winner and while James has a compelling argument to make as Defensive Player of the Year, it's not as overwhelming as his MVP credentials, for example.
But you can see where his disappointment is coming from. His case: The Heat dominated the league this season; James was their best defensive player and by far the most versatile defender in the league; he played monster minutes; he led the Heat in rebounding; Miami's defensive rating was 4.4 points better when he was on the court than when he was sitting; and he led the league in plus-minus.
Big picture, there are at least three things that work against James' candidacy for this award. First, this has been a big man's award: since 1997, Ron Artest is the only non-big to win the award. Second, this is often an award that favors specialists like Ben Wallace, Marcus Camby, Dikembe Mutombo and Dennis Rodman. Third, this can be an award that recognizes excellent team defense. Had Gasol's Grizzlies ranked seventh, like the Heat, in defensive efficiency, it's unlikely he's taking home the hardware this year.
James' ability to guard all five positions -- something he mentions in his comments -- should keep him in the discussion for Defensive Player of the Year over the next few seasons. It strikes two blows by nullifying the first knock on James, that's he's not a big man, and forging a solid counterargument against specialists when his body of work defending the paint and the perimeter continues to grow. At some point, the "He can do stuff that no one else can dream of" line of reasoning should hit a tipping point.
It's that third factor -- team defense -- that probably held James back this season, as the Heat posted top-five defenses in both 2011 and 2012 before slipping ever so slightly in 2013. James climbed from fourth in the Defensive Player of the Year voting in 2012 to second this year. He could easily win it next season, provided he approximates his play from this season, which he makes seem like a given, and provided that Miami posts overall defensive numbers that are closer to the top of the charts. Should that happen, there won't be any arguments against him left. One footnote: Michael Jordan won the award in 1988, a fact that James surely has committed to memory.