Defending the Value of Defense

By Josh Eberley #41

The playoffs are coming and thank your lucky stars they are, because rest, tanking and injuries are souring what was a pretty stellar NBA season.

On the subject of NBA awards, the marathon is about to conclude. Discussion and debate has raged all year long on the NBA MVP. If you missed it, here’s a look at just how subjective the award really is. Not unlike the Maurice Podoloff trophy, the Defensive Player of the Year is also a crapshoot, historically.

Deciphering defense is not a new topic of conversation. In fact, it’s been a theme this year at HOOP. Ranking and analyzing defense is hard. The eye-test is never fool-proof, and the statistics available are far from perfect. Unfortunately, national narrative still shapes an awful lot of how guys are perceived defensively, and that runs all the way to the top with the awards voting.

What’s lacking in the method is reliable evidence to lean on, and what’s lacking in the goal is non-existent criteria. Best defensive player in the NBA or most valuable defensive player in the NBA? For example, if you wanted to know who the best defender on the Boston Celtics was, Twitter would tell you it’s Avery Bradley. But the on and off differential would suggest it’s Jae Crowder, and a contrarian might tell you that due to lack of size up front, it’s Al Horford. It’s easy to get lost and that’s just one team.

Let’s look back at the winners over the last 20 years and review what might’ve happened with a little direction. We take a look at the past DPOY winners, the leader in Defensive Win Shares, and Defensive Ambassador, otherwise known as the best defensive player on the best defensive team (based on DRTG) in the year being reviewed. Going back in time, here are the former winners, the new winners and details on where the replacements actually finished.


  • DPOY: ?
  • DWS Leader: Rudy Gobert 5.85
  • Best Defense Ambassador: Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio

This year, the contest is between Gobert, Draymond Green, and the incumbent Leonard. The Warriors have the best record and Green is the most versatile, so chances are Green is going to be the winner. However, there is no shame in the game of Gobert, who has been the Jazz’s best player and is a tad ahead of Green in most of the metrics.


  • Actual Winner: Kawhi Leonard
  • DWS Leader: Paul Millsap, 6.03
  • Best Defense Ambassador: Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio
Chris Covatta/NBAE via Getty Images

The second win of Leonard’s career, this time in a landslide. It’s also the second runner-up finish for Draymond Green. (Millsap finished fifth.)


  • DPOY: Kawhi Leonard
  • DWS Leader: DeAndre Jordan, 5.39
  • Best Defense Ambassador: Draymond Green, Golden State
D. Clarke Evans/NBAE via Getty Images

An anomaly in awards voting. Similar to Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley in the 1990 MVP vote, the winner did not receive the most first place votes. Previously it had been Barkley, and in this case, Green won the most first place votes but fell in total points to Leonard. (Jordan finished third.)


  • DPOY: Joakim Noah
  • DWS Leader: Joakim Noah, 6.63
  • Best Defense Ambassador: Roy Hibbert, Indiana
Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

Noah clobbered his way to his first and likely last Defensive Player of the Year award (DPOY). Noah took 100 of a possible 125 first place votes. Hibbert was a distant second with only eight first place tallies.


  • DPOY: Marc Gasol
  • DWS Leader: Paul George, 6.28
  • Best Defense Ambassador: Roy Hibbert and Paul George, Indiana
Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

In a relatively close and controversial vote that saw five players get 10 or more first place votes, Gasol (30) emerged victorious. LeBron James (18) finished second, Serge Ibaka (14) came third, Joakim Noah (12) came fourth, Tony Allen (9) finished fifth and Tim Duncan (11) finished sixth. (Hibbert came in 10th).


  • DPOY: Tyson Chandler
  • DWS Leader: Josh Smith, 4.9
  • Best Defense Ambassador: Joakim Noah, Chicago
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Chandler, who probably should’ve won the award in 2011, elevated the Dallas Mavericks from contestant to champion. Alas, 2012 would have to do, as he anchored a playoff version of the Knicks (no small feat). He barely edged out Ibaka with only 17 more total points (Smith finished 11th, Noah 10th).


  • DPOY: Dwight Howard
  • DWS Leader: Dwight Howard, 7.68
  • Best Defense Ambassador: Joakim Noah, Chicago
Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

Howard wins his third straight DPOY in dominant fashion. He takes 114 of 120 first place votes, and the Magic win 52 games in what might’ve been his best overall season. (Noah came 15th).


  • DPOY: Dwight Howard
  • DWS Leader: Dwight Howard, 7.13
  • Best Defense Ambassador: Gerald Wallace, Charlotte
Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

Howard repeats, winning in a landslide with 116 of 123 first place votes. The Bobcats’ methodically slow pace played a part in their defensive rating, but Wallace didn’t even garner a single vote.


  • DPOY: Dwight Howard
  • DWS Leader: Dwight Howard, 7.56
  • Best Defense Ambassador: Dwight Howard, Orlando
Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

The first of three wins for Howard and the only sweep across all three parameters over the 20-year glance today. Maybe not a coincidence that the Magic went on to the Finals, the best run of Howard’s career to date.


  • DPOY: Kevin Garnett
  • DWS Leader: Dwight Howard, 6.45
  • Best Defense Ambassador: Kevin Garnett, Boston
Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

The first big three of our generation is formed in a whirlwind summer and Garnett leads the resulting squad to the No. 1 defense, 66 wins and a championship. (Howard finished seventh).


  • DPOY: Marcus Camby
  • DWS Leader: Tim Duncan, 6.78
  • Best Defense Ambassador: Ben Wallace, Chicago
Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

It was Tim Duncan’s best shot. San Antonio had 58 wins and the No. 2 defense and it wasn’t enough for Tim Duncan to secure the DPOY that has eluded him his whole career, as Camby heisted the award. Fellow Spur Bruce Bowen also finished a nose ahead of third place Duncan and Wallace (sixth).


  • DPOY: Ben Wallace
  • DWS Leader: Tim Duncan, 6.88
  • Best Defense Ambassador: Tim Duncan, San Antonio
Allen Einstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Judging by wins (63), as this was peak Detroit Pistons during their early ’00s run. Anchoring it all defensively was Wallace. This was his fourth DPOY. Not bad for an undrafted player. Duncan came sixth.


  • DPOY: Ben Wallace
  • DWS Leader: Ben Wallace, 6.72
  • Best Defense Ambassador: Tim Duncan, San Antonio
D. Lippitt/Einstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Big Ben racks ups 45 first place votes. Spurs teammates Duncan (fourth place) and Bowen (second) cancel each other out with 39 combined first place nods and that’s all she wrote.


  • DPOY: Metta World Peace
  • DWS Leader: Ben Wallace, 9.08
  • Best Defense Ambassador: Tim Duncan, San Antonio
Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images

The man formerly known as Ron Artest breaks up Ben Wallace’s bid for the threepeat (ultimately five in a row), playing spoiler in 2004. Wallace finished a good deal behind Artest for second, but I’m quite sure the Larry O’Brien Trophy was an OK consolation prize for Wallace. Duncan, per usual, was overlooked at sixth place.


  • DPOY: Ben Wallace
  • DWS Leader: Ben Wallace, 7.85
  • Best Defense Ambassador: Jason Kidd, New Jersey
Allen Einstein/NBAE/Getty Images

Wallace smoked Duncan, Garnett, and Artest, winning his second of four DPOYs. Kidd didn’t receive any votes.


  • DPOY: Ben Wallace
  • DWS Leader: Ben Wallace, 7.24
  • Best Defense Ambassador: Jason Kidd, New Jersey
Allen Einstein/NBAE/Getty Images

In his first ever DPOY win, Wallace falls just four first place votes short of a unanimous decision. Kidd finished second in MVP voting, but didn’t receive any DPOY votes.


  • DPOY: Dikembe Mutombo
  • DWS Leader: Tim Duncan, 7.07
  • Best Defense Ambassador:  Tim Duncan, San Antonio
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Careful kids: people will tell you Iverson had no help on that Little-Train-That-Could Philly squad that went to the Finals. Mutombo was traded to the Sixers after 49 games in Atlanta and finishes 22 first place votes ahead of Garnett to win his last of four DPOYs. Duncan finished behind both at third.


  • DPOY: Alonzo Mourning
  • DWS Leader: Shaquille O’Neal, 6.99
  • Best Defense Ambassador: Shaquille O’Neal, L.A. Lakers
Scott Cunningham/NBAE/Getty Images

Is it possible O’Neal deserved a DPOY? If you say yes, his best case came in 2000. Cruelly, the award was stolen by fellow draftmate Alonzo Mourning. Mourning’s Heat were the seventh ranked defense and won 15 fewer games than O’Neal’s Lakers, but what do I know.


  • DPOY: Alonzo Mourning
  • DWS Leader: Tim Duncan, 4.68
  • Best Defense Ambassador: Tim Duncan and David Robinson, San Antonio
Glenn James/ NBAE via Getty Images

Mourning wins his first of two DPOYs. No one else came close: Mourning had 89 first place votes, Mutombo, who came second, had 10, and Gary Payton came third with six. The twin tower duo of Robinson/Duncan finished fourth and fifth, respectively.


  • DPOY: Dikembe Mutombo
  • DWS Leader: Tim Duncan, 7.17
  • Best Defense Ambassador: Shawn Kemp, Cleveland
Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

Mutombo wins again, but only by the slimmest of margins. Mutombo (39) had two more first place votes than runner-up Payton (37). Duncan came in at fifth; Kemp did not receive any votes.


  • DPOY: Dikembe Mutombo
  • DWS Leader: Patrick Ewing, 6.87
  • Best Defense Ambassador: Alonzo Mourning, Miami
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Mutombo beats Payton by a more sizable margin than he did in 1998 and wins his second of four DPOYs. If not for the fact that Mutombo won it, there might’ve been a conspiracy against Georgetown, as former Hoyas Ewing and Mourning did not receive a vote.


  • DPOY: Gary Payton
  • DWS Leader: David Robinson, 7.19
  • Best Defense Ambassador: Dennis Rodman, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, Chicago
NBA Photo Library/NBAE via Getty Images

The Glove wins his one and only DPOY handily, and he brought the fire against the Bulls in a hard-fought Finals. Payton might’ve lost in the Finals, but he did take down three deserving Bulls for the DPOY: Pippen finished second, Robinson came fourth, Jordan came sixth, and Rodman came seventh.