Marc Gasol was awarded the Defensive Player of the Year award this week. Ironically, he was presented the trophy prior to a game in which his backcourt prevented Chris Paul from surgically dismembering the Grizzlies’ D as he had in Games 1 & 2, helping to save their playoff lives in the process.
In a season where Memphis ranked atop the League in most relevant defensive stat categories, Gasol was the token “backbone”; the paint-patrolling, rim-protecting communicator who served as his team’s eyes behind them and their last line against an attack. While Gasol is by all measures an excellent defender – an ace at position and awareness with quick hands, quicker feet, and length to challenge any shot and rebound in his realm – this award feels like it’s been handed out for the wrong reasons.
Memphis’ starting backcourt has been by far the best defensively in the NBA this season; Tony Allen is a beast on the perimeter who many will argue is the best on-the-ball defender alive, while Mike Conley could make the All-D 2nd Team innocuously. What Zach Randolph lacks in size and skill in the post on D, he makes up for with tireless effort and excellent rebounding, and the Grizzlies have steadily jettisoned any rotation players who didn’t take a similar approach to defending the net. Add Gasol’s brilliance in the middle, and it’s no wonder they were a league-leading defensive team, not only with the proper pieces, but an organizational culture fueled by a relentless effort to slow the game down and make opponents work for every basket, every cut, every loose ball, dribble and breath.
Calling him the best defender in the NBA however, is awarding Gasol for Memphis’ dominance as a team. Although he almost never made mistakes on D – and made life difficult for countless would-be scorers – Gasol experienced much less of the paint-patrolling, rim-protecting duties most centers endure, because the rest of his guys weren’t forcing it on him much with botched coverage and rotations. Playing behind Allen and Conley is like a day at the beach compared to what most centers deal with every night; this isn’t to slight Gasol’s ability at all, just to suggest that several other factors were also important to Memphis’ success, and that his impact may not have been the most significant in the League.
Stat analysis is trendier than ever before in sports right now, the NBA being no exception. Enough people watched MoneyBall and figured out Darryl Morey’s logic to realize there might be something behind these “numbers”. But as with most new trends, and unfamiliar things in general, a lot can get lost in translation and produce questionable results. Even the stat many have rested their vote on – the chasm in the Grizzlies’ point differential with Gasol on the bench vs. on the floor – is more indicative of their lack of size depth, and an opposing team’s eagerness to pound a paint area protected by Randolph and Darrell Arthur, than anything else. A lot of voters undoubtedly had “skilled, versatile defensive backbone” coincide with “league-leading team stats”, and saw the forest for the trees that Memphis is hoping to continue trapping the Clippers within.
So while a guy who might be the most effectively versatile defender in the history of basketball finishes second again this year, Marc Gasol will go down in the annals as the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year. Memphis’ efforts on D this year were worthy of celebration, perhaps just not with this award.