The selection of Marc Gasol as the NBA's 2012-13 Defensive Player of the Year was not particularly shocking or controversial. Gasol served as linchpin of one of the league's best defenses, protecting the rim and covering lots of ground to solidify the Memphis Grizzlies' reputation as one of the toughest teams around. He didn't come into the season as one of the favorites for the award, but his performance and the Grizzlies' all-around defensive excellence elevated him to that level.
Meanwhile, the player once regarded as the clear-cut best defender in the NBA, Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard, saw his once-sterling reputation lessened by his laughably convoluted exit from Orlando and the Lakers' poor defense this season. With Howard not at 100 percent due to a series of injuries, L.A. ranked tied for 18th in the NBA in defensive efficiency this season, allowing 103.6 points per 100 possessions.
“It’s just funny,” Howard said. “That’s okay. We got next year and I got a long time. This year’s funny.”
Howard lacked the timing, explosiveness and athleticism that he had in past seasons because of offseason back surgery. A torn labrum in his right shoulder also sidelined him for six games. Even though Howard led the league in rebounding (12.4 a game) and fifth in blocked shots (2.45 a game), it didn’t help that the Lakers barely squeaked into the playoffs. More importantly, Howard’s defense hardly translated to the rest of the team. The Lakers finished the regular season ranked 21st in total defense (101 points per game), 29th in fast-break points allowed (15.9), 15th in opponent shooting percentage (45.3 percent) and 14th in opponent three-point field goal percentage (35.7 percent).
Howard went on to explain that he would have voted Oklahoma City Thunder forward Serge Ibaka because he led the league in blocked shots, which suggests his personal criteria for the award may be limited. Nevertheless, Howard does have some reason to feel slighted. Defensive award voting tends to be guided by reputation rather than the facts on the ground — Kobe Bryant's recent selections to the league's All-Defensive First Team prove as much. While one view could call Howard lucky to have finished 14th given the Lakers' poor defensive performance, it's also true that his personal defense-oriented stats didn't drop off that much from those posted when he won the award in three consecutive seasons from 2008-09 to 2010-11. In other words, there's a pretty good chance that Howard finished 14th because people don't like him very much these days, not because he became especially worse at defense.
It's hard to know who Howard should have finished ahead of, because all 13 players — in order: Gasol, LeBron James, Ibaka, Joakim Noah, Tony Allen, Tim Duncan, Larry Sanders, Paul George, Andre Iguodala, Roy Hibbert, Chris Paul, Avery Bradley, and Tyson Chandler — have strong cases to make the All-Defensive team. But the point here isn't really about each individual's merits for the award. In a situation where even the most dedicated diehards (let alone beat writers) can't watch every game, awards voting is dictated by general impressions. A player's reputation has a strong bearing on that result, no matter how much we try to transcend it.
So, even if Howard's 14th-place finish is fair in a broad sense based on his performance, it was unfair in that it was likely guided by reasons related to his personality rather than his effect on the Lakers' defense. Howard does have reason to laugh at the result, if only because it's likely not about his defense. Did he get that much worse over the course of the season, or were the Lakers just a defensive shambles as a unit?
I don't want to suggest that Howard has been done a grave injustice, because any voting outside of the top-three finishers for an award is largely irrelevant. However, his reaction does say something about the logic of awards voting as a whole. These honors are often as dependent on prevailing narratives as on any basketball performance.
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