After anchoring the Dallas Mavericks' swarming, matchup-zone-loving defense that stifled the Portland Trail Blazers, Los Angeles Lakers, Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat en route to the 2010-11 NBA championship, center Tyson Chandler struck it rich in free agency, landing a four-year, $58 million contract to lead the New York Knicks to the upper echelon of NBA defenses. He did just that in his first year in the Big Apple, as we discussed in last week's Knicks season preview; his reward for dragging the Knicks to the league's fifth-best defensive rating was the first Defensive Player of the Year Award of his career.
Many would argue that this was a richly deserved reward. Some, however, would not — including the league's 30 head coaches. They, or whichever employees they told to fill out their All-Defensive team ballots last season, voted Orlando Magic pivot Dwight Howard as the starting center on the league's first team, relegating the newly minted DPOY (an award voted on by members of the media) to second-class status. Seems like they would've had some support from their front offices, too; in this year's edition of the annual anonymous survey of NBA general managers (the results of which were released Monday on NBA.com), 60 percent of GMs selected Howard, now a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, as the NBA's best defensive player, while two-thirds named him the league's best interior defender.
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Apprised of his selection by the league's general managers, Howard — who had won the previous three Defensive Player of the Year awards before Chandler took last year's — made it clear that he felt his work in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign deserved better than a third-place finish. From Dave McMenamin of ESPN Los Angeles:
"I thought I should have won it last year, to be honest with you," Howard told reporters after practice Monday. "I was a little bit upset about that." [...]
Chandler earned 45 first place votes and 311 total points to take home the trophy.
Oklahoma City's Serge Ibaka was second with 41 first place votes and 294 points. Howard received just 18 first place votes and 186 points.
"I felt like I did my job to win it. I also feel like I didn't because of the whole situation," Howard said, referring to the uncertainty surrounding his future with the Magic and the distraction it became. "That played a factor in it."
On one hand, Dwight's got a pretty good argument that he "did [his] job to win it," as Trey Kerby noted at The Basketball Jones at the time of the award announcement:
When Dwight was off the court, the Magic allowed seven more points per 100 possessions. When Tyson was off the court, the Knicks actually allowed less points per 100 possessions (102 with Tyson, 100.5 without). 82games tells a similar story, that Tyson's impact defensively wasn't nearly as significant as Dwight's. Plus, Dwight grabbed a higher percentage of defensive rebounds, blocked a higher percentage of shots, stole a higher percentage of balls and bested Tyson in basically every defensive category available, even down to defensive win shares, despite the fact Dwight played eight fewer games.
Seems like a pretty legit case. But it's not the only case, as CBSSports.com's Matt Moore noted Tuesday.
Moore dug into Synergy Sports Technology's play-charting data and found that while Chandler allowed more overall points per possession defended than Howard did last season, the Knicks center's "numbers were superior in Pick and Roll, Isolation, and Post defense to Howard's," and argued that Chandler's inferior mark against spot-up shooters is the sort of thing that "most often is the result of poor team play." (Plus, as NJ.com's Alex Raskin wrote, whereas the Knicks went from 28th in points allowed in the paint before Chandler's arrival to No. 1 last year, Howard's Magic conceded more points in the paint and allowed opponents to shoot a higher percentage inside than the previous year.)
Beyond that, though, according to Moore, the argument that Dwight was the best defensive player in the league last year just doesn't pass the eye test:
This isn't about the injury which came later in the year, and this isn't about holding him to the standard of previous seasons. He legitimately slid in the biggest area you can defensively. Effort. He simply wasn't as engaged on that end of the floor, be it as a distraction or just a matter of play. [...] Tyson Chandler was a smarter, more involved, and better defender last season.
Again, there are reasonable arguments on both sides of the aisle here. Howard's point that the media may have been somewhat disinclined to hand him a postseason award after he spent most of the previous year trying to make everyone love him and wreaking havoc on the NBA world in the process makes a lot of sense to me.
A general antipathy, combined with the sort of general voter fatigue that sets in when the same guy's won the award three years running, could certainly explain the relative ease with which voters flocked to Chandler and Ibaka. So could the fact that the play of Chandler and Ibaka got regular publicity due to the heightened media attention garnered by Chandler's Knicks and Ibaka's Thunder. Plus, Chandler certainly was fantastic; given how much the Knicks struggled on offense last season, it's extremely unlikely that they would've made the playoffs without a top-flight defense, and given how many iffy-or-worse defenders the Knicks fielded last year (led, of course, by top guns Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony), it's impossible to imagine they would've reached such heights without Chandler in the fold.
You can argue until you're blue in the face, which is why the NBA loves giving out awards — whenever you're yelling at one another about the NBA, you're still talking about the NBA. With Howard looking spry in his recent return from rehabbing his spring back surgery and being counted on to backstop multiple aging, step-slow, iffy-or-worse defenders of his own in L.A., he appears to be the odds-on favorite for this year's trophy; Knicks fans sure hope Chandler turns in another performance that makes it an argument worth having this year.
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