The NBA has enjoyed a culture shift over the last few years, with a younger generation of writers on websites that didn’t exist a decade ago taking to their laptops to try and Get Everything Right. As a result, as we clear the noise and work through the unending sources of both voice and source, the league’s fans have become more and more intelligent, besotted after taking in numbers after numbers after clips after quotes from the writers trying to explain why this all counts.
And as a result of that, NBA awards aren’t as prone to storyline as they once were. Still, that doesn’t mean the league’s latest round of documenters are shying away from bestowing thrones midseason (or even earlier) award suggestions, mainly because certain players deserve it. Roy Hibbert, the Indiana Pacers center whose ability to guard the rim vaulted the Pacers to tops in the league in terms of defensive efficiency, was rightfully regarded as the NBA’s top defender over the winter, when the snow unendingly pelted us and we had nothing to do but sit around and marvel at how great this man was defensively. Something terrible, or something wonderful, would have to go down in order to wrest the award away from the Pacers big man.
Both happened, which is why Joakim Noah is the rightful owner of the NBA’s 2013-14 Defensive Player of the Year award. Noah both earned the award with his marvelous play on that end, but in a lesser and more unfortunate regard he also is taking the hardware home because Hibbert both regressed defensively (at least relative to his brilliant autumn and winter turns) with teams also figuring out ways of working around a center in Hibbert that made life so hellish for them for so long.
That’s a shame, but Noah is the right choice. Though he was nearly as middling as Hibbert was great in the season’s opening weeks, working through a groin strain that cost him valuable training camp and exhibition season time, he continued to develop into a defensive center for our time. This isn’t to say Hibbert or to a lesser extent Marc Gasol (who finished 16th in voting) are an anachronism – both would have been excellent choices to take this award – but Noah’s ability to show on the perimeter and change things on the interior was rightfully enough to put him over the top.
It shouldn’t have been by much. Gasol’s movement and timing was one of the key reasons behind Memphis’ stellar 33-13 turn since his return from injury. Hibbert, it cannot be stated enough, was an absolutely devastating force this season, turning in one of the better personal defensive campaigns we’ve ever seen. Both earned this award.
Noah earned it, and won the award in what turned out to be a landslide vote -- topping Hibbert by a 100 to 8 first place vote count. Storyline may have pushed him over the top, Joakim became Chicago’s focal point offensively following a season-ending injury to Derrick Rose and the trade of Luol Deng, and it was incredible fun to see the center whipping around passes from the elbow and high post as Chicago somehow made a run to the East’s fourth seed with D.J. bloody Augustin as the team’s leading scorer. And while Hibbert’s movement and work looks about the same, even as the Pacers crumble, he hasn’t gotten the same calls for whatever reason, and his work as a defensive rebounder has cost Indiana. Fouls and lack of caroms aren’t what Defensive Players of the Year are made of.
Was Hibbert so far ahead of the race (especially with Noah needing a full month to return to health) halfway into the season that his tail-off shouldn’t have mattered? Entering April, many were of that opinion, and they were probably right. Hibbert’s finish to the season was so relatively poor defensively that at some point voters just couldn’t ignore how much he’d fallen behind. And despite Marc Gasol’s brilliance in Memphis, the man played nearly 900 minutes fewer than Joakim Noah.
That’s 900 minutes fewer than a man who barks on nearly every possession, who is constantly talking to his teammates during both down time and real action, instructing on where to go. A man that somehow manages to chase off shooters some 25 feet from the basket while clouding passing lanes as he dashes back into the paint to contest either a shot or the threat of a shot. A man who understands that sometimes the seal off and box out are just as important as getting the defensive rebound, a reason why Carlos Boozer is allowed the opportunity to grab so many of those caroms while screaming for everyone to hear. A man who remains relentless in his approach, never pouting in a destructive way, never not moving. Never not trying.
Joakim Noah didn’t win this award because of those intangible, flowery elements. He didn’t win this award because his personal storyline had turned into something more appealing than Roy Hibbert’s year, one that started brilliantly before tapering into something nearly masochistic in its public piling-on.
He won it because he was the best defensive player in the NBA this season, and it is wonderful to see these modern voters stay as aware and adept on their feet as Joakim Noah was on the defensive end this year.
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