I didn't fully believe Marc Gasol was going to win this year's Defensive Player of the Year Award until it happened. But the Grizzlies appear set to make this announcement official with a public press conference at 2:30 p.m. today.
Gasol fits the profile of the award only in that he's a frontcourt player: Since Michael Jordan took it in 1988, 23 of 25 winners have been big men, the only exceptions being Gary Payton and Ron Artest.
But the big-man winners have tended to be overwhelming rebounders and shot-blockers. Dikembe Mutombo, Alonzo Mourning, Ben Wallace, and Dwight Howard are multi-time winners. “Athletic” shot-blockers — quick off the floor and quick to send shot attempts into the stands — are the norm.
Gasol, by contrast, will become the first big man in more than 20 years — ever? — to win the award without finishing among the league's Top Ten in blocks or rebounds per game. (He's 12th and 23rd, respectively, in those categories.)
How has Gasol, with such an atypical profile, broken through? It's tempting to compare Gasol's victory here to Felix Hernandez winning the 2010 American League Cy Young award with a 13-12 record: It's a triumph of “advanced” stats over more conventional — and often more limited or even misleading — measures.
There's some of that here, with different defensive measures gaining wider usage and acceptance.The Grizzlies had arguably the best defense in the NBA this past season: They were second to Indiana in points surrendered per possession, but did so in a conference that featured 10 of the league's 13 best offenses. Gasol was the hub of that defense — anchoring it in the middle and playing more than eight more minutes a game than his perimeter partner Tony Allen, who finished fifth in the vote. (And, yes, I wonder what Allen secretly thinks about a Grizzlies' player not named “Tony Allen” winning this award.) Gasol's 95.4 defensive rating — points per 100 possessions allowed when he was on the floor — was second-best in the NBA among players who logged at least 30 minutes a contest, via NBA.com/stats. The best: Gasol's teammate, Mike Conley. So, these stats get you beyond steals, blocks, and rebounds, but they are limited as well, as it's difficult to extract individual play entirely from a teammate context.
But I think it's about more than stats. I think Gasol's victory here is also a by-product of a new wave of NBA writers who have a greater inclination than in the past to watch games closely and take in the whole league rather than just follow big-market/personality-driven narratives. It seems like there are more people now who are interested in following teams and players outside the limelight and, with NBA League Pass and other new technologies, have a greater opportunity to do so.
Appreciating Gasol's defense has to be about more than stats — even “advanced” ones. You have to watch the way, at 7'1” and 265 pounds, he can patrol the perimeter — he's got at least two game-securing blocks of three-point attempts this season — and contain pick-and-roll plays. You have to see the way he routinely seals his man and creates a path for teammates to secure rebounds. The way he guards the post. The way he directs traffic for the whole team.
I'm not saying everyone who voted for Gasol watched lots of Grizzlies games and appreciated the nuances of Gasol's defensive play. But some key proponents — most notably Grantland's Zach Lowe, followed by many others — certainly did, and the persuasive case they made wasn't entirely rooted in statistical observation.
As with Hernandez's 13-game Cy Young season, I would expect some backlash to Gasol winning this, and it's already coming. Here's Thunder center Kendrick Perkins, whose teammate, Serge Ibaka, again led the NBA in blocks per game and finished third in the voting:
Perkins may have extra reasons to resent Gasol, but if anyone should understand that interior defense is about more than highlight blocks, it's him. (Rounding out the top five: Lebron James at third and Joakim Noah at fourth. Mike Conley got a third-place vote.)
While I think Gasol winning Defensive Player of the Year is a breakthrough of sorts, I think the path was hinted at last season, when the Knicks' Tyson Chandler bested Ibaka for the award. The long, lean Chandler looks the role much more than Gasol — the first European to take home the award — but his statistical profile wasn't much different. Chandler did crack the Top Ten in rebounds last season, at 9th, but was even lower than Gasol — 17th — on the shot-blocking charts. The rationale for his well-deserved honor was the belief that he'd had a profound impact on the Knicks' team defense.
After winning Defensive Player of the Year — which is voted on by media — Chandler failed to make the first-team All-Defense — which is voted on by coaches. I will not be surprised to see that disconnect repeated with Gasol.