In the National Basketball Association, it has been well-documented over the years that awards given out at the end of the season are mostly popularity contests.
I have already written at length about this, expressing my dismay over cases like the 1980 Finals MVP award and the 1993 regular season MVP. Both were cases in which I strongly believe the deserving candidate was passed over for a more “attractive” candidate.
There is yet another instance of award-snubbing that I feel strongly about, surprisingly so given my predilection for the Los Angeles Lakers. This snubbing that I speak of has to do with Tim Duncan and the fact that he never once was honored as the Defensive Player of the Year, despite being recognized repeatedly throughout his career as one of the league’s top defensive players.
My interest in this particular snubbing was sparked by a certain Reddit post that was asking the same question as I am. How was a player as talented defensively as Tim Duncan not once honored as the DPOY over the course of a 19-year career? The reasons brought forth by the post tend to acquiesce to the level of defensive talent surrounding the league during Duncan’s prime years specifically, his competition in players like Dikembe Mutombo and Ben Wallace (two players who combined to win eight DPOY awards over the course of 12 years).
While I certainly agree that Duncan had an unfair amount of competition for the award, I’m inclined to think there’s more to the story. After all, this gave me yet another opportunity to delve into the numbers, one of my favorite pastimes.
For the seasons in which Tim Duncan was honored as either first or second team AllDefense, my search was focused on finding what the deciding factor was when the media decided who would win the DPOY award. Since it’s quite obviously a defensive award, I limited my scope to a few key defensive categories in which Tim was typically among the league’s best: blocks, Defensive Win Shares, and Defensive Box PlusMinus.
The immediate drawback that I found is that Tim never once led the league in total blocks or blocks per game despite being ranked fifth on the NBA’s All-Time blocks list. This seeming “deficiency” hampers Duncan in spite of his longevity, as there was always at least one player in the league during his career who swatted more shots during the season. Unfortunately, Duncan consistently turned in his best play in the postseason, where he led the league in blocks three times during his career.
The NBA has long been seen defensively as a lead dominated by shotblockers. Since the days of Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, a blocked shot has traditionally been seen as the literal last line of defense and one of the most impressive displays of athleticism. Think of it as the defensive version of a slam dunk.
A blocked shot is flashy, a tangible display of defense defeating offense. Think of it as Dikembe Mutombo wagging his finger ostentatiously in a display of arrogance. Think of it as Dwight Howard volleyball spiking a shot into the third row of the stands. Shotblocking is loud, something that Tim Duncan never was as a player.
Nevertheless, I found a specific stat that surely backs up Duncan’s claim for DPOY. Five times during his career, he led the league in Defensive Win Shares, potentially a better measure for defensive superiority given that it is calculated as a player’s ultimate contribution to a victory on the defensive end. These five years (1998, 1999, 2001, 2006, and 2007) were my golden ticket.
It is also worth noting that Duncan never led the league in Defensive Box Plus-Minus during his career, but that he was regularly among the top 510 players in this particular statistic. DWS proves to be the superior statistic in this case because DBPM does not immediately translate into team success the same way that DWS does. Wins are the end-all-be-all of playing basketball, so in this sense DBPM falls short even more so, because Bo Outlaw of all people would have won the DPOY twice if the media voted according to DBPM.
So for the five years when Duncan led the league in DWS, my next step was determining why he was passed over for the DPOY award. In 1999 and 2007, Alonzo Mourning and Marcus Camby earned the award while leading the league in blocked shots; hence the rule of flashiness proved to hold true.
Even when I looked at the voting results for these two years, Duncan was snubbed more than you’d expect. In both seasons, one of his teammates earned more votes despite turning in inferior numbers first it was David Robinson, then it was Bruce Bowen. And so it was that my search for a year that he truly deserved the award was limited to 1998, 2001, and 2006.
In 2006, Bowen once again finished above Duncan in the award voting, but the most revealing reason for being passed over belongs to Ben Wallace. Coming off winning the award three times in four years, the media was in love with the undersized center a tough, defense-first, gritty cornerstone who proved to be the longtime anchor of a hardnosed, elite defense in Detroit.
Moreover, Wallace led the league in DBPM in 2006 for the fifth time in six years, not to mention that he tied with Duncan as the leader in DWS. And so my search was limited to 1998 and 2001, the two seasons during Duncan’s career when Dikembe Mutombo won the DPOY award.
What irks me the most about this negligence, going beyond the simple fact that Mutombo won based on reputation instead of hard numbers, is that in both of these seasons Mutombo’s teams finished well below Duncan’s Spurs in Defensive Rating. To make matters worse, the Spurs finished in 2nd and 1st both of these years. And so for the life of me, I can only see two reasons why Duncan didn’t win the award in 1998.
First, the NBA probably didn’t want to give such a prestigious award to a player who was just a rookie. And second, the NBA probably overvalued David Robinson’s defensive contributions to the Spurs. Although The Admiral was a great defensive player in his own right, having won the DPOY award in 1992, Duncan was undoubtedly the anchor by the time the 2001 season rolled around.
And so my search ended. 2001 was certainly the year when Duncan most deserved to win the DPOY award. Despite finishing in third for the voting, Duncan’s Spurs had the best defense in the league, well ahead of the 76ers and Timberwolves where the first and second place vote-getters Mutombo and Kevin Garnett played.
Nevertheless, Duncan himself would probably be the first to tell you that he values his championship rings above individual accolades. And his well-noted humility aside, Duncan was the greatest defensive anchor of the past two decades, and he deserves to have been recognized as such beyond his All-Defensive honors.