The NBA’s award races, usually a perfect topic for intense debate, might be a little anticlimactic this season. Barring a late surge by Kobe Bryant, LeBron James will almost certainly win his second consecutive MVP award. Dwight Howard is also a virtual lock to win his second straight Defensive Player of the Year Award. If voters go for the type of player who’s typically won the Sixth Man of the Year award, Jamaal Crawford is definitely the front-runner. Tyreke Evans has been a heavy favorite for the Rookie of the Year award for months, with only Stephen Curry giving him any real competition.
To find suspense in the award races, one has to pay attention to the awards that usually don’t get that much attention. Personally, I think that the race for the two forward spots on the All-Defensive team is shaping up to be a doozy. There are lots of forwards playing great defense in the East, but only two of them will get first-team honors. Let’s take a look at some of the candidates:
The Bobcats have been one of the league’s most surprising teams this season, with wins over some of the league’s best teams. Like any good Larry Brown team, their success has been based on defensive execution. Wallace has been the backbone of that defense, playing 42 minutes a game, averaging well over a steal and a block each game, and grabbing a shocking 10.4 rebounds per game. The Bobcats are a top-five team in defensive efficiency, and “Crash” is the biggest reason why:
After a down year defensively last season, Smith has been his old shot-pulverizing self this season, averaging nearly two blocks per game and nearly as many steals. He’s been a key to Atlanta’s defense, who give up 7.6 less points per 100 possessions when Smith is on the floor. Smith has simplified his game on offense, but on defense he’s still as versatile and terrifying as ever. What might hold Smith back is that the Hawks are only 13th in defensive efficiency, and players on average defensive teams rarely receive official accolades for their defense.
One of the league’s best pick-and-roll defenders, Varejao’s quickness for his size and hustle has allowed him to disrupt plays on the perimeter and rotate back to the paint to cut off penetration. Varejao has a reputation for flopping, but he’s rarely gone for the flop this season, preferring to jump straight up and contest shots at the basket. The Cavaliers have long considered themselves a defensive team, and Varejao is their most consistent defensive force. What might keep him from winning is that the Cavaliers have had some defensive problems without either Shaquille O’Neal or Zydrunas Ilgauskas in the lineup to defend the rim.
Varejao’s teammate obviously has name recognition, and finished second in DPOY voting last season. When a superstar gets a good defensive rotation, he typically gets rewarded with all-defense selections for years to come. LeBron’s chase-down blocks may be the most spectacular plays anybody is making on the defensive end, and James has also locked down opposing superstars during key stretches this season. James’ length and speed also allows him to do more subtle things on defense, like rotate into the paint and get back to close out on shooters without having to leave his feet. However, James usually doesn’t guard the opposing team’s best player for much of the game, and he generally conserves energy on the defensive end. It’s unlikely that both forward spots will go to players on the same team, and Varejao deserves the selection more than James.
Luc Richard Mbah a Moute:
With his athleticism, tenacity, and absolutely insane wingspan, Mbah a Moute is an absolute beast of a perimeter defender. He is capable of matching up against any opposing swingman, shooting guard, or forward and giving them absolute nightmares. Mbah a Moute is almost certainly the best perimeter defender in the East, and may well be the best lock-down specialist in the NBA. Scott Skiles’ Bucks are fifth in the league in defensive efficiency, which has fueled their playoff hopes this season. Most of the credit for that is due to Andrew Bogut, but the Bucks are also a full 4 points per 100 possessions better on defense when Mbah a Moute plays.
Unfortunately for Mbah a Moute, his offense might keep him from getting all-defense. Because of his limitations on offense, Mbah a Moute only plays 26.5 minutes per game, which might not be enough time on the court to get him noticed come awards time.
KG has missed time due to injury, and has looked a step (or three) slow when he has played. But Boston is still the 2nd-best defensive team in the league, and KG and his pick-and-roll defense are still the backbone of their defensive system. KG’s not the defensive force he was just two years ago, but he’s still a huge asset on defense.
Well, there you go. Six great defenders competing for two spots on the All-Defensive team, and I didn’t even mention guys like Andre Iguodala. There are two consolation prizes, but two of those guys will have nothing to show for the great defensive seasons they’ve had.