With the end of the regular season comes the year-end awards, voted on by the media. As such, you can generally get a feel for who will win those awards by reading the articles on the major media outlets. For instance, LeBron James is going to win his third MVP this season. It's written in stone. But this season the Celtics actually have a very viable candidate for another of the year-end awards, the Defensive Player of the Year. Kevin Garnett won the award in 2008, was second in 2011, and is on the extremely short list of finalists again this year.
But as I perused some of the year-end articles, it became very clear to me that your 2012 DPoY will be Tyson Chandler of the Knicks. Chandler's a great defensive player in his own right, and does deserve a lot of credit for bringing a culture of defense to a previously moribund unit like the Knicks. However, even the article writers touting Chandler for DPoY seem to realize that he's winning purely on narrative, more-so than on content. Here are a few excerpts to show what I mean:
On Chandler: "Which takes us to our endgame here. I think it's high time that Chandler's track record, as well as his one-man U-turn of the Knicks' defense, gained some recognition."
On Garnett: "The defensive data are always a bit murkier than for offense, so one can make a solid case for several other recipients. Garnett, in particular, has a strong résumé this season"
On Chandler: "(N)one have been more dominant this season than Chandler, who almost single-handedly transformed the Knicks from a defensive laughingstock into one of the league’s very best on that end. New York has jumped from 23rd in points allowed per possession last season to fifth this season, despite playing one mostly unmotivated defender (Carmelo Anthony) and another “star” who might be the single worst defender among all NBA starters (Amar’e Stoudemire).
The Knicks’ defense has been only marginally better with Chandler on the floor, allowing 98 points per 100 possessions compared to 99.3 when he sits, but that masks his value. Both Mike D’Antoni and Mike Woodson have been absolutely terrified to play the Anthony/Stoudemire combination without Chandler around to fill the leaks; no lineup with Melo and Stoudemire but no Chandler has logged more than 15 minutes per game this season, per NBA.com, and such lineups have been disastrous in their limited floor time."
On Garnett: "But defense is about team results, and if you watch Boston, you know Garnett is the player most responsible for holding things together. Boston allows 4.5 fewer points per 100 possessions when Garnett is on the court, and he is almost always in the right place at the right time.
...No team has allowed fewer points per possession on pick-and-rolls on which the ball-handler finishes the play, and only six have allowed a higher mark on plays the roll man finishes, per Synergy Sports. Garnett ranks among the league’s 10 best defenders, according to Synergy, in guarding pick-and-rolls and spot-up chances.
...And Garnett’s post defense against opposing centers, once thought of as a potential liability, has been anything but. Opposing bigs are shooting just 37.7 percent in the post against Garnett, and Boston has allowed the lowest points per possession mark in the league on post-up plays."
On Chandler: "This is a roundabout way of saying it's almost impossible to vote for this award, and that an intuitive team trend trumps all the fancy metrics for me. You can stare at Chandler's Synergy spreadsheet and on- and off-court breakdown all you want, but the bottom line is that his addition to the Knicks immediately and dramatically transformed them from one of the league's worst defensive teams to one of the best."
On Garnett: "We all know the Celtics' Kevin Garnett was a great defender in his day. But I didn't know Garnett has allowed one point or more on only 34.8 percent of the possessions he has guarded this season, held opponents to .346 shooting from the field and allowed only 437 points on 630 possessions -- .692 points per possession, among the best in the league. Those are Defensive Player of the Year numbers, point blank.
... If we're looking at the totality of defensive possessions guarded, Garnett is the best defender I'm considering."
Do you notice the trend in tone and content? All three of the above writers cast their vote for Tyson Chandler. But if you read their reasoning, when defending their pick for Chandler they all say (paraphrase) that the Knicks' team defense got much better and, though the available +/- data doesn't tie that directly to Chandler as much as they'd like, they're confident that he is ultimately the cause. Meanwhile, when it comes to Garnett, all of them allude to the fact that his individual defensive stats are better than Chandler's...probably the best in the league, in fact. But despite that, they like the feel of the Knicks' and Chandler's story. And since I don't have a vote, all I can do is say "ok" and keep it moving. But, before I do, I thought I'd flesh out those "defensive stats" for Garnett this season. And let's do it from top-to-bottom, from team to individual, across all the major ways that we have to evaluate defense.
Celtics #1 in NBA (98.2 points allowed/100 possessions)
Knicks #5 in NBA (101.0 points allowed/100 possessions)
Basketball-reference defensive rating: (lower is better)
Garnett: 94.2 (#1 in NBA)
Chandler 98.7 (#14 in NBA)
Defensive Regularized Adjusted +/- : (higher is better)
Garnett +3.9 (#1 in NBA)
Chandler +2.7 (#16 in NBA)
Since some of the articles above already mentioned KG's Synergy 1-on-1 defensive numbers, let's recap. Garnett led the best defense in the NBA this year. The website that has developed the most accepted box score estimate of individual contribution to team defense based on historical linear regression, Basketball Reference, estimates that Garnett was the best defender in the NBA during his time on the court. And by an entirely different family of stats, the +/- stats, the best single-season +/- measure also marks Garnett as the best defender in the NBA this year. And on a 1-on-1 basis, Synergy agrees that Garnett has been at the very top of the league by giving up a point less than 35% of the time. And while Chandler may have done a great job with the defensive culture in New York, it can't hold a candle to the defensive culture that Garnett maintains in Boston.
So...a really good guy, with a really good story is going to win the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award this season. But the best defensive player in the NBA still resides in Boston, whether he gets the recognition or not.