We have reached the point, friends, where it’s time to end the voting for NBA All-Defensive team. Or it’s at least time to stop using it in barroom arguments and Hall of Fame debates.
It was revealed Wednesday that a “head coach” somewhere in the league cast an All-Defensive vote for Bulls power forward Carlos Boozer. The same Boozer whose flat-footed pick-and-roll defense makes him the target of opposing game plans and a crunch-time spectator so often for Chicago. The same Boozer against whom opposing power forwards posted a very good Player Efficiency Rating of 17.3. The same Boozer who is a regular fixture in all of Chicago’s worst defensive lineups — units that aren’t all that bad, because the team’s coaching and supporting players are so darn good.
Boozer received one second-team vote, placing him exactly two votes behind Shawn Marion, who spent the season tirelessly defending four positions for the Mavericks, one of the league’s 10 best defensive teams. Coaches are not allowed to vote for their players, so the anonymous Boozer backer is not Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau and may not be a head coach at all; some coaches have been known to farm out the voting to staff members.
In any case, your All-Defensive first team:
Guards: Chris Paul, Clippers; Tony Allen, Grizzlies
Forwards: LeBron James, Heat (leading vote-getter); Serge Ibaka, Thunder
Center: Dwight Howard, Magic
And your second team:
Guards: Rajon Rondo, Celtics; Kobe Bryant, Lakers
Forwards: Luol Deng, Bulls; Kevin Garnett, Celtics
Center: Tyson Chandler, Knicks
• Sixers small forward Andre Iguodala did not make either team, which is something of a joke but also gets at the positional limitations of the voting. Coaches are asked to vote by position, but the league typically asks them to consider players as “guards,” “forwards” or “centers,” which is both liberating and constricting. It’s liberating in the sense that a coach need not include both a point guard and a shooting guard on his All-Defensive team, which would have come in handy in rewarding a (theoretical) deserving two-guard left off because of Rondo’s reputation as a long-armed pest at point guard for Boston.
Rondo is a pest, but his defense has dropped off a bit this season. That’s partly because Avery Bradley emerged in Boston to guard the ball, and also because Rondo has had to assume a larger and larger burden on offense as the Celtics’ Big Three age. Rondo has been more vulnerable to one-on-one blow-bys this season, and he is always a bit prone to gambling. He’s a fine defender, but if we can remove him (or even Paul, also a fine defender) to find Iguodala a slot, we should. Opposing small forwards registered a microscopic Player Efficiency Rating of 8.7 when Iguodala was on the floor for the Sixers, a fancy way of saying that Iguodala turned his counterparts to mush as the lead star of a top-three defense.
But we can’t find a slot, because Iguodala is a “forward,” and even though Philadelphia’s Evan Turner can and does swing to small forward (mostly when Iguodala rests), it’d be a stretch to label Iggy a shooting guard for the purposes of placement in this All-Defensive voting system.
That brings us to the two final problematic choices here: Bryant and Ibaka. We went through this last season with Kobe: There is no justification for him to make an All-Defensive team at this stage. That is not to say Bryant is a poor defender. He plays hard, he plays a lot and he is a very smart, committed defender within the Lakers’ scheme. But on a night-to-night basis, the Lakers just don’t ask him to defend the best wing players in the league in the way other teams ask Iguodala, Deng, Paul Pierce, Allen, Bradley and other defense-first aces to do. A large part of Metta World Peace’s value to the Lakers has been his willingness to take on the most taxing defensive assignments consistently, sparing Bryant for scoring and the playoffs.
Again, Bryant is capable of defending elite players when the pressure is on, and when he’s not guarding such players, he’s one of the league’s savviest rovers. He’s also on the court a lot, which you don’t quite say for Bradley, Allen or Ibaka. But for him to make this team ahead of Iguodala or Marion just isn’t right, and shows again that the league’s All-Defensive teams have become the NBA’s equivalent of the Gold Gloves in Major League Baseball: Reputation matters too much.
Ibaka, the league’s leading shot-blocker and runner-up in the Defensive Player of the Year voting, is a thornier problem, because he takes a forward slot that should be Iguodala’s. Ibaka is a hugely impactful defensive player, and he’s getting better. He’s not just a help-side shot-blocker anymore; he gave Pau Gasol problems both in the post and on the move in the Thunder’s win over the Lakers in the conference semifinals, and he is gradually becoming a sounder, more disciplined defender. That’s especially the case in the post, where he looks less uncomfortable and jumpy than he did a year ago.
But the highlight blocked shots have pushed Ibaka’s reputation ahead of reality. He still bites on pump fakes, and his work out in space — against the pick-and-roll and otherwise — remains inconsistent. This stuff is hard to see, but it’s there on the tape if you slow things down and re-watch — imperfect angles, shaky decisions, occasional confusion. Ibaka is not yet in the class of Garnett, Howard, Chandler, Andrew Bogut and other top-notch big-man defenders. Smart, ground-bound sliders like Al Horford, Marc Gasol, Chris Bosh and Elton Brand are more helpful on some nights.
The point is not to disparage Ibaka, who is quite good and about to face the biggest test of his young career in the rampaging Spurs’ pick-and-roll attack. The point is to say that he is not yet a no-brainer for one of these “forward” spots, especially at the expense of Iguodala or Marion.
An interesting point of comparison might be Taj Gibson, one of Chicago’s designated back-line stoppers. Voters likely didn’t consider Gibson for the award because he plays only 20 minutes per game. Ibaka averages just 27 minutes, and while a seven-minute difference in playing time is significant, it’s also worth asking why Ibaka — a young big man with a steady jumper — doesn’t play more if he’s truly one of the three or four best defenders in the league. Scouts ask that very question all the time.
• It’s hard to muster much emotion about the point guard choices. Rondo is a very good defender when engaged, and Paul has long mastered the art of gambling without really gambling. Like Manu Ginobili, Paul has a fantastic sense of timing and anticipation that makes his “gambles” less risky than they’d be in the hands of others. The Clippers were a hair stingier with Paul on the floor, which is impressive, considering how many minutes Paul played with the unreliable Blake Griffin/DeAndre Jordan front line.
There also isn’t a no-brainer snub anywhere in the backcourt. Bradley has a case, but he spent stretches of the season playing fewer than 10 minutes per game. Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley is a pest with no reliable backup, but he has size issues and can be caught ball-watching for steals. Timberwolves rookie point guard Ricky Rubio, a master of both charge-taking and steals, missed 25 of 66 games. Rockets point guard Kyle Lowry never quite found the same defensive menace he showed in 2010-11, and he also was out 19 games.
Dwyane Wade, who received four total votes, is vital to Miami’s aggressive defensive style, but he’s not as crucial or versatile as James. Other potential candidates at guard — such as Chicago’s Ronnie Brewer and Oklahoma City’s Thabo Sefolosha — come with minutes issues and other questions.
• Chandler, the Defensive Player of the Year, probably deserved the first-team spot over Howard, who spent much of the season dividing his own locker room. But even a slightly-less-than-engaged Howard is so good as to make it not really worth getting worked up about.
• Bulls point guard Derrick Rose received one second-team vote despite missing nearly half the season.
• It’s surprising that Celtics small forward Paul Pierce received zero votes. Pierce started the season slowly due to admittedly poor conditioning, but he has become a fine defender.