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By David Nelson and Damien Walker

portions of this article have already appeared in Chris Palmer's "The Invisible Man" in the April 23rd issue of ESPN The Magazine

Ron Artest Defensive Player of the Year Ben Wallace Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Camby Defensive Player of the Year Bruce Bowen Defensive Player of the Year Kevin Garnett Defensive Player of the Year Shawn Marion Defensive Player of the Year Okafor Wallace Defensive Player of the Year Tim Duncan Defensive Player of the Year


The traits that make up a good NBA defender are hard to measure statistically. However, with the amount of raw data now publicly available, new measurements can be applied to assess a player’s defensive value beyond currently utilized statistics. It seems that every year most discussions regarding the NBA Defensive Player of the Year contain at least as much subjective argument as statistical data. We intend to present an argument based almost entirely on statistical measures.

We have used seven defensive measures to evaluate and rank the NBA’s defensive standouts. Three are commonly utilized: Steals, Blocks, and Defensive Rebounds. The others are designed to measure the intangible, previously subjective aspects of defense: Defensive Plus/Minus, Personal Foul Efficiency, Offensive Conversion Rate, and Block Value. Based on these very telling measures, it is our conclusion that Shawn Marion has the edge in a close race for this year’s NBA Defensive Player of the Year award.

It is that time of the year in the NBA. The regular season is over, the playoffs are looming, and matchup discussions have begun. Yet one order of business remains before we can give the playoffs our full attention. It’s time to discuss regular season awards.

MVP, Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year? As avid NBA fans, we love the debate and drama that we are presented with at this time every season. Every analyst has an opinion, but it is only at this time of the year that seemingly every analyst feels an absolute and undeniable need to express it. Yet even as we revel in the uncensored remarks of any and every individual who decides to enter the fray, a few things have begun to irk us with regard to one award in particular?


Every year when it comes to the Defensive Player of the Year award we hear the same subjective arguments, every year we hear the same names discussed, and every year we watch as this award is presented to the NBA’s best defensive center. After some serious digging, we have finally discovered why. Our sources tell us that in early 1995, the panel of voters decided that any time spent on statistical analysis for a completely irrelevant award was wasted. A top-secret meeting was held to simplify the selection process. The following memo was distributed:


Step 1: Choose list of finalists from among NBA’s top 10 in blocks and rebounds (no in-depth analysis necessary).

Step 2: Whenever possible, develop anecdotal arguments to highlight one-sided defensive players and eliminate candidates with even marginal offensive ability.

Step 3: Once per decade give the award to a non-center with a high steal total (preferably on a team with 60 wins).

In all seriousness, we understand that many voters for this award research the candidates extensively. We also admit and accept that most stats do have limitations, and many things visible to the trained eye don’t show up on the stat tables. But with the amount of raw data now available to the public, subjective discussions no longer need outnumber meaningful player comparisons. For this reason we have embarked on a quest to measure the immeasurables, to compare all deserving candidates, and to arrive at a statistically valid conclusion as to who deserves to be the next Defensive Player of the Year.


(For NBA rank in steals, blocks, and defensive rebounds, we used qualified rankings as defined on 's stat pages. Our eight finalists were selected on March 10, 2007.)

Our goal is to provide an in-depth statistical comparison of the NBA’s best defensive players. To begin, we need between six and ten NBA players that stand out from the rest. To narrow the field, we examined the league’s best in the following categories:

Statistical Dominance ?Players that have either led the NBA in one of the big-three defensive stats (steals, blocks, defensive rebounds) or ranked among the top ten in two of the three. These players will frequently turn heads with impressive defensive stat lines: Ron Artest, Marcus Camby, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Shawn Marion, Emeka Okafor.

Statistical Versatility ?Players that have ranked in the top thirty in each of the big three defensive stats. These players fill the stat sheet night in and night out: Kevin Garnett, Shawn Marion, Ben Wallace.

Defensive Intangibles ?League leaders in Defensive Plus/Minus*. These players do the little things that add up to big defensive value for their teams: Devin Harris, Bruce Bowen, Anthony Parker, Tim Duncan, Emeka Okafor, Jorge Garbajosa, David Lee, Rudy Gay, Andris Biedrins, Manu Ginobili.

Previous Awards ?Players that have either won a Defensive Player of the Year award or been selected to multiple NBA All-Defensive squads over the past three seasons. The voters have already determined that these players are among the best: Ben Wallace, Ron Artest, Bruce Bowen, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Jason Kidd, Kobe Bryant, Andrei Kirilenko, Marcus Camby, Tayshaun Prince, Chauncey Billups.

Defensive Reputation ?Players that have received multiple mentions in published articles this season in a defensive award-winning capacity. Yes this one is especially subjective, but the buzz unquestionably surrounds these players in particular: Ron Artest, Shane Battier, Bruce Bowen, Marcus Camby, Tim Duncan, Shawn Marion, Ben Wallace.

* Defensive plus/minus measures the difference per 100 possessions in points allowed with a player on the court versus off the court. We used Defensive Plus/Minus to help us to assess statistically a player’s defensive intangibles and defensive value to his team. For more on Defensive Plus/Minus see below.

The lists above demonstrate how we narrowed the field and are not all-encompassing. For example, Dikembe Mutombo does not appear above, but would have been strongly considered were it not for his limited team role; Dwayne Wade does not appear, but would likely have been a finalist were it not for his injury. Regardless, we feel that these lists present an excellent cross-section of the players examined for consideration.

Using our five categories as a guide, we eliminated possible candidates. If a player did not make the cut he was usually excluded for one of two reasons. First, a player may have been overshadowed by a similar player with superior stats. For example, David Lee and Shane Battier were excellent statistically and demonstrated great defensive value, but could not measure up to players like Kevin Garnett or Shawn Marion. In other cases a player’s dominance in a single area may not have been enough to overcome deficiencies elsewhere. For example, Devin Harris, despite leading the league in plus/minus, missed the cut because he did not appear in any other categories. Contrast this to Bowen, who has stats very similar to Harris across the board, but made the cut because of his immaculate reputation and five straight first-team NBA All-Defensive selections.

In the end we selected eight finalists:

ARTEST, RON ?Long-standing reputation as a fantastic defender. The only non-center to have won the DPOY award in the last decade.

BOWEN, BRUCE ?Made NBA All-Defensive Teams each of the last six years. Often touted as the best one-on-one defender in the league.

CAMBY, MARCUS ?A dominating interior presence. Has consistently maintained a top-two league ranking in blocks and defensive rebounds.

DUNCAN, TIM ?Voted to NBA All-Defensive Teams for the last nine seasons. A superb defender on a fantastic defensive team.

GARNETT, KEVIN ?A stat machine that finds the motivation to give 110% every night for a below average team. On the defensive end he does it all.

MARION, SHAWN ?Gives consistently great defensive performances against the best in the league. Shows up among the league leaders in every conceivable statistical category.

OKAFOR, EMEKA ?An absolute force in the middle, with the stats to show for it.

WALLACE, BEN ?A stalwart defender. Has won four of the last five Defensive Player of the Year awards. Enough said.


In our final evaluations we compare our candidates across seven statistical categories. The big three - steals, blocks, and defensive rebounds - are stats that no Defensive POY discussion should be without. However, the purpose of this analysis is to try and quantify some of the more intangible aspects of defense. We believe that the additional measures that we have compiled, when used in conjunction with the more commonly utilized stats, provide a much more well-rounded assessment of our candidates. These measures are:

Personal Foul Efficiency ?Measures ratio of steals plus blocks to personal fouls. Indicates how efficiently a player forces turnovers, removing the bias of jump-happy or slaptastic players who accumulate deceptive block or steal totals. Andris Biedrins?block total seems comparable to Ben Wallace’s, until you realize that Wallace has more blocks with half the fouls. This statistic can be deceiving, since fouls may increase with defensive effort, but it is still a useful measure for comparative analysis.

Defensive Plus/Minus ?Measures the difference per 100 possessions in points allowed with a player on the court versus off the court. The accuracy of this measure varies dependent upon how often you are on the floor and whom you share it with. This statistic is sometimes problematic, but in most cases it provides a good indication of a player’s overall defensive value to his team **.

Offensive Conversion Rate ?Measures the percentage of a player's steals that result in a made basket or free throw attempts within 5 seconds. It is a measure of a player's transition defense in terms of how frequently his steals lead to offensive production. For example, during a game against Detroit, Ben Wallace anticipated a pass and stole the ball at the defensive end. He dribbled slowly downcourt and passed to Tyrus Thomas who was fouled on a dunk attempt. Wallace’s anticipation led directly to offensive opportunity, giving the steal more value. In this case, the action took 6 seconds. Had the steal occurred in transition or facing up with his defender near the perimeter, he easily would have converted within 5 seconds.

Block Value ?Measures PPG average of all opponents blocked. In most cases, a block against a good scorer is of greater value than a block against an NBA 12th man. Thus, each block has value relative to the player whose shot is blocked. A higher BV is typically an indication that a player is getting more quality blocks and/or drawing more difficult assignments. For instance, Orlando players Darko Milicic and Dwight Howard have roughly equal block totals, but if Milicic registered all his blocks against Michael Doleac, and Howard registered all his blocks against Dwayne Wade, the value of Howard’s blocks would far exceed those of Milicic.

** Defensive Plus/Minus was taken directly from All other statistical data was imported from or compiled using ESPN's Play-by-Play logs. For more information about the data on which this article was based, send an email to [email protected]

*** Many have attempted to improve upon this measure, but the work of these individuals remains unavailable to us, and any effort on our own parts to improve this measure would have severely delayed the distribution of this article. See for a detailed description of Defensive Plus/Minus and its limitations.

All of these measures have limitations, but we feel that the additional insight provided by these statistics allows for a more valuable appraisal of our candidates. Using these statistics as guidelines for a broad comparative analysis helps to clear up the picture, allowing us to confidently rank our candidates. Our arguments are certainly not indefensible, but we feel we are only giving voice to what the stats have already made clear. As fans of the game, and not professional writers by any stretch of the imagination, we welcome any and all efforts to critique our writing or methods.

 Artest, Ron 2.13 2
 Marion, Shawn 1.95 6
 Wallace, Ben 1.44 17
 Camby, Marcus 1.24 27
 Garnett, Kevin 1.17 35
 Okafor, Emeka 0.85 78
 Duncan, Tim 0.83 80
 Bowen, Bruce 0.76 91
 Camby, Marcus 3.30 1
 Okafor, Emeka 2.57 4
 Duncan, Tim 2.38 5
 Wallace, Ben 2.03 10
 Garnett, Kevin 1.66 16
 Marion, Shawn 1.53 21
 Artest, Ron 0.61 52
 Bowen, Bruce 0.30 93

 Garnett, Kevin 10.4 1
 Camby, Marcus 9.3 2
 Duncan, Tim 7.9 7
 Marion, Shawn 7.7 8
 Okafor, Emeka 7.4 10
 Wallace, Ben 6.7 13
 Artest, Ron 5.0 30
 Bowen, Bruce 2.4 120
 Camby, Marcus 1.75
 Wallace, Ben 1.74
 Marion, Shawn 1.29
 Duncan, Tim 1.28
 Garnett, Kevin 1.18
 Okafor, Emeka 1.10
 Artest, Ron 0.94
 Bowen, Bruce 0.50

 Bowen, Bruce 9.5
 Duncan, Tim 6.6
 Okafor, Emeka 5.7
 Garnett, Kevin 5.7
 Artest, Ron 1.5
 Marion, Shawn 0.5
 Camby, Marcus -2.3
 Wallace, Ben -2.4
 Camby, Marcus 34.5%
 Marion, Shawn 31.0%
 Artest, Ron 28.3%
 Bowen, Bruce 24.2%
 Wallace, Ben 23.4%
 Garnett, Kevin 19.8%
 Duncan, Tim 16.9%
 Okafor, Emeka 14.0%
 Artest, Ron 15.6
 Marion, Shawn 15.5
 Bowen, Bruce 14.9
 Garnett, Kevin 13.8
 Camby, Marcus 13.8
 Okafor, Emeka 13.7
 Duncan, Tim 12.7
 Wallace, Ben 12.2


After our data was compiled one thing was clear: there was no clear-cut winner this season. Every one of the players we examined is a defensive standout, and every one should be considered for All-Defensive Team selections. But in our eyes it is a three-man race. Before we analyze our finalists, we must rank the other candidates.


Okafor is an absolute beast in the middle. Good for over 2.5 blocks a night, and capable of 10, Okafor makes teams stop short in the lane or face the consequences. His length and skill in using his body and off-hand for blocking shots places him among the league’s elite, and the fact that he is only 24 years old and is already a three year veteran is a frightening fact for penetration guards and big men alike. His maturation after the injury-plagued 2005-2006 season is exemplified by his efficient defensive rebounding rate, and his prodigious ability to block shots without drawing too many fouls, both improvements from his brief tenure last season. Okafor also maintains a respectable Block Value in comparison to other big men. As a team the Bobcats defense is middling, but that only punctuates Okafor’s overall defensive impact, demonstrated by his very good Defensive Plus/Minus rating. Unfortunately, Okafor’s numbers outside of his block totals limit his candidacy. His defensive rebounding is excellent but not outstanding. His 0.85 steals per game, while respectable for his position, are low in comparison to our other candidates, and he rarely is able to convert those steals into quick baskets. Were it not for Okafor’s injury he may have been a top-four candidate, but his long absence and reduced effectiveness after his return eliminates him from serious consideration.


Ron-Ron’s reputation as one of the league's best one-on-one defenders is well deserved. That he consistently draws the most difficult defensive assignments for his team is indicated by his high Block Value - he provides few blocks, but the ones he does get are almost always against quality opponents. Artest's ability to play the passing lanes is a huge asset. He has been tops in the league in steals for most of the season, and ranks highly in converting those steals to offense. Still, Artest's rebounding numbers are a bit disappointing considering his level of athleticism, his Foul Efficiency rating is low, and his Defensive Plus/Minus has slipped since his last full season in the league. Artest remains an impact player on the defensive end, but he has unquestionably been hurt by the league rule changes. As more NBA teams switch to more wide open offensive schemes, Artest may continue to have fewer and fewer opportunities to demonstrate his strengths: to defend in the post and shut down the opponent's best isolation plays.


Other than Marion, Big Ben is the only player to have maintained a top-twenty rating in steals, blocks and defensive rebounds for nearly the entire season. While he is not among the league leaders in any of these stats, he has been consistently good across the board, and has been so without committing fouls. His steals per game average is exceptional when compared to the league’s centers, and he shows above-average adeptness at converting steals into buckets on the offensive end. His block totals may be slightly inflated; his low Block Value suggests that he is getting fewer blocks against quality players. Where Wallace has suffered the most this season has been his overall impact. While he is still compiling impressive stats, his numbers are on a steady decline. That the Bulls are 2.4 points worse defensively with Wallace on the floor is truly startling, especially considering that Detroit was more than 10 points better with Wallace on the floor last season. This may be due in part to Wallace's new surroundings. In Detroit, Wallace was the premier defender and the only rebounder of value, whereas Chicago already excelled at defense and team rebounding before Wallace arrived. Whatever the limitation, we can safely say that Big Ben is not quite the player he once was.


The NBA’s lock-down defender, Bruce Bowen complements Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili to form one of the most feared defensive trios in the league. While Bowen remains an offensive liability if his threes are not falling, the man creates nightmares for opposing teams and their ability to score. Bowen is tall enough, quick enough, and has sufficient reach to frustrate players from point guards to power forwards. His high Block Value demonstrates that, like Artest and Marion, Bowen is regularly assigned guard to the most dangerous offensive weapon on the floor. Despite a poor showing in the big three statistical categories, Bowen’s value is markedly increased by his ridiculously good Defensive Plus/Minus rating. However, this is all that separates Bowen from the competition, and since his Plus/Minus rating may be somewhat inflated from frequently sharing the floor with other defensive standouts, it is difficult to justify ranking Bowen any higher than fifth among our candidates. He is a distant eighth-place among our contenders in steals, blocks, and rebounds, and given the rate at which he accumulates steals and blocks, it should come as no surprise that his Foul Efficiency is poor. Bowen also has a middling OCR, showing that many of his steals come in his own territory, and he has trouble pushing the ball up the floor once he acquires it. He may remain the single-best off-the-ball defender in the league and a first team All-NBA Defense candidate, but his low statistical contributions exclude him from serious consideration for one of the top four spots in the voting.


KG does it all. Offensive monster, defensive machine and all-around force, Garnett is unequivocally the best player on a below-average team. Perhaps what is most amazing about Garnett is his ability to bring his quality game on any given night. KG is the ultimate glass-wiper, with more than one board a night more than Camby, his closest league competitor, and almost two-and-a-half more than Duncan and Okafor. Garnett also posts a respectable steal rate, especially in comparison to other big-men, and provides almost 1.7 blocks per game, joining Wallace and Marion as the only players in the top 30 in each of the big three defensive categories. While he draws more than his share of fouls, this is unsurprising given the help (or lack thereof) he has from the rest of his team. He has a quality Plus/Minus rating, demonstrating his defensive importance to the Wolves. KG also provides quality Block Value to his team, separating himself from most big men in this category. If you add his astounding offensive production to his overall defensive acumen, you can conclude that KG is one of the best overall players in the league. However, several important factors limit his candidacy for Defensive Player of the Year. First, he is last among our big men in blocks per game, and his overall rank in the category is hardly becoming of a forward of his size and athletic ability. Also, his relatively low block rate and his very low OCR demonstrate that Garnett is most effective under the basket grabbing defensive boards. In addition, Garnett has a below-average OCR, indicating that his steals come not in transition, but from double-teams or under the basket positioning. What most limits Garnett, however, is his team. Equivalent production on a 50-win team may put him in contention for the award. Unfortunately for Garnett, he is still playing for a 30-win team that finished the season in the bottom third of the league in Defensive Efficiency.



Camby's game changing ability on the interior is made obvious by his top-two NBA rank in both blocks and defensive rebounds. While Camby does not facilitate a ton of steals, his per-game average is fantastic when compared to others at his position. Camby also has an unusually high OCR, demonstrating that his above-average court awareness not only results in steals, but also results in baskets at the other end. His low Block Value suggests that his block numbers are inflated with some garbage blocks, but even in that category he compares favorably with centers like Duncan and Wallace. Among our candidates Camby is also the most efficient with his personal fouls, but considering the amount of blocks and steals he generates, this comes as no surprise. Camby’s defensive impact has been felt in nearly every statistical category, and the fact that he pushed his game up a notch during the final weeks of the season certainly helps his chances to win the award. Camby’s only downside so far this season has been a very bad Plus/Minus rating, which charts him as a 2.3 point defensive liability per 100 possessions. Were it not for the known deficiencies of this measure, Camby would not rank among our finalists, but considering his huge overall defensive contribution, dropping Camby out of the running on the basis of a single tenuous measure would be unfair. Had Camby finished the season with an improved Plus/Minus and missed fewer games to injury, he would have been a lock for the award. As it stands, Camby is not our top choince, but certainly deserves significant consideration for this year’s Defensive Player of the Year.


Some may argue that Duncan is not even the best defensive player on his own team, but his statistical contributions are immense. Duncan is among the league leaders in blocks and defensive rebounds, comfortably within the top ten of both categories. Last season Duncan had the benefit of another 7-footer in the middle in Nazr Mohammed, but he has carried the load admirably in Mohammed’s absence. His Plus/Minus rating among our candidates is second only to Bowen, and despite the possibility that this number is somewhat inflated, his defensive impact is undeniable. Teams learn the hard way that driving a Duncan-filled lane or trying to outrebound TD are weak bets at best. Duncan does have his weak points. His steal total is low considering that the Spurs?defense regularly funnels players into the lane, and a low OCR highlights that most of his steals come under his own basket and rarely in transition. Also, Duncan’s Block Value shows that many of his stops come against weaker competition, or against late game bench players. Still, we cannot fault Duncan too much simply because his enormous defensive contributions come primarily from the low-post. Tim remains one of the best defenders in the league, the anchor for the league’s most highly touted defensive team, and an unquestionable First Team NBA All-Defensive player. Duncan should get serious consideration for the award, and his outstanding D this season qualifies him as our runner-up for the 2006-2007 Defensive Player of the Year award.


Marion is a rarity among NBA players. In addition to his obvious offensive capabilities, Marion makes his presence felt in every imaginable defensive category. Marion has been in the top five in steals for most of the season, and because of his explosive speed it should come as no surprise that Marion’s OCR is among the highest. The fact that Marion is adept at playing the passing lanes is obvious, but Marion shines even more brightly in the big-man categories of blocks and rebounds. The fact that Marion has ranked in the top five in the league in defensive rebounding for most of the season is astounding. The 6? Marion starts at the small forward position, yet Marion grabbed more defensive boards per game than 53 of 60 starting centers and power forwards in the league, and did so playing next to an accomplished rebounder in 6?1 Amare Stoudemire. Analyzing Marion’s blocked shots shows similar production. While Marion is not in the same league as players like Camby or Okafor in raw shot-blocking ability, Marion’s 1.5 per-game average is more than half a block more than that of Gerald Wallace, the next best shot blocker of equivalent size. Like Artest and Bowen, Marion is given the toughest defensive assignments a great deal of the time, and sports a fantastic Block Value as a result. Yet Marion’s season block total is nearly triple of that of Artest or Bowen, and unlike Artest or Bowen, Marion maintains a very good Personal Foul Efficiency. Marion’s tougher-than-average defensive assignments put his stats into even greater perspective: while many of the big men on our list have the luxury of consistently playing near the basket on the defensive end, inflating their numbers in blocks and rebounds, Marion is often forced to defend very good perimeter players, making it that much more difficult to secure his position amongst the league-leaders in these categories. Marion, like all of our candidates, has his deficiencies. His Defensive Plus/Minus is less than impressive, and reduced minutes in the final six weeks of the season has caused a decline in his numbers across the board. Still, Marion’s impact in every statistical category and his ability to guard everyone on the floor from 1 to 5 make him our choice for the 2006-2007 Defensive Player of the Year.


“Wait. So what you’re telling us is that the Defensive Player of the Year award this year should go to a gifted offensive player that is a 6? small forward? And worst of all, you want to give the award to a member of the no-defense Phoenix Suns??

 Wallace CHI 97.0 1
 Bowen SAS 97.4 2
 Duncan SAS 97.4 2
 Camby DEN 102.7 9
 Marion PHO 103.4 13
 Okafor CHA 104.8 20
 Artest SAC 105.2 21
 Garnett MIN 105.3 22

Since Marion has actually gotten some nods for the award of late, this may be a bit less surprising than at midseason, when we concluded that Marion was the clear choice for the award. Still, Marion’s D has many detractors, often fueled by one of the most popular misconceptions expressed by the general public (and by most TV and radio analysts): that the Suns are a horrible defensive team. Yes, looking at PPG allowed there are not many worse, but Defensive Efficiency is a far more accurate representation of team defense. Looking at points allowed per-possession, not only is Marion a fantastic defender, he is also a fantastic defender for a better than average defensive ballclub.

While Marion is our choice for the award, a strong case could be made for any one of our finalists. The factor that caused us to choose Marion over the others is his overall versatility. Marion is the next-gen defender. Long, strong and athletic, Marion can keep up with the fastest point guards, and is disciplined enough to defend the best low-post scorers. His ability to play the passing lanes and pick up steals or deflections is even more valuable because of his ability to run the floor or make the outlet pass. Combine this with the fact that he holds his own against any big man in the league when it comes to blocks and defensive rebounds, and you can understand why Shawn Marion gets our nod for Defensive Player of the Year. Traditionally, Marion has been viewed as a player without a position, but smart coaches and GMs can tell you that this is not a bad thing, and with the NBA game opening up more each season, players with Marion’s defensive skill set will be more coveted than ever.

David Nelson is a full-time educator and a PhD candidate in the field of History. Damien Walker has degrees in History and Political Science and is currently working as a professional poker player. Both are avid NBA fans, amateur statisticians, and professed World of Warcraft addicts. The authors welcome any and all comments of any nature. Please send all comments to [email protected]

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