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Tim Duncan’s Case for Defensive Player of the Year

With the NBA season coming to a close, talk has begun on who should win the Defensive Player of the Year Award.

While guards like Tony Allen and Klay Thompson are certainly deserving of consideration, the award has morphed into Frontcourt Defensive Player of the Year, and this year will probably be no different. Gary Payton (1996) and Ron Artest (2004) are the only non-PF/C’s to win the award in the last 25 years. That leaves frontcourt players such as Rudy Gobert, DeAndre Jordan, Draymond Green and Tim Duncan as the front-runners for the award, which is voted on by members of the media.

If I had a vote, I would give serious consideration to Tim Duncan. The reasoning for my vote would be twofold: First, Duncan is having a great year defensively. Second, the award might be given as a sort of lifetime achievement award in what may be Duncan’s last NBA season.

The Stats Argument:

The DPOY award is traditionally given to the anchor of a good defensive team. The Spurs qualify in this department – they’re 2nd in DRtg. (102.3 pts/100 possessions) Duncan is a huge part of why the defense is as good as it is. While Kahwi Leonard is excellent on the perimeter, Duncan holds down the interior. Duncan has always been a great anchor because of his positional awareness and his rim protection, skills that haven’t faded much as he has grown older. According to Nylon Calculus, opponents are shooting only 46.7 percent on shots at the rim against Duncan.

Part of Duncan’s excellent rim defense is due to the threat of his ability to block shots. Blocks have long been thought of by stat-heads as a misleading defensive stat because good shot blockers don’t necessarily correlate with good defensive players or creating valuable turnovers. Duncan’s case is different, though. As documented in the book Scorecasting, Duncan hasn’t only been consistently on the leaderboards for blocked shots, but he has been one of the best at blocking shots that his own team recovers, making his blocks much more valuable to his team. This year, Duncan is again doing a great job in blocking shots. He’s eighth in the league in total blocks (131) and also eighth in blocks per game. (1.9/gm)

Although Duncan doesn’t force a lot of turnovers via steals, it warrants mentioning that in year 18 he’s posting a career high in steal percentage (1.4 percent) while contributing 0.8 steals per game.

Defensive rebounding is an often overlooked part of team defense, and an area that Duncan is excelling at as well. Duncan is 11th in the NBA in the percentage of available defensive rebounds he grabs (26.4 DRB percent) and 11th in total defensive rebounds he has grabbed for the season. (473)

Duncan is also on the leaderboards of many advanced stats for defense. He’s fourth in Defensive Rating (97.5), eighth in Defensive Win Shares (4.0), sixth in ESPN’s Real Defensive Plus Minus (4.4) and seventh in Nylon Calculus’ points saved per game. (1.3/gm)

The combination of great rim protection, blocks, defensive rebounding and a great overall Spurs defense that Duncan is leading creates a compelling case for Duncan as DPOY.

The Legacy Argument: 

Another line of reasoning for Duncan receiving the DPOY award is that it should serve as a sort of lifetime achievement award for him and the job he has done in leading the Spurs’ defense. At 38 years old, Duncan has a litany of accomplishments on his NBA resume to make his case as one of the best players to ever play the game. Duncan is a 15-time All-Star, 14-time All-Nba nominee, five-time champion, and two-time MVP.  On the defensive side of the ball, Duncan has been named to the NBA All-Defensive First team eight times and the Second Team six times. The one individual award he has never won though is the Defensive Player of the Year Award, despite being an all-time great defender for his career.

Not only has Duncan individually been a great defender, but he has been an anchor of a Spurs team that has been great defensively for close to two decades. Consider this stat from blogger Kelly Scaletta:

The Spurs’ defense has been great now for 18 years. What better way to reward one of the all-time great defensive teams and players than by giving Duncan his first ever DPOY award? In year 18 of one of the most storied careers in NBA history, this may the NBA’s last chance to recognize Duncan’s brilliance on the defensive end.

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