Tim Duncan for Defensive Player of the Year ... please?
Don't look now, but Oscar season is once again upon us. The studios have released and hyped their prestige pictures, the lesser award shows are coming in droves, and the entertainment rags are publishing a deluge of "Oscar odds" pieces.
While not exactly a movie buff, I am a sucker for controversy, and that is why my favorite Oscar tradition is the annual (and infamous) "legacy winner." I'm talking about John Wayne winning for True Grit, Paul Newman for The Color of Money, Martin Scorsese for The Departed -- grizzled old legends, long denied the ultimate prize, who garner a late-career nod for an achievement that isn't quite their best.
These kinds of votes, of course, drive some people absolutely mad. This is supposed to be an award for this year! How can the Academy ignore more worthy performance(s)?! Personally, I couldn't be happier that an old bad-ass like Newman won an Oscar over, say, James Woods for Salvador. Screw James Woods! So what if The Departed wouldn't even rank in the top five films in Scorsese's catalog? I love Scorsese, and I'm happy he finally won.
We sportswriters like to pretend our own awards are more objective than the ones handed out by Hollywood; sports are games of numbers, with clear winners and losers. It's all nonsense, of course. There are odd, unspoken formulas for each -- team success and scoring for sports, period pieces and playing disabled people for Hollywood. If Oscar voters can award legacy Oscars, why can't sportswriters?
Fortunately, it just so happens that there is an opportunity for the NBA to bestow an award on a grizzled legend who has been denied for far too long. I'm referring, of course, to Timothy Theodore Duncan: (future) 2014–15 NBA Defensive Player of the Year.
While The Big Fundamental - -- winner of two league MVPs, three Finals MVPs, one All-Star MVP, and three collegiate Player of the Year awards - -- doesn't need a DPOY Award to fill out his career resume, no one can claim that honoring a defensive legend with the one piece of hardware missing on his shelf would be unjust.
It wouldn't be enough to simply call the 38-year-old power forward the best defender never to win DPOY - -- he is arguably the second-greatest defender of all time.
Recently, Duncan passed a fascinating (yet relatively unknown) career milestone, becoming just the second player in NBA history to reach 100 Basketball-Reference defensive win shares.
This is one of those rare moments where stat-heads can agree with 70-year-old basketball lifers: Bill Russell is the greatest defensive player of all time. Win shares are far from perfect as a metric, but the fact that Russell is so far ahead of the pack, combined with his sterling historical reputation, gives him a clear edge.
But where does that leave Duncan?
The man is to NBA defense what Hank Aaron was to home runs during his playing career, providing consistent, oft-overlooked brilliance over a staggeringly long period. Five times during his career, Duncan has led the NBA in defensive win shares, and four times he posted the league's lowest D-Rating. He has been named to the NBA All-Defense team in 13 of his first 16 seasons -- eight times on the 1st team and five times on the 2nd team. He ranks seventh all time in blocks, the only non-center (wink, wink) on the list.
Most importantly, Duncan has anchored a consistently great Spurs defense for nearly two decades. Only once in his 16 seasons has San Antonio finished outside the top 10 in team defensive efficiency. That was in 2010–11, when they ended up 11th.
And it's not just what the old man has done over the course of his career. Duncan's performance this season does, in fact, merit consideration for DPOY on its own.
The defending champs -- decimated by injury, with Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard, Patty Mills and Tiago Splitter all missing significant time - still rank fifth in the NBA in D-Rating, and Duncan is the main reason why. He ranks fourth in the league in defensive win shares (despite playing fewer total minutes than any player in the top nine), fifth in blocks per game, and first in defensive box plus/minus, a metric which estimates the number of points a player saves on defense per 100 possessions.
Duncan is dominating with far more than guile. He has never possessed the bulging biceps of rim protectors like Dwight Howard or Ben Wallace, but he remains one of the strongest big men in the NBA. Duncan doesn't merely swat balls into the stands -- once he gets one of those big mitts on the ball, he can still easily overpower younger bigs.
Perhaps the most astonishing measure of Duncan's physical dominance is what the big man has been able to do at the end of games. He is averaging 32.1 minutes per game - -- his most since 2008–09 -- yet still is able to make his mark in crunch time.
Take, for example, his performance on Dec. 19. The Spurs were pulled into three overtimes against the Portland Trail Blazers, two nights after playing three overtimes against the Memphis Grizzlies. San Antonio lost both contests, but old man Duncan was magnificent throughout, following up a 48-minute performance against Memphis with a punishing 43 minutes against Portland, and still had enough left in the tank to stuff LaMarcus Aldridge and Wesley Matthews in double-OT.
It seems paradoxical to honor one of the winningest players of his generation when his team is struggling (at least by Spurs standards), but San Antonio would truly be lost without Duncan's defensive mastery. If he isn't currently the best defender in the NBA, he is certainly on the short list; a nominee, if you will. So perhaps the time has come to give Duncan his True Grit DPOY award. There's nothing wrong with a token of appreciation for a magnificent defensive player before he rides off into the sunset.
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