Howard is the DPOY, but he’s no Garnett
Dwight Howard just won his 3rd straight Defensive Player of the Year, and I don’t disagree with the choice. In fact, I don’t disagree with any of the three votings that gave Howard the award. However, with Howard becoming the first player to win the award three times in a row comes discussion of how Howard stands compared to the best defenders of other eras, and there is a problem with this: Howard isn’t even the most impactful defender of this era, that would be Kevin Garnett.
Let’s start out by acknowledging that Howard and Garnett don’t play defense the same way. When we think of the great defensive big men, we tend to think of blocked shots. Howard fits that bill significantly more than Garnett. Although lets pause and consider that Howard’s 2.3 BPG this year, is only just ahead of Garnett’s 2.2 BPG peak – and that Howard’s never actually averaged 3 blocks per game in his career. If Howard were putting up these blocking numbers in other eras, we wouldn’t look at him as anything like the shotblocking ideal he often gets talked about today.
Still, thinking about defense in these terms, it’s not at all hard to see why people think Howard’s the superior defender when comparing peak to peak, and especially now as Garnett ages. Add in Howard’s current rebounding edge, and the fact that Orlando always ranks well on defense despite Howard’s supporting cast not having a stellar defensive reputation, and the debate is over before it begins in a lot of people’s minds.
Garnett, Russell & the Horizontal Game
Garnett’s defense is significantly harder to sum up. Everyone who has watched him knows that his string bean frame combines great length with great quickness. There is some appreciation for how this allows him to be more versatile in who he guards than anyone else in the game. There is clear and glowing appreciation for Garnett’s religious intensity both in his effort on the floor, and the clear emotional push he gives his team.
More recently he’s been getting attention for what I call his “middle linebacker” role for his team’s defense. Meaning, he’s the floor general of his team’s defense, picking up on the opposition’s moves and strategems and directing his teammates.
I don’t think anyone would disagree that these are all good things, or that Garnett is a great defender, but most are reluctant to elevate Garnett too definitively based on these observations and I completely understand such hesitation. It’s not easy to compare two defenders who don’t have identical strengths and weaknesses – so most just go with what’s traditionally understood to be the gold standard.
I think it may be helpful if I could knock down the idea of the gold standard to some degree. Take a look at this quote from Bill Russell: A Biography:
Bill understood that Wilt’s game was more vertical, that is, from the floor to the basket. Wilt’s game was one of strength and power…Bill’s game was built on finesse and speed, what he called a horizontal game, as he moved back and forth across the court blocking shots, running the floor, and playing team defense.
I realize that it talks about Bill Russell blocking shots, but understand Wilt Chamberlain blocked shots like crazy too. What the book is referring to is Russell’s quickness edge, his ability to race out and around to challenge the opposition and recover back to the interior without getting burned, as well as the intelligence with which he played defense.
In short, that which gave Russell the edge over Chamberlain is exactly what Garnett has over Howard. Now of course, Russell has the additional edge that Garnett does not in his shotblocking, but let’s keep in mind that with the rise of the outside game shotblocking is not as powerful a force as it used to be and that I’m not saying Garnett’s defensive impact should be considered the equal of Russell’s.
Garnett lapping the field
Still not enough to sway you? Understandable, and this where these new fangled advanced stats become so revolutionary. You’ve seen me wax optimistic about the benefits of +/- statistics before, here is where I find them extremely powerful. Below are the top 10 players by 3 different studies among players who most of the years in the study and did so playing more than 24 minutes per games:
The 3 studies are:
1) Ilardi’s 6 Year Adjusted +/- from ’03-04 to ’08-09.
2) Engelmann’s 6 Year Regularized Adjusted +/- from ’05-06 to ’10-11.
3) Engelmann’s 4 Year Regularized Adjusted +/- from ’07-08 to ’10-11.
Now don’t worry about the shift in scale of the numbers. The “regularization” technique Engelmann uses means you can’t actually look at the numbers as literally representing the number of points a player is lifting his team – but it makes the rankings and proportions between the players more precise.
As far as why I cut off the ranking based on playing enough, I do that because I think that gives us the best picture of who would be in the running for defensive accolades based on the metric, and because I there’s a lot of distortion applying the metric to non-big minute guys. If you want to knock this approach as cherry-picking that’s your right, and we can debate. I’ll certainly agree it’s arbitrary.
Looking analyzing these metric, the first thing you’ll see is that Garnett leads all 3 of them. That’s nice, but there are two more “Holy Crap!” things to consider:
1) On all 3 metrics, the gap between Garnett and the #2 guy in the league is bigger than the gap between the #2 and the #10 by a VERY large margin.
2) Garnett switched teams before ’07-08, and it didn’t change this in the slightest. And in case you’re thinking that all 3 studies include time in Boston, understand that Garnett’s +/- peak was when he was in Minnesota, and that even Ilardi’s study doesn’t cover all of that.
That kind of consistent domination in the metric – how the heck did Garnett pull that off if wasn’t due to him actually having more impact than other defenders?
Enlighten me if you’ve got an answer, I don’t see one. Yes +/- has a reputation for being fragile to low sample size, but we’re talking about 8 years of sample size here, and Garnett’s defense remains off the charts throughout it.
Coming back to this Howard. You’ll note Howard’s absence by the first two metrics. On the ’03-04 to ’08-09 study, he’s nowhere near the top. On the ’05-06 to ’10-11 study, he’d have made the top 15. He reaches the #4 spot when we just go by the last 4 years, so you can see he’s rising up these lists just as we’d expect – but still not in Garnett’s league.
Didn’t I say I was fine with Howard winning the past 3 DPOY’s though? Well of course, in the past 4 years, Garnett’s started playing a lot less. Less minutes per game, and less games period. Gotta factor that in, and once you do, Garnett certainly can’t be considered a runaway winner for the award. The unfortunate aspect, is that in all those previous year in Minnesota, Garnett never won DPOY. I’d say he should have won several.
The Powers of Now
Looking at this year, the DPOY voting had Howard at 1, and Garnett at 2. Probably the only time the two will finish in the top 2 spots together, and hence perhaps the only time the voting truly got it right.
Below is a table of several different metrics that have a claim on measure per minute defense:
DRtg is Dean Oliver‘s defensive rating attempts to measure a player’s defensive impact by using that player’s blocks and steals, and the general defensive success of the player’s team. By Oliver’s own admission, this is very much a flawed stat because it doesn’t have any method of directly measuring the rest of a player’s defensive game.
The lower a player’s DRtg rating the better, so Howard has the edge in this stat just barely (Howard’s #1 in the league, Garnett’s #2). Consider though, this is a stat that overrates blocks & steals, and underrates man defense, sharpness of defensive rotation, and floor generalship, which are all areas where Garnett has the edge over Howard, and Garnett *still* almost beats him out.
Second, we have 82games.com‘s opponent’s production, in which again the smaller number is better. Here Howard has a more substantial lead – although again, this is based on traditional box score stats which gives Howard an edge.
Third, D RAPM is Engelmann’s study of defensive regularized adjusted +/- for this year. Note that Garnett once again takes the top spot by this metric, but that Howard has now risen to the #2 spot.
For good measure I’ve included defensive Expected Value as tracked by ElGee over at Back Picks, which estimates value added by tracking the good and bad things a defender does, and let’s the opposing team do. I like that this metric goes because it really starts to get into track smart man and team defense. On the other hand, the data is far from complete. I would not feel comfortable relying too much on this, but it is worth noting that it comes the closest to filling out the weak points of Oliver’s and 82games’ metrics, and it ends up giving the nod to Garnett pretty decisively.
With all of this in mind, and what we know about the bigger picture, it seems quite clear that a strong argument can be made for Garnett as the best defender in the game when he’s on the floor. This in of itself is astounding. To be in this position in his 16th year in the league is completely unprecedented.
With his limited play though, I do think Howard is the right choice for DPOY again.
I just hope though, as Howard likely continues to win DPOYs and breaks the record for the award held by Dikembe Mutombo and Ben Wallace, there will be a decent contingent of us who continue to remind the basketball cognoscenti of how extraordinary Kevin Garnett was.
- My Awards Ballot (asubstituteforwar.com)
- We never have proof, but we do have evidence: On Howard vs James (asubstituteforwar.com)