Ranking the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year Candidates
The second time on Wednesday night, he had six points and seven rebounds, fouling out in frustration. The difference wasn't his play. The difference was the defense against him, specifically the guy playing opposite him.
Dwight Howard didn't play the first time -- and it made all the difference.
There is a reason Howard is the early favorite to win his third consecutive Defensive Player of the Year Award.
"There is no one in the league who has a bigger impact on a game than Dwight,'' crowed Magic coach Stan Van Gundy. "He anchors everything we do.''
Howard's dominance -- he has led the NBA in both blocked shots and rebounding the past two seasons -- has allowed Van Gundy to turn the Magic into one of the league's best defensive teams, even with a roster filled with below-average defensive players.
"We don't have a whole lot of answers for him (Howard),'' said Milwaukee coach Scott Skiles. "But nobody else does, either.''
Although perimeter players like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James can smother opponents, the award has been dominated by rebounders and shot blockers, which is something that Howard still does. Only Ron Artest (2004) and Gary Payton (1996) have won the award from outside the paint in the last 20 years.
Let's look at the early contenders for the award in 2011. (Stats are updated through Wednesday night's games. Click the player's name to see his full stat-line.)
1. Dwight Howard, C, Orlando
Key Stats: 2.41 blocks, 13.2 rebounds, 1.2 steals per game
Breakdown: While Howard has expanded his offensive game in his sixth season, his blocked shots have dipped from 2.78 last season, dropping him to third behind both Bogut and JaVale McGee. He got downright defensive when a reporter mentioned his production has dipped this season.
"I'm sorry, but people aren't trying to attack the basket like they used to do against me,'' he said. "I'm not doing anything differently."
Without a backup center after the trade of Marcin Gortat, Howard has been more cautious this season about avoiding foul trouble and staying in the game. His size and athleticism around the basket still is unmatched in the league.
"Early in the season, I'd say there was a drop off a little bit,'' Van Gundy said. "But not anymore. He's smarter, picking his spots better, controlling the game.''
2. Andrew Bogut, C, Milwaukee
Key Stats: 2.85 blocks, 11.1 rebounds per game
Breakdown: In Bogut's last 29 games (dating back to last season), opponents have reached 100 points only three times. Not only is he primed to replace Howard as the shot-blocking leader, he takes charges better than any other center in the league.
"Winning that award would really mean something to me. I've worked hard on my defense. When I came into the league, people said I couldn't defend, but I've done that,'' he said after the loss to Orlando Wednesday. "It's the part of my game that's really improved.''
Until he got got hurt late last season, the Bucks were rolling and looked like a real threat in the playoffs. Injuries again have rocked them, but Bogut still gives them a chance every night.
"Dwight is more explosive, but Andrew gets the job done differently. I really don't think he gets the due he deserves defensively,'' said Bucks coach Scott Skiles. "Like Dwight, he anchors what we do.''
3. LeBron James, SF, Miami
Key stats: 6.8 rebounds, 1.35 steals per game
Breakdown: The two-time defending Most Valuable Player also has been on the NBA's All-Defense first team the past two years, putting a noticeable emphasis on that side of his games. This season in Miami, he has taken even another step.
"I think I've been a pretty good defender the last few years. I take that challenge on defense as much as I do on offense,'' he said before Miami's victory Tuesday. "I take pride in guarding my man, making sure he doesn't get into the creases and being a help-side defender at the same time.''
James, though, was realistic about adding the DPOY Award to his name.
"I'm on the perimeter,'' he said. "It's usually guys with huge rebound and block numbers, but we'll see.''
4. Kobe Bryant, SG, Los Angeles Lakers
Key stats: Two-time defending NBA champion
Breakdown: He sets the tone for the team everyone is chasing this season. Maybe he has taken a step back, but no one enjoys trying to score against him when he is locked in mentally.
For five consecutive years, coaches have made him a first-team All-Defense selection. They still don't call plays to run through the man he is guarding.
5. Josh Smith, PF, Atlanta
Key Stats: 1.95 blocks, 8.7 rebounds, 1.38 steals per game
Breakdown: First-year coach Larry Drew has opened up the eyes of Smith, turning him into a more well-rounded player, which has come with more maturity. He is more versatile defensively now.
"I've been able to show my perimeter defense this year, which has helped me. I think probably so (that it's his best season on defense) because I'm just being wiser and not reaching and depending on my athleticism,'' he said. "I'm sliding my feet and guarding and keeping guys in front of me."
6. Chris Paul, PG, New Orleans
Key Stats: 2.97 steals, 9.7 assists per game
Breakdown: Although he wavered this summer, Paul looks committed to making things work in New Orleans -- at least for now. And it has shown defensively.
Paul is leading the league in steals again, a title he won in both 2008 and 2009. And his numbers are up. He wants to become the first player to average three steals a game since Alvin Robertson in 1991. His on-ball defense can really disrupt opponents, shortening their shot-clock.
7. Dwyane Wade, SG, Miami
Key Stats: 1.47 steals, 1 block per game
Breakdown: Like James, Wade has raised his defensive level this season, which is why the Heat have become such a smothering defensive team. They are first in the league in opponents field goals percentage (.423) and third in points allowed (91.9 ppg). Both are determined to make this grand experiment work, and they are doing it defensively while both are scoring less than before.
"They both are as good and as talented as any one in the league defensively,'' said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. "They've come a long way. They understand they are setting the tone here. It's a new role for both of them. And they've taken the challenge defensively.''
8. Anderson Varejao, PF/C, Cleveland
Key Stats: 9.8 rebounds, 1.27 blocks per game
Breakdown: Although the bottom fell out on the Cavs when James left town, Varejao has raised his level of play. And he was a pretty good defender last season. His rebounding, blocks and steals all have gone up. And he still takes more than his share of charges.
9. Rajon Rondo, PG, Boston
Key Stats: 2.39 steals, 4.6 rebounds per game
Breakdown: He was going off the list because he missed so many games with injuries, but willing the Celtics to victory Wednesday night puts him back in the mix. His six steals, along with 22 assists, just could not be ignored. He still doesn't shoot straight, but he can dominate a game like Jason Kidd used to do.
10. Russell Westbrook, PG, Oklahoma City
Key Stats: 2 steals per game
Breakdown: He makes the list, keeping off two former DPOY winners (Kevin Garnett and Ron Artest) who are past their primes. Conversely, Westbrook is a climber.
Guards don't like playing against him because of his quick hands and improving strength. Kevin Durant isn't the only reason Oklahoma City is climbing toward the contenders. Westbrook's defense on the perimeter has been key.
Ron Artest, SF, Lakers; Kevin Garnett, PF, Boston; Tyson Chandler, C, Dallas; Gerald Wallace, PF, Charlotte; Thabo Sefolosha, SG, Oklahoma City