About a week ago, I was watching NBATV’s “Open Court” program when Shaquille O’Neal was asked about Dwight Howard. Astute NBA fans know all about the ongoing “feud” — if we must call it that — between O’Neal and Howard, and so it came as no surprise that Shaq unleashed a torrent of criticism toward the freshly anointed Laker. He claimed Robin Lopez was better than Howard, then quickly corrected that to twin brother Brook Lopez — a rare analytical double fault. Furious, I turned the show off.
A great many things were wrong with O’Neal’s clearly biased breakdown of Howard’s faults (which, to be clear, certainly exist), but most egregious was his complete dismissal of defensive impact. What’s arguably the most important part of basketball — and Howard’s defining skill — wasn’t even worth a passing mention in Shaq’s eyes. Luckily, we have awards like Defensive Player of the Year to recognize the skills O’Neal deems unimportant — the towering blocks, the feisty steals, the frenzied help and recovering on pick and rolls. As part of its weeklong celebration of a new season, Dime is projecting the major NBA awards all week, and today we look at the top defensive candidates.
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10. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Hornets
History doesn’t favor Davis’ chances here. Since the NBA began handing out the Defensive Player of the Year award back in the 1982-83 season, a rookie has never taken home the honor. The award is, in many ways, based on reputation, and Davis has only a single dominant year at Kentucky to point to. He also arrives in a league chalk full of defensive standouts.
So why is he even on this list? Well, anyone who watched the national championship game between Kentucky and Kansas this year knows how special Davis is. He scored just six points but somehow still dominated the game while racking up 15 rebounds, six blocks and three steals. He’s just a force of nature, with his pterodactyl arms and hyper quick reaction time. College-to-pro translated statistics are always questionable, but Basketball Prospectus projects a block percentage of 6.5 percent for Davis this season — a number that would have been third overall in the league last year. He’s the real deal, and while he won’t win the award this season, it’s safe to say the hardware will grace his mantel sooner rather than later.