DALLAS -- The NBA has issued the Defensive Player of the Year award since the 1982-83 season. In the 1988-89 season the league might as well have renamed it the Defensive Big Man of the Year award.
Five of the six first winners were guards as diminutive as 6-foot-3 Sidney Moncrief, who won the first two. But when 7-foot-4 Utah Jazz center Mark Eaton, the only big man to sneak in during those first six seasons, won it again in '89, it started a run in which a power forward or center won it in 21 of the next 23 seasons. A center has won it 17 times and in 13 of the last 15 seasons.
The lone small forward ever to be named Defensive Player of the Year was the formerly named Ron Artest on Rick Carlisle's 2003-04 Indiana Pacers.
Is a second one lurking?
The Dallas Mavericks certainly think so. Owner Mark Cuban has trumpeted the tireless work of 6-foot-7 veteran Shawn Marion for more than a month. Carlisle has not been far behind. On Friday night, with Marion missing his third and final game with a sore left knee likely caused to a large degree by his maxed-out defensive responsibilities, Carlisle said Marion is "probably the Defensive Player of the Year this year."
On Monday, Carlisle upped the ante: "I think he’s a frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year because of his versatility and because of his impact on our team. We lose [Tyson] Chandler and we’re still the No. 1 defensive team in the Western Conference on points per possession. That doesn’t happen without Marion and what he’s doing guarding multiple positions."
The operative word is "multiple." Marion has always been the man to defend top opposing wings like Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant. This season, particularly when guard Delonte West was lost to a fractured finger on Feb. 15, Marion became Mr. Everything to a defense that had already lost its heart and soul from the championship team in Chandler -- the third-place finisher in last season's DPOY voting -- and plugged in newcomers and somehow just kept on ticking.
"We’re the No. 1 defensive team in the Western Conference largely because of how he’s guarded guys individually," Carlisle said. "He always has the best player, and a lot of times he’ll have a guy like [Ty] Lawson or like [Goran] Dragic, who’s a key guy not only scoring, but getting other guys involved. He’s just been phenomenal."
During the stretch from West's injury to the All-Star break, the 33-year-old Marion was tasked with chasing, in order: Lawson, Ricky Rubio, 6-foot-11 power forward and All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge, Chris Paul, Lawson again, Jrue Holiday and Lou Williams, Jeremy Lin, Paul Pierce and finally Kobe Bryant.
And throughout this physically demanding shortended season, Marion's assignments read like an NBA who's who list, from Deron Williams and Steve Nash to Paul Millsap and Michael Beasley; from Manu Ginobili and Russell Westbrook to Caron Butler and Carmelo Anthony.
Of all those offensive weapons, advanced analytics, which make it possible to break down matchups possession by possession, tell us that Marion's opponents have shot 34 percent against him.
Take Kobe as just one example. In two games, Marion held the league's leading scorer to an average of 14.5 points on less than 28 percent shooting. In last Wednesday's game against the Lakers in which Marion's knee kept him out, Kobe hit for 30 points on 11-of-18 shooting (61.1 percent).
On Monday, Marion mostly deflected credit while processing his coach's praise.
"That speaks a lot about me and my teammates because it’s not just one person out there, it’s all of us collectively," Marion said. "So, hey, I’m just doing what I got to do to help the team the best way I can."
Marion's performance this season might be the closest thing to former Seattle guard Gary Payton, the only other non-big man to win the award in 1995-96. Payton, like Marion, could seemingly bounce from defending either guard position to either forward position without flinching. Remarkably, Marion's presence has made the Mavs' five-man unit -- and all-30-somethings -- that includes Jason Kidd, Vince Carter, Dirk Nowitzki and Brendan Haywood the No. 1 defensive lineup in the league.
Of course, it's easy to understand why power forwards, and particularly centers, have dominated this award. Blocked shots and rebounding and team scoring averages are in your face to see and tally up and measure against other players and teams. While clearly centers can be great defenders -- and there's a long list of them -- so much of a center's job comes in the form of help defense and not the grinding, every possession work of a mano-a-mano, on-ball defensive stopper such as Marion.
"It is what it is," Marion said. "It’s sad sometimes that people don’t really sit back and really look at what you’re doing sometimes. But it is what it is. I just got to continue to do what I got to do."
Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard leads the NBA in rebounds (14.8 per game) and is tied for second in total blocked shots with 108, numbers that dwarf Marion's 6.9 rebounds and 26 blocked shots, and the Magic rank fourth in the NBA in scoring defense. A massive, 6-foot-11 specimen who patrols the paint with humbling ferocity, Howard is a leading candidate to win the award for a fourth consecutive season. Only Ben Wallace and Dikembe Mutombo lay claim to four trophies, but neither did it four years in a row.
Marion has never even been selected to an all-defensive team, although he probably should have been at some point during his eight full seasons playing on those high-powered Phoenix Suns squads.
"At the time where I was doing it before, we scored so many damn points, didn’t nobody care," Marion said. "They wanted to focus on something else."
Marion's defensive run with Dallas really started last season and began to gain recognition during the playoffs when he bounced from Gerald Wallace, Brandon Roy and Aldridge to Kobe to Westbrook and Durant and finally to LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
So maybe if Marion's capable of continuing this level of 'D' for another 16 games, just maybe the focus will turn to a small forward doing one big defensive job.
"It’s what it’s about," Marion said of being in the DPOY conversation. "Everybody’s got personal goals that you want to accomplish throughout your career and legacies that you want to leave behind. I think that would definitely be a great piece to it."