- Bradford Doolittle
Last season, the Miami Heat did something that pretty much never happens: They won the NBA title without the benefit of a top defensive big man. You can quibble with that statement, but it's true.
Miami's top interior defenders, Joel Anthony and Ronny Turiaf, combined to average 29.5 minutes per game during the playoffs. But both missed at least six games during Miami's run, including 11 by Turiaf. Both players were almost entirely absent in the Finals against Oklahoma City.
Prior to the Heat, there simply hasn't been any question whether a champion had an easily identifiable defensive anchor. Just look at the names: Tyson Chandler, Andrew Bynum, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal, Ben Wallace, Luc Longley, Hakeem Olajuwon, Bill Cartwright, Rick Mahorn, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Robert Parish and Moses Malone.
That list encompasses every championship team since the Defensive Player of the Year Award was first handed out in 1983. Until last season, you just didn't win a title without a go-to big man on the defensive end.
Speaking of the DPOY, among the 30 winners of that award, 23 have been centers or power forwards. Five of the seven perimeter winners came in the award's first six years, so in the 24 years since then, only Gary Payton and Metta World Peace (when he was known as Ron Artest) have been able to break the big man's stranglehold on the award.
Often, but not always, the DPOY is defaulted to the league leader in blocked shots. Ten of the 23 big-man winners have also led the league in total blocks. However, as we saw last season, one doesn't necessarily go with the other. Oklahoma City's Serge Ibaka blocked 79 percent more shots last season than any other player in the league. The only comparable season since the league started charting blocks in 1973-74 was in 1984-85, when Utah's Mark Eaton blocked more than twice as many shots as any other player. Eaton won DPOY, but Ibaka did not.
Ibaka finished second to Tyson Chandler in last season's DPOY voting which tells you that we've come to value things other than blocks when it comes to evaluating interior defenders. Last season, the Knicks allowed just a 12.9 player efficiency rating (PER) to opposing centers, per 82games.com, and had a 7.2 advantage in PER at that position, by far the best figure in the lineup. That's information we didn't have in Eaton's day.
It's a good thing that the data has changed over the years, because so has the responsibility of big-man defenders. As the league has become dominated by spread-the-floor, pick-and-roll offenses, big men must have more mobility than ever before. No longer can a top shot-blocking center like Eaton simply plant himself near the basket.
Last week, I unveiled version 1.0 of a system for ranking perimeter defenders in the NBA. This week, I used the exact same methodology to rank the big men. That includes giving extra weight to isolation plays.
Here are this season's top 10 interior defenders:
Bradford Doolittle identifies and ranks the NBA's 10 best interior defenders. Milwaukee's Larry Sanders tops the list.