DGS NBA Midseason Awards Part II
Who will walk away a winner in the second half of the DGS NBA Midseason Awards?
Part one of the DGS NBA Midseason awards broke down the Rookie and Coach of the Year. Today, it’s time to focus on the Most Improved Player and the Defensive Player of the Year. Both have seen some unexpected candidates come out of the woodwork. Read on and find out who the favorites for each award are!
Most Improved Player:
3) Spencer Dinwiddie has come out of nowhere to capture the hearts of Nets fans, and basketball fans in general, with his rise from late second round pick to starting point guard. The selflessness that belies his success is also evident in his explanation of his rise to semi-stardom. Dinwiddie described his success to The Ringer by saying: “It took the coaching staff’s belief in me. They didn’t go find a vet or sign another guy. That’s what’s producing this.” It is true that the situation has partially dictated his success. However, he has had plenty to do with it as well.
Dinwiddie struggled with the Pistons, shooting under 40% from the floor. He went to the G-League to play for the Windy City Bulls (Chicago’s G-League affiliate) and did have some highlights but lacked much of the athleticism his lithe six-foot-six frame now contains. He has clearly gotten a step faster and it has helped him get to the rim much more easily than he did in Detroit or Chicago. In reality, Dinwiddie’s strength is as a heady passer who gets good looks for his teammates and it is difficult to do so without the burst to get separation from defenders. For most players, it requires commanding help from a defense to open the passing lanes required to get teammates shots. Dinwiddie has been able to bend the defenses and that has enabled him to thrive in Brooklyn.
2) There are a lot of great young players in Boston. Part one of this series touched upon Rookie of the Year candidate Jayson Tatum. His partner in crime has been Jaylen Brown. Brown had ups and downs last season as many rookies do. The result was an uneven season that did not portend a big leap this season. Regardless, that leap has come and Brown has been one of the most impactful two-way players in the league.
It is hard to quantify his improvement simply because so many aspects of his game have improved. He nearly tripled his number of three-point attempts and boosted his percentage almost 40 points. He became a better rebounder this season, which was a key deficiency of Boston’s squad a year ago. His ability to rebound at a high level for a shooting guard enables the Celtics to worry less about playing small-ball lineups with Al Horford as a center. While he is still not a great passer, Brown has learned to make the right passes and keep the ball moving in Coach Brad Stevens’ system.
All that said, Brown’s biggest impact is on defense where he hounds and agitates opposing scorers. Individual NBA defense is notoriously hard to evaluate but his defense shows up when watching games. He is quick and long enough to defend one to four on the floor and is one of the key cogs in the second stingiest defense in the NBA. Brown has already racked up some highlights this season on that end but most of his work is overlooked. He is one of the toughest guards in defending the pick and roll. His size, length, and quickness eliminate mismatches when switching. As the league moves further towards shooting across the roster, that characteristic makes him as valuable as anyone.
More and more teams are switching pick and rolls to ensure that the offensive players cannot get easy open looks. In a league where so many fours – and even fives – can shoot, Brown’s ability to switch onto those players without giving up too much size is crucial. His elite defense combined with his offensive improvements make him a top candidate for this year’s award.
1) As good as Brown has been as a two-way player, Victor Oladipo may be tops in the league at the position. Jimmy Butler and Klay Thompson might have something to say about that, but Oladipo has inserted himself firmly into the discussion. In defensive real plus-minus, Oladipo trails only Butler and Andre Roberson. When factoring in offensive production, he is second behind only Butler. In short, Oladipo has gone from afterthought to all-star in record time.
Oladipo’s offseason was defined by his trade to Indiana. That seemed to be a knock, but his emergence in the Hoosier state after thriving during his time there in college has made him an Indiana favorite. It is no wonder; he is a one-man show in Indiana. There is talent on the roster and Nate McMillan deserves a great deal of credit for shaping the offense around the talent he had. However, Oladipo has been the proverbial straw that stirs the drink.
In Indiana, Oladipo holds one of the heaviest offensive burdens in the league. The only other creator on the roster is point guard Darren Collison. Collison has been phenomenal but he is more of a role player. That means Oladipo is the one left with leading the offense and getting his teammates involved. Spoiler alert: Oladipo has been ready for the challenge. The offseason defined by the trade was actually punctuated by “insane workouts” that prepared him for the heavy workload. They have paid off.
Oladipo has tied his career high in assists this season and is setting new career-highs everywhere else. He has his highest shooting percentage from the floor and beyond the arc despite taking more attempts than he ever has. He is also averaging a career-high in free throw attempts, which demonstrates his improved aggressiveness. On the defensive side of things, he is averaging career-highs in steals, rebounds, and blocked shots. Simply put, Oladipo has improved across the board and made himself the NBA’s newest superstar. That makes him the midseason Most Improved Player.
This is one of the trickiest awards since the idea of improvement is so subjective. By any measure, Lou Williams would be a worthy candidate this season. Devin Booker and Bradley Beal have both improved despite having higher levels of responsibility. Kristaps Porzingis would have been a contender for this award if not for his untimely injury. Of course, there are countless more players across the league including guys like Andre Drummond who have changed their games for their teams. The three above players are simply the ones with the most dramatic transformations.
Defensive Player of the Year
3) It might be surprising to see him here considering how little buzz he is getting for the award but Jimmy Butler deserves immense credit for his job in Minnesota this year. The Timberwolves are on pace to improve by 17 wins this season. That massive improvement can largely be attributed to Butler.
Butler has been a force for Minnesota. He is second in the league in Real Plus-Minus (RPM) and tops the league in impact based off those numbers due to minutes played. The only wings with better defensive numbers by Defensive RPM who play 30 minutes or more are Andre Roberson and Robert Covington. He rebounds very well for his position, can guard one to four and has tied his career high for steals this season. Butler is the full package for a defensive wing.
2) While Butler is the most deserving defensive wing, with apologies to Paul George, he nonetheless has his overall impact affected by his position. Take a look at any defensive metrics and the “size matters” idiom will play. Defense is largely still the dominion of the big men on the court. One player who has managed to blur that line is Al Horford. Horford plays perimeter defense as well as many wings but can defend the rim and bang bodies down low. He is the catalyst for the Celtics’ defense the same way Irving is on offense and only averages eight rebounds a game but that is largely systemic. The fact that he plays so much of his defense on the perimeter is the key to his versatility so the resulting reduction in rebounding numbers are a healthy byproduct.
Horford’s ability to defend smaller players often takes him out of rebounding position but is ultimately beneficial for the Celtics. He still averages 1.2 blocks a game despite playing the Chris Bosh defensive role for the Celtics. His real impact is concealed by the fact that he simply contests shots and gets himself in a good position. Horford’s defensive instincts are Marc Gasolian or Tim Duncan-esque. He always seems to be in the right place at the right time. While many advanced defensive metrics are not as kind to him, the proof is in the pudding. The Celtics are the top defense in terms of defensive rating and he is the leader.
1) If Horford is the top defender for the top defense and Butler is the top wing, who else could be the Defensive Player of the Year? It is “The Process.” Joel Embiid is a generational player and his defensive impact this season has been gargantuan. The Celtics improved dramatically this season on defense because Isaiah Thomas left. For the Sixers, who are third in defensive rating after finishing 17th last season, the reason is Embiid. If Rudy Gobert had been healthy all season there would be a serious debate over the best defensive big man, but as it stands, Embiid towers above his competition.
The numbers do tell the story with Embiid who has the 76ers third in defensive rating. Among players who have played 30 or more minutes a game only Gobert, who has missed 12 more games than Embiid, has a better defensive RPM. He is a dominant rebounder and blocks nearly two shots a game. He has begun to approach Gobert’s hemisphere where players see him lurking in the paint and think better of even attempting a shot. That defensive impact is hard to measure but it is easy to see on the court. Robert Covington and Ben Simmons have both been a big part of the defensive transformation for the 76ers, but they trust “The Process” to protect leads at the end of games.
The list of honorable mentions could go on for pages. In Golden State, Draymond Green and Kevin Durant are both legitimate contenders for the award. Paul George has elevated his game on that side of the ball and will factor into the race as well. Meanwhile, Rudy Gobert can play his way back into the race if he stays healthy. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Clint Capela and many others also loom as major defensive difference makers and you could not go wrong with anyone listed.