NBA Awards Wrap Up
All eyes are on the NBA playoffs, but with the NBA award season swiftly approaching, find out which of your favorite players will be taking home some new hardware.
NBA BASKETBALL EXECUTIVE OF THE YEAR
Danny Ainge should run away with this award with all due to respect to Indiana GM Kevin Pritchard. Ainge managed to make his team better while also making them younger. He acquired a superstar in the prime of his career and nabbed another potential superstar in the draft while picking up another high lottery pick. Add that to an Avery Bradley-Marcus Morris swap that looks like a heist, savvy later draft picks, and smart signings for veterans like Aaron Baynes. Between those moves, Ainge is the clear winner.
NBA COACH OF THE YEAR
Boston keeps the good news rolling. Brad Stevens is a runaway winner for this award. Stevens salvaged a season that featured a mere four minutes of presumed superstar Gordon Hayward. He guided his team to the second-best record in the Eastern conference without Hayward and with extended absences to numerous key players. He also helped develop the young talent on the roster along the way. As much as Ainge deserves credit for getting talented players, the picks might not look as good without a coach to help them develop and put them in positions to succeed. Stevens has become a master of utilizing talent and that makes him the clear coach of the year.
NBA SIXTH MAN AWARD
This award has been Lou Williams to lose for some time now. Williams was the leading scorer on the Clippers once Blake Griffin left. He still is not a great defender but he makes up for it by being an offense unto himself for stretches of a game. Williams has always been the master of the two-for-one at the end of quarters and has had many admirers for his rare blend of efficiency. He takes his shots in the most efficient areas of the floor with about 60 percent of his shots either around the rim or beyond the arc. Combine that with improved playmaking and it is clear that Lou Williams is the sixth man of the year.
NBA MOST IMPROVED PLAYER
Victor Oladipo caps the first four awards. All four are very anticlimactic. There were runaway winners in nearly every award although the coach of the year race was decidedly the tightest. Oladipo wrapped this award up months ago. His rise to borderline superstar is nearly unprecedented. His win shares this season indicate his standing as a top-25 NBA player and that likely underrates his contributions. He was the only reliable source of offense on the Pacers, despite their success. The trapping scheme the Cavaliers have used against him in the playoffs is an indictment of the remaining roster. Oladipo’s supporting cast probably does not match up to that of the Cavaliers since there is no Kevin Love level player. Nonetheless, Oladipo propelled Indiana to just two fewer wins that the King and his Cavs. Oladipo is not just the most improved player in the NBA but also one of its fastest rising stars.
NBA ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
There are a lot of worthy candidates a season after Malcolm Brogdon snagged one a year ago in one of the weakest races in recent memory. Brogdon might not finish in the top five this season. Instead, there is a two horse race between two future NBA stars.
Donovan Mitchell has been a revelation in Utah and carries one of the heaviest burdens for a rookie on a playoff team. The last rookie of the year to lead his team to the playoffs with this type of role was Derrick Rose. Amazingly, Mitchell is actually having a better season than Rose did by many statistical measures. His Player Efficiency Rating and advanced defensive numbers both trump Rose’s. Before that, the last guy to have this sort of impact with this level of responsibility for a playoff team is someone named Tim Duncan. Mitchell is in pretty good company.
The issue for Mitchell and his candidacy is that he still plays a bit like a rookie. His early season struggles and inconsistency have manifested in a lack of efficiency. He shoots a lot for a rookie but is only hitting 44 and 34 percent of his field goals from the floor and beyond the arc, respectively. He is a good defender for a rookie but not in the overall context of the NBA. In most rookie of the year races, Mitchell would be a runaway favorite and that might not matter. This year, it does.
Ben Simmons is having a borderline all-star year. He is a great defender, full stop. There is no qualification to be added as there usually is for rookies. Simmons can lock up perimeter defenders and bang down low. Based on defense alone, Simmons would have a bright future with his ability to guard 1-4. Add in his offensive capabilities and Simmons could emerge as a future MVP candidate.
The offensive end is where Simmons gets his shine. He has averaged over eight assists a game but also resembles a young LeBron James with the way he gets to the rack at will. He posterizes fools who do not get out of the way and even flexed mid dunk against the Heat in the 76ers first-round playoff series. This is a regular season award so his playoff successes will not factor in but fortunately for Simmons, they do not need to. He has validated the process by becoming the superstar the Sixers needed next to Embiid. The scary part for the rest of the NBA is that he was able to ascend so quickly. The last rookie to exceed Simmons’ 9.2 win shares was the Point God, Chris Paul with just over 10. To put that into context, LeBron James only managed 5.1 in his rookie year while Michael Jordan got just over 14. For Simmons to be in the same breath as those transcendent talents say all you need to know about his future.
NBA DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
This award is the most difficult one to pick. The Jazz finished second in defensive rating while the 76ers finished third so it only feels appropriate that they would have representatives here. The Celtics were number one but there are so many good defensive players on their team that it is hard to choose one. The last candidate had a middling team defense but even that is impressive given the talent surrounding him.
Joel Embiid might have been my choice if he could have stayed healthy to end the season. He was a defensive wrecking ball that deterred many more shots than he blocked. His agility and quickness mean that guards who get by him on the perimeter have to be careful putting up a shot for fear that he might be one step behind them and ready to swat away their layup attempt. His ability to move his feet makes him a hard player to get off the floor since he can punish his defender on the other end and only the quickest of the stretch big men can make the 76ers pay for having him out on the perimeter. At the end of the day, Embiid anchored this defense and transformed them into an elite unit. Philly’s defense is what has made them such a tough team to play and Embiid is right at the center of that.
Anthony Davis’ candidacy is a bit harder to articulate from a numbers perspective. The Pelicans were only 13th in defense and his personal rating is not much better. He has a significantly higher Real Plus-Minus but his candidacy probably comes more from watching his impact and viewing his numbers in context.
Davis has the weakest defensive supporting cast of anyone on this list and it is not particularly close. If he could focus on his responsibilities more often and worry less about cleaning up mistakes then he would likely be the winner this season. He is the most talented of these three players, which is quite a statement. Davis can erase opposing players. His display against Portland in the playoffs is a natural extension of his ability. He has chafed at the idea of being a center but when he is the lone big man on the floor, he is the most impactful defensive player in the NBA. His ability to contest shots at the rim or on the perimeter while also being quick enough to switch onto guards makes him a bulletproof defensive player. Unfortunately, his team’s defensive struggles, playing next to another traditional big man, and some inconsistency during the regular season all lose him just enough points to come in second.
It seemed improbable that Rudy Gobert could be the defensive player of the year with how many games he missed. If Embiid had not missed a chunk of games at the end of the season or Davis played without Cousins, then Gobert probably falls short. That is just how slight the margins are this year. However, Gobert’s impact on defense was borderline historic and keyed the Jazz’ improbable playoff run.
By the numbers, Gobert was the best defensive player this season by a decent margin. He led Defensive Real Plus-Minus by a good margin, the Jazz were the best defensive team by a decent margin in the games he played, and he led the NBA in defensive rating among rotation players who played at least 50 games. He barely cleared the 50 game mark himself, which normally would disqualify him but with Embiid missing games, it was just enough. Gobert was the best defensive player when on the floor this season. Given that margin, Gobert gets the nod over players who played more but at a lower level across the season.
NBA MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
Giannis Antetokounmpo was the DGS MVP for much of the season but could not keep up with the LeBron James, James Harden, and Anthony Davis troika. He finishes fourth on this ballot with Damian Lillard snagging the fifth spot.
Anthony Davis might seem like a better MVP candidate now that he is playing like the best player in the league. However, it took a DeMarcus Cousins injury for Davis to transform into the world destroyer he has been for the last few months. For that reason, Davis slips to third despite a marvelous season where he demonstrated just how good he can be.
The choice between LeBron James and James Harden is a tough one. If a team had to start over with any player, James is the pick 100 times out of 100. The problem is that during the regular season, James’ defense has slipped. He managed 82 games this season and was an offensive juggernaut as usual but without the edge in offense, Harden will take this award.
Harden captained an offense that was virtually co-number one in the league. The Rockets were in a dead heat with the Warriors for the league’s best offense and outside of Cleveland, no player had more responsibility in their offensive scheme than Harden. Houston’s offense relies so heavily on isolations where Harden has become a maestro.
Harden is the best isolation player in the NBA and potentially of all time. He has 10 possessions a game where he runs an isolation play and the Rockets score 1.24 points a possession on those plays. To put those numbers into context, isolation plays are generally one of the least efficient in the NBA. After all, it means that the player is going one-on-one without any other options. If the offensive player cannot get an open look or get to the rim, they will likely take a bad shot or end up with a turnover.
With Harden, a normally inefficient play is actually more efficient than even the best offenses in the NBA. To wit, the Rockets and Warriors both had offensive ratings around 112, which means they score about 1.12 points per possession when averaged over 100 possessions. Those are fantastic numbers. Harden blows those numbers out of the water when he runs one of the least efficient plays in the NBA. The ability to rely on Harden to get a bucket in any situation has made the Rockets unguardable and paved the way for them getting 65 wins and the best record in the NBA. That plus improved defense makes Harden the NBA MVP.