Once upon a time, I wrote for Bleacher Report as a Warriors Featured Columnist. Many of my “colleagues” (a.k.a. other people who also got fancy designations and little-to-no money to show for it) have gone on to cover basketball in a variety of ways. Ethan Sherwood Strauss covers the Warriors for ESPN. Jordan Ramirez and Andy Liu write for Warriors World. I started Low Post Gazette, which means that I am doing fine as a trail blazer (in the cliche, non-basketball sense), but I am behind those three in terms of acquiring an MVP vote. In fact, the only time I ever had a vote that counted was when Bleacher Report chose NBA awards in 2012-13. LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Tony Parker and Stephen Curry occupied the five slots on my MVP ballot. Paul George was my Defensive Player of the Year, Jarrett Jack my Sixth Man and Brook Lopez my All-NBA Third-Team Center.
Times have changed.
I no longer write for a traffic-generating machine (if you want to take over as promotions head of LPG, we just may have a position opening up once Yoast SEO’s contract expires), and thus, my fake NBA Awards ballot is even more fake. I still get paid just as much as I did before, though, and I put more diligent work into my ballot these days (no, you aren’t remembering incorrectly; Lopez never was a top-three center or anything close to one). I’ll keep cranking these out every year, and hopefully, one day, they’ll have some influence. If not on who actually wins the award, at least on who people on the internet think should win the award based on that argument they liked by that writer who they can’t remember the name of.
|MVP||James Harden||Kawhi Leonard||Russell Westbrook||Stephen Curry||LeBron James|
|Rookie||Malcolm Brogdon||Joel Embiid||Dario Saric|
|Defensive Player||Draymond Green||Rudy Gobert||Anthony Davis|
|6th Man||Andre Iguodala||James Johnson||Lou Williams|
|Most Improved||Bradley Beal||Rudy Gobert||Isaiah Thomas|
|Coach||Gregg Popovich||Steve Kerr||Mike D’Antoni|
|Executive||Bob Myers||Dennis Lindsey||Masai Ujiri|
With every award, my goal is to filter out all the BS that trickles into the mainstream criteria. Rather than working backwards—who has the worst supporting cast? Whose team is the worst without them on the floor? Who has outperformed preseason expectations that we arbitrarily set?—I look at what this award has always been and is still supposed to be: Whose performance this season has carried the most positive value for his team?
I am not the only one who sticks to this logical criteria, but many others who do still argue that the winner is Westbrook. This is not entirely wrong. Westbrook probably elevates the Thunder, as currently constructed, by roughly the same number of wins as Leonard does the Spurs or Harden does the Rockets. However, he has not elevated his team to title contention like Harden, Leonard or Curry. Given that there is far more value in title contention than there is in merely making the playoffs, Westbrook’s season has been less valuable to his team from an absolute perspective.
Two more notes on Westbrook:
- I am defining “title contention” in regular season terms. It is a regular season award, and it is unfair to reward, for example, James over Westbrook because we know what he’s capable of in the playoffs. The Cavs only won 51 games in the soft Eastern Conference, meaning, historically speaking, they would not be title contenders.
- Many will argue that, by factoring in title-worthiness and ignoring quality of teammates, I am unfairly punishing Westbrook for his supporting cast. However, a look at NBA history will tell you that the greatest players in the league almost always elevate their team to at least soft-title contention, no matter the supporting cast. James this season is an exception, but he has taken games—and a ton of defensive possessions—off.
Given that, I am going with Harden. Leonard was my pick for most of the year, but with San Antonio falling far behind Golden State and Houston securing the third-best record in the league, the gap between the teams was no longer big enough to justify going against Harden’s numbers. It’s as close as can be, though.
The decision between Curry and Westbrook was grueling. I was tempted to go Curry No. 3, as he has the more simple case: He has been the best player on basketball’s best team this year. However, he struggled early, and if not for Kevin Durant—who was my No. 2 or 3 MVP until his injury—playing out of his mind, Curry’s team would not be first in the standings, nor would Curry have had a chance to wait until March to look like the best player in the world again.
In most years, I would just disqualify Embiid. I wouldn’t care that he put up the best rookie numbers since Tim Duncan. In fact, I still don’t care: Putting up awesome numbers in 31 games while taking nights off in between is not what playing in the NBA is, and even that soft workload was still too much for the fragile young big. Embiid is unbelievably good, and I’m rooting for him to get healthy and have an amazing career, but Brogdon easily edges him out for me. He played good basketball for a winning team all year long.
No other rookie did that or anything close to that, though, so I still went with Embiid as my No. 2. I reluctantly chose Saric over Rodney McGruder for the final spot. His talent and counting stats are superior, and his inefficiency cannot be held against him after he played most of the season on the Embiid-less Sixers.
I consider four elements when deciding DPOY.
- The gap between a team’s defense with a player on the floor vs. off the floor.
- How good a player’s team is defensively overall (this must be weighed equal to on/off metrics, otherwise players are either unfairly credited for their teammates strengths or unfairly punished for them).
- Defensive stats
- Eye test
The only two players in the league to check all four boxes are Green and Gobert. And in three of the four categories, Green has the edge.
Gobert takes category one. Utah is 7.3 points better defensively with Gobert playing, whereas Golden State is 5.4 points better with Green. The RPM numbers back this up: Gobert leads the league at 6.03, while Green is second at 5.08.
Green takes category two. Golden State has the league’s No. 2 defense (101.2); Utah is No. 3 (102.7). That point-and-a-half disparity, however, is the same gap that exists between No. 8 Toronto (104.9) and No. 19 Milwaukee (106.4).
Green has the slight edge in category three. Their block and steal totals both add up to 3.4 (2.7 + 0.6 for Gobert, 1.4 + 2.0 for Green), and Gobert is better on the glass (8.9 to 6.6 defensive rebounds). Their foul rate is almost identical. However, Green thoroughly wins the defensive FG% battle. Opponents shoot worse at every level—inside six feet, seven-to-10, 11-to-15, 16-to-23 and 23-out—against Green than they do against Gobert.
Green also wins the eye test, narrowly. He and Gobert are both visibly dominant in what they do, but for Green, that’s everything. He is an elite rim protector—not for his size, for anyone—and bottles up point guards on switches, but what what really separates Green from Gobert is his help defense. There’s so rarely an open shot when Green is on the court, because he covers for everyone. Teams cannot take advantage of weaker defenders like Curry or Zaza Pachulia, because Green doubles with the necessary blend of fervor and timing. He’s the only defender in basketball that you cannot neutralize, because he is equally dominant defending all positions, and defending on and off the ball.
Third place was wide open. Davis, Leonard, Hassan Whiteside, Dwight Howard, DeAndre Jordan and Giannis Antetokounmpo all garnered consideration. Ultimately, Davis was the least flawed. He fouls less and forces more turnovers than than Howard, Whiteside and Jordan. He has a bigger impact on his team’s defense than Leonard, and his team’s defense is far better than Giannis’. He’s always obliterated the eye test—he’s a 6’11 dude who can close out from under the basket to the three point line and get back for a weak-side block within nanoseconds. This year, the stats are backing him up more than ever.
I consider this the most straightforward award: Which player who comes off the bench had the best season? To figure this out, I look at scoring, efficiency, playmaking, rebounding and defense, with impact on winning as a tie-breaker.
While Eric Gordon was a leading candidate much of the year, he simply hasn’t been as efficient as his new teammate Lou Williams, or even as much as Andre Iguodala and James Johnson, who are vastly superior defenders. In fact, outside of scoring, Gordon comes up last among these four in all other categories (besides rebounding, where he edges Williams).
Williams edges Gordon due to his overall efficiency and playmaking, but both Rockets guards are behind Iguodala and Johnson. If that seems like an over-emphasis on defense and true-shooting %, consider this: Of these four, which two are most likely to be on the floor at the end of games? Steve Kerr and Erik Spoelstra will send out their versatile forwards 10 times out of 10, whereas Mike D’Antoni often opts to keep both of his super-subs on the bench in favor of Patrick Beverley.
Really though, it isn’t close. Iguodala is the best defender, the best playmaker (an insane 3.4 assists to 0.8 turnovers), and the most efficient scorer (62.4 TS%) of every candidate. Were he on any other team in the league, he’d be a starter, scoring in the mid teens and being viewed in a class above all other bench players.
We move from the most straightforward award to the hardest one to define. Unlike MVP, the difficulty does not come from extraneous information, but rather from an inherent ambiguity in the criteria. Is it simply the player who improved from last season by the biggest margin? Does it take entire careers into account? Is improvement worth more if a player does so after several seasons of stagnation, compared to a guy in his second or third year making predictable strides? Is improvement worth more if a player does it despite minimal changes in circumstances (minutes, role, teammates, system)?
There is no way to create an all-inclusive formula for an award steeped in polarizing questions. The only way to choose is to figure out your own definition, and hope others agree with you. For me, the criteria is as follows:
- Who has improved the most from their prior top level (compare this year’s performance to previous career highs)?
- How long were they at or below said prior level (in other words, improvement is worth less if a player makes predictable strides based on age/experience)
- Have circumstances changed in a way to facilitate (or hinder) this improvement?
I assembled a list of candidates based on Criteria 1. Here they are, in rough order of improvement:Rudy Gobert, Bradley Beal, Myles Turner, Nikola Jokic, Isaiah Thomas, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Otto Porter, Jimmy Butler, Kemba Walker, Gordon Hayward, James Johnson, Tim Hardaway, Jr., DeMar DeRozan, Dion Waiters and Harrison Barnes.
Applying Criteria 2 drastically alters that order. While guys like Turner and Jokic have improved more than Walker or Butler, their age means that I value their improvement less. I know many voters would argue that that’s irrelevant, and that the point of the award is to honor growth, and that’s a fair point. I just personally don’t see the point of having the award if it always goes to 21-year-olds.
Adjusting for time spent in the NBA below this season’s level, the list looks like this: Beal, Gobert, Thomas, Butler, Walker, Antetokounmpo, Porter, Turner, Jokic, Hayward, Johnson, DeRozan, Waiters, Barnes, Hardaway, Jr.
A look at circumstances again shakes things up. Butler and Walker have improved similarly, but Butler’s growth has more to do with the team being handed to him, while Walker has made major strides in the exact same role as last year. DeRozan has had similar stand-alone growth, unlike Johnson, who played a career-high in minutes.
Beal, Gobert, Thomas, Walker, Butler, Antetokounmpo, Porter, Turner, Jokic, DeRozan, Hayward, Johnson, Waiters, Barnes, Hardaway, Jr.
Beal and Gobert are neck-and-neck. Beal’s statistical jump has slightly more to do with an uptick in minutes and shot attempts, which favors Gobert. Gobert has made larger leaps in terms of efficiency (66.4% from the field, 65.2% from the line, with previous career highs of 60.4% and 62.3%, respectively). He’s rebounding more (11.0 to 12.8), blocking more shots (2.3 to 2.7) and is vastly improved in terms of impact on winning.
However, the improvements made around Gobert (like how he’s finally playing with a point guard) have allowed him to blossom offensively, while Derrick Favors’ down year gave him more rebound and block opportunites. Beal has benefitted from external factors too (a new coach and an improved John Wall and Porter), but those factors have less of a direct connection to Beal’s numbers.
We run into the same problems here as we do with MVP. The thinking is backwards—which guy has the worse roster? Who had lower expectations before the season? Who’s dealt with more injuries?—in a way that clouds the central question: Who has done the best coaching job?
Certainly, talent of roster does need to be considered, as do injuries. But these are still secondary factors. As for expectations, I disregard them completely. We expect a lot from the Spurs every year, but that is because Pop is their coach every year. If we predict 60 wins and they get 55, that’s still a coach leading a team to 55 wins.
- Team record
- Ability to curb/handle adversity (tumultuous personalities, injuries, distractions, etc)
- Chemistry harbored (Important, but subjective. Used as tiebreaker)
It was difficult to reduce the list to five (guys like Brad Stevens, Scott Brooks, Dwane Casey, Dave Fizdale and Quin Snyder were tough cuts), but reducing five to three and then ranking them was even harder. Here are the five candidates, and their resumes based on my criteria.
- That of a 45-win team
- Helped re-motivate Harden, though that may have happened whoever was coaching.
- Turned arguably the league’s worst locker room into a good, if not great one.
- That of a 65-win team. I know that sounds too low, but remember, Curry was not an all-timer before he played in Kerr’s system, nor was Green a starter, much less a superstar.
- Seamlessly incorporated a high-usage superstar into his star-studded offense; stemmed tide of early struggles with Durant injury, winning 14 straight.
- Team was harmonious before he took over, but he maintained that through an unpopular coaching transition, and got Iguodala to buy in as Sixth Man. The effects of all that linger.
- That of a 40-win team
- Held team together after Durant departure.
- Gets guys to buy in on defense while Westbrook dominates ball on offense. Team plays for each other in crunch time.
- That of a 50-win team
- Proved that, as great as Tim Duncan was, it was Pop who brought consistency and fundamentals to that team’s DNA (not that anyone really questioned this).
- Same as always. Everyone buys in 100%.
- That of a 25-win team
- Wade’s departure, Bosh’s blood clot-related absence, a ton of injuries, an 11-30 start. No coach faced anywhere close to the number of potential season killers as Spoelstra.
- Bad early, great late. He had a ton of guys who have never played together playing like a team (though most of them are also playing for their next contract).
Ultimately, Spoelstra and Donovan have the biggest holes in their resume. While it is impressive that Billy D has gotten his guys to embrace Westbrook’s ball dominance and cover for his steal/rebound chasing, he hasn’t gotten Westbrook to pass more or to stay home on defense. And while Spoelstra had the Heat playing at an insane level from January on, their early-season dreadfulness cost them a playoff spot.
D’Antoni comes in third. His team has overperformed its talent more than the Warriors, but he’s kind of been a one-trick pony. It was an amazing trick: Give Harden the ball in a fun, up-tempo system. It motivated him, made him better, made the offense better and made the chemistry better. But Harden may have simply re-motivated himself after an awful year, and the improved chemistry had more to do with Howard’s departure than D’Antoni’s arrival.
Also, there’s a honeymoon effect that skews things toward him unfairly. Houston is suddenly running a great offense and has a solid defense despite shaky personnel, but Popovich and Kerr have been running expert two-way schemes for years.
Pop wins. Kerr’s record is better, Pop’s roster is worse, and Kerr has deflected more potential adversity. However, it’s impossible to know if Pop deflected adversity because it never even buds. Ultimately, it’s the fourth criteria—the absurd harmony and consistency that Pop demands and receives—that breaks this tie.
This is a sneakily-tricky award to define, particularly due to the multi-year planning that goes into being a good executive. Surely every GM in the league would have brought in Durant had they had the opportunity, but only Bob Myers had constructed the roster to lure him and carved the cap space to fit him.
Therefore, I look at two things for this award:
- Moves made since last year’s draft, and how those moves looked at the time as well as in retrospect (most give about 80% weight to retrospect; I give about 50%)
- Moves made beforehand to set up those moves and set them up to succeed.
Had Durant been Myers’ only move it’d be close, but it was the ancillary signings—David West, Zaza Pachulia, JaVale McGee—and draft picks—Patrick McCaw—that clinch this for him. He simply nailed everything, both at the time and in retrospect.
It gets much harder after Myers. Masai Ujiri (Toronto), Daryl Morey (Houston) and Dennis Lindsey (Utah) are the other candidates, and each has a specific claim.
Morey’s offseason was shaky. Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson were nice offensive signings, but their defense and injury histories were huge red flags. However, he gets full retrospect credit on this, and big points for his deadline acquisition of Lou Williams. Williams didn’t move the needle all that much, but he got off of Corey Brewer and gave up the 28th pick for a great rotation player. Oh, and he hired D’Antoni.
Lindsey had the best offseason. He made the best trade (George Hill), two of the best veteran signings at the time (Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw) and signed the second-best extension (Rudy Gobert, second to Giannis). While Hill has been in and out of the lineup and Diaw has underwhelmed, the logic was so flawless, and the results have been plenty good (51 wins).
Ujiri had a less eventful offseason, but that was due to a well-constructed roster (Morey’s blew up in his face last season). Ujiri shouldn’t be docked for standing pat, and his deadline acquisitions of Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker (all for a late first, two seconds and Terrence Ross) were bigger knockouts than the Williams trade.
Lindsey’s offseason moves made more sense than Morey’s at the time, and had the injury luck flipped (with Anderson or Gordon missing 34 games like Hill did), Utah would be at least as good as Houston, and Houston at least as bad as Utah. It’s close between he and Ujiri, but Lindsey ultimately gave up less assets to build a similarly-deep, strong team.
I’m not going to give a big criteria breakdown here. Unlike the awards, postseason teams are a chance to honor feats and time-capsulize the season that was. I care more about box score stats and peak performance here than I did in the discussions above, though I still slightly prioritize total value and team performance.
|1st Team||James Harden||Russell Westbrook||Kawhi Leonard||LeBron James||Anthony Davis|
|2nd Team||Stephen Curry||Isaiah Thomas||Draymond Green||Giannis Antetokounmpo||Rudy Gobert|
|3rd Team||John Wall||Damian Lillard||Jimmy Butler||Kevin Durant||Marc Gasol|
- Thomas and Wall were close for that final second-team spot, but while Wall is a better player, Thomas gets credit for maintaining his scoring title-worthy brilliance all season, and leading Boston to the No. 1 seed.
- Lillard’s last month moved him ahead of Kemba Walker. He pulled his underachieving team from the depths to the playoffs, a feat Walker was incapable of. He also finished the season averaging 27.0 points.
- Antetokounmpo clearly beats Butler and Paul George, who led superior teams to similar records while also putting up worse statlines overall (Butler’s is greater than George’s, hence his third-team appearance.
- The real competitor for the the second team was Durant, who would have pushed Leonard and James if he had remained healthy. But he missed 21 games, and Giannis missed two, so he gets the call.
- Durant beats George and Gordon Hayward. Give me 61 MVP-caliber games over 72-74 third team-caliber games.
- Even though team success is a huge part of how I choose this, Davis was still a tier above everyone else. That New Orleans was even in soft contention at the deadline despite arguably the worst supporting cast in the West is a testament to his two-way dominance.
- Whiteside was my toughest omission. Ultimately I rewarded Gasol for his slightly-superior defense, his offensive versatility and his team success.
|1st Team||Malcolm Brogdon||Joel Embiid||Dario Saric||Rodney McGruder||Willy Hernangomez|
|2nd Team||Jaylen Brown||Buddy Hield||Caris LeVert||Marquese Chriss||Jamal Murray|
- The first team was clearly delineated from the second, and the second from the field with the exception of two contenders: Alex Abrines and Juan Hernangomez. Ultimately, both were eliminated due to their relative lack of minutes (15 or less, compared to 21 or more for every second-team guy other than Brown).
|1st Team||Chris Paul||Danny Green||Draymond Green||Giannis Antetokounmpo||Rudy Gobert|
|2nd Team||Marcus Smart||Klay Thompson||Kawhi Leonard||Paul Millsap||Anthony Davis|
- Strangely, point guard was the most difficult position this year. Ricky Rubio, Patrick Beverley, Marcus Smart and George Hill were all tough omissions. In the end, I rewarded vital cogs in elite defenses—Danny Green and Thompson—who also guard better players more frequently.
- Leaving Jimmy Butler off was hard, but leaving Robert Covington off was even harder. Leonard is still the best perimeter defender in the league, though, and his Spurs have the best defense. Millsap is Draymond-lite, and spearheaded Atlanta’s No. 4 unit.