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The (Big) Man Skilled in All Ways of Contending

The Not Quite Midseason Awards

In praise of the best player in the world, an underappreciated defensive animal, and the offseason's sneakiest acquisition

T he holidays took us right to the trimester landmark, a traditional time to size up the league’s hierarchy and the big awards races. But January 2 brings us to a new year and the 40 percent mark of the season — as good a time as any to take the league’s temperature. We’ll focus today on the big daddy of postseason awards and the two most interesting races after that, with the rest coming later in the week. Just about every shred of available data went into these choices — traditional statistics, advanced numbers (on-court/off-court differentials, lineup data, adjusted plus/minus, data from the video-tracking service Synergy Sports, and much more), extensive video study, talks with scouts and executives around the league, and the usual load of game watching.

And even all of that leaves some difficult judgments that are basically impossible choices between ultratalented players with similar numbers, working within very different team contexts. Here’s a well-intended early shot at three midseason awards, using the NBA’s official ballot structure.1 (Tomorrow we’ll check back in with three more prizes.)

Most Valuable Player

1. LeBron James, Miami Heat
2. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder
3. Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers
4. Carmelo Anthony, New York Knicks
5. Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers

This is really a 2.5-man race, though that could change over the remainder of the season if the Clippers’ bench slows down and Paul is forced to take on a larger burden. Paul has been fantastic again on both sides of the floor. He has transformed the league’s sorriest franchise into its very best team, fed every teammate at the right times, and emphatically reclaimed the “world’s best point guard”/”point god” title he never should have lost — and never did among folks who were paying attention. The Clippers score more efficiently than Oklahoma City’s league-best offense when Paul is on the floor, and drop off to league-average scoring rates when he sits, per NBA.com.2

But he’s playing “only” 32.9 minutes per game, 3.5 fewer than last season, and about six and seven minutes fewer than James and Durant, respectively. Even just six minutes amounts to 12.5 percent of an NBA game. The low minutes total is a boon for Paul’s postseason legs and a tribute to how well the Clippers’ go-to five-man bench unit — its second most-used lineup — has played on both ends. But in a race against two guys playing at historically great levels, the reduction in minutes and responsibility is enough to drop him into the no. 3 spot.

This is a race, for now, between James and Durant, the two finest players in the league. And we have to start here: James is just better, even as Durant has closed the gap with what may end up as one of the greatest shooting seasons in league history — a 50/40/90 tour of NBA destruction. Durant is no. 2 in Player Efficiency Rating, and he has made incremental progress in every aspect of his game. He’s increased both his assist totals3 and the quality of his assists, threading some smart passes out of the pick-and-roll and occasionally whipping one-handed cross-court lasers that make you rewind your DVR to make sure it was Durant.

He’s also a better defender than he was last year, both one-on-one and as a helper. Opposing small forwards have recorded a laughable PER of just 7.9 with Durant on the court, and like the rest of his young Thunder brethren, he’s moving to the right place at the right time more often away from the ball as he gains experience.

But the gap between James and Durant on defense and in terms of passing is still significant, and Durant’s superior shooting doesn’t make up for it. James has the edge by nearly two full points in PER, and after another clutch performance in Orlando on New Year’s Eve, he’s cracked the 30 mark in that category — something only seven players have ever done over a full season in 16 separate player seasons.

He’s shooting 54 percent from the floor — insane — and a tidy 42 percent from 3-point range on just 0.5 fewer attempts per 36 minutes than Durant. His defense hasn’t been as airtight this season as last, but his combination of size, speed, and brains outclasses Durant — and just about everyone else in the league. That unique package, with a valuable assist from a game Shane Battier, has allowed the Heat to reinvent itself as a mostly small-ball team, with James at power forward and an army of shooters at his disposal. Scott Brooks hasn’t trusted Durant quite enough to tilt Oklahoma City as much in the small-ball direction as the team probably needs to go.

The Durant-backers can’t lean on the “clutch” argument anymore, either. Both have shot well in the last five minutes of close games, with James going 18-of-38 over 66 qualifying minutes and Durant a scorching 19-of-36 in 63 such minutes, per NBA.com’s stats database. James has been just as willing a shooter, he’s solved (for now) his free throw issues in high-leverage moments, and his assist and rebounding numbers just blow Durant out of the water. James’s shooting percentage slips to around 40 percent once you cut the minutes/scoring margin from five toward zero, but his supplementary numbers remain strong; ask Ray Allen about it.

Both Oklahoma City and Miami have ranked among the three or four best “clutch” teams so far. The sample sizes are tiny, and relying on such tiny sample sizes is generally bad in handing out awards that honor a season’s work. But in this case, they don’t sway things either way.

Basically: LeBron James is the best player in the world, and the best player should usually win MVP. When the race for “best” is close, as it is here, there is room to use that amorphous word “valuable” and award MVP to the “second-best” guy if he plays on a roster unusually dependent on his skill set; this is the argument I used in giving my (fake) vote to Dwight Howard over LeBron in 2010-11.

But it doesn’t work here. Westbrook and Serge Ibaka are both better players than they were last season, and have proven to be up to assuming portions of Harden’s burden. Kevin Martin has been ultraefficient as a legit Sixth Man of the Year candidate. Given some injury nicks to Battier and Dwyane Wade, and Miami’s thin bench, it’s hard to see much difference in roster quality after the alpha dogs.

James is still the league’s MVP.

Anthony gets the no. 4 spot for playing perhaps the best ball of his career and embracing a power forward role that has allowed him to play with a sort of team-first selfishness as a post-up ball dominator. His passing from the post and elbows has been both more willing and sophisticated than in the past, and his 3-point stroke has been brilliant — almost certainly unsustainably so, even if he’s taking mostly very good shots from there. His post defense at power forward has been solid, though his back-line rotations behind Tyson Chandler have been inconsistent and often ineffective; he’s not a rim protector, after all, and New York’s go-to lineups were hemorrhaging points before Melo’s recent knee issues.

The no. 5 spot is a battle between a bunch of solid candidates with various red flags — defense (Kobe Bryant, James Harden), puzzling shot selection (Russell Westbrook, LaMarcus Aldridge early on), and minutes limitations (Tim Duncan). Tyson Chandler also belongs in the discussion, since his effort and smarts on defense as New York’s only reliable big have enabled Anthony to shift down one spot on the positional chart — just as Anthony’s effective offense and New York’s perfectly spaced floor have enabled Chandler to reach a new level as the league’s top pick-and-roll big man.

Bryant gets the nod for playing his most efficient ball in years and adapting on the fly to several different offensive systems. He held the Lakers together during their early-season melodrama, and he looks ready and willing to thrive in a Steve Nash–led system. Tony Parker is making a run at Duncan for the Spurs’ internal MVP, and may earn legit consideration for the no. 5 spot by the end of the season.

Marc Gasol

Defensive Player of the Year

1. Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies
2. Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls
3. Kevin Garnett, Boston Celtics

A fascinating and wide-open race. Dwight Howard, the perennial favorite, is out of contention, as his recovery from back surgery has left him looking like himself one night and a glorified Carlos Boozer the next. Chandler and LeBron haven’t quite reached their respective levels from last season, when Chandler won this award and LeBron worked as the best perimeter defender in the game. Ibaka has improved more on offense than on defense, where he remains a frightening intimidator who still struggles with positioning in space against elite-shooting big men and smaller teams.

Duncan and Garnett may be the league’s very best defenders, but they play under strict minutes limitations that keep them off the court longer than their competitors here.4 Omer Asik defends the paint in the style of Duncan, with a similar minutes total. Tony Allen may be the single most impactful defender in the entire league, but he’s on the court even less — just 25 minutes per game — because teams ignore him to clog the paint when Memphis has the ball.

That leaves Gasol and Noah as heavy-minutes anchors on two of the league’s best defensive teams, and in what amounts to a coin flip, I’m going with Gasol’s space-eating size over Noah’s productive mania. It’s worth noting that even the candidacies of these two stalwarts bring complications, since each plays significant minutes with two very good defenders — Allen and Mike Conley in Memphis, and Luol Deng and Taj Gibson in Chicago. Separating contributions on defense is notoriously difficult. But an elite big trumps an elite wing, and these two are as steady as it gets in the NBA; I’m not sure there’s a larger gap between the level of nationwide fan appreciation for a player and the level of appreciation from coaches/scouts/league executives for that player than the gap for Gasol. People inside the league adore this guy.

The Grizzlies allow about four fewer points per 100 possessions when Gasol is on the floor, and though he’s not an electric shot blocker like Ibaka, he protects the rim well.5 Most important: He is almost always in the right place, moving around the floor in sync with an opponent’s offensive sets, and with such braininess it often seems as if Gasol is one step ahead of that offense. He works with an economy of movement, rarely over-rotating himself out of position or losing touch with his man while helping elsewhere. He’s all genius mini-slides, subtle reaches into passing lanes and disruptive hip checks. It’s easy to miss that stuff, but it makes Gasol perhaps the best defender in the league.

Noah has been just about as good in a Tom Thibodeau scheme tailored to his speed in help-and-recover situations. He is as tenacious and competitive as any player, and the Bulls allow nearly 10 fewer points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court.6

With apologies to Duncan, Asik, Allen, Ibaka, Anderson Varejao, Josh Smith, Al Horford, Thaddeus Young, Deng, Andre Iguodala, Larry Sanders, Jrue Holiday, Chris Paul, Mike Conley, Roy Hibbert, and Andrei Kirilenko.

Jarrett Jack

Sixth Man of the Year

1. Jarrett Jack, Golden State Warriors
2. Tie: Jamal Crawford/Matt Barnes, Los Angeles Clippers
3. J.R. Smith, New York Knicks

This is the craziest race among all the awards, with almost 10 legitimate candidates and two teams, the Clips and Warriors, sporting at least two worthy guys. (Eric Bledsoe would make three if he played more; he’s part of the Clips’ dynamite all-bench unit, but not the mixed unit fast becoming one of Vinny Del Negro’s go-to lineups: Paul–Crawford–Barnes–Blake Griffin–Lamar Odom.)

And it will only get more competitive. Manu Ginobili is finding his stride after a cold start, and actually has a higher PER than any of the guys on my ballot. Ryan Anderson will be eligible sometime in the next two weeks, when his number of off-the-bench appearances will pass his number of starts. You could spend a week just debating this race and end up without a definitive conclusion.

The Barnes/Crawford intra-Clippers comparison is a fascinating side issue all its own. Barnes has pulled just ahead of Crawford in PER, and he’s a relatively low-usage player who does all the little stuff to make the Clips’ bench lineups go: defending wing scorers, cutting off the ball at the precise right moment, etc.

Crawford is the opposite: a ball-dominant high-usage guy and subpar defender who is almost always the top offensive option on those units, running high pick-and-rolls or flying around the elbows for hand-off plays. The Clips’ bench would have to recalibrate its entire offensive structure without him, even if they have to go to hilarious lengths to hide Crawford on defense.

So I’m splitting the difference and going with Jack, who combines the best qualities of each. He’s been just as good as either Clipper statistically, and his combination of size and ballhandling has allowed the Warriors to move Stephen Curry off the ball and thrive with a deadly perimeter trio of Curry, Jack, and Klay Thompson. The Dubs are plus-9 points per 100 possessions when those three play together, per NBA.com, and the Warriors have found an improbable closing lineup by combining those three with the undersized David Lee–Carl Landry duo up front.

Jack has often taken over that offense down the stretch of close games, upping both his usage rate and assist rate dramatically in crunch time. The Warriors are 13-4 in games that have been within five points during the final five minutes of regulation, and rank as one of the league’s best two-way “clutch” teams so far. Such stats are notoriously finicky, but for this moment, Jack deserves a ton of credit for the Warriors’ success — both overall and late in close games. Jack has also managed to keep bench-heavy units afloat, per NBA.com. He has been an essential acquisition for Warriors GM Bob Myers, who swooped in at the last minute and snagged Jack away from several suitors eager to get him.

Smith gets the third spot over a ton of deserving guys for increasing his attention to defense and rebounding, and especially for taking a ton of scoring responsibility on a New York team secretly lacking in off-the-dribble creators — especially when Carmelo Anthony rests. There is value in having guys who can create 40 percent shots when no one else on the floor can do so in the final ticks of the shot clock, and Smith has done that well so far. Solid passing and two game-winning buzzer-beaters help his case, though the usual Smith issues — wacky shot selection and ball watching on defense — could derail it at any moment.

With apologies to Ginobili, Kevin Martin (so efficient, but rarely in charge of things the way Jack, Crawford and Smith have been — and just as bad as Crawford defensively), J.J. Redick, Lou Williams, Landry, and a few others.

Jrue Holiday

10 Things I Like and Don’t Like

1. Philadelphia’s Blue Road Alternates

Just gorgeous. Maybe the best alternate jersey in the league, and better than Philly’s standard roadies by a mile.

2. The Tyranny of the “Cha Cha Slide”

It’s a staple of every NBA arena, to the point that “Clap-Clap-Clap, Clap Your Hands” now pops into my head involuntarily throughout the day (and probably in my dreams). The in-arena guy in Milwaukee is an especially damaged addict, putting the “Slide” on repeat and leaving me legitimately concerned he has fallen asleep on top of the “Slide” button.

3. Aaron Brooks

It’s nice to have Isaiah Thomas back as Sacramento’s starter. Brooks can’t penetrate the lane as often as Thomas or get as far in, and his defense was hurting Sacramento on the perimeter. Brooks negotiates high pick-and-rolls without any rhyme or reason, ducking under the pick against great shooters (fire away, Steph Curry!) and fighting over against lesser guys. He’ll turn away from the play by spinning off the back of the screener, and he has trouble directing ballhandlers away from the pick by jumping into their path early. That Most Improved Player season — built mostly on unmitigated chucking — feels like a long time ago.

4. Russell Westbrook Slipping the OKC Pindown

You know the play: An Oklahoma City wing player will hold the ball on the left side while Westbrook shuttles down to the right block and sets a pindown screen for Kevin Durant. It’s designed to free Durant for a jumper and/or force the defense into all sorts of horrible choices, and it killed teams all of last season. It’s still a staple of the Thunder offense, and Westbrook has gotten better at sensing the right time to slip his screen — to dart to the hoop before really setting the pick, freeing himself for a potential catch and layup, and turning Durant into a decoy. Westbrook memorably burned the Spurs like this for an and-one late in Oklahoma City’s Game 6 conference finals clincher. Great stuff.

5. Pablo Prigioni and C.J. Watson Thieving

Some players will make occasional token attempts to steal inbounds passes after baskets, but these two guys are seriously committed to swiping damn near every inbounds pass when they’re on the court — or at least irritating opponents. It’s delightful to watch, and it’ll work now and then, even though every smart team has included the tendency in scouting reports and warned inbounds passers repeatedly. Prigioni is a sneaky, sneaky player.

Vinny Del Negro
6. Coaches Closing Out on Shooters

I’ve harped on this before, with Vinny Del Negro ranking as the undisputed king of screaming at opposing shooters along his sideline. But more head coaches are doing this, and it’s just embarrassing for middle-aged men who are supposed to be leaders of their organizations. Lawrence Frank in particular is making a run at Del Negro’s throne, though he (like a few others) tries to conceal his true intent by pointing at the feet of the shooter while screaming, as if he’s simply trying to show a Detroit defender where to close out. Please stop doing this, men in suits.

7. Andre Drummond’s Tyson Chandler Lob Potential

It’s impossible to watch Drummond fly for lob dunks on the pick-and-roll without thinking of how Chandler has used this singular skill to turn himself into a hugely valuable offensive player. That is, until you remember this: Drummond is shooting an embarrassing 40 percent from the foul line, and Chandler didn’t become this All-Star-level defense-sucker until he built himself into a steady 70 percent–plus foul shooter. Keep working, Dre.

8. When Players Lose Shoes

A consistently entertaining bit of NBA minutia, and one even the total non-NBA fan in your life can appreciate. Dwyane Wade and Jarrett Jack have added a new degree of comical maliciousness by tossing lost enemy shoes off the court, but the simple suspense of wondering how long the shoeless guy will have to play before a stoppage is entertaining enough.

9. Jason Kidd’s Hands

You can blow by him on the perimeter, on and off the ball. Wings with quick post-up moves can destroy him on the block. Even his defensive rotations aren’t as consistently spot-on as they used to be, though they’re still usually good enough. But you can never take away Jason Kidd’s hands. His ability to swipe at the ball at the exact moment it becomes even the teensiest bit available is uncanny, and his hands are so strong, he often just takes the ball away instead of knocking it to the floor. The guy could get steals in the NBA into real-world retirement age.

10. Calling Obvious Traveling Violations on Fast Breaks

Oh, how the Lowe household rejoiced on Christmas when referees took away an uncontested Dwight Howard fast-break dunk by whistling Howard for a traveling violation involving at least four steps and zero dribbles. Officials at all levels often let such violations go, conceding the apparent inevitability of the basket — dribble or no dribble. A rule is a rule, and officials should hold everyone accountable.

Filed Under: Awards, Kevin Durant, Lebron James, Marc Gasol, NBA, People, Sports

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ ZachLowe_NBA