It feels like only a few weeks ago we were anticipating how the Princeton offense might work with Steve Nash, Dwight Howard, and Kobe Bryant — and under Mike Brown. But a whole season has somehow passed, and that means it’s time for end-of-season awards. I don’t have an official ballot, but I’ll list the same number of choices as the real voters.1
Most Valuable Player
1. LeBron James
2. Kevin Durant
3. Chris Paul
4. Carmelo Anthony
5. James Harden
The result should be unanimous, and if it’s not, the NBA should consider removing the ballot from any voter who selects Durant over James. The murky term “value” allows for the notion of selecting someone other than the obvious “best” player if that someone is uniquely valuable within an otherwise weak team context. This year is the wrong time for such thinking. James is the world’s best player by a considerable margin, and even if the Heat, blessed with three true stars, would be quite good with a replacement-level guy getting James’s minutes, that team would not be anywhere close to where Miami is now — sitting on five more wins than the league’s next-best team, reflecting on an insane 27-game winning streak, and standing as favorites for an emphatic repeat title.
Durant is a fantastic player, an all-time great already, but he is not near James’s level as a passer or all-around destroyer on defense. And that gap persists even though Durant has made meaningful strides on both counts. There is no weak spot in James’s MVP case. The more interesting discussion must wait until after the playoffs.2
The only real debate comes in the final three spots, which aren’t crucial in terms of historical memory. Paul’s placement above Anthony, Harden, Russell Westbrook, Bryant, Marc Gasol, and others brings up the tricky issue of minutes, because Paul has logged only about 2,300 — more than 200 fewer than Anthony, and somewhere between 400 and 600 fewer than these other candidates. Drawing the line is difficult, especially when it comes to Paul and Tim Duncan, a popular choice both here and for Defensive Player of the Year.
Duncan has been shockingly good, on both ends, serving as the hub of San Antonio’s side-to-side offense and the one rim protector standing between the Spurs and mediocrity on defense.3 But he’s barely cracked 2,000 minutes, a significant chunk fewer than Paul, and the equivalent of two dozen fewer games4 than the Harden/Westbrook/Bryant/Gasol crew. An “A-” player is worth more than an “A” player over the slog of the regular season if the “A-” guy is providing that many more minutes, even at a slightly lower level of overall play. Duncan’s minutes are low enough to hurt his awards case across every category, even if Gregg Popovich’s cautious rest approach and the Spurs’ penchant for blowouts artificially reduce Duncan’s minutes almost against his will.
Paul’s minutes are low enough to knock him to no. 4 or no. 5 on some ballots, but not to knock him off entirely. And they aren’t quite low enough to cost him his presumptive no. 3 status here. For one, he’s a strong no. 3 in Player Efficiency Rating, with almost a full two-point lead over the next group of players. He remains an efficient scorer and distributor, even as his 3-point shooting has fallen off a bit, and the Clippers just don’t exist without him; Los Angeles has scored nearly 112 points per 100 possessions with Paul on the floor and just 101.5 without him, roughly the difference between a league-best offense and one that would rank just 25th for the season, per NBA.com. He’s a fine defender, if a bit overrated because of his gaudy steals total, and he’s been a monster — again — in crunch time. Even some of the best Clippers “bench units” include Paul as the token starter floor general at this point. He is a transformational player.
Anthony has surged into the no. 4 spot in the PER rankings, he has a similar life-or-death statistical impact on New York’s offense, and he deserves huge credit for accepting heavy minutes at power forward. That change takes a physical toll5 and spotlights a different set of weaknesses in Melo’s defensive game — the inattentive help defense along the back line, a lack of size and length to help effectively when actually focused, and occasional reaching laziness on the pick-and-roll. But Anthony has battled in the post against bigger guys, holding head-to-head counterparts to just 35 percent on post-up shots, and the Knicks signed Tyson Chandler precisely so they could load up the rest of the roster with offense-first types.
In a broader sense, Anthony is essential to New York’s identity as a small-ball, spread-the-floor team, and not only because he’s shooting 3s better than ever — and more than ever. He can drive to the rim against power forwards and brutalize traditional wings in the post; his inside-out passing from the block has reached a new level of unselfish sophistication. Almost every opponent has to contort its defense in uncomfortable ways in order to deal with Carmelo Anthony, power forward.
The Rockets likewise could not exist as a turbocharged spread pick-and-roll team, launching 3s at a record pace, without Harden filling every key role within that system: off-the-bounce creator, foul-drawing machine, ace passer (LeBron might be the only guy better at skipping the ball to open shooters in the weakside corner), and occasional screener in the late-game Jeremy Lin–Harden pick-and-roll. Harden has been awful on defense, but among candidates below him on the list, only Duncan and Gasol could cite their own defense as a reason they deserve this no. 5 slot over Harden.6 And as with Anthony, Harden can plausibly argue his own team has almost enabled his lazy defense by signing Omer Asik to do all the heavy lifting on that end.
You can make a solid case at no. 4 or no. 5 for any of the following “snubs”: Duncan, Wade, Bryant, Westbrook, Gasol, Tony Parker, and perhaps even Stephen Curry, Chandler, and Blake Griffin. They’re all wonderful. They just miss the cut here.
Defensive Player of the Year
1. Marc Gasol
2. Joakim Noah
3. Omer Asik
Injuries and minutes issues have made this an easier choice than it was at midseason. Gasol is the centerpiece of the league’s most terrifying defense, and unlike Tony Allen, as fearsome a perimeter defender as exists on either Earth or Allen’s home planet, Gasol is good enough offensively (and then some) to stay on the floor for huge minutes. Gasol is 21st overall in total minutes, and among big men, only David Lee has logged more time. The Grizz allow just 95.4 points per 100 possessions when Gasol is on the floor and 102.8 when he sits, per NBA.com. That first mark would lead the league, while the second would rank around just above league average.
Gasol isn’t spectacular, but he is always in motion, and always talking, as the back-line anchor of the grit-and-grind Grizzlies. He protects the rim aggressively without fouling, he’s an immovable beast one-on-one in the post, and every opposing possession is basically 15 seconds of Gasol shifting around the floor in brilliantly subtle ways that show he understands not only what the offense is up to now, but what actions are coming in the next few seconds. He slides into passing lanes before they open, bumps cutters early, walls off pick-and-roll handlers, and acts as Memphis’s traffic cop. And while Gasol’s individual rebounding numbers aren’t great, he always takes care of his own assignment and the Grizz protect the glass at a much better rate when he’s on the floor taking up space.
Noah was neck and neck with Gasol until plantar fasciitis issues cropped up late in the season, and even after missing 16 games so far, he has still logged 300 more minutes than Duncan and Kevin Garnett — all-time defensive savants who are somehow still top-10 overall defenders today. Noah exudes maniacal intensity on defense without verging into spastic territory or getting himself even an inch out of position within Tom Thibodeau’s precise system.
Asik is always in the right spot, takes care of rebounding almost on his own, and allows Houston’s perimeter defenders to gamble all over the floor.7 He snags the no. 3 spot here over a host of worthy candidates, including Roy Hibbert and Paul George in Indiana, and the position-less LeBron. James should win this award one day, but he didn’t bring the same minute-to-minute intensity as these first three — probably a good thing for Miami’s title hopes.
With apologies to Andre Iguodala, Al Horford, Josh Smith, Thaddeus Young, Garnett, Duncan, Avery Bradley, Allen, Mike Conley, Chandler, Hibbert, George, Taj Gibson, Luol Deng, LARRY SANDERS!, Serge Ibaka, Kawhi Leonard, and others.
Sixth Man of the Year
1. J.R. Smith
2. Jarrett Jack
3. Jamal Crawford
This recalls the 1995 episode of The Simpsons, “Bart’s Comet,” in which the family is unnerved upon learning that Homer’s crazy prediction — that the comet headed for Earth would break apart into tiny pieces, doing no real damage — has actually come true. “I know, kids,” Homer says upon examining a tiny chunk of comet. “I’m scared, too.”
J.R. Smith is going to win Sixth Man of the Year, and it will be deserved. I know, readers. I’m scared, too. Since March 5, Smith has averaged 23 points per game on 47 percent shooting, including nearly 39 percent from 3-point range, with a half-dozen free throw attempts to boot. He has reinvented himself as a driving, spinning, foul-drawing dervish, and reached a new level just as the Knicks have suffered injuries of various severity to Chandler, Anthony, Kenyon Martin, and many others. Smith is a skilled passer and capable secondary pick-and-roll ball handler, both must-haves for any perimeter player in New York’s spread-the-floor and swing-the-ball system. He’s not a great defender, and sometimes not even a good one, but he’s minimized his once fatal ball-watching habit, hit the glass, and focused on making the pinpoint, high-speed rotations New York’s help-defense system demands. Of late, he has even defended power forwards in short stretches with the Knicks short on bigs.
Smith and Crawford have taken opposite paths this season, with Crawford starting out on fire and tapering off a bit, and Crawford remains one of the worst perimeter defenders in the league; finding a place to hide him on defense is a never-ending challenge for the Clips, while tracking that hiding place is a fun parlor game for NBA nerds. “Hey, Crawford’s guarding Tony Allen! Wait, now Jerryd Bayless is in, and Crawford has moved to Quincy Pondexter! Whee!”
And if you care about such things, Smith had a higher PER going into Monday’s action than every plausible candidate save for Ryan Anderson, Eric Bledsoe, and Nate Robinson. (Smith and Robinson were in a flat-footed tie.) Bledsoe just hasn’t played enough minutes to be a serious contender, and though Anderson’s quick-release accuracy from 3 has loosened spacing for the Hornets in a lot of creative sets, he’s been streaky on offense and a consistent minus on defense.8
Jack has been the most consistent contender and won my midseason award, but Smith’s off-the-charts play as a legit offensive centerpiece has nudged him above Golden State’s key bench cog. Jack isn’t an ideal defensive matchup against either guard position — Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes tend to get the toughest wing assignments, and Jack’s at a quickness advantage opposite most point guards — but he can credibly guard both while assuming ballhandling duties on offense, and that flexibility has been especially useful within Golden State’s roster context. Jack has captained second units that have at least kept Golden State afloat with the stars sitting, and his presence has allowed Mark Jackson to shift Curry off the ball as part of the deadly (at least on offense) Curry-Thompson-Jack trio. Jack has been nailing those midrange pull-ups, though he’s probably been too trigger-happy at times, and Jackson has leaned too heavily on him in crunch time. He’s a clever passer and reader of defenses, most memorably on his snap-judgement dish to Draymond Green for a buzzer-beater in Miami.
With apologies to Vince Carter, Kevin Martin, Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Matt Barnes, Corey Brewer, Andre Miller, Carl Landry, Ramon Sessions, Jeff Green, Shane Battier, Ray Allen, J.J. Redick, Manu Ginobili, Amir Johnson, Bayless, and others.
Coach of the Year
1. Gregg Popovich
2. Mike Woodson
3. Erik Spoelstra
This award is beginning to feel like the MVP during Michael Jordan’s prime (and now LeBron’s) — that Popovich deserves it basically every season as the league’s best coach, and that any decision to give it to someone else will feel wrong in retrospect. So it’s Pop, again, for tightening up San Antonio’s defense, finally reaping dividends from the slow build of the Tiago Splitter–Duncan pairing, spicing up San Antonio’s side pick-and-roll attack with pin-downs and other actions, and generally being ahead of the game. Pop was the first coach to understand how modern NBA defenses, freed from the shackles of illegal defense bans, required both more movement and energy from individual players and more side-to-side creativity from offenses.
And thus: San Antonio has become a leaguewide model for both optimal player rest schedules and unselfish, pass-first offenses. It’s impossible to have a conversation with a team executive about basically any topic without that executive bringing up the Spurs, and Popovich, as a progressive model within two minutes.
The Spurs spent most of the season atop the Western Conference despite injuries that removed Ginobili, Leonard, Boris Diaw, Duncan, Parker, and Gary Neal from San Antonio’s rotation for long stretches. The system just works, and the Spurs roll on.
Woodson was very nearly the top choice on this fake ballot. He somehow got through to Smith (with a big assist from Jason Kidd) and obliterated his somewhat unfair reputation as a stick in the mud by embracing small ball, unleashing Anthony at power forward, and happily freeing the Knicks to launch 3s at a record-breaking rate. Just as importantly: Woodson did not deviate from that plan when the Knicks entered a midseason shooting slump. He understands the ebbs and flows of chance and basketball, and he has the smallish Knicks playing very hard on defense. They’re only average on that end and won’t get much better with the personnel currently surrounding Chandler, but when New York is on point, few teams rotate around the perimeter with such speedy precision:
Woodson has also experimented with some innovative switching techniques, and though the Knicks can switch themselves into a few too many mismatches, Woodson may turn out to have been ahead of his peers in this regard. A really great job, even if repeated injuries to Amar’e Stoudemire removed Woodson’s biggest potential rotation challenge.
Spoelstra is likely to win this award, and that’s fine. He has completely overhauled Miami’s offense into an unstoppable force devoted to hunting only the most efficient shots, and he has convinced star players to coexist in a way that makes life easier for each of them. It took time, some luck, and some improvising in the face of injuries, but Spoelstra has guided Miami to the right style on both ends.
With apologies to George Karl (easily the toughest omission), Lionel Hollins, Frank Vogel, Thibodeau, Jackson, and Rick Carlisle.
Rookie of the Year
1. Damian Lillard
2. Anthony Davis
3. Bradley Beal
A few pundits have laid out the case for Davis over Lillard, citing Davis’s superior efficiency stats and somewhat correctly (at least on the surface) painting Lillard as a “meh” efficiency guy piling up numbers simply because he’s getting a ton of minutes on a bad team.
But that’s sort of the point: Lillard has put up solid offensive numbers while taking on a giant burden for a team with no bench, a limited starting center, and two solid wing players both hamstrung by injuries during the latter stages of the season. And Lillard is the engine, or at least the co-engine, in creating looks for himself and his teammates; Davis is mostly an off-ball threat who needs people to find him at the right times for lob dunks and short jumpers off pin-down screens.
That’s not a knock on Davis. Getting clean looks on those types of shots requires advanced footwork and a nimble sense of timing; Davis got better synchronizing his cuts to the rim on pick-and-rolls as the season progressed, and he and Eric Gordon never really had enough time to develop a deep pick-and-roll chemistry. But it’s easier to put up solid efficiency numbers in Davis’s role than in Lillard’s,9 and it absolutely matters that Lillard has played about 1,250 more minutes than Davis — the equivalent of nearly three dozen games for a player who averages about 35 minutes per game. I mean, with a minutes gap like that, we’re not really even talking about comparable players anymore. Maintaining above-average production, especially on a diet of difficult 3-point shots, is a huge accomplishment for a rookie thrust, right away, into so much.
Lillard has been mostly terrible on defense, as most rookies are. He struggles badly to navigate screens, on both high pick-and-rolls and typical NBA off-ball actions. He showed flashes of improvement for short stretches, but nothing sustained. The learning curve was just about as steep for Davis, who looked almost literally as if he were on skates for the first two months of the season. He bit on pump fakes, mistimed his lunging help on pick-and-roll coverages, and had trouble controlling his momentum when he had to change directions, recover to shooters, and challenge shots in the lane. He looked borderline unstable. “Every day, we try to teach him not to bite on pump fakes,” Williams says. “And earlier in the year, he was just all over the place. Think about what he did in college — just staying in the paint and waiting on guys to come to you. You can’t do that here.”
Davis got steadier on his feet as the season went on, and he’s already a very good rebounder on both ends. He’s going to be a wrecker on defense, and should very soon emerge as the best player in this draft. But this is a one-season award, and Lillard was this season’s best rookie.
The no. 3 spot is basically a pick ’em between guys who played semi-limited minutes because of injury, internal competition, and/or drop-offs in play at points of the season. Harrison Barnes never really asserted himself, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist slammed into the rookie wall, Dion Waiters got hurt as he was finally hitting the right shoot-or-pass stride, Andre Drummond has barely cracked the 1,000-minute mark, Dwane Casey didn’t place his trust in Jonas Valanciunas until Toronto’s season was effectively over, Alexey Shved can’t shoot, and Andrew Nicholson’s minutes waned even as Orlando lost most of its veteran players. Heck, Brian Roberts and Maurice Harkless have made decent arguments for the no. 3 spot during the last few weeks.
Beal and Drummond shone the brightest among this crop, but Beal gets the nod for his heavier minutes load, his consistent improvement, and the way his game took off when John Wall allowed him to work as a complementary player. Wall’s early-season absence forced Beal into too much, too soon, on a limited team, and he threw up a lot of bricks as a result. But Beal shot 47 percent — including a sizzling 50 percent mark from 3-point range — with Wall on the floor, per NBA.com. He feasted on spot-up looks from the corners, and as he got comfortable within a more dynamic team, Beal began to show what he might do as a secondary pick-and-roll ball handler — especially on foul line pick-and-rolls:
This guy is a player.
Most Improved Player
1. LARRY SANDERS!
2. Greivis Vasquez
3. TIE: J.J. Hickson, Jrue Holiday
This is always an impossible award. Take three player types that aren’t even represented here:
• The P.J. Tucker — a non-rookie who comes out of nowhere, or at least from somewhere outside the NBA, to emerge as a solid rotation piece.
• The Andray Blatche — a player who once provided decent production,10 fell off badly because of some personal issues, and experienced a career rebirth years later.
• The Kemba Walker — a lottery pick in his second or third season developing as we might expect or hope.
Then you have the fourth type that encompasses a ton of candidates: The player who produces at something close to his historical norms, but does so in vastly increased minutes. Harden might fall into this category as a Rocket, and Nikola Vucevic, as the no. 16 pick suddenly traded from a so-so team to a miserable one, might fall into two of the above four categories.
There is no right answer. The best a voter can do is find a player — almost inevitably a young guy — who carves out an expanded role, plays at a demonstrably higher level than ever before within that expanded role, and shows at least one new or refined skill. SANDERS! qualifies on all counts, even if he verges on Walker territory as a no. 15 pick (one outside the lottery) in his third season. He logged more minutes this season than in his first two combined, and he earned that time by cutting some of the bad stuff that naturally gets a guy benched — fouls and wayward jump shots. SANDERS! focused his offensive game on rim attacks, minimizing his long 2-point jumpers, and taking care to avoid putting himself in scary positions like this:
Oh, and the defense. Nobody blocked a higher percentage of opposing shot attempts, and SANDERS! pulled the tricky double play of swatting all those shots without leaping his way out of rebounding position. SANDERS! had been a below-average defensive rebounder in his first two seasons, but this season, only 11 players with at least 1,500 minutes grabbed a higher percentage of defensive rebounds.
All of this allowed SANDERS! to stay on the court long enough to emerge as one of the league’s true game-changing defensive forces. The Bucks, so sievelike along the perimeter, allowed just 98.8 points per 100 possessions with SANDERS! on the floor and an ugly 105.8 when he sat, per NBA.com. That’s the difference between San Antonio’s third-ranked defense and Detroit’s 24th-ranked unit. Now SANDERS! just has to control his temper, even if that temper did give us perhaps the most hilarious moment of the season.
Vasquez would appear to be a “same production, more minutes” case, but he’s not. He crept toward league-average status from 3-point range on a much higher volume of attempts, lots of which were difficult off-the-dribble jobs, and he has gradually learned how to score and dish productive assists despite his glaring lack of speed. Vasquez makes up for that athleticism disadvantage by using his size to post up, launch tricky floaters, and scan over the defense for open passing lanes. And while he’s slow, Vasquez can work hesitation dribbles and small fakes that shift defenders a step or two in a particular direction, opening up passing lanes Vasquez has already seen in advance. That’s how you jump from 7.6 assists per 36 minutes last season to 9.4 this season.
Vasquez is a productive NBA point guard: a dynamite backup and a viable starter on the right roster. But he’s also in danger of being overpaid if even one GM finds himself seduced by these numbers. Vasquez is already 26, has trouble defending opposing point guards, and can’t turn the corner on a pick-and-roll. He’s learned to compensate, but I’m not sure how much more development anyone can expect.
Holiday might have slumped his way out of this award during the last six weeks as the Sixers became perhaps the league’s saddest team, but he was a legit All-Star who grasped a much larger creative role this season without sacrificing efficiency or defense. And like SANDERS!, Hickson has excised the team-killing parts of his game and focused on the good stuff — defensive rebounding, rolling hard to the rim on pick-and-rolls, scoring off cuts, and breaking out that midrange jumper only when wide, wide, wide-open. Hickson still can’t really pass and struggles with positioning on defense, but he has worked hard on the right parts of his game. Let’s hope that keeps up after he signs a new contract this summer.
With apologies to Mike Conley, Lance Stephenson, Chandler Parsons, Jeff Green, Chris Andersen, Blatche, Brook Lopez, Gerald Henderson, Walker, Tristan Thompson, Jimmy Butler, O.J. Mayo, Brandan Wright, Brewer, Kosta Koufos, Wilson Chandler, Curry, Asik, Greg Smith, George, Earl Clark, Bledsoe, Robin Lopez, Ibaka, Durant, Reggie Jackson, Vucevic, Enes Kanter, Amir Johnson, Splitter, and Tucker.
Whew. And with that, the regular season is just about behind us. The real games start on Saturday.