Another overlong regular season is about over, meaning it’s time to pause ahead of the playoffs and hand out the NBA’s annual awards. Three notes on the choices that follow:
• Mr. Simmons has seen to it that I have a real ballot for the first time. These choices come straight off said official ballot. They count. That is scary.
• As always, I’ve weighed every piece of information available — basic and advanced statistics of all stripes, extensive film-watching, team success, roster construction, and conversations with some of my favorite sources across the league.
• Availability matters, to a point. Once a player misses 20 games, it becomes hard to choose that player over a roughly equivalent guy who played the whole season.
With those bits of context out of the way …
Most Valuable Player
1. Kevin Durant
2. LeBron James
3. Stephen Curry
4. Joakim Noah
5. Blake Griffin
This isn’t a blowout, nor a case of voter fatigue. The notion that Durant has propped up a lesser supporting cast in comparison to LeBron is overblown. The numbers mostly favor Durant, but you can find some, including ESPN’s new real plus/minus, that identify James as the league’s best player. And LeBron, when fully engaged, is indeed still the best player on earth. Peak LeBron is a more disruptive defender — fearsome on the ball, stronger in the post, capable of elite rim protection. Durant is the better shooter, but LeBron with the ball in his hands can bend defenses in more varied and severe ways. A LeBron post-up is probably the league’s most dangerous play — a vehicle for LeBron to bash his way to the rim, read layers of responding help defense, and fire bullet passes that zoom ahead of those help rotations.
Durant is the NBA’s most polished scorer, but he’s not in LeBron’s league as a passer, and he remains mostly an outside-in creator. The Thunder’s vanilla offense and spacing issues place artificial limits on the variety in Durant’s game, and the guy is still just 25. Still, he has been better than James this season. The Thunder leaned upon Durant to soak up a larger share of the team’s possessions than ever before, and Durant somehow maintained his ludicrous efficiency — 50 percent from the floor, 40 percent from 3-point range, and nearly 90 percent from the line. He improved on the pick-and-roll, blowing away his previous career-best passing numbers. Durant was uneven in the clutch by his standards, but some of that falls on Scott Brooks, and Durant still nailed a pile of big buckets. He will become just the eighth player to put up a player efficiency rating of 30 or higher in a single season.1
The current list: LeBron, Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, Tracy McGrady, Dwyane Wade, David Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal.
Durant was a better defender than James this season, an unexpected turn. He can still lunge himself out of position in help-and-recover situations, but his giant wingspan and effort level make up for a lot of those spacing hiccups. He’s a menace closing out on shooters, and forget about scoring on him one-on-one; opponents have shot just 28 percent in isolations against Durant this season, per Synergy Sports.
LeBron’s defense has slipped, likely because he’s coasting. He hasn’t been as steady closing out on shooters; opponents have routinely blown by him for drives into the teeth of Miami’s defense. He hasn’t challenged shots at the rim with the same viciousness, or tracked his own assignment off the ball with the same care. And yet: He’s shooting 57 percent, with a player efficiency rating just shy of the magical 30 mark.
Goddamn, these two guys are great. But Durant has been better.
Filling the rest of the ballot is an arduous task. Kevin Love and Dirk Nowitzki were the two most painful omissions, and it’s easy to make a case for either as worthy of a spot.
Leaving them off while including Curry was especially difficult. Curry, Love, and Nowitzki all present the same basic case: “Our offense dies without me.” All three are minus defenders.
But Curry is easier to hide on defense. He’s little, and defends far from the rim — the most important terrain. He had Andrew Bogut behind him (before losing him to a rib injury), and the presence of Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala allows the Warriors more flexibility in shifting Curry around to the least threatening opposing perimeter player. Love and Nowitzki are both better defensively than their reputations might suggest, but Nowitzki has lost a step, and hiding an uneven big-man defender is just harder.
More to the point: The Warriors have scored 109.7 points per 100 possessions when Curry plays and 93.2 when he sits, per NBA.com. The first number would lead the league. The second would fall 3.5 points behind Philadelphia’s pathetic offense. Opponents have outscored Golden State by 5.5 points per 100 possessions when Curry sits. He’s the best shooter in the league, and though he can still fling some crazy highlight-seeking passes at bad moments, Curry has proven a clever distributor.
The story of Golden State’s season is that it hasn’t found any workable alternative to “just give Curry the ball and let him do stuff,” and yet it somehow still doesn’t give Curry the ball enough. He is the offense, as currently constructed. James Harden has had a similar season in Houston, but the Rockets have another star to rely upon in Dwight Howard.
Minnesota’s scoring drop-off when Love sits is nearly as dramatic as the Curry Cliff. The Mavs’ offense sustains well in comparison when Dirk hits the bench: 110.3 points per 100 possessions with Dirk on the floor, and a very healthy 106.3 when he rests. It’s easy to read that and argue Dirk is less “valuable” than Curry and Love. But those numbers really highlight the importance of coaching and roster construction, and the impossibility of disentangling individual player achievement from those variables.
Rick Carlisle, a Coach of the Year candidate again, has long lifted Dirk early in the first and third quarters. The strategy allows for more rest, but it also engineers creative staggering into the Dallas rotation in which the rest of the starters soldier on without Dirk, and then Dirk returns to carry bench-heavy units.
The Warriors and Wolves, on the other hand, have been Exhibits A and B in the case against sending out five-man bench units and expecting those lineups to score against competent defenses. The Curry Cliff and Love Letdown wouldn’t be as severe if Mark Jackson and Rick Adelman distributed minutes the way Carlisle does.
Adelman often tried to avoid all-bench lineups by using Love and Nikola Pekovic as solo starters, Dirk-style. The 2013-14 version of Love might be the trickiest MVP candidate of the last half-decade. People talk about the Wolves like they are some colossal disappointment, and they indeed have choked away close games at an almost unprecedented rate. But they’re 40-41, not 30-50. Pekovic has missed 27 games. Ronny Turiaf has missed more than half the season. Chase Budinger never recovered from his meniscus injury. J.J. Barea was mostly awful, Ricky Rubio is shooting 38 percent and can’t have the ball in crunch time, and Adelman didn’t discover Gorgui Dieng until it was too late.
Minnesota is not some super-talented juggernaut Love has undercut with selfish play, bad defense, and bricky clutch shooting. The Wolves are a so-so team playing .500 ball in a loaded conference. They rank as an average defensive team despite all the hand-wringing over their interior softness.
What would their record be playing an Eastern Conference schedule, with Tom Thibodeau as head coach? Love has been their only workable crunch-time option. He’s 14-of-33 in the last three minutes of close games;2 only eight of the 36 other players who have attempted at least 25 such shots have hit a higher percentage, and the rest of the Wolves are 18-of-59 combined.
Defined as games in which the score is within three points in either direction.
Other teams scrap entire defensive schemes to account for the shooting Love and Nowitzki bring from the power forward spot, and Curry’s lethal combination of pick-and-roll work and long-range bombing. They will never do that for Joakim Noah’s high-post passing. Curry and Nowitzki are two of the game’s most terrifying crunch-time weapons, though Nowitzki had a clutch slump this season; Noah has trouble creating his own shot.
Love bears some responsibility for Minnesota’s crunch-time failures. He’s just 8-of-16 at the line in those close situations, and an ugly 1-of-6 if you zoom in on the last minute.3 He offers zero rim protection, he’s uneven against the pick-and-roll, and he boxes out instead of contesting shots in the paint. He is always admiring his jump shots while his man leaks out behind him. Love is still something of a “get my numbers” guy, though he mostly plays hard.
At least one of those misses was intentional, but it came after an unintentional miss.
Noah was not a candidate for a ballot spot before the Bulls swapped Luol Deng for nothing of present value, and the Bulls’ offense has remained terrible even as they’ve gone 34-15 since that deal.4 Noah has reached a new level as Chicago’s two-way emergency centerpiece in the absence of Deng and Derrick Rose. The post-trade numbers are staggering:
They’re 25th in points per possession since the trade.
Noah on floor: 103.4 points per 100 possessions; 95.2 points allowed.
Noah on bench: 95.7 points per 100 possessions; 103.4 points allowed.
Chicago has been an average offense with Noah on the floor since the Deng deal, and when you play defense like the Bulls, average offense is enough. The Noah effect on offense isn’t nearly as strong without D.J. Augustin’s extra dose of shooting on the floor, but it sustains on defense almost regardless of who else is around him; Chicago basically slips only when Carlos Boozer and Augustin play together, per NBA.com.
The Deng trade should have killed this team. Noah has saved it on both ends. He is an inspiration.
Griffin snags the last spot for keeping the Clippers humming during the 20 games Chris Paul missed. The Clips’ schedule was pretty easy during Paul’s prolonged absence, and they’ve yet to prove they can defend at a high level against good NBA offenses. But Griffin has rounded out his game on both ends.
Apologies to: Nowitzki, Love, Harden, Howard, CP3, Anthony Davis, Carmelo Anthony, Al Jefferson, Goran Dragic, LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMarcus Cousins, Kyle Lowry, John Wall, Tony Parker, and Tim Duncan.
Defensive Player of the Year
1. Joakim Noah
2. Roy Hibbert
3. Paul George
Hibbert remains a fine choice. Indiana’s collapse over the last month does not erase what it did early in the season, even if the bad stuff is more fresh in our minds. The Pacers still top the league in points allowed per possession, and opponents have hit just 41.5 percent of shots near the rim when Hibbert is close to both the basket and the shooter — the lowest mark among all major rotation big men, per SportVU tracking data. That number hasn’t budged during the Pacers’ slump. Hibbert remains the game’s best rim protector.
His rebounding is a punch line, but Indiana is second overall in defensive rebounding rate, and the Pacers snare just about the same percentage of boards regardless of whether Hibbert is on the floor. There is value in taking up space and boxing out, even if you can’t jump. Hibbert’s drop-off has mostly come on offense, but his defense has definitely slipped — enough to swing the award to Noah. Hibbert has looked slower, and more cautious in challenging shots in the floater range. He merely swipes at shooters, almost as if he knows he doesn’t have the juice to summon Verticality Mode, challenge the shot, and then turn for a rebound.
His rebounding issues have reached a new level over the last month, and they have infected the team. The Pacers rank just 14th in defensive rebounding rate since March 1, and in their last 15 games, they’ve rebounded much better when Hibbert hits the bench.
Noah doesn’t spook players into wild floaters the way Hibbert does, but he’s fast and maniacally precise about timing and positioning. He will make you shoot over his outstretched arms, and when he’s done altering your shot he’s going to turn, knock the hell out of someone, and make sure Chicago grabs the rebound. He does not mess up in pick-and-roll coverage — ever. He does not allow little-guy ball handlers a path to the rim on switches. He is one step ahead reading plays, always moving around to bother cutters and invade passing lanes.
Availability delivers the third spot to George. Other players have been better, especially Iguodala and Bogut in Golden State. But George has played 800 more minutes than Iguodala and about 1,100 more than Bogut, and he has been a rock on the wing for Indiana — slithering through picks on and off the ball, closing out like a demon, and poking away steals.
Apologies to: Howard, Davis, Durant, DeAndre Jordan, Serge Ibaka, Tim Duncan, Amir Johnson, Taj Gibson, Cousins, Chris Bosh, Marc Gasol, Shawn Marion.
Sixth Man of the Year
1. Taj Gibson
2. Manu Ginobili
3. Markieff Morris
The omission of Jamal Crawford was difficult. He leads all realistic candidates in scoring, he’s getting to the line at a career-best rate, and he’s bumped up his passing numbers after a dip last season. He has proven versatile enough to start or come off the bench depending on the health of the roster. There would be no issue with him winning the award; these candidates are all pretty close.
Clippers fans will surely point to Ginobili’s inclusion and wonder what happened to the whole availability thing; Ginobili has logged just 1,506 minutes, 500 fewer than Crawford, in 66 games. But Ginobili has been so good as to require an adjustment in the weights for each criterion. He has the highest PER among all candidates, and his per-minute numbers are in line with his Hall of Fame prime: 20 points, 7 assists, 5 rebounds, and 1.6 steals per 36 minutes. Yowza.
The Spurs are always great, but they transform into a super-team whenever Ginobili takes the floor. San Antonio has outscored opponents by five points per 100 possessions with Ginobili on the pine, and an unthinkable 13.4 points per 100 possessions when he plays. The Spurs with Manu are basically the 1996 Bulls, but just a hair better. He would have logged at least 100 or 200 more minutes had the Spurs not been blowing teams away so badly.
It’s tempting to chalk all this up to San Antonio’s overall depth rather than to Ginobili, but Manu is the engine. Pick your favorite key San Antonio reserve — Boris Diaw, Patty Mills, Marco Belinelli — and you’ll find they shoot loads better with Ginobili on the floor. The reverse doesn’t really apply, either.
San Antonio relies on constant motion, smart passing, and all of its players being able to make reads in the moment. Ginobili is an injection of all that makes the Spurs go, with a special dose of unpredictability every team needs to keep opponents anxious. He remains a rugged and smart defender, always underrated on that end. Crawford has tried hard and picked up some aspects of Doc Rivers’s scheme, but he remains a glaring defensive liability.
Availability doesn’t kick Ginobili off the ballot, but it does prevent him from winning. Gibson has played 300 more minutes than Crawford and 800 more than Ginobili, and he hasn’t missed a game. (Crawford has missed 13.) He’s not as tall or long as Noah, and not quite as strong a rim protector and post defender. But he’s mobile, he blocks shots, and he’s always in the right place. The Gibson-Noah duo might be the league’s scariest front line, and they pair up in closing lineups that have absolutely blitzed the league in fourth quarters.
Gibson has emerged as a decent post threat and even draws occasional double-teams. He’s not a great one-on-one scorer, but every bit counts for Chicago.
Apologies to: Crawford, Augustin, Mills, Belinelli, Alec Burks, Reggie Jackson, Vince Carter, Dion Waiters, Rodney Stuckey, Nick Young, Chris Andersen, Ramon Sessions, Tyreke Evans.
Coach of the Year
1. Gregg Popovich
2. Tom Thibodeau
3. Jeff Hornacek
Popovich in this category has become what Michael Jordan was to the MVP: very clearly the best at his job, to the point that awarding another person will look silly in retrospect. The alleged weak spot in Pop’s candidacy is the notion that he’s doing the same thing he always does — that the Spurs are a story of continuity, rendering the “of the year” clause inapplicable.
That’s bogus. Coaching is a year-round job. It is about continuity — establishing principles, finding players who fit those principles, and constantly tweaking them as reality intrudes. Pop and his coaches famously have a retreat each offseason, gathering at some secret place to drink wine, watch tape, and talk about both big ideas and little things the Spurs might do in the coming season.
The Spurs are constantly evolving. They have revolutionized the concept of what an NBA playing rotation might look like. They have gone big and small, experimented with different starting lineups, awoken Mills, tinkered over the years with their defensive system, and allowed Kawhi Leonard to stretch himself. Depth and the perfection of their whirring side-to-side offense allowed San Antonio to weather an injury wave that hit almost half the roster in the middle of the season.
It is the NBA’s best team, again. Having stars willing to take below-market deals has helped Popovich and R.C. Buford construct an ultra-deep roster, but Popovich is always steps ahead of his colleagues.
Thibodeau’s defensive system has been a guarantee of stinginess, and he has cobbled together a functioning offense with spare parts. The Bulls have squeezed out just enough points, even during a precipitous one-year decline for Boozer.
The entire league underestimated the talent level in Phoenix, but Hornacek has maximized it. His go-go style fits the Goran Dragic–Eric Bledsoe pairing, and the team’s shot selection reflects a smart hoops mind. He’s encouraged Markieff Morris to take a step in on offense, leveraged the gravitational power of Channing Frye’s shooting, and survived the Gerald Green adventure. The defense isn’t great, but Phoenix under Hornacek and assistant Mike Longabardi will make you earn it.
Apologies to: Carlisle, Terry Stotts, Steve Clifford, Dwane Casey, Jason Kidd, Rivers, Dave Joerger, Erik Spoelstra, Frank Vogel.
Most Delusional Knicks-Related Quote of the Year
1. Amar’e Stoudemire: “On paper, we might be the best team in the league.”
2. James Dolan: “I think this team can win a championship.”
3. Mike Woodson: Andrea Bargnani is “a big piece of the puzzle.”
Seriously, these quotes make Brandon Jennings’s “Bucks in six” declaration last season look sane. Congrats, Amar’e! A Mike Woodson Chia Goatee is in the mail.
Most Improved Player
1. Goran Dragic
2. DeMarcus Cousins
3. Markieff Morris
No one has any clue what to do with this award, which is both fun — make up your own criteria! — and agonizing. My first pass ended with about 60 semi-plausible candidates, which I narrowed to about 25, and then finally to these three. This ballot leaves off any number of deserving guys: Gerald Green, Lance Stephenson, Anthony Davis, DeMar DeRozan, DeAndre Jordan, D.J. Augustin, Jodie Meeks, Alec Burks, Terrence Ross, Terrence Jones, Miles Plumlee, and many more. Give it to any of ’em. I really don’t care.
I gravitate toward the “who saw that coming?” factor. You could see Stephenson after last season’s playoffs blossoming into an all-around force with some maddening tendencies (and a PER below the league’s average, by the way). DeRozan last season started dishing passes he hadn’t spotted before. You knew Davis would make a leap, and that DeAndre “Bill Russell” Jordan would put up numbers if given more minutes. Green is really doing an extended version of his half-season run in New Jersey, only with more 3s and a bit more off-the-dribble freedom. Augustin, almost out of the league six months go, is a souped-up version of what he was during more promising times in Charlotte.
Dragic emerging mid-career as a first option shooting 50 percent from the floor and 40 percent from deep counts as more of a surprise. Phoenix’s fast pace helps, and Dragic will happily tell you that running the pick-and-roll with an elite shooting big like Frye is a dream. But he has thrived as a scorer in just about all contexts, he’s still dishing dimes, and he’s getting to the line more.
Having Bledsoe around to soak up some of the off-the-bounce burden is nice, but Dragic has shot better when Bledsoe sits, and the team’s offense nosedives when Bledsoe runs the point without Dragic.5
The Suns, interestingly, have also been bad defensively when Bledsoe runs solo — and when Dragic plays without Bledsoe, per NBA.com. They’ve been stingy when the two play together, but not separately.
Cousins has gone under the radar as a candidate for this award. His PER is up six points, a massive jump into the league’s top five. He’s shooting better, hoarding rebounds, and getting to the line like a madman. And for the first time, we’re seeing evidence Cousins might one day become a plus defender — if he isn’t already. The Kings have been better on that end when Cousins is on the floor, and various advanced statistical systems both public and private are spitting out very good things about his defense. He’s tough to move in the post, and he’s getting better at making ball handlers fret about shoot-or-pass choices when they penetrate his paint. The Kings are actually allowing fewer fast-break points when Cousins plays, which seems impossible given how much he whines.
The bad habits are still there — the complaining, the dumb technicals, the lazy reaching. But those reaches produce a ton of steals, and Cousins has settled into a scheme that mostly asks him to sag back into the paint in the style of Hibbert and Noah.
As for Morris, his PER is also up nearly six points, and he has somehow turned into an efficient scorer after shooting 40 percent last year — and an embarrassing 42 percent on 2-pointers. He’s up to 50 percent on 2s this season, with a refined post-up game. Morris can shoot over guys with a soft touch, but if he thinks he can do better, he’ll face up, put the ball on the floor, and attack the rim. The Phoenix offense has taken off whenever Hornacek has paired Morris and Frye.
He doesn’t move the needle on defense and has size issues against some post behemoths, but Morris barely looked like a rotation player at times last season. Now he’s a legit Sixth Man of the Year candidate. That’s a leap.
Apologies to: Everyone listed above, Shaun Livingston, Lowry, Mills, Mirza Teletovic, Timofey Mozgov, Andre Drummond, Draymond Green, George, Kendall Marshall, Mike Conley, Khris Middleton, Isaiah Thomas, Burks, and others.
Rookie of the Year
1. Victor Oladipo
2. Michael Carter-Williams
3. Mason Plumlee
What a crap fest. The “race” puts guys posting inefficient numbers in big roles on awful teams against players posting decent numbers in smaller roles on better teams. And some of the latter group barely played until the last quarter of the season, making it hard to consider them. Sorry, Gorgui Dieng!
Carter-Williams has better counting stats than Oladipo, but the gap is small, and mostly due to Carter-Williams logging a few more minutes and Philly piling up six more possessions per game than Orlando. One of them plays for a team so terrible, I’m not really sure any statistic in either direction matters.
Amid that context, Carter-Williams has had a historically bad shooting season. He’s just a couple of misses from becoming the seventh player ever to attempt at least 100 3s while shooting worse than 25 percent from deep and 40 percent overall. Like most string bean rookie point guards, he has been bad on defense and had trouble negotiating picks; Philly has somehow been worse defensively with MCW on the floor, per NBA.com. They’ve been better on offense, but “better” still amounts to “worst in the league.”
Oladipo is a bulldog with long arms, and he has predictably fared better on defense. Real plus/minus paints him as a positive on that end, he can check multiple positions, and he has generated steals without gambling irresponsibly. The Magic have allowed six fewer points per 100 possessions when Oladipo plays. Those numbers are noisy, but it’s tough to find much evidence Oladipo is a big negative on defense.
He’s been turnover-prone on offense, but he has shot better than Carter-Williams from just about everywhere, and his midrange pull-up looks promising. Playing with at least a few quality veterans boosts that efficiency, but plop him on a roster as bad as Philly’s, and his counting numbers would likely be at least as good as MCW’s — with better defense. Oladipo has also played in 10 more games, which counts on the margins.
Plumlee would have won the award had Brooklyn given him extended minutes from jump street, but the Nets didn’t, and he’s more than 1,000 minutes behind the two front-runners. Plumlee has been a mini-Drummond, dunking everything in sight, doing the verticality thing at the rim, and sometimes getting a bit lost defending the pick-and-roll.
Trey Burke was the toughest omission, and he may well be deserving of a ballot spot. The Jazz have barely resembled a pro basketball team without Burke’s steady hand. But he has been almost as bricky as Carter-Williams, probably a bit worse on defense, and he’s not yet a threat to get to the rim or the foul line.
Halfhearted apologies to: Matthew Dellavedova, Nick Calathes, Steven Adams, Kelly Olynyk, Tim Hardaway Jr.
There are still a few more awards to hand out, including Executive of the Year and the three All-NBA teams, but I’m going down to the final buzzer with those. Stay tuned.