Well, let’s get this out of the way: it’s been an incredibly entertaining season with a load of disappointments and endless surprises. The NBA is some sort of infinite content generator, and we’re all the better to experience this absurdity together. I don’t know how much longer this NBA writing thing will continue, but at least for now the regular season marathon has ended, and it’s time for the postseason. And with that, let’s look back at the last two weeks in basketball.
I can’t summarize the last one-and-a-half weeks of the season without mentioning this epic game. Not only was it the rare game that would decide the playoff berths of two NBA teams, it was a great game to boot. It was a toe-to-toe bout between two of the best offensive centers in the game with a lot on the line. The Wolves haven’t been to the playoffs in over a decade, and if they had missed I can’t imagine how the organization would feel, especially because they even brought in superstar Jimmy Butler. Denver, meanwhile, put together one of the best end of the season runs in the league, and all that was rendered moot by one game.
Nikola Jokic had perhaps the best performance, leading the game in points while shooting with his typical ridiculous efficiency. Karl-Anthony Towns was great too, though his usage was shockingly near average; for a player with his skills he needs to get more shots, one way or another. Jimmy Butler played valiantly recovering after a knee injury, and he probably scared every Wolves fan in the area with how hard he was playing. The last two minutes of regulation were scoreless, and from then on the Wolves had the game. Jokic was scoreless in the last nine minutes of the game, but that’s no black mark on his season — or Denver’s. It was a preview of the playoffs, and I hope we get more games like it.
This is a fun feature, and I’m glad it’s back (we used to calculate these back when we had SportVU shotlogs, and now we’re using the new match-up data.) Which position are you? Well, how about using which positions you guard and who guards you? That’s where you can find out that LeBron James was slightly more of a small forward than a power forward this season, or that Ben Simmons’ most common “position” is small forward as well. Sometimes a player’s position is hard to nail down, and if you want a thorough way of pinning a position onto a player, this is a good method. You are who you guard and who guards you.
Russell Westbrook averaged a triple-double, and no one cared
Some of the magic is indeed gone this season, and it’s not just because he did it last year. But that is a big factor. Remember when Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire captivated a nation with their run at 61 HRs? When Barry Bonds went after their records, the nation was not as interested. There are a lot of complicated reasons for that, but for one, we had already seen the historic run for the record. Seeing it again was boring. Also, there was no run this season! It wasn’t like watching a player keep his head above water batting just over .400 through the summer months into fall; Westbrook snuck up on this average by the end of the season.
I should also mention the fact that, even beyond his team being a disappointment, his own season was a lot less impressive. He shot the ball a lot less often, yet his shooting efficiency hit the floor too. That is not a good combination, especially for a guy not known for his efficiency. He got near levels of outright dangerous gunner at some points this season, shooting his team out of games. He was still a positive force, by a huge amount, but this was not an MVP performance. Please consider that averaging an arbitrary number of points, rebounds, and assists is a false equivalence — he was a lot better last season.
Here’s one piece of the Nikola Jokic puzzle I couldn’t help but comment on: Jokic is an underrated rebounder, and not only does he grab a high number of boards but he’s no stat-padder either. Others have finally commented on this too; I’m not a lone weirdo in this regard. I know this is a story I’ve discussed too often, but it’s amazing how people see different realities when we’re all viewing the same thing. Denver has rebounded significantly better with him on the court for three years in a row. Let’s put this one to rest. He’s a good rebounder, and he’s not a rebound stealer.
The debut of Andre Ingram
One of the biggest stories of this last part of the season was the debut of Andre Ingram, a rookie who’s been in minor leagues for better part of the past ten years. He’s an undrafted rookie with a physics degree and an unlikely path to the NBA. He’s one of the oldest rookies of the shot clock era, and he’s the oldest if you exclude international dudes who took a long time in coming over, like the 35-year-old Pablo Prigioni or Arvydas Sabonis. Also, any cheers for the 31-year-old rookie Aaron Jackson, who’s playoff eligible for the Rockets?
Andre Ingram, however, captured national attention with a 19-point game with a true shooting percentage over 100. The point guard also improbably blocked three shots. He was the hero in the strangely competitive game of the Lakers versus the Rockets, who had their trio of Chris Paul, James Harden, and Clint Capela. The NBA is great at generating storylines; they’ll happen everywhere, even in the throes of a meaningless game between a titan that’s already sealed its playoff seeding fate and a team in the lottery.
(My award picks, by the way, when they focus on the teams will use the standard PG-SG-SF-PF-C format because that’s what we use in basketball in reality. Do I have a real vote? Of course not. No one’s that crazy to give me any power.)
Sixth Man of the Year
I’m not here to wax poetic about the virtues of gunners off the bench who shoot at everything and hit baskets at the rate of a broken clock. Basketball is about more than that, and besides awarding the entire Toronto bench with this trophy I gotta hand it to Fred VanVleet, who’s been so good on both ends of the court that he finishes games with his team.
Also, shout out to Olynyk, who’s had an underrated season for Miami. The Heat are one of those amorphous teams who go deep and lack star power, confusing people who pick All-Stars and All-NBA teams by record (hello, Goran Dragic.) But Olynyk has truly been a useful, versatile big for them. Lastly, I’ll reward Tyus Jones for his great bench play for the Wolves, who somehow don’t even use their bench and signed Derrick Rose just to torture fans. Honorable mention to David West, Jordan Bell, Andre Iguodala’s defense, Will Barton, Luc Mbah a Moute, and half of Toronto.
1: Fred Van Vleet
2: Kelly Olynyk
3: Tyus Jones
Most Improved Player of the Year
Sometimes this award is silly and concerns a young dude who was bound to grow anyhow, or maybe it’s about a guy with an improbably great season. But you have to hand it to Oladipo, who was not just living under Russell Westbrook’s shadow last season; he was nowhere near this good any previous season either. He’s shouldered a star-level load for Indiana, shot well, and still defended at a high level. That’s earning it. For second, I’m going with a wild card here: Kyle Anderson, who’s no longer young but earned the playing time when Kawhi Leonard was injured and has become a sneaky good defender. It’s a true case of improvement, and it’s not one that’s just due to age or a new system.
Also, I gotta include Andre Drummond somehow just for the mere fact he improved in assists and free throw percentage, which traditionally are two of the toughest skills to improve — and he did it as a veteran! If you go by who increased his BPM the most, only looking at players with at least 1000 minutes played in each of the past three seasons, and weigh 2017 twice as much as 2016, he’s somehow tied with Oladipo for the greatest improvement. But BPM is heavily geared toward overrating guys who pick up a ton of assists, and that’s where he improved the most in the box-score. It’s still enough for third place, however.
1: Victor Oladipo
2: Kyle Anderson
3: Andre Drummond
All Rookie Teams
The first team was easy, and no, I didn’t cheat too much with the positions. Ben Simmons guards power forwards just as much as point guards or shooting guards. The last spot was tough though for the middle. I went with John Collins, one of the few bright spots for the Hawks who performed well despite a team that lacked, well, talent.
PG: Lonzo Ball
SG: Donovan Mitchell
SF: Jayson Tatum
PF: Ben Simmons
C: John Collins
The second team was tougher, but unlike previous seasons it wasn’t a lack of talent. There just weren’t enough spots for guys like Bam Adebayo, Kyle Kuzma (who missed the spot partly because of defense), Daniel Theis, and others. Some of the guys picked were surprisingly great on defense (hi OG and Royce) while some of them I just plain liked and used that as a tie-breaker (hi Jordan and Lauri.) This is one of the few seasons where you could make a decent third rookie team (and it’d probably beat last year’s second team.)
PG: Bogdan Bogdanovic
SG: OG Anunoby
SF: Jordan Bell
PF: Royce O’Neale
C: Lauri Markkanen
Rookie of the Year
This is honestly one of the easiest votes for rookie that I’ve ever seen. Sure, there are solid arguments for who’s number one, but the top three falls together so nicely that I don’t have to conjure up some bench dude who’s played only 15 minutes a game and try to compare his season to a rookie who’s played a lot but played like crap, for example. And this isn’t a Malcolm Brogdon-esque season where you have to talk yourself into an okay player who will likely never reach stardom for first or second.
Also, yes, Simmons is first: the lack of a jump shot doesn’t matter when you can air-walk to the rim at will, and the 76ers have played some of the best basketball of the season with him in the game. It’s no fluke, and I do believe he’s been at least a hair better, and almost every advanced stat agrees. I wouldn’t fault anyone for voting for Donovan either; both have been excellent. As a bonus, those three and a handful of other rookies have been plus-defenders. This is possibly the greatest rookie season in terms of defense since the underclassmen took over the draft.
1: Ben Simmons
2: Donovan Mitchell
3: Jayson Tatum
Coach of the Year
I’m someone who goes more on coaching acumen than the typical, “Let’s award it to the most surprising season,” style vote. Some of that is because most coaches were there the previous season, so if a team is surprisingly good, why would the cause be the dude who was there last year … ? But I truly did believe Stevens coached extremely well. Despite a scary amount of injuries, and relying on a bunch of young guys, they defended like hell-hounds, and defense is controlled more by coaching than offense — no surprise they excelled there.
D’Antoni gets included here for, you know, coaching one of the best offenses in modern history, and he did it while experimenting with basketball like few others have — and successfully. Popovich gets the last spot for being Popovich, and for coaching one of the best defenses in the league despite having the usual cast of vagabonds and Pau Gasol in the middle.
1: Brad Stevens
2: Mike D’Antoni
3: Gregg Popovich
Offensive Player of the Year
Yes, I’m going to keep pushing for this award. Why? Awards are about narratives, and sometimes there are strong narratives where people feel compelled to vote for players for the story. For instance, in 2005 Steve Nash won a controversial MVP, a case could have been made for other players, who were notably better defenders. But the story of that year was Nash, and if we had had that award maybe the OPOTY trophy could have served that function. Also, by splitting an award and making it about offense, perhaps it could get people to more properly consider the value of defense too. When you have to weigh who’s the best offensive player, you mentally separate offense *and* defense from that player’s own value. Then when you consider the MVP, you’ll more likely account for defense too. That’s my hope anyway. In fact, maybe this would be better with all-offense NBA teams where we can finally award players like Nikola Jokic and Karl-Anthony Towns without sadly considering their defense.
In fact, let’s do just that. My All-Offense 1st team is below. I think most of the picks are obvious. I went for Lillard over Westbrook because the latter has been wholly inefficient yet has still jacked a ton of shots — some of that was needed because there wasn’t a ton of shot creation outside of him, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony, but it’s the same circumstance in Portland. I opted for Jokic over other centers because of his playmaking — imagine how good he’d be with great offensive options next to him. I had to use Durant at power forward because there were so few candidates, especially when Towns had to be used as the center on the next team.
PG: Damian Lillard
SG: James Harden
SF: LeBron James
PF: Kevin Durant
C: Nikola Jokic
I cheated a bit here to make the positions work. Westbrook is a big point guard, so I think that works, and I slid Butler in at small forward, which is more of his natural position anyway. I had to include Curry because his shooting efficiency this season has been outrageous, and it’s a shame he missed so much time. You could see Butler’s value when he was out for a few games on both ends of the court. Giannis is here because he acts like a lead guard and scorer, and there were so few good power forward options. The guard spots are tough once you get here. Apologies to Kyrie Irving, who missed too much time; DeMar DeRozan, whose improvement this year was overblown; Kyle Lowry, who just missed the cut; and Kemba Walker, who held up a mediocre Hornets team who could not play well without him.
PG: Stephen Curry
SG: Russell Westbrook
SF: Jimmy Butler
PF: Giannis Antetokounmpo
C: Karl-Anthony Towns
(Few guys this size can pass this well)
And lastly, here’s what I’d do for the top three offensive players. I give Harden the edge for performing at a historically high level on a transcendent offense. When we look back at this season, we may remember the Rockets for ushering in a new way to play basket. They exploited the game to a logical extreme, and Harden was the perfect weapon. Isolated, he’s virtually impossible to cover effectively, and when surrounded by shooters the opposing defense is left to pick a poison. LeBron has done admirably well, but Harden shot more often per possession on a superior offense — that matters. As for third place, in an injury-plagued season the remarkably durable Lillard makes the spot. He’s a lite version of Curry, who per possession was arguably the best offensive player.
1: James Harden
2: LeBron James
3: Damian Lillard
The story of the all-defensive teams this season is a story of injuries. That may not be a coincidence, however. With how complicated defenses are, and how advanced these athletes are, all that lateral movement and constant switching with stretches of fast break terror may be taking an extreme burden on the elite defenders of the league. The frontcourt, for me at least, was pretty easy. Gobert has had a monster defensive impact, and Davis deserves some attention and doesn’t have too much competition at power forward.
Meanwhile, Sir Robert Covington has been a plus-minus king, and that isn’t a mirage: he’s had great impact numbers for a while, and a lot of that is tangible, like his steal rate. Guards were tough to nail down this year. Youngster Murray gets the nod partly because of attrition. His plus-minus numbers are partly noise, but, again, with a great steal rate and elite size for his position there’s more certainly about his positive effects. Lastly, Jrue Holiday is in there because he’s been a plus and healthy while playing starters minutes. That’s rare. (His adjusted plus-minus is one of the highest too.)
PG: Dejounte Murray
SG: Jrue Holiday
SF: Robert Covington
PF: Anthony Davis
C: Rudy Gobert
I’m cheating a bit with listing Ben Simmons as a shooting guard, but he’s flexible enough defensively to cover shooting guards too. Same with Giannis, who I felt deserved at least a shout-out this season. Andre Roberson, by the way, definitely did not tally enough minutes — not only did he miss half the season, but he played only 27 minutes per game. If you did a “wins” version of Defensive RPM, he would not be at the top of the list. Draymond falls to the second team this year in my eyes. He’s probably being under-appreciated, but both he and Golden State noticeably had less bite on defense this season.
PG: Ricky Rubio
SG: Ben Simmons
SF: Giannis Antetokounmpo
PF: Draymond Green
C: Joel Embiid
Defensive player of the year
Picking Gobert is the easy part. It’s just that the further down the line I go, the more I question myself. Some defensive metrics aren’t so rosy on Embiid; they still see him as well above average, but not as a guy you’d pick second. But I think that’s just noise: scoring at the rim around him is frightening, and he’s a huge part — literal and figurative — of their defense. Covington earns a spot too; some of his defensive stats are electric. Plus, you know, he was actually on the court this season.
1: Rudy Gobert
2: Joel Embiid
3: Robert Covington
Let’s move through this quickly because I covered everyone in previous seasons, basically. First team is easy except for the point guard spot, which was tougher with all the injuries this season. Lillard gets the spot by attrition, plus it’s been a peak offensive season for him and the defensive concerns are slightly overblown.
PG: Damian Lillard
SG: James Harden
SF: LeBron James
PF: Giannis Antetokounmpo
C: Anthony Davis
Even with Westbrook’s Guiness book of records-level stat-hoggery I had to include him; his impact is undeniable. Yes, he had a triple-double, but he often takes plays off on defense and hasn’t been shooting well; that’s why he’s not on the first team. Otherwise, I stayed true with two-way forces here, including a guy I should have considered for Defensive Player of the Year: Kevin Durant. Just kidding … although I will say his defensive plus-minus stats are suspiciously bad; I still think he’s a net positive there.
PG: Russell Westbrook
SG: Kyle Lowry
SF: Jimmy Butler
PF: Kevin Durant
C: Joel Embiid
Yes, I included Curry here — he’s been a transcendent basketball player when healthy this season, and that value by itself is more than guys like Kemba Walker can muster when fully healthy. Similar case with Chris Paul, who’s still a top-tier guard and can out-play almost everyone when healthy. Small forward was pretty shallow this year; I wish I had more room for Draymond Green and Karl-Anthony Towns. Oladipo gets selected for being a plus on both ends of the court. Finally, beside the always steady Al Horford, and despite the outcome of the epic 82nd game, I decided on Nikola Jokic, who had one of the greatest offensive seasons for a center in recent history — and yes, his defense is not as bad as his plodding style suggests.
Apologies/no apologies to LaMarcus Aldridge, who received an undue amount of credit for San Antonio’s success this season. They’re a deep, well-coached team; that’s how they topped 40+ wins. Same with DeMar DeRozan to an extent, who also had a ton of competition at the guard slots. I could see him getting picked at small forward, but Oladipo has been significantly better on defense and with his shooting this season I don’t think DeMar has a real edge on offense. Kyrie Irving could have been competitive with more minutes and, well, better defense. Some of his stats, like BPM, look better, but it’s mostly because of the system. Boston did really well on defense, but it wasn’t because of him.
PG: Chris Paul
SG: Stephen Curry
SF: Victor Oladipo
PF: Al Horford
C: Nikola Jokic
Most Valuable Player
Even if one considers LeBron’s season the equal to Harden’s on offense, I do honestly believe Harden gets the edge because of his defense, which is something that would turn the heads of every non-diehard fan. But I’m sorry; he’s a monumentally lazy defender now. I’ve broken this down before. The Cavaliers were awful on defense, and he was part of the problem; they were worse on defense with him, even when you adjust for other factors, like opponent 3-point percentage. Harden hit the holy trinity of efficiency, scoring volume, and assists as well as anyone can, and he was durable too. That’s hard to beat.
Outside of them, it’s mostly a cast of who’s still standing among elite players because so many stars got injured. Props to living Greek God Giannis, who could become a nightmare once his team figures out how to exploit his positional fluidity, and for Anthony Davis, who upped his game when his teammate left the season due to an injury. Lillard nabs the fifth spot by a hair. He carried a large burden for a good team who actually didn’t have much in the way of offensive talent besides him and CJ McCollum. An iron-man, he was lucky guys like Stephen Curry missed so many games.
1: James Harden
2: LeBron James
3: Giannis Antetokounmpo
4: Anthony Davis
5: Damian Lillard
Injuries were the story of the regular season, and let’s hope injuries won’t be the story of the playoffs.