We made it. The long slog of the regular season is finally at its end, and the real season is nearly upon us. But before we start looking forward, let’s take a look back at who mattered this regular season. Here are my picks for all the major end-of-season honors, with some select commentary on my rationale.
[Note: I do not have an official vote — maybe someday — so please remember this is all in good fun. The order in which I have the runners-up listed is how I would construct my imaginary ballot.]
- G: James Harden, Houston Rockets
- G: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
- F: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
- F: Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder
- C: Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
- G: Damian Lillard, Portland Trailblazers
- G: Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics
- F: Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
- F: Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors
- C: Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
- G: Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
- G: Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets
- F: LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
- F: Blake Griffin, Detroit Pistons
- C: Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
Always a fun place to start. I think I have the right fifteen names here, though it’s certainly fair to question the arrangement of the teams. Harden, Curry, and Giannis are lead-pipe locks for First Team, but it becomes eye of the beholder pretty quickly after that. On the First Team, there are two qualified candidates for the second forward spot. I chose PG over Durant, but it’s effectively a coin flip. George has been a significantly more valuable outside shooter (weird to say when comparing him to KD, but it’s true) and an elite defender, so he gets the nod. Same deal at center: take your pick of Jokic or Embiid and you won’t be wrong. Embiid is the superior defender and scorer, but Jokic is the lone All-Star on the no. 2 seed in the West.
There is an argument for Karl-Anthony Towns making Third Team over Rudy Gobert, but I’m sticking with the Stifle Tower. KAT has the shinier stats, but I’ll start to take those more seriously once he manages to win something without Jimmy Butler around to drag the team across the finish line. I covered Rudy in my piece on Utah a few weeks back, and there’s not much new to add. He remains a defense unto himself and an underratedly excellent offensive player, and he deserves to be recognized as one of the league’s best players.
Picking the final guard spot is brutal. I pored over resumes for eight different guys before settling on Kemba. For most voters, the choice probably comes down to either Walker or Bradley Beal. Both put up gaudy stats with little help for lousy teams, so I’ll give Kemba the benefit of willing Charlotte to a few more wins than Washington. The choice is also about more than posterity; a TON of cash and the possible future of a franchise are on the line. If Kemba is selected, he becomes eligible for a supermax contract with Charlotte this summer, which would be around $220 million for five years. If not, he would be capped at $189 million. While no one would exactly weep for him, the delta could weigh on Kemba’s free agency decision. In either case, if he decides to leave the Hornets, he maxes out at four years/$140 million. An extra $80 million in guaranteed cash may be extremely hard to leave on the table for an undersized point guard on the wrong side of the aging curve, regardless of whether he’d be locking himself into perpetual mediocrity. It would be a fascinating test case for the efficacy of the supermax. If a star willingly forgoes that much cheddar to bolt for greener competitive pastures, the league will have no choice but to go back to the drawing board in its efforts to balance out player movement. Don’t get me wrong: Kemba is a deserving candidate, and he’s earned the right to do whatever the hell makes him happy in his career. But from a self-serving perspective, I also really want to see if the extra $31 million tips the scales or not.
- G: Eric Bledsoe, Milwaukee Bucks
- G: Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics
- F: Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder
- F: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
- C: Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
- G: Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
- G: Jrue Holiday, New Orleans Pelicans
- F: Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors
- F: Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers
- C: Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
It’s frustrating these teams have to be chosen with positional designations in mind, because there are a ton of deserving forwards and centers, whereas things dry up at the guard spots pretty quickly. In any case, the First Team is relatively straightforward. The cases for George, Antetokounmpo, and Gobert are unassailable. Despite Boston’s strange season, Smart’s defensive performance has matched his reputation. Perhaps Bledsoe benefits from the ecosystem in which he plays, but even so, he has unquestionably returned to the form he displayed back with the Clippers as a point of attack bulldog. I bent over backwards trying to find a more deserving guard and could not.
It gets a little dicier and more subjective on the Second Team. I’m fudging things positionally a bit to get Simmons on as a guard and Turner as a forward, but it’s my fake ballot, so piss off if you don’t like it. There’s an argument for San Antonio’s Derrick White to get one of the guard spots, but Holiday played way more minutes and was a stabilizing defensive force even as a tire fire raged around him in New Orleans, so he gets the nod. Don’t cry for White; I suspect he’ll earn a few of these accolades before he’s through. I considered Andre Drummond for the second center spot, but Embiid’s on/off splits are just too damn impressive. The Sixers are a train wreck on both ends without him, and his questionable health could be a major factor heading into a less-than-ideal playoff matchup with Brooklyn.
- Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
- Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks
- DeAndre Ayton, Phoenix Suns
- Jaren Jackson, Jr., Memphis Grizzlies
- Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Los Angeles Clippers
- Marvin Bagley III, Sacramento Kings
- Collin Sexton, Cleveland Cavaliers
- Josh Okogie, Minnesota Timberwolves
- Mitchell Robinson, New York Knicks
- Landry Shamet, Los Angeles Clippers
[Note: Unlike All-NBA and All-Defense, the All-Rookie Teams do not have to account for positions.]
There are a few distinct tiers of rookies this year who merit consideration. The top tier — Doncic, Young, and Ayton — I’ll discuss more below, but they all obviously deserve to be on the First Team. The next four guys (Triple J, SGA, Bagley, and Sexton) will end up competing for the last two First Team spots. Despite missing the latter portion of the season with an injury, Jackson looks like he’s going to be a stud on both ends, and SGA is already playing a major role for a playoff team, so I went with them. Bagley seemed to get better by the week before being felled by injury, and looks to be a walking 20-and-10 for the next decade or so. Sexton righted the ship in the second half of the year after starting out the season as one of the absolute worst high-volume players in the league and getting called out by his veteran teammates. Despite the rocky start, his scoring ability is legit.
After the second tier, there’s a jumble of guys who either played well in a limited role, or got a bigger opportunity and alternated between showing flashes and making typical rookie mistakes. I chose Okogie (already an elite on-ball defender and athletic marvel in transition), Robinson (the next DeAndre Jordan, for better and worse), and Shamet (an absolute sniper who Philly inexplicably gave away in the Tobias Harris deal). If you wanted to substitute any of those three with some combination of Kevin Huerter, Kevin Knox, Mikal Bridges, Jalen Brunson, or Rodions Kurucs, I wouldn’t argue too vehemently. A well-rounded rookie class overall.
COACH OF THE YEAR: Mike Budenholzer, Milwaukee Bucks
Runners-up: Doc Rivers, Mike Malone, Nate McMillan, Steve Clifford, Terry Stotts
Mercifully relieved of his personnel duties for the Clippers, Rivers has reminded everyone this year how he’s still a pretty damn good coach. The Clips have overachieved with a transitional roster — unlike their Staples Center co-tenants — and Doc has to get a lot of the credit for coaxing a coherent rotation out of spare parts and having confidence in Gilgeous-Alexander to develop through rookie mistakes. The set of challenges facing him could look very different next season, but for this season at least, he deserves kudos for crafting a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Malone was my choice for the award at midseason, but the Nuggets have given back some of the gains they made defensively and look vulnerable heading into the playoffs. [The basketball gods were asleep at the wheel when they allowed Denver to manipulate the standings to get all three of Golden State, Houston, and Utah onto the other side of the playoff bracket, but I suspect they will yet exact their revenge.] He would still be a fine pick, but perhaps not the best one. McMillan, Stotts, and Clifford have made the best out of somewhat bad situations (injuries, regrouping after a playoff embarrassment, and coaching the Magic, respectively), but with all due respect, this is an easy choice.
I wrote in preseason that outside of Kawhi Leonard, Coach Bud was likely to be the biggest personnel upgrade in the East, and nothing has transpired to disprove my hypothesis. Adding Brook Lopez as the perfect complementary big man to the Greek Freak’s marauding rim runs has obviously helped, but from Day One, Budenholzer has pushed all the right buttons, both scheme- and rotation-wise, and it’s resulted in the best record and point differential in the league by a wide margin. Basic competence would have represented a massive improvement over his predecessors — are you listening, Lakers? — but Coach Bud has gone far beyond that benchmark, engineering the perfect ecosystem to maximize the gifts of his transcendent superstar and unlock a title contender. Let’s not overthink this one.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
Runners-up: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Paul George, Myles Turner
Paul George was my midseason pick for this award, and had the back half of the schedule played out similarly to the front half, he probably still would be. Alas, fair or not, his semi-mysterious shoulder injury caused him (and OKC as a whole) to return to the pack to a degree, and it’s tough to give the award to a wing if his case is anything short of overwhelming.
Giannis has been garnering some late buzz for DPOY, and deservedly so. Antetokounmpo has put himself in position to be the first player since Hakeem Olajuwon (in ’93-’94) to win both MVP and DPOY in the same year. [Michael Jordan — in ’87-’88 — is the only other player in league history to pull off the feat, so we’re talking heady stuff here.] Giannis is a matchup-proof nightmare coming from the weakside, as he showed last week in sending back four separate Joel Embiid shots in Milwaukee’s come-from-behind win over the Sixers. The presence of Brook Lopez at the rim and Eric Bledsoe at the point of attack allows him to roam the back line like a free safety and snuff out threats anywhere on the court with his never-ending length and seeming ability to warp time and space. Opponents basically void their bowels whenever he’s in the area of one of their shots (Opponent FG% is 6.6% lower when Giannis is defending, tied for the 4th-biggest differential in the league). He leads the league in individual Defensive Rating, is third in Defensive Win Shares, and is tied for first (with Gobert) in Defensive BPM. You get the idea — he’s an absolute terror. I’d better move on before I change my own mind.
No, I’ll stick with my pick of Gobert to claim the honor for the second straight year. On a per-play basis, Rudy was slightly more impactful last season, but he also only played in 56 games (vs. 79 this year). He’s second in the league in total blocks, fourth in rebounding average, first in Defensive Win Shares, third in Defensive Rating, and tied for first in Defensive BPM. Opponents shoot 4.2% worse when he’s defending (not as big a difference as Giannis, but still elite). As with Giannis, Gobert also has another fearsome rim protector on his team (Derrick Favors, quietly having a monster defensive season himself), though the two bigs have shared the floor less this season than in the past. In any case, Gobert remains the linchpin to Utah’s defensive dominance (2nd in Defensive Rating behind Milwaukee, but against a significantly more difficult schedule) and the league’s most feared defensive anchor. He can be schemed away from the hoop and into unfavorable switches against certain opponents (cough, Golden State, cough), but the juice is always worth the squeeze. The Stifle Tower gets the nod.
SIXTH MAN OF THE YEAR: Lou Williams, Los Angeles Clippers
Runners-up: Domantas Sabonis, Montrezl Harrell, Monte Morris, Spencer Dinwiddie
I’ve written quite a bit about this award already, so I’ll keep it brief. Sabonis has maintained his consistently excellent per-minute production throughout the entire season, and in most years, he’d be a virtual lock for the award. If there’s any justice, Domas won’t be eligible in future seasons because he absolutely should be a starting center, whether in Indy or elsewhere. All apologies, but this award simply has to go to Sweet Lou. Williams coasted to the award last season, and on a per-minute basis, he’s been nearly the exact same player this year, if not better, and on an improved team. His herky-jerky pick-and-roll mastery (and the resulting chemistry with fellow super-sub Harrell, covered expertly as always by Zach Lowe here) is one of THE elite weapons in the NBA, regardless of role. There have been a ton of great bench guys this season, but in the absence of a better candidate, the trophy stays with Lou-Will.
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER: Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors
Runners-up: D’Angelo Russell, De’Aaron Fox, Nikola Vucevic
A strong set of candidates for this one as well. Vooch showed the most tangible improvement in one specific area, namely outside shooting. His newfound touch from deep (36.4% on almost three attempts per game) has helped create some modicum of breathing room for Orlando’s previously execrable offense, and morphed him from “above average player and perennial secret fantasy weapon” to “legitimate All-Star and best guy on a playoff team.” And yet he’d only be fourth on my ballot.
In an absolute sense, Fox probably improved the most of anyone in the league, and his future couldn’t be brighter for a suddenly-interesting Kings team. [No sooner had I written this sentence than it was announced GM Vlade Divac had inexplicably fired head coach Dave Joerger. Even when they seem to be on the right track, it’s always one step forward, two steps back for this franchise. #Kangz.] However, the weight of expectation factors into the nebulous criteria for this award, as it probably should, and Fox is a highly drafted player from a blue blood school in his second year. It’s great that he’s becoming the player he’s supposed to be after a disappointing rookie year, but through the lens of this particular award, it hurts his case. He’ll probably be back in the conversation next year when he pulls the “third year guy goes from good to great” routine, but for now, we have better options.
Speaking of highly-pedigreed, left-handed point guards who were early disappointments, it’s 2019 All-Star D’Angelo Russell, ladies and gentlemen! The difference is, whereas with Fox there are tangible improvements to his body and his game we can point to, with Russell, he essentially looks like the same player, but the conditions on the ground and the results have improved. Finally healthy and free of the toxic culture in LakerLand (not that he was blameless — far from it — but after recent events, it’s the sort of thing we have to start baking into our evaluations), DLo has taken full advantage of a bigger opportunity in an ecosystem more tailored to his talents. His shooting efficiency has improved, though only marginally, and he’s actually getting to the line at a lower rate than in previous seasons, but the most noticeable difference has been in his playmaking. It’s taken some time, but he’s beginning to learn to map the floor and anticipate defensive rotations at the NBA level. It’s resulted in career highs in Assist% (41.3, second in the league behind Westbrook), and Usage Rate (32.0, sixth in the league), combined with the lowest turnover rate of his young career. His on-court improvement is likely to correspond to a marked improvement in his financial situation as well. Russell will be a restricted free agent this summer, and seeing his potential translate to production (and wins) is going to get him P-A-I-D, whether by Brooklyn or another suitor. [Brooklyn will have the right to match any offer.] Good on him.
But this is another award where the obvious answer is also the correct one. Call it Siakam’s Razor. [I’ll let myself out.] The former 27th overall pick from New Mexico State has been nothing short of a revelation. Siakam is a true basketball success story: discovered by the Basketball Without Borders program in his native Cameroon, he didn’t start playing organized ball until age-18. Toronto took a flier on his raw athleticism in 2016, and Siakam displayed some potential as a useful but limited role player over his first two years with the team. This season, it all came together for Spicy P. His non-stop motor and blazing speed in transition have combined with a rapidly maturing skill set (37% from deep and a lethal spin move) to make him a legit weapon — and occasional primary offensive option — for a 58-win Toronto team which has seen stars Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry miss a combined 39 games. Siakam is averaging 17/ 7/ 3 with efficient 55/ 37/ 78 shooting splits in 32 minutes a night, and it feels like he is only scratching the surface of his potential. He defends like his hair is on fire across all five positions, spaces the floor, attacks closeouts, and is an absolute nightmare in the open floor. It’s impossible to forget he’s on the court; he just always seems to be impacting the action with his energy and athleticism.
The Raptors took a major gamble in trading for Kawhi’s expiring contract and occasionally wandering eye, but with the emergence of Siakam, Toronto has stumbled upon a reasonable contingency plan should Leonard leave them in the lurch. It remains to be seen if Siakam can thrive in the playoffs and beyond as teams begin to game plan specifically for him, but everything we’ve seen to this point suggests his breakout season is no fluke. Barring injury, he’ll end up on at least a couple All-Star teams, or I’ll eat my hat.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
Runners-up: Trae Young, DeAndre Ayton
This was the easiest call on the board at midseason, but credit to Trae Young for at least turning it into a conversation. Young looked overmatched early on, including a disastrous November in which he shot 35.5% from the field, 19.8% from three, and sported a -27 Net Rating. Getting springy second-year big man (and noted aviation enthusiast) John Collins back from injury certainly helped, but over the last 30+ games, Young has been an absolute stud. Since the All-Star Break, he’s posted averages of 24.8/ 4.7/ 9.1 on 45/ 36/ 88 shooting with a 30.8 Usage Rate for a surprisingly competitive and entertaining Hawks’ team. He’ll need to get stronger, improve on defense to at least “passably bad,” and become a more efficient scorer in the paint. [Until then, the Steph Curry comps will fall a little flat because for all his shooting exploits, a vastly underrated part of Steph’s dominance is his finishing ability on the interior.] Even so, his passing ability and deep shooting range are already elite weapons, and it’s increasingly looking like all the skeptics who gleefully wrote him off after his rough start will have to eat some crow.
Ayton has been mostly as-advertised, churning out solid stat lines while rarely revving his engine above third gear for a goat-shit Phoenix team. His defensive struggles have been a bit exaggerated. He’s improved month-over-month at the league’s hardest defensive position, and he garnered some short-lived publicity for slowing down Giannis in a baffling upset of the league-leading Bucks in early March. All things considered, he’s right on schedule for a young, hyper-athletic big man, but fair or not, his progress is inevitably going to be compared to the presumptive ROY winner.
Doncic has simply been the most consistently productive rookie from start to finish we’ve seen in quite a long time, so despite Young’s late heroics, this is still an easy choice. Statistically, Luka’s inaugural NBA season is a Gladwell-level outlier. His per-game averages for a rookie (21.2/ 7.8/ 6.0) have been matched or exceeded in NBA history by Oscar Robertson… and that’s it. In ’60-’61, the Big O — at 22 years old, mind you — averaged a scarcely believable 30.5/ 10.1/ 9.7 for Cincinnati, but he did so in an insane 42.7 minutes a game, and at an even more insane pace of 122.8 possessions per 48 minutes. [Suffice it to say, “load management” was not a thing in those days.] Setting aside the pace difference entirely, when you compare per-36 numbers, the plot thickens:
Once you account for the difference in pace, there can be no question Doncic is in some rare historical air. What’s even wilder is he’s doing it without really being in peak NBA shape. Luka is, as the young people say, “thicc.” With a few years of NBA training/diet/nutrition/biometrics under his belt, Doncic will likely add more strength, stamina, and agility to his preternatural skill set. Once that happens, LOOK. OUT. BELOW.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Runners-up: James Harden, Nikola Jokic, Paul George, Joel Embiid, Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard
It’s a terrific year for worthy MVP candidates, but with all apologies, at the end of the day it comes down to Giannis and Harden. Professional poker players will tell you there’s no such thing as being pot-committed, but I backed Giannis in preseason and at midseason, so I’m not about to change course now. Look, there is no wrong answer here. James Harden is shouldering an unprecedented offensive burden in terms of his combination of usage and efficiency. His ability to hit step-back 3’s at a consistent percentage, for lack of a better term, breaks basketball. [The tactical absurdity of Milwaukee’s defense giving Harden a clear runway to the middle of the lane purely to limit the efficacy of this one move was a helpful visual reminder of this fact.] His only historical peers in per-game scoring average are MJ, Kobe, and Wilt, and the five-year statistical run he is on right now stacks up favorably with nearly every one of the game’s greatest legends. I do not subscribe to the persistent narratives that he’s a flopper or a travel artist. [As I’ve argued in the past, if the league considers changing the rules to slow a guy down, it’s an affirmation of his greatness, not a condemnation of it.] Harden is, quite simply, one of the most masterful offensive talents we’ve ever seen, a true virtuoso with the ball in his hands.
His defensive reputation continues to be the polar opposite, but that narrative doesn’t entirely line up with the facts either. He definitely conserves energy on defense — as do most high-usage stars, especially those with a significant number of miles on their odometers — and he still spaces out away from the ball more than he should. That said, he’s come a long way from his “Shaqtin’ a Fool”-worthy days of years past. Most of the advanced metrics rate him as a net positive on defense, even as the Rockets’ defense as a whole has slipped this year. Harden is near the top of the league in steals and deflections, and he and Mike D’Antoni have leveraged his stout post defense into a legitimate weapon. Every time he gets switched onto a big man and the opposition feeds it into the post, foolishly believing they have a mismatch, I’m like the guy sitting behind you at the horror movie, shouting “Don’t go in there!” at the screen. [What’s bizarre about this is how all the coaches and analytics staffers are aware of this phenomenon and preach it to their teams, yet Harden still seems to bait the opposition into it several times per game. It’s the defensive equivalent of Dwyane Wade’s pump fake: a Jedi mind trick that makes no sense but keeps working, so I guess we have to give Harden some credit despite how baffling it is.]
So no, I’m not here to disparage Harden or take anything away from his historic season. But a bonkers statistical season does not inherently equal an MVP, and all credit to The Beard, but The Freak is the choice here. As I’ve said before, “best player/best team” is an overly simple rubric for deciding the award, but Giannis’ case starts with the undeniable fact that he has been just that, from start to finish. His production, and the team’s performance as a whole, have been remarkably consistent all season, even as Milwaukee has battled a litany of injuries and punted some winnable games of late. His stats are an unprecedented blend of Prime Kareem and Prime Shaq, in addition to being a terrifyingly versatile defensive force, as previously discussed.
I found this hard to believe when I dug into the numbers, but it’s true: Antetokounmpo’s Effective Field Goal Percentage (which accounts for the added value of a three-pointer) is significantly higher than Harden’s (.599 vs. .541). So the average shot leaving the hands of Giannis is quite a bit more valuable than the average one emanating from the dude I just described three paragraphs ago as “breaking basketball.” The Freak’s ability to dominate the game by getting into the paint off the dribble and scoring at will is sui generis in the history of basketball. For all the ways the three-ball has become king in the modern game, the ascendance of Giannis serves as a reminder that controlling the area around the rim on both ends remains the surest path to success.
What makes Giannis’ statistical dominance all the more absurd is how he did it in only 32.8 minutes a game (vs. 36.8 for Harden). Not to say he deserves “extra” credit for minutes he didn’t play — largely because the Bucks handed out so many righteous beat downs, he didn’t need to — but when you start comparing per-36 minute numbers (as opposed to per-game), the statistical case starts to get really interesting:
I maintain the biggest tactical adjustment available to any playoff team is Mike Budenholzer’s ability to ramp Giannis up to 38+ minutes a night. Could we see him average a 33/ 16/ 9/ 2/ 2 over the next two months? What if he keeps hitting at least 33% of his 3’s (as he’s been doing — albeit on limited attempts — since the start of February)? Being named MVP may turn out to just be the initial step towards The Freak’s coronation as the world’s best player. It’s incredibly impressive that Harden appears to have reached his considerable ceiling. What’s even more impressive is, at only 24 years old, Giannis may not be particularly close to his yet.
As the saying goes, let your (Greek) freak flag fly. Giannis Antetokounmpo should be the 2019 NBA MVP. Now for the love of all that’s holy, let’s get on with the playoffs.
Top Photo Credit: Benny Sieu/USA TODAY Sports