NBA Awards Ballot, Part I: Individual Accolades

It’s hard to believe, but this year’s NBA season is almost over. In just six days, the playoffs will start and the league will inch closer and closer to crowning its eventual champion. In the end, that’s the only accomplishment that really means anything; all of the other individual accolades and frivolities pale in comparison to winning a title. But, they’re fun to theorize and get excited about, so let’s do it!

In this part one of my awards ballot, I’ll cover the individual awards: Rookie of the Year, MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, and Coach of the Year. Here we go!

(Note: Because this isn’t an official ballot in any way whatsoever, I’m excluding Most Improved Player and Sixth Man of the Year because, well, they’re meaningless.)

Rookie of the Year

  1. Karl-Anthony Towns
  2. Kristaps Porzingis
  3. Nikola Jokic

The Rookie of the Year race is almost as clear-cut as the MVP race (which I’ll get to). I’ll start with my third place pick and work up:

Jokic may be the most underrated rookie in this class, mostly because he plays for the lowly Denver Nuggets, but he is making a name for himself in his first year and establishing his role as a big piece of Denver’s future. Jokic is smooth, smart, skilled, and crafty, especially for a rookie big man. He doesn’t play with a ton of flash, but he makes a lot of really impressive plays for a player his age. Jokic is outstanding in the high post and at the elbows, and he sees the floor in a way that most rookies and big men don’t. He can stretch the floor a little bit, as he’s shot 33 percent from downtown on 82 attempts, but his strength is operating from 17 feet and in. The Jokic/Emmanuel Mudiay/Kenneth Faried/2016 first-round pick Denver core will be something to keep an eye on over the next few years.

Some people—mostly Knicks fans, I assume—will talk themselves into Porzingis as the Rookie of the Year, and while Kristaps has had a good season, he isn’t quite on Towns’ level. The young Latvian has been a pleasant surprise for Knicks fans, especially considering he was expected to ride the bench this year while he developed. He’s extremely fun to watch, as his nice shooting stroke bodes well for his future as a poor man’s Dirk, and he’s moving the Knicks’ rebuilding process along faster than expected. But the gap between him and Towns is still pretty significant, and it probably will be for a while.

KAT is already the cornerstone and face of the Timberwolves (who have an intriguing young core) and is putting up the best numbers of any rookie in most statistical categories. The young center is averaging over 18 points a game on 54% from the field (35% from three!) and ranks fourth in the entire NBA in total rebounds.

Other guys from this rookie class may be future All Stars, but Towns will almost certainly be a perennial All Star, and it could start as soon as next year.

 

Most Valuable Player

  1. Stephen Curry
  2. LeBron James
  3. Kawhi Leonard

There isn’t much of a debate when it comes to this year’s MVP race, so I’ll be relatively brief here.

Durant and Westbrook get nudged out of the top three here because they play on the same team, but they’re both elite players having great seasons, and I think either of them would be a top-three candidate if they didn’t play with the other. Don’t worry, though; Oklahoma City’s dynamic duo will get their share of praise in part two of these awards.

James has had yet another magnificent season, and despite being overshadowed by Curry’s dominance, Leonard’s breakout, and his own cryptic, passive-aggressive social media outbursts, he’s still the second-best player in the league by a mile. The Cavs are a different team when James sits, and his Finals experience will be huge when the Cavs go into postseason mode.

I suspected that this season might be a breakout year for Kawhi, but I never saw a year like this coming. Leonard has been consistently brilliant all season, and while his scoring and assist numbers don’t quite compare to those of the other top players in the league, his value spans beyond the stat sheet, and he deserves to be a first-teamer. I’ll discuss Leonard’s defensive value later on in the column, but his current 50/45/88 pace should tell you all you need to know about his place among the league’s offensive greats.

Despite James and Leonard’s greatness, the fact is that Steph Curry is the best player in the world right now. If, 20 years from now, all video of this year’s Warriors team was destroyed and you had to explain to a child how good Steph Curry was in 2016, it would be impossible. The stats and stories just aren’t enough; it literally has to be seen to be believed, and even then it’s hard to believe. And while he’s come back down to Earth in the last month or so, there’s still a sizable gap between him and the rest of the field.

Just for good measure, take a look at some of these outrageous Curry stats:

  • Curry is one of four players in NBA history to shoot 50 percent from the field, 35 percent from beyond the arc, and post a PER of at least 30.
  • Curry is 11 for 26 this season on shots from 30 feet or further.
  • Curry has made at least 261 three-pointers in each of the last four seasons.
  • Curry’s 392 this season are the most ever in a single season and 106 more than his own previous NBA record set last year.

And there are so many more facts that you could get into when it comes to Curry’s shooting. No matter how you slice it, Curry is having one of the five best seasons in NBA history, and it would be crazy to try and justify another MVP candidate.

Defensive Player of the Year

  1. Kawhi Leonard
  2. Paul Millsap
  3. Draymond Green

Defense is a difficult skill to quantify. The top ranking players in most advanced metrics are mostly big men (with the exception of Leonard, one of the reasons he’s so brilliant), and while blocks and steals certainly don’t hurt your team, they’re not an entirely accurate representation of a player’s actual defensive prowess.

Leonard and Green have long been heralded as the two best defenders in the league and are shoo-ins for first team All Defense, but it gets a little trickier after that. For convenience’s sake let’s start with the reigning Defensive Player of the Year: Kawhi Leonard.

Beyond the obvious ones—best defensive player on a historically great defensive team, reigning Defensive POY, general monster on the defensive end—there are a ton of reasons why Leonard is the best defender in the Association. Leonard, who ranks third in defensive rating, is one of only two wing players with a top-twelve rating in that category[1], and he sits at third place in defensive win shares as well.

More than anything else, Leonard passes the “eye test” with flying colors. The guy can just flat-out play defense. His hands are tremendous, his positioning is outstanding, and his lateral quickness is second to none. Even when it looks like he’s beat, he somehow comes out of nowhere to block a shot or knock the ball away. Simply put, Leonard routinely does things on defense that humans shouldn’t be able to do.

For the most part, Kawhi tends to play is safe on the defensive end; he doesn’t gamble by jumping in every passing lane (one reason why his steals are down from last year), and he’s more than willing to rely on his help defense behind him, which is outstanding, by the way. Additionally, Kawhi checks the other team’s best wing player almost every night (although sometimes Danny Green will draw the assignment). That is not easy, especially in the Western conference, when most nights he’s going up against guys like James Harden, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, and Gordon Hayward virtually every night.

If Leonard doesn’t win, this award will almost certainly go to Green. Green is an extremely unique defender—a 6’7 inside player with the ability to stay with guards on the perimeter, bang with big men inside, and control the defensive boards. Green welcomes any defensive challenge and takes pride in being tasked with tough defensive assignments. His maniacal intensity drives the Warriors defensively, and while anyone would benefit from having defensive ace Andrew Bogut as a frontcourt mate, Green plays a lot of minutes without him, and holds down the middle even against bigger defenders. Golden State’s team defense may have dropped of this season, but Green’s has not.

Millsap has been a key force behind the Hawks’ recent defensive uptick. Green gets a lot of credit, and rightfully so, for his Swiss army knife-like defensive versatility, but not many people outside of Hawks fans and devout NBA followers know that Millsap does the same things for Atlanta. He’s quick, versatile, tough, and skilled, and has the best hands of any big in the league, which give the Hawks a ton of extra possessions. Millsap is a master at getting in the passing lanes, picking a ball-handler’s pocket, and stripping shooters on the way up, as evidenced by his 1.8 steals per game, and despite being slightly undersized for a big man, he still manages to protect the rim pretty well (1.7 blocks per game).

Millsap also sits at the top of the leaderboards when it comes to advanced defensive metrics, ranking fourth in the NBA in defensive rating at 95.9, third in defensive box plus/minus with 4.3, and first in defensive win shares with 6.0.[2]

Paul Millsap likely won’t finish second in Defensive Player of the Year voting, but he deserves to be on the first team, and it’s time that people started talking about this guy.

Coach of the Year

  1. Brad Stevens, Boston Celtics
  2. Dave Joerger, Memphis Grizzlies
  3. Steve Clifford

We’ve saved the most difficult decision for last! This season has been one of overachieving teams, and that is due in large part to extraordinary coaching across the league.

I’ll make one rule for myself here: Gregg Popovich is ineligible. It’s just too easy; if they gave the award to the best coach in the league, it would go to Popovich every year, but that’s obviously not how it works, so we must pick someone else every once in a while.

Steve Kerr will clearly be in the mix, especially if his Warriors win 73 games, but I can’t look past the 24 missed games to start the season. Steve Kerr is my favorite person in the NBA, and I understand that he was still extremely involved with the team despite not being on the sideline, but 24 games is a lot of missed time.

Rick Carlisle is another perennial candidate for this award, as is Stan Van Gundy. A strong case could be made for anyone coaching the second through eighth seeded teams in the extremely tight Eastern Conference. Terry Stotts has done a wonderful job with a depleted roster that most people—including myself—counted out early in the season.

In a year of many overachieving teams, Stevens gets the nod because his group might be overachieving the most. Yes, Joerger may have done a better job with what he had (which is a roster full of former D-League players and scrappy veterans), but the Grizzlies aren’t going anywhere. The Celtics, meanwhile, have a top-four team in the East and a realistic shot of making the Conference Finals.

Stevens’ Wikipedia page says he attended DePauw University, which may be true, but I’m not so sure he didn’t graduate summa cum laude from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. With just one All-Star, Stevens and the Celtics have a chance to lock up first-round home court advantage in a surprisingly competitive Eastern Conference. Stevens plays a deep rotation despite having a roster comprised almost entirely of role players, runs creative sets to get players open, and draws up genius out-of-timeout sequences. Oh, and not to mention his team snapped the longest home winning streak in NBA history.

Fun side note: If NBA 2K14 serves as an indication of real events that will happen in the future, Stevens has a bright future with the Celtics, in which he coaches the Celtics for 40 more years, wins 18 NBA championships and ten Coach of the Year awards, breaks the 1996 Bulls’ wins record five times, including an 80-2 campaign, and builds the most dominant dynasty in the history of sports. No pressure, Brad.

That’s going to wrap up the first part of this column. Stay tuned for part two, which will include All-NBA, All-Defense, and All-Rookie teams!

 

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference, NBAwowy, & NBA Savant.

 

[1] The other guy: his fellow Spur, Danny Green.

[2] DeAndre Jordan is the only other player in the NBA who ranks in the top five in all three categories.

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