I wrote about the NBA just twice during the regular season, and one of them was technically a shitpost about Van Gundy being fired even though he hadn’t actually been fired. Hey, if the actual team media is going to make a bad joke on April Fool’s Day, then I’ll take it a step further and write a piece on his firing before it actually happens. Regardless, I’ve actually written one more article about the league during the Finals and the offseason with this piece than I did during the entire regular season. Since my belief is the NBA season doesn’t start and end until July 1st, when free agency officially begins, let me go over this season’s award winners before the season actually ends1.
Most Valuable Player
The main candidates in this field were James Harden, LeBron James, and Anthony Davis. LeBron was gunning for that elusive fifth MVP award, which would tie him with Jordan, and further close the gap between them in some people’s eyes. However, the award went to the right person, as James Harden walked away with the award for the first time in his career after having legitimate arguments for his case as MVP in 2014-15, 2015-16, and 2016-17. I’ve briefly discussed The LeBron System before during my write-up of Game 3 of the 2018 Finals, so I’ll make things much more transparent here; great stats from one player manufactured from a system heavily befitting them does not make their teammates better, or give them an advantage in MVP voting. LeBron’s been a professional basketball player for 15 seasons now; people are catching on to the Westbrookian levels of stat-padding LeBron does, and despite his immense talent, it begs questions. The team isn’t better off without LeBron obviously, but perhaps if an actual system with a decent head coach was put into place, would the team have to rely on LeBron’s talents so much to succeed? I think not.
Anthony Davis actually had a better chance than many thought, because even though the Pelicans were expected to make the playoffs, they largely did it without DeMarcus Cousins. With DeMarcus sidelined, the Pelicans had a 21-13 record, significantly better than their 27-21 record with him. Last season, when the Pelicans finished 34-48 and missed the playoffs, the Pelicans were 7-10 with DeMarcus Cousins on the court. The belief was, with some additional help and decent guard play, this team could be a top four seed in the Western Conference. That almost happened, as this team ended up as the sixth seed, but ended up sweeping third-seeded Portland in the first round, once again, all without DeMarcus Cousins.
The whole reason the Pelicans even ended up as the sixth seed is due to their struggles with DeMarcus in the lineup, as their two lengthiest win streaks came with DeMarcus out of commission. Carrying this team was a big man in Anthony Davis who anchored this defensively-challenged roster to a 14th ranked defense, as well as a 10th ranked offense. They were the fastest paced team in the league, so their 3rd place ranking in team’s PPG and 29th place ranking in opponents PPG are slightly skewed, but the fact that this team did so well under the evolving leadership of Anthony Davis means he does deserve several first place votes.
Harden however, increased his usage rate by two percent, and yet, due to Chris Paul’s presence, picked his spots better, as his shooting percentage increased overall and from three, all with more attempts on average being taken. His assists obviously dropped by two, but his turnover percentage actually decreased by four percent as well. Overall, as Chris Paul took a backseat to Harden, it only made the shooting guard more dangerous, and resulted in the Rockets setting their franchise-best in wins for a single season, as well as win percentage. If that alone doesn’t win you over, then go ahead and take a comprehensive look at his advanced stats on basketball-reference.com and a couple highlights reels on YouTube; that should do it.
Rookie of the Year
Ben Simmons won, and in any other year I would agree, but not this one. You’ll hear this throughout the article, but the Jazz were not supposed to make the playoffs. Leading that team were three people, and as far as the offensive side of the ball goes, it all started with Donovan Mitchell.
Ben Simmons played great all season like he was supposed to, but there’s something to be said about the guy who did two years at Louisville, and then came into the league ready to ball out. Ben Simmons played one year at LSU, had injury issues, sat out a year, and came back to a healthy 76ers team ready to begin their run. Donovan Mitchell forged his own destiny, he didn’t need a process, he just picked up the slack that Hayward left behind.
Tatum was the third rookie for consideration, and had these other two not been rookies, he would’ve deserved it too. It’s not everyday one of the best players on your squad has a gruesome injury on opening day and you’re expected to carry some of his load. Tatum went above and beyond this season, and will continue to be an essential piece to that Celtics franchise. However, just on pure narrative, which is what these awards are about a large majority of the time, how is Mitchell not deserving when he was not expected to do the same things Simmons and the Sixers accomplished this season?
Coach of the Year
Why Dwane Casey received this award, I will never know. Brad Stevens is the best coach in the league, and from now on, I’m okay with him winning the award just based on pure coaching abilities. His better moments came in the playoffs without both his top two players, but the point remains. This year however, if you want to argue for Quin Snyder, I have no way to counteract that.
As I said above, the Jazz were not supposed to or were not expected to make the playoffs. They greatly exceeded expectations, grabbing the fifth seed only after losing to who became the third seed in the Portland Trail Blazers on the final day of the regular season. One game separated the fifth and third seed, so not only did the Jazz have the same record as the fourth seeded Thunder at 48-34, but even without home court advantage, they proved themselves the better team. I have nothing more to say, because even though the Jazz lost in five to the Rockets in the semifinals; the West is just tough. It’s hard to win games with only one guy getting the offense going, of course the point guard in Snyder’s offense helps facilitate, but Mitchell is indisputably the guy on the Jazz. What else did you expect once they exceeded all your other expectations?
Defensive Player of the Year
Rudy Gobert won in the second-most straightforward award. Anthony Davis had a good case since I already noted he anchored this defense and held his team together in DeMarcus Cousin’s absence, but Cousins isn’t that great of a defender anyway, so I’m unsure if that really matters. In the end, although he is obviously one of the five best defenders in the NBA, and one of the most versatile, his team did not stack up to either the Jazz or the 76ers. The 76ers played the fourth fastest pace in the NBA, and impressively enough, had the fourth highest defensive rating in the NBA.
Both the Jazz and the 76ers have nearly identical advanced defensive stats, but where the differences lie is how the Jazz could not defend the three as well as the 76ers, as the Jazz allowed 36.5% of threes against them to go in, compared to the 76ers 34.2%, and the Jazz even allowed teams to have a higher percentage of three point attempts than the 76ers. Where I give the nod to Gobert however, is where I see the Jazz allowed more teams to shoot closer to the basket than the 76ers; 25.4% to 23.8%, but the Jazz allowed a 65.5% field goal percentage from 0-3 feet, and the 76ers allowed 66% at the same distance. It doesn’t sound like much, but when you realize the Jazz play at the sixth slowest pace in the NBA, allowing opposing teams to average only 83 possessions a game, you realize not all percentages are created equal. The Jazz funneled guys to Gobert, taking away opportunities for opposing teams to take a better look elsewhere, while also defending the attempts they did take better than a majority of the league.
The 76ers have good defenders at nearly every position, and a good system implemented by Brett Brown. Utah does have good individual defenders, but unlike the 1-2 two-way punch of Simmons and Embiid, the Jazz have to make the perfect peanut butter-jelly sandwich with Mitchell’s offense and Gobert’s defense. In case it wasn’t obvious before, the Jazz greatly surprised and impressed me this season.
Most Improved Player of the Year
Victor Oladipo was the obvious choice. He went from being a potential bust, to Westbrook’s lackey, to the leader of a franchise. I don’t need stats and I don’t need to know the competition to know who was the Most Improved Player of the Year; next.
Sixth Man of the Year
Lou Williams again? I’m not mad at it, and the right person probably won, but I’ll quickly make an argument for my pick. Fred VanVleet was likely the third choice to many fans, but, just look at the minutes played. This is another argument against Casey as Coach of the Year, but VanVleet led the best bench unit in the NBA, and he only played 20 minutes a game. Toronto’s minutes weren’t staggered well, because the Clippers had 18 players average over 10 minutes a game, while the Raptors had 11. The Rockets had 15, though their rotation really topped out at the seventh man. VanVleet’s stats don’t jump out like Williams or Gordon, but his defense, low turnover percentage, low usage rate, facilitating skills, and leadership were integral to the Raptors best season in franchise history. Gordon was another skilled player off the bench for the Rockets, Williams is one of the most skilled players on the Clippers and was given the ball a lot to make up for the lack of natural scorers, but what can you say about VanVleet other than he did everything asked of him in a selfless role?
I’ve seen a debate spark over to include the postseason results and statistics into these debates, especially in the last year since we started hosting an awards show after the Finals, and I still disagree with that sentiment. If that were the case, Kevin Durant should win MVP. He won Finals MVP, and was a legitimate contender for MVP until the Warriors had a losing skid the second time Steph Curry left the lineup with injury, and they ended up being fine in the first round without him, and then Durant stepped up when the team needed someone to during the pivotal third game of the Finals. Not only did he play whatever role was needed, and played well, he beat an Anthony Davis-led Pelicans squad in the semifinals, beat actual MVP James Harden and the Rockets in the Conference Finals, and then was a huge contributor to a sweep of the LeBron James-led Cavaliers. I don’t think people want to actually include the postseason in the voting process, they just don’t want this waste of time when we can just find out before the second round, as was tradition for many years. The voters mostly got the awards correct this year, as the only one I have an objection to is Dwane Casey receiving Coach of the Year. Again, why bother with broadcasting an entire show around this unless the bottom line is the dollar, and not providing quality content.
1. This unnecessary awards show honestly only adds further fuel to my belief, since this essentially makes the season year-long and gives the media something to talk about no matter what month it is.