We are now within shouting distance of the play-in tournament and the start of the NBA Playoffs, so it’s a good time to hand out some hardware for the most outstanding performers of the regular season. Unless otherwise noted, the order I list the players is the one in which I would have them on my theoretical ballot. A lot to get to here, so let’s skip the flowery intro and dive right in, starting with…
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
Winner: Nikola Jokic, C, Denver Nuggets
Apologies to: Joel Embiid, C, Philadelphia 76ers; Giannis Antetokounmpo, F/C, Milwaukee Bucks; Stephen Curry, G, Golden State Warriors; Chris Paul, G, Phoenix Suns
I made the case for His Groundness (it’s gonna be a thing, damn it!) a few weeks back, and nothing that’s gone down in the interim has weakened his position. If anything, Jokic has solidified his hold on the award, continuing his metronomic dominance while leading a short-handed Nuggets team missing its top four guards to a 10-4 record since the season-ending ACL tear to Jamal Murray. This season has featured a ton of MVP-worthy candidates — my list doesn’t even get to guys like Luka Doncic, Kawhi Leonard, Damian Lillard, and Rudy Gobert, all of whom have been sensational — but nearly any way you want to slice it, Jokic stands out above the pack. He should be an easy choice.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Winner: LaMelo Ball, G, Charlotte Hornets
Apologies to: Anthony Edwards, G, Minnesota Timberwolves; Tyrese Haliburton, G, Sacramento Kings
As predicted by the draftniks, the ’20-’21 rookie class is shaping up to be deep with NBA contributors, albeit a bit light on potential stars. And with all due respect to a number of guys who have had strong seasons and shown great potential for the future (Saddiq Bey, Desmond Bane, Patrick Williams, Immanuel Quickley, Jae’Sean Tate, and others), this award is realistically a three-horse race. After his semi-baffling draft night slide, Haliburton has looked the part of a seasoned NBA vet from Day One, averaging a 13.0/ 3.0/ 5.3 line and 1.3 steals per game with tidy 47/41/86 shooting splits in 30.1 minutes a night. Questions about his middling athleticism and unorthodox shooting mechanics have all been answered, and his ceiling appears to be an awful lot higher than many originally thought.
Concerns over the shot selection and basketball IQ of no. 1 overall pick Anthony Edwards turned out to be well-founded when the season tipped off. Ant-Man has the greenest of lights for the generally woeful Wolves, but prior to the All-Star break, Edwards seemed intent on tearing down the house KG built, brick by ill-advised brick. He averaged a respectable 14.9/ 4.0/ 2.5 in the season’s first half, but did so on cover-your-eyes 37/30/81 shooting, “good” for a True Shooting Percentage of only 46.6 percent. That kind of number gets you run out of the league on a rail unless you also display pretty special potential, which, ummm…
Beyond the poster dunks, Edwards has shaken off the slow start in a big way during the second half. He has settled into a larger role since the break, starting all 32 games, averaging 35.0 minutes a night, and quickly becoming one of the most fun quotes in the league. The game has already slowed down for him, allowing the 19-year-old wunderkind to put up borderline All-Star numbers: 23.5/ 5.6/ 3.3 on legitimately decent 45/35/75 shooting. The Wolves have looked downright feisty since bringing in new head coach Chris Finch, and the rapid development of Edwards has been a major driving force in their anti-tank. It may still have been a mistake not to use the no. 1 pick on the guy we’re about to discuss, but it’s looking like a lot less of a catastrophe than it did two months ago for a franchise desperate for some hope.
LaMelo Ball was all set to win this award going away back in mid-March, until he suffered a fracture in his right wrist against the Clippers. The original diagnosis suggested he might miss the remainder of the season, and playing only 41 out of a possible 72 games would have made it tough to justify giving him the award. [Heavy shades of the Joel Embiid/Malcolm Brogdon debate from 2017.] Instead, Ball missed only 21 games and suited back up on May 1st, which should, fingers crossed, allow him to play the Hornets’ final ten games, plus the play-in and potentially beyond.
Fifty-one is still a lot less than seventy-two. [It appears Edwards will play in every game.] Even with the difference in overall volume, the gaps in efficiency and impact make Ball the choice for me. LaMelo has been a revelation, bringing the combination of size, ball-handling, and court vision scouts anticipated, but also adding unexpected shooting proficiency (36.0% from deep on 5.1 attempts per game). There were questions coming in about his maturity and defensive effort, but both have thus far been stellar. He makes mind-bending passes look routine. This is pure damn sorcery:
Per-36 minutes, he averages 20.1 points, 7.3 rebounds, 7.7 assists, and 2.0 steals, and that seems to be his floor going forward. However you may feel regarding his family or his path to the league, there’s no denying it: this dude is going to be a top-of-the-league mega-star, and soon. No need to overthink it.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Winner: Rudy Gobert, C, Utah Jazz
Apologies to: Ben Simmons, G/F, Philadelphia 76ers; Joel Embiid, C, Philadelphia 76ers; Bam Adebayo, C/F, Miami Heat; Giannis Antetokounmpo, F/C, Milwaukee Bucks; Draymond Green, F/C, Golden State Warriors; Clint Capela, C, Atlanta Hawks
Another category with a lot of great candidates but that should ultimately be an easy choice. Gobert is the alpha and omega for the 4th-ranked Jazz defense, blocking, altering, and deterring shots, swallowing up pick-and-rolls, directing traffic, and generally making the paint a no-fly zone at all times. His presence looms literally large over nearly every possession. The eye test and the advance metrics all paint the exact same picture: Rudy is the best defensive player in the league by a healthy margin. Boredom and goofy circumstances (ahem) are the only reasons not to vote for him in any given year, akin to the voters who force fed MVPs to guys other than Jordan in the 90’s. Let’s move on to awards with a bit more intrigue.
SIXTH MAN OF THE YEAR
Winner: Joe Ingles, F/G, Utah Jazz
Apologies to: Jordan Clarkson, G, Utah Jazz; Jalen Brunson, G, Dallas Mavericks; Derrick Rose, G, New York Knicks; Thaddeus Young, F, Chicago Bulls
Sticking with the theme of Jazz men, Jingles gets the nod here over his fellow bench-mate, Clarkson (Seventh Man of the Year?). Ingles has been plugged into the starting lineup quite a bit due to absences by Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell, but he will still meet the criteria for 6MOY at season’s end. And despite modest scoring numbers, he is more than worthy of the honor. The 33-year-old Aussie has always been a legit glue guy for Utah, providing playmaking, shooting, and rugged defense in equal measure, but he’s kicked his performance up a notch this season for the presumptive no. 1 seed Jazz.
Again, the counting stats don’t leap off the page: 12.2 points, 3.7 rebounds, and 4.7 assists in 27.8 minutes per game. His efficiency and advanced numbers, however, help to bring his impact into focus. Ingles boasts absurd 50/46/85 shooting splits, good for an Effective FG% of 66.4% and a True Shooting% of 68.3%, which is straight bonkers. [Remember how I said earlier that Anthony Edwards was at one point sporting a TS% of 46.6? Ingles is essentially the polar opposite, and has been doing it all season.]
The Jazz are +11.7 points per 100 possessions with Ingles on the floor (partially a reflection of what a good team he plays for), as well as 4.8 points per 100 better with him on the floor as opposed to on the bench. He just fills in every gap for Utah, including often taking defensive assignments on the litany of big, rugged forwards in the Western Conference. [To his credit, Royce O’Neale shares this duty with Ingles, and is also a terrific defender in his own right.] Clarkson has had a great season, and his scoring with improved efficiency has been impressive. For my money, however, Ingles has simply been the more impactful player, so he gets the nod.
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER
Winner: Julius Randle, F, New York Knicks
Apologies to: Jaylen Brown, F/G, Boston Celtics; Michael Porter, Jr., F, Denver Nuggets; Zach LaVine, G, Chicago Bulls; Jerami Grant, F, Detroit Pistons; De’Aaron Fox, G, Sacramento Kings; Mikal Bridges, F/G, Phoenix Suns; Clint Capela, C, Atlanta Hawks
Thinking too deeply about this award can cause one to fall into a bottomless pit of insanity and despair. In lieu of that, let’s just go with the prima facie obvious candidate, Julius Randle. The former 7th overall pick bounced around the league early in his career, looking the part of an inefficient, turnover-prone ball-stopper whose empty calorie stats would never lead to winning. All of that has changed now, having found a home in New York (crazy, I know) as the no. 1 option for the rejuvenated Knicks. The 26-year-old Randle is averaging 23.9 points, 10.3 rebounds, and 5.9 assists in a league-leading 37.2 minutes per game (Thibs alert!) on 46/41/81 shooting en route to his first All-Star appearance, and has the forever-moribund Knicks sitting at 4th place in the East as of this writing.
His numbers are basically career-highs across the board, and none of it looks like a fluke. Randle has become a legitimate playmaker, sensing when additional pressure is coming from help defenders and keeping the ball moving, a huge departure from the head down, bull-in-a-china-shop assaults on swarms of interior defenders which characterized previous stops on his NBA journey. His high, fading jumper from the right baseline has become a signature shot, and his defensive intensity has clearly ramped up for a suddenly-elite Knicks outfit (3rd in Defensive Rating at 108.5 points per 100 possessions). Kudos to Randle for sticking with it despite his earlier struggles, maturing on and off the court, and making good on the promise he showed coming out of Kentucky. Spoiler alert: he’ll be making another appearance a bit later on in the column.
Again, tons of worthy candidates in this category. Without going into the case for each one, it’s safe to look at the list of runners-up above and conclude the NBA is in a fantastic place, both in terms of the talents coming into the league and how they are being developed. Regardless how you want to define the purposely nebulous criteria of this award, there is never a shortage of potential winners.
COACH OF THE YEAR
Winner: Tom Thibodeau, New York Knicks
Apologies to: Monty Williams, Phoenix Suns; Michael Malone, Denver Nuggets; Quin Snyder, Utah Jazz; Steve Nash, Brooklyn Nets
In my mind, this is a two-man race between Thibodeau and Williams, with all due respect to the other coaches listed. There’s no wrong choice between the two, as both have led teams who have been in the shitter for the last decade-plus back to relevance. Phoenix has been the better team this year, and Monty deserves a ton of credit for that. The only difference is the Suns showed signs of turning the corner last season, going 8-0 in the bubble seeding games before narrowly missing the playoffs, foreshadowing a team ready to make a leap this year. In addition, they added one of the all-time great floor generals during the offseason in Chris Paul, making it more of a challenge to determine how to apportion the credit pie for the Suns’ breakout year.
In contrast, at this point in the season last year, the Knicks were in their typical “dumpster fire swirling around inside a shitstorm” mode. The core of the roster is not wildly different this year, so along with the aforementioned improvements by Randle, the lion’s share of the credit for the swift turnaround has to go to the newly installed front office and its first hire, Thibodeau. Defensive intensity is a hallmark of Thibs-coached teams, and the Knicks have made a remarkable jump in that area, climbing from 23rd in Defensive Rating last year all the way to 3rd this season. When you bring in a coach known for doing one specific thing, and then that thing immediately happens? It doesn’t take some MIT-educated analytics quant to figure out the math on that one. Thibs is never going to have to pay for another drink in his life in Manhattan, with or without ICE! [OK, I’ll show myself out.]
- C: Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
- F: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
- F: Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
- G: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
- G: Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns
First off, a disclaimer of sorts. Most of us are aware of the “position-less” nature of the NBA game (I use the quotes because that’s a long, nuanced conversation best saved for another time), and there has been a push by many to go away from the traditional, rigid positional system of All-NBA voting and towards a “just choose your best 15” type of system. Instead, the NBA chose a worst-of-all-worlds solution, keeping the positions on each team in place but granting a certain subset of players positional flexibility in terms of the voting.
The obvious inflection points in this year’s approach are the cases of Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid, both of whom are manifestly centers in the traditional sense, yet have also been granted forward eligibility to create the possibility of both cracking the First Team. In a truly position-less system, this would be an easier sell, since both guys would clearly make First Team and then we’d move on to our other thirteen selections without a second thought. However, in this particular season, bending reality to squeeze one or the other into a forward spot creates an inequity down the line which cannot be overlooked. There are three centers who clearly stand out above the rest and deserve to be recognized: Jokic, Embiid, and Gobert. In my estimation, those are the only three players the league defines as centers who belong in the top-15 this season, and there’s a meaningful gap between no. 15 and the next center who would make the list (either Bam Adebayo or Clint Capela).
Because of the need to have three centers, cramming Embiid onto the First Team means Gobert leaps to Second Team, and then either Bam or Capela necessarily has to be the Third Team center, which ultimately forces a deserving forward (or guard, depending how we finagle the rest of the spots) off the ballot entirely. To be clear: I don’t have a real problem with fudging Embiid’s position to get him onto the First Team, where he clearly belongs. I just have a problem with the collateral damage it causes to someone else who has nothing to do with it, and because of the way All-NBA selections can have contractual and salary cap implications (which is also dumb), this type of chicanery could potentially cost someone tens of millions of dollars in future earnings (not an exaggeration).
Again, the league could simply choose to scrap positions entirely and eliminate the shenanigans, but they’ve chosen to try to split the baby instead. For that reason, in this specific year, it’s my opinion that sliding Embiid to Second Team is the prudent decision. Don’t @ me.
- C: Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
- F: Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers
- F: Julius Randle, New York Knicks
- G: Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
- G: Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat
I know, I just spent several hundred words complaining about positional skullduggery, then immediately shoe-horned Doncic onto First Team as a forward and Butler onto Second Team as a guard. I’m a shameless hypocrite, but those feel like the equitable spots for both guys, and ultimately no one really loses out because of it. Some might take issue with Randle getting Second Team over LeBron, but the difference in volume of games and production has become so massive that I can’t dismiss it. LeBron is clearly the superior player in a vacuum; no one with any credibility disputes this fact. But Randle’s production, durability, and impact in lifting the Knicks out of the NBA sub-basement needs to be recognized.
Butler might seem an odd choice by these criteria, since he’s missed a substantial chunk of games too (50 games played vs. 43 for LeBron). When healthy, though, Jimmy has been an absolute killer on both ends of the floor, and Miami has been an utter trainwreck without him. [The Heat are (is?) +4.9 points per 100 possessions when Jimmy is on the floor, and -5.7 when he is off. They are 31-19 when he plays and 6-12 when he does not.] Miami is up to sixth in the East (and appears to be safely out of the play-in mix), could climb as high as fourth, and is once again looking like a squad no one will want to see in the playoffs.
- C: Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
- F: Paul George, Los Angeles Clippers
- F: LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
- G: Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards
- G: Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets
Third Team is, of course, where the rubber meets the road and the choices get painful. My very last cut was Jayson Tatum, and it’s hard to fathom someone who has been as elite as he has on both ends can’t crack the top fifteen. I wouldn’t quibble if someone wanted him on there instead of Kyrie (Tatum also has guard eligibility, which is suspect, but whatever). Even with his frequent in-season sabbaticals, I can’t find a way to leave Irving off the list because he’s been spectacular: 27.4/ 4.8/ 6.2 on 50/39/92 shooting splits for a team whose rotation has been in constant flux all season and is still sitting at 44-24, second in the East. As with the LeBron thing, it’s important to note that I am well aware James Harden and Kevin Durant are better players than Kyrie, but their extended absences have left Irving to cobble together some level of stability in Brooklyn, and he has mostly done so, to his credit.
I feel a little bad leaving Zion Williamson off my list because he has been a complete force of nature amid a nonsensical, ill-fitting roster in New Orleans. I have a sneaking suspicion he’ll end up on at least a few of these in the future, however terrible a rationalization that may be. Picking the Third Team guard spots is a nightmare. I went with Beal and Irving, which means leaving off Harden, Donovan Mitchell, Devin Booker, Trae Young, Russell Westbrook, Zach LaVine, Ben Simmons, Jrue Holiday, and De’Aaron Fox, all of whom have a legitimate case for inclusion. The guard position (such as it exists) is wildly stacked right now. This is the reality. Difficult choices are better than the alternative.
- C: Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
- F: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
- F: Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
- G: Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
- G: Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat
- C: Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
- F: Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat
- F: OG Anunoby, Toronto Raptors
- G: Jrue Holiday, Milwaukee Bucks
- G: Mikal Bridges, Phoenix Suns
Apologies to (in no particular order): Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers; Clint Capela, Atlanta Hawks; Nerlens Noel, New York Knicks; Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics; Jae Crowder, Phoenix Suns; Dorian Finney-Smith, Dallas Mavericks; Robert Covington, Portland Trail Blazers; Dejounte Murray, San Antonio Spurs; Lu Dort, Oklahoma City Thunder; Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers; Dillon Brooks, Memphis Grizzlies; Matisse Thybulle, Philadelphia 76ers, Royce O’Neale, Utah Jazz
So many worthy choices here, but I feel OK with where I ended up. Are my lists too heavy on Sixers, Bucks, and Heat? Perhaps. I tried to reward elite players on top-tier defensive squads, with the exception of Anunoby, who has excelled as a shutdown wing defender while toiling on a Toronto team suffering the season from hell. Clint Capela is maybe the biggest snub, as his rim protection and rebounding have been life-saving for an Atlanta defense which would be in utter shambles without him. I’m not consciously being a hater in neglecting to put any Knicks or Lakers on my list. They have both been tremendous on that end; it’s just really difficult to make a compelling case for any individual guy on either team.
- LaMelo Ball, G, Charlotte Hornets
- Anthony Edwards, G, Minnesota Timberwolves
- Tyrese Haliburton, G, Sacramento Kings
- Saddiq Bey, F/G, Detroit Pistons
- Jae’Sean Tate, F/G, Houston Rockets
- Patrick Williams, F, Chicago Bulls
- Desmond Bane, G/F, Memphis Grizzlies
- Immanuel Quickley, G, New York Knicks
- Isaiah Stewart, C, Detroit Pistons
- Isaac Okoro, F/G, Cleveland Cavaliers
Apologies to: Jaden McDaniels, F, Minnesota Timberwolves; Facundo Campazzo, G, Denver Nuggets; Cole Anthony, G, Orlando Magic; Theo Maledon, G, Oklahoma City Thunder, Deni Avdija, F, Washington Wizards
Thankfully, positional designations do not apply to the All-Rookie team — it’s almost as if the league is onto something here — so we can simply choose our top ten guys as we see fit. We already discussed the first three rookies, who make up this year’s top tier and are no-brainers for the First Team. It’s dealer’s choice after that for the final two First Team spots between Bey, Tate, Williams, and Bane, all of whom have shown real defensive prowess (not just for rookies) and look like rotation stalwarts for many years to come. Okoro nabs the final spot over the likes of McDaniels and Anthony on the strength of his defensive versatility and overall body of work, though his offensive game still has a looooong way to go. I like the flashes of star potential I’ve seen from both McDaniels and Anthony, and there is certainly a world where one or both end up as superior players to Okoro in the long run.
So those are the picks, love ’em or hate ’em. Now let’s get on with the playoffs! Cheers!