As the season winds down, let’s dive into the obligatory year end awards predictions. Last year, there was some debate over which incredible season between Russell Westbrook and James Harden merited MVP. This year, it seems clearer that Harden is in the lead on all fronts. Nevertheless, let’s look into the numbers and give our take on the major awards:
Rookie of the Year: Before sorting through this group, we do note that there are a bunch of pretty good rooks that are arguably in the running. Some rookies who played less than 24 mpg looked very good (John Collins, Bam Adebayo, Jarret Allen) but don’t have enough playing time to get serious consideration. Others played bigger minutes and might be really good but have some glaring holes that disqualify them: Lonzo Ball (missed too many games and can’t shoot), Kyle Kuzma, Lauri Markkanen, and Dennis Smith (nice counting stats but weaker advanced stats)
In reality, ROY is a three-man race between Ben Simmons, Jayson Tatum, and Donovan Mitchell. Each has a superficial appeal. Simmons is the triple-double machine. Tatum has a very smooth game and has been a key scorer on a very good team. Mitchell has developed into a high scoring shooting guard out of nowhere. Here are the numbers:
– Simmons: 33.9 mpg, 15.8 ppg, .543 FG%, 8.1 rpg, 8.1 apg, 19.8 PER, 8.7 WS, 4.4 BPM, 4.2 VORP
– Tatum: 30.6 mpg, 13.9 ppg, .475 FG%, .429 3FG%, 5.1 rpg, 1.6 apg, 15.1 PER, 6.9 WS, 0.9 BPM, 1.8 VORP
-Mitchell: 33.5 mpg, 20.4 ppg, .437 FG%, .340 3FG%, 3.6 rpg, 3.6 apg, 16.5 PER, 4.7 WS, 0.8 BPM, 1.8 VORP
The numbers favor Simmons. He doesn’t score as well as Mitchell and he can’t shoot threes but Simmons does everything else. He also has a handy lead in all of the advanced metrics. On top of that, he has helped turn Philly from lottery team to 50-win playoff team. Granted, Tatum and Mitchell have really helped their teams as well (and Simmons isn’t the only reason the Sixers are good again) but Simmons does so much on the court he seems to be a pretty clear choice. Choice: Ben Simmons.
Defensive Player of the Year: Going strictly by advanced stats, Andre Drummond is the choice. He has the highest DBPM (5.3) and DWS (5.6) in the NBA. This isn’t a hugely satisfying answer though because the Pistons have been so blah as a team overall. This isn’t Drummond’s fault. The Pistons defensive rating is pretty good (10th in NBA) and it’s their bad offense (22nd) that has been the real problem.
The NBA is also missing that monster shot blocker that makes it easy to pick a la Dikembe Mutombo or Rudy Gobert last season. Spealing of Gobert, has had a pretty awesome defensive year as well (3.6 DWS in 1,702 minutes). Gobert is also the best defender on the second best defense in the NBA. The question is whether Gobert’s role in a great defense is enough to overcome Drummond’s 800 minute advantage in playing time. I tend to think that the minute disparity is too great to take Rudy over him. The argument that Gobert should get credit for better team defense cuts both ways as well, as the Jazz’s defense was good even without Gobert. Drummond should not be penalized because he had Ish Smith, Reggie Bullock, and Anthony Tolliver playing big minutes while Utah had Ricky Rubio, Derrick Favors, and Mitchell.
Other good defensive teams, like the Spurs and Celtics, have balanced defenses but no one super anchor that was clearly better than Drummond. Ultimately, Drummond is my reluctant choice. We’ve had better DPOYs in the past, but Drummond was just good enough to take the award this season. Choice: Andre Drummond.
Most Improved Player: By all accounts, this is one of the dumber awards. It is hard to really decide whether we are looking for bench players who become regulars or good players who are somewhat better than the season before. In the past, this has yielded some weird choices like Don MacLean and Ike Austin, who were previously bench players, who busted out into useful regulars (albeit briefly). Other years, winners were players who made jumps but were expected to be very good anyway (Kevin Love and Tracy McGrady).
With these dueling types of candidate, you really have too many different categories of players to choose from. The argument could be made that Harden has improved the most but he was already an MVP-level player before the season. Or do we look at someone like Spencer Dinwiddie, who went from fringe NBA player to a nice starter? Fortunately, putting aside my reservations about the award, this is one of the few years where there is clear winner. Victor Oladipo is the most logical choice, as he cuts across the two categories best. He went from solid two guard in OKC last season to fringe MVP candidate out of the blue. Choice: Victor Oladipo.
Coach of the Year: As with Most Improved, standard of review can vary. Credible candidates are as follows:
-Dwayne Casey, Toronto: The Raps have been good before but never quite this good in terms of wins and the SRS is championship-level.
-Brad Stevens, Boston, Gregg Popovich, San Antonio, and Quinn Buckner, Utah: Somehow the teams excelled despite tons of injuries.
-Brett Brown, Philadelphia: Sentimental favorite for winning when he finally had a good team.
-Terry Stotts, Portland and Nate McMillan, Indiana: These teams had no reason to be as good as they have been this season.
The clear winner, though, has to be Mike D’Antoni. Houston had a big jump in performance and became a title contender. He has had title contenders before but, for the first time in D’Antonio’s long career, he also has a good defensive team this year (5th in the NBA). Chris Paul helped the defense but Paul missed 30 games and, on his own, CP3 can’t be enough to jump the team from 18th to 6th defensively in one season. Coaching had to help. Choice: Mike D’Antoni.
Executive of the Year: This is a tough year to find one signature transaction that really defined the season. The big Kyrie Irving/Isaiah Thomas trade was interesting but injuries have prevented it from being as consequential as it could have been. There were a few other interesting moves:
-Pacers traded Paul George under the gun and were able to net Oladipo, who ended up being the better player this year.
-The Cavs traded most of their team for a radical reboot.
-Rockets signed CP3, who has helped the Rockets get to the next level.
Objectively, Kevin Pritchard of the Pacers has the best move of the year in Oladipo, though he couldn’t have known he was getting an All-Star at the time. The Cavs buyer’s remorse showed flexibility but not really acumen, since they were dumping players who they thought would be good. Danny Ainge and Boston really were poised to be the big winners. They trounced Cleveland in the Irving trade, signed Gordon Hayward, and squeezed a draft pick out of Philly when they flipped the first pick (Markelle Fultz) for the third pick (Jayson Tatum) and got the better player anyway. Alas, injuries took the bite out of Kyrie and Hayward to varying degrees. For the Rockets, signing Paul was a good move but not exactly one that any other GM wouldn’t have made if he could have. Choice: No one (but Kevin Pritchard wins by default).
Most Valuable Player: Without even looking at stats, Harden is the prohibitive favorite….the best player on the best team. Let’s look at Harden’s advanced stats compared with his main competitors:
-Harden: 30.0 PER, 15.1 WS, 11.0 BPM, 8.2 VORP
-LeBron James: 28.7 PER, 13.8 WS, 9.7 BPM, 8.8 VORP
-Anthony Davis: 29.0 PER, 13.3 WS, 5.4 BPM, 4.8 VORP
-Giannis Antetokounmpo: 27.6 PER, 12.1 WS, 6.0 BPM, 5.5 VORP
Like Russell Westbrook the year before, nearly all the advanced stats support Harden. The notable exception is VORP, which has LeBron as slightly higher (but the difference is negligible). Interestingly, some of the other great players, Davis, Giannis, and others like Damian Lillard and Westbrook, are much weaker in one of the major advanced stats (usually VORP). LeBron always has a credible case for the award but Harden has too much going for him and should get the MVP. Choice: James Harden.
As a quick postscript, here’s how Harden 2017-18 compares with Russell Westbrook 2016-17:
-Westbrook 16-17: 34.6 mpg, 31.6 ppg, .425 FG%, .343 3FG%, 10.7 rpg, 10.4 apg, 30.6 PER, 13.1 WS, 15.6 BPM, 12.4 VORP
-Harden 17-18: 35.5 mpg, 30.6 ppg, .450 FG%, .366 3FG%, 5.4 rpg, 8.7 apg, 30.0 PER, 15.1 WS, 11.0 BPM, 8.2 VORP
Westbrook’s 2016-17 was just too good to top. Harden’s always been a better pure shooter (in fact Westbrook’s shooting has really tailed off this year) but Westbrook has so many other facets to his game that Harden can’t quite top and Westbrook was historically strong in BPM and VORP. Harden does have an edge in WS but that is also a function of how good the Rockets are (Harden actually had a higher WS than Westbrook in 2016-17 too). In all, Westbrook’s 2016-17 was better than Harden’s great 2017-18 season. On the bright side for Harden, though, he is very likely to end up with the title that Russ did not get.