2019-20 NBA Award Picks

The wind of excitement for the 2019-20 season is clearly waning.   It’s fair to assume that the regular season is over and we are left to guess if there ever will be playoffs in some form.  Let’s take a pause now go over our award picks.  Without further ado, here we are:

MVP:  This one is not particularly close.  James Harden, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Kawhi Leonard all have various arguments for second but Giannis Antetokounmpo has clear, if not totally dominant, lead over field.  Check his rankings in advanced stats (all stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com):

-PER: Giannis, 31.6 (1st)(Harden second at 28.4).

-BPM: Giannis, 11.5 (1st)(Harden second at 9.2)

-WS: Giannis 10.4 (2nd).  Harden was first at 11.5 but has played three more games.  Giannis leads in WS/48 at .282 with Harden third at .245 (Davis was second at .262).

-VORP: Giannis, 6.0 (2nd)(Harden first at 6.4).

So, on top of being the best player on the clear best team in the NBA, Giannis has a pretty clear advanced stats claim to the trophy as well.  It’s basically impossible to figure out how to stack up Harden, Davis, LBJ, and a few others (Leonard and even Luka Doncic) behind Giannis.  If you have to split hairs, here is how I would rank the top five for MVP:

5. Leonard

4. Davis

3. LBJ

2. Harden

1. Giannis

Defensive Player of the Year:  Once again, Giannis seems like the obvious choice.  The Bucks have the best defense in the NBA and he is their best defender.   DBPM and DWS also rate him as the best player.  The stealth candidate is Davis, who gets a nod for being part of the Lakers great defensive turnaround (though Frank Vogel and a bunch of other people get some credit too).  Having said all that, Giannis wins this one fairly easily.

Of course, advanced stats are not the necessarily the best measure to determine defense.  Here, they confirm the eye test on Giannis but DBPM has some other whacky results, rating Kris Dunn and Donte DiVincenzo and second third best in the NBA, which seems slightly high (though they are both very good defenders).  This got me wondering how perception and advanced stats have actually synced up in past DPOY awards.  We went year-by-year since DPOY’s inception (in 1982-83) to see how often the leader in DBPM and award winner were in the same ballpark:

-1982-83: Sidney Moncrief 0.4 (not in top 20), Leader: Mark Eaton 4.3

-1983-84: Sidney Moncrief 0.4 (not in top 20), Leader: Mark Eaton 3.7

-1984-85: Mark Eaton 4.2 (1st), Leader: Mark Eaton 4.2

-1985-86: Alvin Robertson 3.3 (2nd), Leader: Manute Bol 4.7

-1986-87: Michael Cooper 0.7 (not in top 20), Leader: Manute Bol 4.6

-1987-88: Michael Jordan 4.2 (1st), Leader: Michael Jordan 4.2

-1988-89: Mark Eaton 3.1 (4th), Leader: Michael Jordan 3.4

-1989-90: Dennis Rodman 0.9 (not in top 20), Leader: Hakeem Olajuwon 4.0

-1990-91:  Dennis Rodman 0.7 (not in top 20), Leader: Hakeem Olajuwon 4.0

-1991-92: David Robinson 4.6 (1st), Leader: David Robinson 4.6

-1992-93: Hakeem Olajuwon 3.6 (tied for 2nd), Leader: Nate McMillian 3.9

-1993-94: Hakeem Olajuwon 3.3 (4th), Leader: Nate McMillan 5.5

-1994-95:  Dikembe Mutombo 1.8 (8th), Leader: Nate McMillan 3.8

-1995-96:  Gary Payton 1.8 (13th), Leader: David Robinson 3.1

-1996-97: Dikembe Mutombo 2.4 (8th), Leader: Arvydas Sabonis/Grant Hill 2.7

-1997-98:  Dikembe Mutombo 1.4 (not in top 20), Leader: Charlie Ward 3.4

-1998-99:  Alonzo Mourning 2.3 (9th), Leader: David Robinson 3.5

-1999-00: Alonzo Mourning 2.2 (7th), Leader: Bo Outlaw 3.6

-2000-01: Dikembe Mutombo 1.3 (not in top 20), Leader: Theo Ratliff 2.7

-2001-02: Ben Wallace 3.3 (1st), Leader: Ben Wallace 3.3

-2002-03: Ben Wallace 3.5 (1st), Leader: Ben Wallace 3.5

-2003-04:  Ron Artest 1.9 (15th), Leader: Kevin Garnett 3.3

-2004-05: Ben Wallace 2.5 (6th), Leader: Marcus Camby 3.3

-2005-06: Ben Wallace 3.1 (3rd), Leader: Marcus Camby 3.3

-2006-07: Marcus Camby 3.9 (1st), Leader: Marcus Camby 3.9

-2007-08: Kevin Garnett 3.5 (2nd), Leader: Chuck Hayes 4.1

-2008-09:  Dwight Howard 2.4 (tied 4th), Leader: Chris Paul 3.8

-2009-10: Dwight Howard 2.8 (tied 1st), Leader: Dwight Howard/LeBron James 2.8

-2010-11: Dwight Howard 2.4 (tied 4th), Leader: Ronnie Brewer 3.7

-2011-12:  Tyson Chandler 1.1 (not in top 20), Leader: LeBron James 2.7

-2012-13:  Marc Gasol 3.1 (1st), Leader: Marc Gasol 3.1

-2013-14: Joakim Noah 3.6 (tied 1st), Leader: Joakim Noah/Draymond Green 3.6

-2014-15:  Kawhi Leonard 3.1 (tied 2nd), Leader: Andrew Bogut 3.3

-2015-16: Kawhi Leonard 3.0 (2nd), Leader: Tim Duncan 3.1

-2016-17: Draymond Green 3.9 (1st), Leader: Draymond Green 3.9

-2017-18: Rudy Gobert 2.5 (tied 2nd), Leader: Kyle Anderson 3.3

-2018-19: Rudy Gobert 2.5 (5th), Leader: Giannis Antetokounmpo 4.1

DBPM and DWS (which I didn’t deep dive into) are interesting stats but they are clearly not perfect.  Here, DBPM, did a pretty good job of finding near top defenders but there are some weird anomalies.  Dennis Rodman, who was objectively a great defender, did not rate that well. Similarly, Moncrief and Cooper won the award with tepid DBPM stats.  In other cases, the best defender by DBPM seemed questionable (Charlie Ward, Kyle Anderson).

In all, seven DPOY winners were not top 20 in DBPM.  Conversely, 23 winners were in the top 5 in DBPM and 16 were in the top two.  You don’t want to be dogmatic in relying on advanced stats for subjective ability but the results were actually pretty good for DBPM.

Sixth Man of the Year:  There have been quite a few impressive players off the bench this season.  The knee jerk reaction is to go with Montrezl Harrell, who has been so explosive off the bench for the Clippers.  In fact, Mitchell Robinson and Christian Wood have done similar things for much worse teams but have been nearly as good.  But Harrell has actually played more minutes and started fewer games than Robinson or Wood.  In a tight race, I would take Harrell.

A few guards have a decent case as well.  Lou Williams, Derrick Rose, and George Hill have all been useful sixth men this season too.  Williams, the repeat winner of this award, has not been quite as good as the last two years.  Combine that decline with the fact that teammate Harrell has been so good, works against Lou.  Hill has been really efficient but he only plays 21.2 mpg and derives a lot of value from shooting .480% from three, which seems flukey (he’s a very good shooter but that is crazy good).

Lastly, Rose has surprisingly followed up 2018-19 with an even better season.  The surprise is that Rose did it even though his three-point shooting regressed to his career norms but balancing that out with assists rates that he hasn’t had since he was an MVP.   Working against Rose is that fact that he has 15 starts, not a ton, but certainly a few more than most sixth men traditionally get (he projects to 22 starts in a full season).  Should that be disqualifying?  For reference, here are the players with 15 or more starts that won the Sixth Man of the Year:

-Lamar Odom, 2010-11: 35

-Aaron McKie, 2000-01: 33

-Kevin McHale, 1984-85: 31

-Ricky Pierce, 1986-87: 31

-Bobby Jackson, 2002-03: 26

-Jamal Crawford, 2013-14: 24

-Manu Ginobili, 2007-08: 23

-Toni Kukoc, 1995-96: 20

-Lou Williams 2017-18: 19

-Leandro Barbosa, 2006-07: 18

-Darrel Armstrong, 1998-99: 15

-Eric Gordon, 2016-17: 15

22 starts would be high but clearly not disqualifying if Rose had been the best sixth man.   My sense is that Harrell has been better and also barely started, so I stick by him for the award by a narrow margin.

Most Improved Player:  I hate this award because it is so ill-defined.  “Improvement” is subjective and is measured against each individual’s view of the term.  Some consider the fringers who become regulars out-of-nowhere (ie Isaac Austin 1996-97), other the first-rounders who develop more quickly than expected (ie Rony Seikaly), and other still think about the players who make the leap from very good player to star (ie Tracy Mcgrady).  The last category is preferable in my opinion.  Why?  Because frankly it’s not that fun to look back and reminisce about winners like Austin, Don MaClean, who quickly faded or even about good but also unmemorable players like Seikaly or Scott Skiles.

The past few years the NBA has done a better job of picking a player who has improved more than expected and has remained good thereafter.  This season, the likely winner is Brandon Ingram, who made the leap from good player to All-Star.  It’s not clear that Ingram’s improvement will last, since he took a whole bunch more shots before Zion Williamson debuted.  Still moving Ingram’s PER up from 13.4 to 19.2 is a nice feat.  In reality, though, Luka Doncic’s improvement was more impressive.  Luka has jumped from near All-Star rookie to MVP candidate in one season (his PER went from 19.6 to 27.7).  Given how good he already was, it is unlikely that Doncic will win the award but he’s my choice.

Rookie of the Year:  The question is clear: do you reward Ja Morant’s full year excellence (59 games played) or Zion’s incredible rate stats in only 19 games?  It’s hard to argue that Zion can overtake Ja in 40 fewer games (case in point: Ja’s ROY odds at https://www.sportsbettingdime.com/nba/rookie-of-the-year-odds/ jumped from -300 to -2000 at the end of March) but let’s line their stats up and see if we can make an argument:

-Morant: 59 games, 30.0 mpg, 17.6 ppg, .568 TS%, 3.5 rpg, 6.9 apg, 18.0 PER, 3.4 WS (.093 WS/48), 0.4 BPM, 1.1 VORP  

-Williamson: 19 games, 29.7 mpg, 23.6 ppg, .624 TS%, 6.8 rpg, 2.2 apg, 24.2 PER, 1.8 WS (.149 WS/48), 2.4 BPM, 0.6 VORP

Zion has been basically a force of nature, while Morant has been very good.  Ja has been good enough to make up for the fact that Williamson has been playing like a young Charles Barkley.  It seems likely that Williamson will be the best player in this draft looking back but he just hasn’t played enough minutes to overtake Ja.

How good were Williamson’s pro-rated stats?  Pretty damn good.  Granted, it is possible he would’ve tapered off if he had played more but here is how Zion’s advanced rate stats (ie those that don’t depend on volume) ranked against other rookies since 1979-80 (we will hold the other rookies to a minimum of 2,000 minutes played):

PER:  Williamson’s 24.2 would rank third behind MJ (25.8) and David Robinson (26.3).  While PER certainly has some weaknesses, it is worth noting that pretty much any player to hit a PER of 20 as a rookie was, at least, a perennial All-Star.

WS/48:  Zion’s .149 WS/48 would rank a more modest 22nd, just ahead of Bill Cartwright (Robinson and MJ are first and second respectively again).  WS/48, however, has some outliers ahead of Zion who no one would ever think were better than Williamson (Brevin Knight, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Luis Scola).  If you limit WS/48 to players of the same age, Williamson’s .149 is best for a 19-year old, beating out Jayson Tatum (.139)

BPM:  Williamson had a 2.4 BPM, which is very good but not otherworldly.  It would rank 17th for rookies (MJ and Robinson lead the way again).  Most of the players in front of Williamson are stars (though we do see Brevin Knight again and Mark Jackson).  For 19-year olds only, Williamson beats everyone except, his likely rival for the next decade, Doncic who had a 3.9 last year.

So, this confirms the eye that Williamson should be a featured NBA star for the next decade or so.  Alas, the ROY is not in his future.  Zion will be okay, though, Barkley didn’t win this either.

Coach of the Year:  The field is large here and a good argument could be made for a bunch of them.  Here are quick blurb arguments, in pro and con form, for each candidate:

-Mike Budenholzer, Milwaukee:  Pro: This is the best team in the NBA.  Con:  This is the same great team as last year and only slightly better.

-Nick Nurse, Toronto:  Pro:  They lost Kawhi and are still playing great.  Con: Even before they acquired  Kawhi, the Raptors were a contender (granted, they had Demar DeRozan then).

-Brad Stevens, Boston:  Pro: He developed Tatum and weathered the storm of losing Kyrie Irving and the team actually improved.  Con:  Losing Kyrie for Kemba Walker might not actually be a downgrade.

-Erik Spoelstra, Miami:  Pro:  On paper, this is not a good team and they were going to win 50 games.  Con: The Heat were probably playing over their heads early.  Since a 15-5 start they are (26-19) and SRS has them as slightly worse than actual record too.

-Nate McMillan, Indiana:  Pro:  Without Victor Oladipo for most of the year, the Pacers have been pretty competitive.  Con: Being slightly above average with decent personnel is good but not quite Coach of the Year material.

-Frank Vogel, L.A. Lakers:  Pro: Somehow salvaged a toxic situation to make the Lakers a top offensive and defensive team this year.  Con:  Um…LeBron and Davis didn’t hurt.

-Doc Rivers, L.A. Clippers:  Pro: Took a team that almost completely turned over and smoothly transitioned them to contender status.  Con:  Um…Kawhi and George didn’t hurt.

In weighing reasonable expectations of the team versus accomplishments, Nurse is the pretty clear choice.  Budenholzer, Vogel, and Rivers have done great jobs but that’s what they were expected to do.  As for the rest, Nurse has the best record of the “exceed expectations” crowd.  The Raps seemed like a mid-level playoff team and he has them second in East and the advanced stats indicate that the record is legit.  It’s hard to argue Stevens, Spoelstra, or McMillan have been better.

Executive of the Year: Usually, this award rewards a GM who makes a great draft pick/trade to propel the team.  This year, the choice is between the Lakers GM Rob Pelinka for trading for Anthony Davis or Clippers GM Lawrence Frank for helping engineer the signings and trading for Kawhi and George.  These are both unsatisfying choices.   It didn’t take particularly shrewd engineering to get these players.  Yes, the teams had to create situations that were potentially attractive but the stars drove the transactions.  Neither Davis nor George would’ve been traded unless they demanded that it would happen.  Still, this is the world we are in and recruitment matters.  I’ll choose Frank and the Clippers, since they beat out the Lakers in a head-to-head for Kawhi.

The Real MVP:  Let’s be honest, all 2019-20 will ever be remembered for is the COVID-19 pandemic.  As bad as it has been, this has been Adam Silver’s best hour.  The NBA took the threat more seriously than most and was the first to get players tested and publicize the threat to the public.  Silver had been preparing since January and got testing available for its players before anyone.  Some have argued about the ethics of the NBA being able to buy testing kits before the public-at-large.  NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted that “with all due respect, an entire NBA team should NOT get tested for COVID-19 while there are critically ill patients waiting to be tested.”

In an ideal world, this is true but it is not the world we live in.  De Balsio’s tweet reveals that planning has been bad.  The fact is that neither the Federal Government nor de Blasio took the threat seriously enough months ago at a time when Silver was taking it very seriously.  When faced with a potential threat to his league and the public, Silver did all he could to deal with it early.  Again, it would have been much better if the Feds and the states had been planning in January also but Silver’s action was.  Instead, the world took note of Silver’s cancellation and New York and the feds had to address the situation, albeit belatedly.  On a whole, Silver’s actions were good for the public and probably saved lives.