As we approach the halfway point of the season, I thought this would be good time to do awards picks for the season that has been so far. Granted a lot could change but let’s jump in and take a look:
MVP: Before the season, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and Giannis Antetokounmpo were the safe bets. They were the best players for the three likely best teams. They have all been very good so far but Nikola Jokic has been even better. Jokic leads the NBA in most advanced stats and his lead is quite large:
PER: Joel Embiid 32.2, Jokic, 31.5
WS: Jokic 6.6, Embiid 4.8
WS/48: Jokic .306, Embiid .294
BPM: Jokic 11.6, Embiid 9.0
VORP: Jokic 3.6, Luka Doncic 2.4
So, the advanced stats story tells us Jokic has been the best player in the NBA, with Embiid a close second. The chances of Jokic winning the MVP on a 16-13 Denver team are not high but, like Kevin Garnett in 2004-05, there are strong indicators that he’s the best right now. My choice would be Jokic.
If we are predicting who would win the MVP from the voters, the best bet is Embiid. He has a pretty strong case too. His numbers are in Jokic’s neighborhood and Philly has played well (though SRS says they are overrated). Either way, Embiid’s stats and Philly’s record, when taken together, makes him a good fit for stats folk and more conventional voters. LBJ, Giannis, and Kawhi (and Doncic) are defensible picks too but a notch below those two and their teams seem to be coasting a bit more.
What about the best team in the NBA? As good as Utah has been, none of its individual parts merit serious MVP consideration. Rudy Gobert has probably been there best player (with Mike Conley a close second) but neither can seriously be considered better than Jokic, Embiid, Giannis, LBJ, or Kawhi. Instead, Utah’s strength has been its depth.
Sixth Man of the Year: This is where Utah has been really good. Jordan Clarkson has gotten kudos for his scoring (18.2 pg on .587 TS% in 26.2 mpg) and seems to be everyone’s favorite for this award. He definitely fits the profile of that automatic scorer off-the-bench winning this award. Indeed, there are several multiple Sixth Man winners in the past doing very similar things like Ricky Pierce, Lou Williams, or Jamal Crawford. Clarkson’s advanced stats are also pretty good (3.0 BPM, 1.0 VORP). A few bench players, however, rate out a little better:
-Joe Ingles, 3.8 BPM, 1.0 VORP
-Chris Boucher, 3.6 BPM, 1.0 VORP
-Jarrett Allen, 3.0 BPM, 1.0 VORP
Allen is likely to start the rest of the season going forward so we can count him out. Boucher has also been really good as a multi-talented bench big (he even hits a few threes!). As for Ingles, he’s hard to separate from Clarkson because they spend so much time on the floor together with similar offensive ratings. They differ a bit in that Clarkson gets marked down a little for his soso defense while Ingles is considered a plus on that side of the floor. Of the three candidates, I would probably go with Boucher, who has been a dynamic force off the bench but I could see an argument for Clarkson or Ingles.
2019-20 winner Montrezl Harrell has been as good as always but is clearly inferior to Boucher in the same role. It should also be noted that Lou Williams has been below his usual standard this year and isn’t really in the conversation yet.
Rookie of the Year: After a terrible debut game, LaMelo Ball has lapped the field. He was viewed as a high risk player but, so far, he’s been great. Kevin Pelton and John Hollinger, among others, have written about how unprecedented Ball’s stats have been as a 19-year old. Ball has a 2.8 BPM and is only one of two rookies playing more than 20 minutes per game with a positive BPM. Here are top five rookies in BPM with a minimum of 20 minutes played per game:
1. Ball, 2.8
2. Tyrese Haliburton, 2.1
3. Saddiq Bey, -0.3
4. Xavier Tillman, -0.4
5. Jae-Sean Tate, -1.0
Haliburton is not flashy but he still has an outside shot of catching Ball. It would take a little luck but it is not unprecedented. In 1991-92, it looked like Dikembe Mutombo was a lock to win the award around the time of the All-Star break. Deke made the All-Star team and his odds of winning the award must have been high. Thereafter, Mutombo’s numbers slowed down markedly and then he missed the last month of the season after thumb surgery. At the same time, Larry Johnson got really hot and won the award. Here are their stats through February 6, 1992:
Mutombo, 11/1/91-2/6/92: 46 gms, 19.1 ppg, .504 FG%, 13.3 rpg
Johnson, 11/1/91-2/6/92: 47 gms, 17.8 ppg, .489 FG%, 11.6 rpg
Close but Mutombo had him beat in all the counting stats. Now let’s see their stats for the home stretch:
Mutombo, 2/7/92-4/19/92: 25 gms, 12.0 ppg, .461 FG%, 10.3 rpg
Johnson, 2/7/92-4/19/92: 35 gms, 21.1 ppg, .490 FG%, 10.1 rpg
In the end, LJ won the award going away, with 90.5 votes out of 96 possible ballots. So, beware LaMelo, you could get caught from behind, though it’s highly unlikely.
Defensive Player of the Year: Giannis and Gobert have won the last three awards and Gobert looks like a good bet to get it again this year. Utah has the second best defense and Gobert is obviously the key cog in their defense. The advanced stats give more credit to some of his teammates and, in fact, Gobert is not quite in the top ten in DBPM (1.9). The Lakers have the best defense in the NBA and Marc Gasol (who is tied with Ben Simmons) leads the NBA in this category at 2.5. Gasol is always an effective defender but he has only played 20 minutes per game and he has two great defenders to help him (LBJ and Anthony Davis).
Simmons has a reasonable argument as well but Gobert seems like such a dominant defender on the eye test and the advanced stats that I would agree that he has earned the award so far.
Coach of the Year: The best surprise team award. Quinn Snyder has this on lockdown this year unless the Lakers or Clippers catch Utah. The backup pick is Doc Rivers so far. If the Sixers give up the top seed to Brooklyn, Steve Nash may get the award.
Executive of the Year: Utah is having the best season but they didn’t do much differently with roster other than re-sign Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert for $400 million. Brooklyn is the team that made the big move in getting James Harden but is trading everything that wasn’t nailed down for a superstar really the type of innovative decision that merits this award? Probably not but it will likely get Sean Marks the award anyway.
In short, there is really no satisfying answer to this award and I frankly find this award kind of silly anyway. If forced to choose, I like James Jones in Phoenix as my pick for scooping up Chris Paul and Jae Crowder fairly cheaply.
Most Improved Player: I leave my least favorite award for last because the criteria for picking are usually very mushy. In this case, however, the award is quite clear under any standard of review. Jerami Grant has looked like a totally different player this year (23.5 ppg). He has improved after many years of an established level of ability as a role player. That is the perfect surprise choice. Sure, Detroit has no scorers but Grant has exceeded even the wildest expectations this year. His winning has nice symmetry as well since his father Harvey Grant almost won the award in 1990-91 (he came in second to Scott Skiles).