Quick and Dirty Awards Primer
In the most talked-about awards race ever, I tried not to say too much. Tried.
There’s not much to be said about the 2016–17 MVP race that hasn’t been said before.
So I’m not going to say much.
We’ve had enough words written on each candidate to fill a library, and enough Twitter arguments to make a Real World reunion seem tame. We’ve had statistical arguments and narrative arguments, underscored talent and overvalued milestones. There’s nothing for me to say that hasn’t been said ad nauseum.
But I’m still going to say a little.
It’s fascinating to see a person’s thought process, not only in the MVP race, but in the other award races as well. It tells you something about how the person sees the sport and values certain characteristics, traits, and skillsets.
And let’s be honest: it’s fun.
So here’s my awards primer. It’s quick, it’s dirty, it’s void of gifs, intense statistical analysis, or 10,000-word dissertations. Not because I haven’t spent countless hours poring over advanced metrics, reading opinion pieces, and listening to podcasts — I have — but because you don’t need any more of that.
The stats, concepts, positives, and negatives have been thrown in my basketball coffee pot. It percolated. Here’s the cuppa.
Most Valuable Player
1. Russell Westbrook
2. James Harden
3. Kawhi Leonard
4. Steph Curry
5. LeBron James
I’ve always had the same criteria for MVP: if you watched this season, with no prior knowledge of the players, and you had to build a team next year around one person having the exact season they had this year (including minutes, injuries, luck, and suspensions), who would you choose?
I realized this year that that reasoning isn’t quite right (for the record, Curry would be my MVP under that criteria). So I adjusted.
I think Westbrook is seriously flawed. I think he’s the worst of the five players on this list, and the seventh-best player in the league. I think his style of play is nearly impossible to build a championship team around. I think he can make a bad team good but not necessarily a good team great. I think both he, and Harden, can only function at 100% if they are far and away the best player on their team, which is not the case for LeBron, Kawhi, or Curry.
But MVP isn’t about who would be most valuable on a hypothetical team. It’s about who provided the most value to their team, during this year.
When Westbrook sits, the Thunder have the worst net rating in the league. Admittedly part of that is due to the lackluster bench, and complete lack of point guard depth, but most metrics peg the team for about 20 wins if you take Westbrook off. He and the Thunder were exceptional in clutch situations (a large part of why their record was better than their rating), which may not be predictive, but is descriptive of value created this year.
I can think of about 10 players I’d rather build a team around next year. But I can’t think of any player who was more valuable to their team this year.
One note: LeBron and the Cavs swoon finally got so severe that I put Curry ahead of him. The Cavs have the same record as the injury-ridden Jazz and Clippers, and have been horrible on defense. LeBron has been a big part of that. LeBron is still the best player in the world, but he was on cruise control a little too much this year. That may be valuable for their postseason hopes, but not for regular season value awards.
Most Improved Player
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo
2. Rudy Gobert
3. James Johnson
One part about selecting the MIP is hard: how do you define improvement? There’s a wider range between bad and good than between good and great, so do you reward the former leap more than the latter one? Does a player who improved in unexpected ways warrant a vote more than a high-profile prospect who made an expected step forward?
But one part about selecting the MIP is not hard: it’s Giannis. There’s one easy vote this award season, and it’s Giannis for MIP. There’s simply no question. The Greek Freak’s per36 numbers took a decent jump, from 17.2/7.8/4.4, to 23.2/8.8/5.5, but the real leap came on the defensive end, where he went from hyper-athletic prospect to bonafide star. Giannis has become a shutdown defender capable of guarding all five positions, while doing a Magic Johnson lite impersonation on the offensive end, often taking on point guard duties with his impossible-to-guard 7’0” wingspan. His TS improved dramatically, to an uber-efficient .600, all while taking on far more responsibility.
He’s the MIP. I don’t know why I wasted so many words on this.
Defensive Player of the Year
1. Draymond Green
2. Rudy Gobert
3. Kawhi Leonard
Like with the MVP, you can’t go wrong with the DPOY, as long as you’re choosing Green or Gobert. Otherwise, you’re entirely wrong.
Green and Gobert are all-world defenders. A few more years at this level, and they will cement themselves as all-time greats on that end of the floor. There’s no picking between who is more talented.
My vote ultimately came down to impact, and perceived value. Green is as good defending the rim as he is the perimeter, which determined my vote. There’s no team, player, or system that limits Green’s defensive impact. A small ball lineup with a stretch 5 can pull Gobert away from the rim, which begins to (ever so slightly) lessen how much impact he has. Green can also guard all five positions, assuring that he can always match up with the opponent’s best player when the game is on the line.
Coach of the Year
1. Gregg Popovich
2. Steve Kerr
3. Erik Spoelstra
My reasoning for Popovich is simple: he’s the best coach in the league, which means he was likely to be the best coach this year.
My reasoning for Kerr was equally simple: he’s the second-best coach in the league (a slightly more controversial take), which means he was likely to be the second-best coach this year. Kerr seems to get dismissed because of the talent on his team, which is understandable, but also undersells him dramatically. It’s easy to forget that the Miami Heat won 58 games their first year with LeBron, Wade, and Bosh. The Warriors won 67, despite losing Kevin Durant for a quarter of the season, and resting players with some regularity. Talent does not equate to greatness without coaching. Kerr has been a master of both managing and empowering personalities; on a team with two superstars, four All-Stars, and one Draymond Green, the biggest negative press has been a post-game joke from Andre Iguodala. And no matter who your players are, you don’t rank first in offensive rating and second in defensive rating if you’re not a helluva coach.
The obvious name missing here is Mike D’Antoni, who will likely win the award. Yes, Houston exceeded expectations, but I think that says more about our expectations than anything else. Houston may have improved from 41 wins to 55, but in ’14-’15 they won 56, and in ’13-’14 they won 54. Last year was the outlier, not this year. And yes, they lost Dwight Howard, but they gained Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson — in 2017, those players are far more valuable.
That’s not to say D’Antoni didn’t do an excellent job; it pains me to leave him off this list (it also pains me to leave Brad Stevens and Quin Snyder off). But the three guys on this list are better coaches, and it showed this year.
Rookie of the Year
1. Joel Embiid
2. Malcolm Brogdon
3. Willy Hernangomez
It’s Rookie of the Year, not Most Valuable Rookie; that’s my reasoning for giving the award to a guy who played in only 31 games. Games played should at least be a factor — 31 games is still a small sample size, and we didn’t get to see the league adjust to Embiid. But he was so far and away better than anyone else, that it doesn’t matter. Account for regression, account for adjustments, and he’s still the best freshman in the league — by far. And that’s what this award is for.
His teammate, Dario Saric, is on seemingly everyone’s ballot except mine. I like Saric, and Philly should be excited about him. But while he showed flashes this year, he wasn’t particularly good. He played poor defense, attempted 4.2 threes a game while shooting just 31.1%, and had a TS of .508. It’s not his fault that he was forced into a lead role, but he didn’t play it well, and we shouldn’t award him just because he scored a handful of points.
Saric’s future is bright, and he should be a really good player next year, when he’s the third or fourth option behind Embiid, Ben Simmons, and whomever the Sixers draft in June.
Executive of the Year
1. Bob Myers
2. Daryl Morey
3. Masai Ujiri
I’ve heard a lot of arguments that Meyers isn’t EOY because he doesn’t deserve credit for signing Kevin Durant.
Come on. Not only is that not true (and not only is Myers responsible for the players, coach, and culture who supposedly do deserve credit), but it’s dangerous reasoning. If we start trying to assign a certain percentage of credit for each move an executive makes, we fall down a highly subjective rabbit hole that we don’t have enough information to responsibly navigate through. Ultimately, GMs should be judged for the moves they make, no questions ask. Myers signed Durant. That’s the Executive of the Year.
Sixth Man of the Year
1. Andre Iguodala
2. Eric Gordon
3. Patty Mills
Iguodala is the best player in the league who comes off the bench, and he showed it this year.
The third spot was a struggle, and it’s hard to leave Lou Williams and James Johnson off. Mills had a profound impact off the bench for the second-best team in the league, knocking down threes at both a high volume and efficiency, running the offense seamlessly, and providing value on defense.
Karl-Anthony Towns and Nikola Jokic almost deserved spots this year, but the all-around play (read: defense) of Gasol was too much to ignore. Gordon Hayward, Paul George, and Paul Millsap had All-NBA years, but the six forwards on this list are a clear tier ahead. I wanted so badly to include Kyle Lowry, but it was a toss-up between he and Wall, so the player who didn’t miss a significant amount of time got the nod.
Now watch me regret all these picks in the playoffs.