NBA Post-Season Awards
A way to acknowledge big performances through the end of the season.
Best Rookie Playoff Performance: Brandon Ingram
This award is meant for a player making their first playoff appearance who showed the most and performed the best on this elevated stage. The criteria I took into consideration with this required a competitive series, good statistics, and flashes that show future upside individually and as a team.
In this post-season, there were only a few new teams to join the Big Dance: Chicago, New Orleans, and Minnesota. There were two players in contention to be the first winners of this award, Brandon Ingram and Anthony Edwards.
In Ant-Man’s debut playoffs he came out firing against the Memphis Grizzlies. It was an extremely entertaining series where AE did not back down, averaging 25.2 points per game, 4.2 rebounds per game, and 6.0 assists per game, and pushing the Grizzlies to a tough six-game series.
Brandon Ingram however wins this award with his stellar performances against the league-best Phoenix Suns. He swung a couple of games with his impressive play and came reasonably close to stealing this first-round series. He averaged 27 ppg/6.2 rpg/6.2 apg. More importantly, he showed that this team has the necessary fire-power to make a splash in the years to come, especially if/when they get Zion Williamson back.
Biggest Disappointment: Brooklyn Nets
While most of our time and energy should be spent on celebrating the success stories at this point in the year, we have to acknowledge when it seems that someone or some team failed to meet expectations by a long shot. In this case, while the Brooklyn Nets were struggling for much of the season, they were receiving an unexpected level of buzz going into the post-season. See below for my thoughts on this buzz:
Regardless, they entered the playoffs with the hopes to make some noise and even have a shot at winning the NBA Title, or the Eastern Conference, at the very least. Unfortunately for them, their performance was subpar and they also happened to run into the buzzsaw that is the Boston Celtics’ defense.
While they were the inferior overall team, nobody expected a clean sweep in this series. The Boston Celtics systematically clamped up Kevin Durant and “shut him down.” This of course seems like a joke when he still averaged 26.3 ppg/5.8 rbg/6.3 apg, but this is why you have to watch the games with your own eyes to see what it looked like. Lucky for us, there is a great breakdown of this below. No need to linger on the negative, moving on to more positive awards and recognitions.
Most-Improved Performer: Jayson Tatum
There are a few different ways to approach this decision and it was a tough one to make. In particular, I wanted to look at both previous statistical performance with improvement along with improvement in team success. Contribution to team success holds a heavier weight in my eyes, but I can understand if others would feel differently in determining this award.
At the end of the day, this was a two-man race: Luka Doncic vs Jayson Tatum. Both of these players took their teams farther in the playoffs this season than in the last. Along the same lines, both of the players took a step back in scoring this post-season, but as any good basketball mind knows and understands that is not the most important factor in winning.
On one hand, Doncic got his team out of the first round finally and propelled them all the way to the Western Conference Finals. For a moment there it seemed like he was going to have an early breakthrough to the finals but they hit the well-seasoned that is the Golden State Warriors. Doncic had a great playoff run, averaging 31.7 ppg/9.8 rbg/6.4 apg. While he improved in rebounding, he declined in points per game from 35.7 last season. More importantly, his assist total dropped from 10.3 assists per game in his previous run. Even more so, there was a noticeable drop in his efficiency from the floor. All in all, still a great playoff run early in Luka Doncic’s career.
Jayson Tatum on the other has taken his team all the way to the NBA Finals this season. He of course has a significantly better supporting cast than Doncic did in the Mavericks, but that's not to take away from the fact that an elevation in Tatum’s play helped push them over the top. Statistically, he’s been solid averaging 25.6 ppg/6.7 rbg/6.2 apg. He is averaging a playoff career-high in assists, and the growth in his playmaking has opened up plenty of opportunities for others on the team.
Most impressively this season and post-season however is Tatum’s improvement in defense. He put his stamp on the playoffs after shutting down Kevin Durant in the first round on their way to a sweep of the Brooklyn Nets. Since that time, he’s been more than respectable on the defensive end of the court. Between that and the overall maturity of his game, the Boston Celtics were able to make it to the NBA finals.
Most Outstanding Role Player: Al Horford
For a team to make a deep playoff run, role players are extremely important. It’s why when there is a pre-game analysis, you always hear talk about the expectations for the home team’s role players. This post-season has been no different and I looked at this in a few ways. Of course, I was looking for a player that isn’t necessarily the focal point for a team, but most importantly someone who by the eye test and how that impacted winning.
As you’ll notice, there is a trend in these awards. A lot of Warriors and Celtics players, but that shouldn't come as a surprise since these types of performances are what it takes to make it to the NBA Finals, let alone win. Each of the finals teams had key role players that received credit throughout the playoffs.
For the Golden State Warriors Jordan Poole was receiving a lot of praise in the early rounds, and rightfully so. His counting stats have been solid this postseason, averaging 17 ppg on 39.1% from three-point range and a Win-Share of 1.8. While the scoring has been great in spurts, there has been a lack of consistency and he is a defensive liability. The eye test certainly shows that when he’s able to get hot it tremendously helps the Warriors' offense sustain momentum while Curry is resting on the bench.
Al Horford is the candidate and winner of this award from the Boston Celtics. While he hasn’t fully sustained that level of play in the NBA Finals, the Celtics needed his presence to make it to the NBA Finals in the first place. Most importantly, in the Milwaukee Bucks series, he was taking over as a primary defender, and surprisingly as a primary shot-maker at the end of big games.
In the regular season, he averaged 10.2 ppg/7.7 rbg on 46.7% from the field and 33.6% from the three-point range and this has bumped up to averages of 12 ppg/9.3 rbg on 52.3% from the field and 48% from three-point range in the post-season with a Win-Share of 3.0 and a box-plus minus of 5.6. All in all, Al Horford has had an unexpected run this post-season at the age of 36 but one that has been incredibly entertaining.
Most Outstanding Player: Wardell Stephen Curry II
Right off the bat, I would like to address the name of this particular award. This is part of a petition by me to change the title of the regular season award as well. The word valuable has caused much debate in NBA circles, both expert and amateur. In reality, this award is never given to the player who simply provided the most value to their particular team but rather to the person who had an outstanding season along with the “best story.” So in an effort for full transparency, that is exactly how I made a decision on this award and in terms of the winner and the name.
The only other player that was considered for this honor was Jayson Tatum and I have already laid out his case and the beauty of this post-season run above. This whole section will be dedicated to discussing how Stephen Curry has been so outstanding throughout these playoffs.
He started the 2021–22 playoffs with a first-round series against the Denver Nuggets. In this relatively painless 5-game bout, he averaged 28 ppg/3.4 rbg/5.4 apg. All of the buzz coming out of this series was how comfortable Jordan Poole looked in the playoffs.
That did nothing to slow down Curry as in the 2nd round he kept on humming to a stat line of 26 ppg/4.8 rbg/5.8 apg, while the remainder of the roster began to level out to some extent. This was more impressive while keeping in mind the way the Memphis Grizzlies defensive was hounding Curry.
In the Western Conference Finals Stephen Curry’s counting stats seemed to drop off slightly in terms of scoring and yet his playmaking and assist totals were good enough to lead the team. Moreso, he was able to accomplish this while shooting a scorching 43.9% on 3-point attempts. It was a swift five-game series in which Curry was awarded the first-ever Magic Johnson Western Conference Finals MVP award.
To cap off this incredible post-season for Stephen Curry, in the NBA Finals he averaged 31.2 ppg/6 rpg/5 apg on 43.7% shooting on 3-point attempts. This alone unfortunately cannot capture the gravity of his performances, and I use the word gravity with great intention. Throughout this series, I have observed how the entire Boston Celtics game plan shifted to contain Curry, and I have been able to see the effects of those changes.
While the adjustments have been small and discussed often already, changing to and from drop coverage on pick-and-roll opportunities has been at the center of it all. Early on the drop coverage allowed Curry to walk into wide-open 3-point shots. When Boston countered by staying up on the shooter in these cases and allowing the big man to switch onto Curry, the ball was taken out of his hands a bit more often. After neither of these attempts seemed to fully slow Stephen Curry, as he scorched the Celtics in Game 4 going for 43 points and 10 rebounds on 14/26 shooting, 7/14 from 3-point range.
The Celtics resorted to a more dramatic approach in Game 5. In this game, they kept the big man up on the screen and then doubled with his current defender. They often even had a third defender engage in the action off their primary defensive assignment. All of this led to a series-worst 16 points and 0/9 on 3-point attempts, ending a streak of 233 consecutive games (regular season + playoffs) with a made 3-pointer. Somehow, this Warriors team was able to overcome this and secure the win to take a 3–2 grasp on the series.
If you watch closely, however, the change in the Celtics' defense came with its consequences. Curry was able to pass out of the double team into open jump shots or layups often which can be seen by the 8 assists he totaled in the game. What the box score doesn’t show is all of the “hockey assists” he had as a result of this gravitational pull he had on the defense. There were countless open cuts to the basket or jump shots as a result of the attention that Curry demands with or without the ball in his hands. Another beautiful breakdown by Thinking Basketball is linked below to show examples of exactly what I described above.
To summarize this run for Stephen Curry, he averaged 27.4 ppg/5.2 rbg/5.9 apg on 39.7% on 3PA in this post-season. This came on 59.9% True Shooting Percentage, with 2.8 Win Shares, and a 7.1 Box Plus-Minus. Both the traditional and advanced statistics, along with the all-important eye-test, support that Stephen Curry was the Most Outstanding Player of the 2021–22 NBA Playoffs.