Year-end NBA awards are not doled out by conference, but that's all about to change.
Hypothetically, of course.
Rather than choosing one winner for every major honor, we're going to select two—the most deserving candidate from each of the Eastern and Western Conferences. After all, why turn down the opportunity to recognize more than one individual in every category for a standout season?
Coach of the Year
Eastern Conference: Brad Stevens, Boston Celtics
What Brad Stevens has done as head coach of the Boston Celtics is nothing short of spectacular.
Team president Danny Ainge has hoarded picks and prospects in hopes of trading for a superstar, but Boston still doesn't have that superstar. Stevens has guided the Celtics to the Eastern Conference's third-best record anyway.
His positionless lineups are innovative and effective, and he uses rangy wings to perfection. Avery Bradley is having a career offensive season, Jae Crowder should have been an All-Star, and Evan Turner looks like an actual NBA talent.
Few teams have forged the type of balance Stevens has struck in Boston—one team to be exact. The Golden State Warriors and Celtics are the only two squads that rank in the top 10 of offensive efficiency, defensive efficiency and pace.
If this is what Stevens can do without a superstar, imagine what he could do once Ainge gets him Al Horford an All-Star other than Isaiah Thomas.
Western Conference: Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs
There is no other pick. Gregg Popovich has snagged Coach of the Year honors three times and is in line for an NBA-record fourth nod.
At a time when the Warriors, who are on pace to win 75 or 76 games, should have no peers, the San Antonio Spurs keep hanging around. Yes, Golden State trounced San Antonio by 30 points on Jan. 25. But that's one game, and the Spurs have absolutely obliterated the competition at large—including the Warriors.
Basketball-Reference.com uses Simple Rating System (SRS) to rank teams according to point differential and strength of schedule. Not only do the Spurs grade out better than the Warriors using this metric, but they're on pace for the highest SRS score ever:
Popovich has steered the Spurs here, beside and in some cases above the Warriors, despite extensive absences from Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili—all while integrating LaMarcus Aldridge, who is the first Spur since 1998-99 (minimum 1,000 minutes played) not named Tim, Manu or Tony (Parker) to lead the team in usage rate.
This award isn't just Coach Pop's to lose. It's about to be named after him.
Defensive Player of the Year
Eastern Conference: Ian Mahinmi, Indiana Pacers
Sincere apologies to Hassan Whiteside. But Ian Mahinmi has been a defensive beast.
The Indiana Pacers' second-ranked defense allows 3.4 points per 100 possessions less when Mahinmi is in the game, and he is limiting conversions at the rim with respectable frequency. His post-up defense is statistically superior to Duncan's—not to mention every single player in the East who has guarded against at least 75 such possessions.
Nothing Mahinmi does is flashy. He averages a modest one block per game and barely plays starter minutes. He's nevertheless the most valuable defensive asset for one of the NBA's stingiest teams.
Western Conference: Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
Draymond Green remains the frontman for a Warriors defense that thrives using size-slighting combinations. Without him on the roster, Golden State cannot toss five shooters on the floor.
But reigning Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard guards opponents with unparalleled aggression. He paces the NBA in defensive win shares, and rival shooters are converting less than 40 percent of their field-goal attempts against him.
Paul Millsap is the only other qualified player averaging at least two steals and one block per 36 minutes, and Leonard is a significant defensive plus for one of the best points-preventing squads since Bill Russell's Celtics.
Leonard should be considered the prohibitive favorite to grab league-wide Defensive Player of the Year honors, so there isn't even a discussion to be had on a Western Conference scale.
Most Improved Player
Eastern Conference: Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
Superstars aren't supposed to win Most Improved Player dap. But we're taking the objective route and using the Total Points Added (TPA) metric—which shows how many more points a player contributes compared to the average guy—as our guide.
Here's Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal with the biggest projected TPA differentials between last season and now:
Kyle. Freaking. Lowry.
The Toronto Raptors point guard, already an All-Star before this season, has experienced career-high jumps in just about every statistical category. His player efficiency rating has soared by more than three points, and he's already surpassed his 2014-15 win-share total with 30 games left to play.
Lowry is also just the third player in NBA history to clear 20 points, six assists and two steals per game while shooting 39 percent or better from long range. His statistical brethren? Larry Bird and Stephen Curry.
Western Conference: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Come hither, kind readers. Don't be scared. The defending league MVP is the Western Conference's Most Improved Player, and that's OK.
Curry has taken his game—circus-handle and -shot showcases included—to new heights. He tops the NBA in scoring and is torching twine with unprecedented efficiency. He has the second-highest effective field-goal percentage in league history among every player to attempt at least 800 shots.
That's patently ridiculous. Wilt Chamberlain holds the record, and he didn't have the three-point line to bog down his overall shooting percentages. Curry is averaging more three-point attempts than two-point looks.
Curry has built himself an ironclad case. Of course, he won't generate actual Most Improved Player recognition (shoutout Will Barton or C.J. McCollum) because he's a star. Objectively, though, there's no one who rivals his improvement.
Rookie of the Year
Eastern Conference: Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks
Can you name every NBA rookie who has ever averaged 15 points and two blocks per 36 minutes while also putting down at least 20 three-pointers?
There's Kristaps Porzingis and, um, yeah. That's it.
Porzingis ranks in the top three of rookie PER and win shares and has quickly infused optimism into an oft-hopeless New York Knicks franchise. No Eastern Conference newbie even comes remotely close to matching his current value.
Western Conference: Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves
Karl-Anthony Towns is dominating general Rookie of the Year discussions for a good reason.
He is first in PER and win shares among NBA newcomers and has already attached himself to present-day stars. Anthony Davis is the only other player averaging 20 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks per 36 minutes this season.
“He’s very skilled, very talented,” Davis said of Towns, per the Pioneer Press' Andy Greder. “He can shoot the ball, handle it, rebound, post up. He’s got an all-around game.”
Not surprisingly, the world agrees. Towns finished sixth in Kevin Pelton's trade-value rankings for ESPN.com, beating out more established All-Stars such as Kevin Durant, James Harden and LeBron James, among others.
Sixth Man of the Year
Eastern Conference: Kelly Olynyk, Boston Celtics
Kelly Olynyk is having a subtly dominant season. It's because of him Stevens is able to experiment with five-out lineups that stretch defenses beyond function. His 7'0" frame lets him spend time at the 4 and 5 slots, and his 41.3 percent clip from downtown is enough to neutralize wandering defenders.
And if nothing else, any big man who can move like this, even if it's against the Sacramento Kings defense, deserves some textual love:
Olynyk leads all Celtics who have played at least 10 minutes in net rating. He has collected more win shares than any other Eastern Conference reserve, and his rim-protection numbers are better than those of Detroit Pistons All-Star center Andre Drummond.
Though his per-game stats are pared down by second-string playing time, his per-36-minute splits are just nasty. He is one of three players going for 18 points, two assists and one block per 36 ticks while swishing 35 percent of their triples.
Durant and Leonard are the other two.
Western Conference: Will Barton, Denver Nuggets
Will Barton didn't need to win All-Star Weekend's Slam Dunk Contest to prove he's not of this planet. He reminds us of his extraterrestrial descent almost nightly.
Exhibit A, via Michael Gallagher of NBC Sports:
Barton is so much more than just flash, though. He is second on the Denver Nuggets in win shares, third in usage rate and fourth in PER. His per-game production is also quite ridiculous.
Below you'll find the list of players who are reaching 15 points, six rebounds and two assists per game and knocking down 38 percent or more of their treys:
- Kevin Durant
- Paul George
- Kawhi Leonard
[Insert melodramatic pause.]
- Will Barton
It's safe to say the Nuggets won that Arron Afflalo trade from last February, right?
Most Valuable Player
Eastern Conference: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
Painting LeBron James' 2015-16 campaign in a negative light is not difficult.
As ESPN Stats & Info pointed out:
Still, while James' perimeter accuracy has cratered, he remains irrevocably important to the Cleveland Cavaliers—MVP-level important.
When he's in the lineup, the Cavaliers are outscoring opponents by 11.2 points per 100 possessions. That's akin to a top-three net rating. When he steps off, Cleveland is a minus-6.2—a differential nearly identical to the Phoenix Suns' 27th-ranked minus-6.4.
Hence why James is the only Eastern Conference player who appears in the top seven of Basketball-Reference.com's MVP probability tracker.
Western Conference: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Double-dipping is allowed.
The Western Conference's Most Improved Player is also its most valuable. Curry is the NBA's most valuable superhuman, period. And it's not even kind of close.
It's borderline futile to rattle off his statistical prowess. It's cool that he's shattering the league's record for offensive box plus-minus. And it's mind-boggling that he's the only player other than Michael Jordan to average 29 points, six assists and two steals per game on 50 percent shooting.
But Curry's play knows no comparison. No one else has routinely relied on three-pointers to this extent. No one has mixed his outside prowess with his footwork and handles and X-ray court vision. He is an amalgam of stylistic anomalies, and it's becoming exceedingly tough, if not impossible, to properly contextualize or measure his worth.
All we do know is that he's most definitely more valuable than anyone else in the league:
Basketball-Reference.com's MVP tracker gives Curry a 70-plus percent chance of taking home the Maurice Podoloff Trophy for a second straight year. Russell Westbrook is his next-closest "competitor," with sub-9 percent odds.
Mix in the best PER the Association has ever seen, and Curry has gone from a reigning MVP to one of the most valuable players in league history.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @danfavale.