Predicting NBA Award Winners with 6 Weeks Left in the Season
Just a few short weeks separate us from the NBA playoffs. Weeks. Not months. Weeks.
Time sure flies when you're watching between seven and nine teams officially and unofficially fire up the tank, huh?
Anyway, we're going to mourn the imminent end to the regular season the only way we know how: by mourning nothing at all.
Celebrating the clubhouse leaders for every year-end award is a far more constructive use of our time. It ensures we're fixating on stars who made it this far in one piece (#BanInjuries) and is a nice little what-to-watch primer heading into the stretch run.
Every selection accounts for the entire season's body of work. Recent upswings matter, but we will not let them form a decisive bias.
Winners are not just being chosen as if the 2017-18 campaign ended today. We're after candidates who both have earned their respective honor now but also figure to still deserve it when the season actually reaches its conclusion.
Coach of the Year: Dwane Casey, Toronto Raptors
Even Dwane Casey is a little taken aback by this pick. He never lacked conviction in his Toronto Raptors, but as he admitted to ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski on a recent episode of The Woj Pod, he hardly expected 2017-18 to play out like this:
"I wouldn't have doubted it. I would have to say we're pleasantly surprised—not by our veteran players, but mostly by the production of our young guys. To be honest, we didn't really know exactly what we were going to get out of that group. But Masai [Ujiri] and I said that before the season started this is a year we wanted to develop them and play them. So we knew that was going to happen. But I can honestly say I didn't know, for sure, what the results we're going to be—that they we're going to be as productive and cohesive as they are now."
Players monopolize the credit for putting the Raptors where they are: ahead of the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers, atop the Eastern Conference, with the NBA's third-best record and point differential per 100 possessions. That shouldn't change.
Casey isn't headlining Toronto's uber-deep bench mob. He hasn't willed DeMar DeRozan into a respectable three-point shooter. He isn't the linchpin of a work-addicted defense that takes a special, if slightly maniacal, pleasure out of gumming up fast-break attempts.
He is, however, charged with upholding the Raptors' stylistic shift.
They've completely remodeled their shot profile, almost overnight. More than 69 percent of their looks come at the rim or from beyond the arc, up from around 59 percent in 2016-17, according to Cleaning The Glass. They're ninth in possessions used per 48 minutes and 10th in transition frequency, compared to 22nd and 17th, respectively, last year.
This matters. Teams often have to underwrite a coaching change to facilitate stark reinvention. Casey has adjusted and evolved along with his players—right down to his dependence on, and faith in, youngsters and non-starters. The Raptors' second-most used lineup is an all-bench mob spearheaded by four players age 25 or younger, not one of whom has more than three seasons of experience.
Praise the players for their performance. They deserve it. But recognize Casey for his open-mindedness. He's earned it. After all, Toronto joins the Golden State Warriors as the only team to place inside the top five of both offensive and defensive efficiency, so the results speak for themselves.
Runner-up: Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs
Executive of the Year: Daryl Morey, Houston Rockets
Face it: Daryl Morey wrapped up Executive of the Year honors just before free agency, when he flipped role players and spare parts for Chris Paul. But he's been putting a bow on his gift to Texas ever since.
Morey's case still starts with Paul, because it must start with Paul. Capitalizing on the chance to land a top-10 player isn't difficult: If you have the opportunity, you pounce—especially if you're barely touching your nucleus in the process. But the Houston Rockets' offseason coup was not without risk.
Paul turns 32 in May. He's a free agent in July. His fit with James Harden wasn't mindless. They're both accustomed to operating on-ball. If they didn't complement one another, Paul could leave. If they did, would the partnership be worth (potentially) bankrolling an aging Paul's $35.4 million max salary in 2018-19?
Embracing this gamble has served the Rockets well. Paul has missed more than a quarter of the season with various injuries, but the dynamic between he and Harden has come along seamlessly, naturally, as if they were always meant to play with one another.
Paul's three-point-attempt rate has never been higher, his long-two frequency never lower, and Houston is outscoring opponents by 13.0 points per 100 possessions when its two stars share the court. That by itself drags Morey to the front of this discussion. And yet, his magic on the margins has been equally impressive.
Adding Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker has equipped the Rockets to prop up a top-10 defense that thrives in various forms. Both can defend traditional wings, but they're comfortable sliding up to the 4 and 5, unlocking small-ball arrangements that will leave even Golden State with night terrors.
Houston is a plus-17.5 points per 100 possessions, with a league-best defensive rating, whenever these two line up beside one another. In the time they've spent without any bigs on the floor, that differential has more than doubled, climbing to plus-39.3, according to Cleaning The Glass.
Morey hasn't even called it quits since the start of the season. He found an offensive diamond among dregs in Gerald Green. Rounding out the roster with mid-February acquisitions like Joe Johnson and Brandan Wright was a stroke of brilliance.
Don't twist Morey's resume into circumstantial luck. Sure, Paul doesn't force his way to the Rockets if they do not have Harden. But Morey acquired Harden, which has paved the way for everything since—Paul's interest, Mbah a Moute's cheapo deal, interest from the top buyout-market prizes and, of course, Houston's NBA-best record.
Runner-up: Danny Ainge, Boston Celtics
Most Improved Player: Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers
Some people (me) spent the first part of the season waiting for Victor Oladipo to come back down to Earth.
They're still waiting.
Er, strike that. If they posses an iota of self-awareness, they've stopped waiting and accepted Oladipo's stardom as a new normal. Just look at how his averages this year compares to his performance in 2016-17:
- 2016-17: 33.2 minutes, 15.9 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.2 steals, 21.4 usage rate, 53.4 true shooting percentage, 13.6 player efficiency rating
- 2017-18: 34.2 minutes, 24.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 2.1 steals, 30.5 usage rate, 58.8 true shooting percentage, 23.8 PER
Similar playing time. Higher usage. Better efficiency. This isn't rocket science, folks. Even the most seemingly untenable parts of his rise are holding strong.
Oladipo has almost doubled his free-throw-rate. He's hitting on a higher percentage of his pull-up three-pointers than Kevin Durant. He's in the 82nd percentile of isolation efficiency. And the coup de grace: The Indiana Pacers have outscored opponents by 261 total points during his time on the floor—the 19th-best mark from a pool of 509 players.
Roughly 75 percent of the NBA's season is in the books. The time for inevitable cooldowns has long since passed. The flukes have revealed themselves. The facades have faded.
Oladipo is still here, an All-Star by both title and function. And he has an irrevocable chokehold on Most Improved Player fist bumps as a result.
Runner-up: Clint Capela, Houston Rockets
Sixth Man of the Year: Lou Williams, Los Angeles Clippers
Imagine picking someone other than Lou Williams to win Sixth Man of the Year.
Tyreke Evans looked like he could make a run at the second-string crown, but the Memphis Grizzlies' injury-plagued roster and general awfulness forced him into the starting lineup too many times. He's also missed significant time with various issues of his own. (Memphis' quest for top-tier lottery odds might be among them.)
No one else comes close to cracking this conversation. Pitting the rest of the league's premier bench contributors against Williams is almost unfair. He's clearing 23 points and five assists per game while splashing in more than 37 percent of his threes—numbers matched by just Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker.
Williams' superstar company is no accident. He's scoring as marquee talents do.
He's averaging 1.13 points per possession in isolation situations, which ties him for the third-best mark among 79 players with at least 50 such plays to their name, trailing only Harden and Chris Paul. His free-throw frequency ranks eighth among the 40 players with usage rates of 25 or higher.
This isn't a matter of Williams distinguishing himself from other backups. Nor is this specifically about his value to the Los Angeles Clippers, who see their offensive rating plunge by a team-high (non-Boban division) 7.4 points when he's on the bench.
Williams has done too much to be viewed in these constrictive terms. He's not just the Sixth Man of the Year. He's one of the Association's most important cogs, period.
In fact, according to NBA Math's Total Points Added, only eight players have been more valuable at the offensive end all season.
Runner-Up: Eric Gordon, Houston Rockets
Defensive Player of the Year: Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
Defensive Player of the Year debates tend to get unnecessarily hairy. The choice isn't hard here. Joel Embiid is the clear pick. There shouldn't be much of a pull to select anyone else.
Rudy Gobert is anchoring the league's top defense since returning to the Utah Jazz's rotation, but he'll barely squeak past the 50-appearance threshold by season's end—and that's assuming he doesn't miss any more time.
Draymond Green hasn't been as feisty around the rim or in transition to repeat as the NBA's chief stopper. Kawhi Leonard is nowhere to be found. Paul George's case dissipated with Andre Roberson's injury. Looping in Kevin Durant gets too cute.
Al Horford is pretty much the only other player with a genuine case, as the switchy fulcrum for this season's best defense. But he's more the wearer of many hats than a truly dominant stopper. The Celtics' defensive rating goes unchanged during his time off the court, and rival offenses are faring better after a live rebound when he's in the game, per Cleaning The Glass.
Embiid, unlike his most direct competitors, checks all the necessary boxes.
A legitimate deterrent? Check. Embiid holds opponents to 53.7 percent shooting at the rim, the fourth-best mark among 98 players who've challenged at least 150 point-blank opportunities. Enemy offenses collectively shoot 5.1 percentage points worse around the hoop when he's jumping center, according to Cleaning The Glass.
More than just a rim protector? Check. Embiid has defended more isolations than LeBron James and Klay Thompson. Large enough sample size? Check again. He has already eclipsed the 1,500-minute plateau and, to date, missed fewer than 15 games.
Let's not try outsmarting the process (pun intended). Embiid is the Defensive Player of the Year, with room to spare.
Runner-up: Al Horford, Boston Celltics
Rookie of the Year: Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
Despite Donovan Mitchell's best efforts, Ben Simmons has not ceded the Rookie of the Year throne. And while things can change down the stretch, we shouldn't bet on it.
Mitchell has earned heaps of praise for effectively running his own team—and justifiably so. The offense sniffs top-12 output when he plays without Ricky Rubio, and he's pacing the Jazz's everyday rotation players in usage while toppling 21 points per 36 minutes.
Assuming a cornerstone's volume essentially out of the gate has not compromised his efficiency. His true shooting percentage (54.3) falls short of the league average (55.7), but that's typical rookie stuff. Besides, only one player has ever matched his usage and catch-all marksmanship as a newbie: Michael Jordan.
Simmons gets the nod anyway.
Stances to the contrary take his efforts for granted. He isn't a threat from outside, and his free-throw accuracy is Smack-a-Simmons abysmal (56.8 percent). But he's entrenched himself as one of the NBA's most dynamic offensive players even with his limitations.
Stephen Curry, James Harden and LeBron James are the only other players exceeding 17 points and seven assists per 36 minutes while shooting 50 percent or better inside the arc. Simmons leverages his vision off the bounce into unpredictability defenses cannot plan around. They're free to sag off his person on face-ups, but he has the gait to blow past his man after one or two dribbles and the size, at 6'10", to finish over thickets of arms around the hoop.
Developing a reliable floater and back-to-the-basket arsenal will be pivotal to his progression absent any range from the perimeter. For now, it doesn't matter. More than half of his looks come inside the restricted area, from where he's shooting almost 70 percent—distribution and efficiency that keep his overall shooting percentages afloat.
Citing Simmons' dependence on Joel Embiid no longer succeeds in derailing his case. The Sixers are a net plus per 100 possessions in the 328 minutes he has played without his All-Star running mate since the turn of the calendar. He's starting to find his own way, and the Rookie of the Year race remains his to lose because of it.
Runner-up: Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz
MVP: James Harden, Houston Rockets
Basketball-Reference's MVP probability meter gives James Harden close to a 67 percent chance of taking home the Maurice Podoloff Trophy. No one else is awarded even a 9 percent shot in the dark.
To be honest, though, the MVP sweepstakes don't always feel this lopsided.
Stephen Curry is, despite what Kevin Durant's supporters say, the most indispensable player on perhaps the scariest team ever assembled. Anthony Davis has single-handedly ferried the New Orleans Pelicans within grasp of a top-four playoff seed.
LeBron James is still doing things. Giannis Antetokounmpo isn't any less of an alien. Russell Westbrook is flirting with another season-long triple-double. Jimmy Butler looked the part of a dark-horse candidate before his meniscus injury.
Indeed, it seems like this race should be more wide-open. But, at least for the time being, it's not.
"Harden is the best player on the team with the best record in the NBA," The Ringer's Jonathan Tjarks wrote. "The Warriors may be slacking in the regular season, but leading the Rockets to a better record is still really impressive. Harden is an offensive machine whose ability to carry an absolutely massive load on a nightly basis shouldn’t be overlooked."
Spending time next to Chris Paul has not appreciably lifted the burden upon Harden's shoulders. He owns the NBA's highest usage rate by a comfortable margin yet is notching the second-best true shooting percentage of his career. He leads the league in scoring, PER and win shares. He's third in assists per game. He's logged more time without Paul than Curry has without Durant and Davis has without DeMarcus Cousins—a 1,199-minute stretch through which the Rockets continue to post a dominant net rating.
Harden's individual defense has even improved a tick. He's holding opponents to sub-32 percent shooting in isolation and generally displaying more engagement in the half-court.
Houston may not end up with the NBA's best record. It doesn't need to. Harden has done enough, both on his own and with Paul, to get over the MVP hump. It'll take a development of epic proportions in the coming weeks to change that.
Runner-up: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors