Handing Out Awards for Every NBA Team
With the 2017-18 NBA season finished, it's time to get congratulatory.
We'll honor each team's MVP, Defensive Player of the Year and Best Newcomer/Biggest Surprise—plus a team-specific award to cover any worthy parties that didn't quite make it into one of the other three categories. And if you're wondering, yes, that approach is entirely motivated by a desire to give Manu Ginobili special recognition.
Stats are paramount, but there'll still be room for considerations beyond the numbers.
Most awards will go to players, but where especially deserving, we'll consider coaches as candidates. In the rare instances where a team was so bad that nobody warrants hardware, we'll withhold it.
It's important not to encourage participation-trophy culture.
Stats accurate through games played Wednesday, April 11.
MVP: Dennis Schroder
There's a very real statistical case to be made that rookie John Collins was the Atlanta Hawks' best player this year. He topped the team in Value Over Replacement (VORP), box plus-minus, PER and win shares. But Atlanta was just 3-12 in games Dennis Schroder didn't play, and though the point guard wasn't particularly efficient offensively, he still led the team in scoring and assists.
DPOY: Dewayne Dedmon
Dedmon narrowly trailed Collins in defensive box plus-minus but led Atlanta in ESPN's Defensive Real Plus-Minus metric. Collins' block rate was better, but Dedmon outperformed the rookie on the glass, leading the Hawks in defensive rebound rate. This one's tough, and Collins played more games than Dedmon, which helps his case. Ultimately, Collins, a rookie, was a bit more prone to predictable mistakes like missed rotations and half-step-late reactions. He should develop into a difference-maker on D, but Dedmon, the vet, has him beat for now.
Best Newcomer: John Collins
We had to give the guy something.
Collins turned in several highlight dunks and blocks, leveraging his quick-bounce springs and length to great effect. As you can tell from the previous sections, the numbers like him, too. In Collins, Atlanta has a potential cornerstone.
Something's Brewing Award: Taurean Prince
He's a suspect ball-handler who probably shouldn't have run as many pick-and-rolls as he did down the stretch of Atlanta's lost season, but Taurean Prince's late-year scoring surge opened some eyes. Tasked with a larger role, Prince averaged 19.4 points per game and shot 41.4 percent from deep (on 7.9 attempts per game) in March.
If any of that is sustainable, and Prince's defense comes along for the ride, the Hawks have a great option on the wing next year.
MVP: Al Horford
Kyrie Irving is Boston's most explosive, skilled and effective offensive player. A shot-creator with few peers, Irving's handle, stroke and unparalleled creativity make him a bucket-getting superstar. The overarching metrics like him; he ranks first on the Celtics in VORP, win shares and several other catch-alls.
Al Horford is more valuable because of his defensive importance to a unit that has ranked among the league's best all year. His veteran leadership and willingness to contribute on the margins are vital to Boston's culture. Notably, the Celtics' on-off net rating takes a bigger hit when he sits down than it does when Irving isn't on the floor—despite the fact that Irving's backups, chiefly Terry Rozier, are better than Horford's.
This isn't a knock on Irving. He's awesome. Horford is more valuable.
DPOY: Al Horford
We laid out most of the case for this award above, but here's more on what makes Horford so integral to Boston's scheme from NBA.com's David Aldridge: "His ability to defend in space and not be a liability if he has to switch on pick-and-rolls is incredibly important for Boston, as is his communication as the quarterback of the unit. I don't think fans understand how important talking is on defense."
Biggest Surprise: Jayson Tatum
Tatum endured a small shooting slump but has hit at least 39 percent of his threes in all but one month of the season while expanding his playmaking duties in Irving's absence.
Can't Do Irving Like That Award: Kyrie Irving
Anyone who thinks Irving was Boston's MVP this year has a fine case. He would have been the best newcomer if we'd opted for that category, too. Basically, we had to do something with our wild-card section to acknowledge how terrific Irving has been. Career highs in true shooting, usage and even defensive box plus-minus mark 2017-18 as Irving's best season yet. Here's hoping he fully recovers from this latest knee surgery and gets even better next year.
MVP: Spencer Dinwiddie
Dinwiddie might have sewn this one up in January, when he hit three game-winners and led the Brooklyn Nets to their most successful month of the season.
"He's meant everything, really," Quincy Acy told James Herbert of CBS Sports at the time. "He's been key to our success, in our successful games. He was thrown into a big role and he answered it better than anyone could ever hope for."
Dinwiddie cooled off after the All-Star break, but he finished the year second on Brooklyn in net rating (among Nets who played at least 1,000 minutes). He finished first in box plus-minus, VORP and, if you're into them, assists.
DPOY: DeMarre Carroll
Jarrett Allen had some highlight blocks (and led the team in that stat by a mile), but DeMarre Carroll gets the nod here. Though lacking the quickness of fellow reputed stopper Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Caroll graded out as Brooklyn's top defender by DRPM and saw plenty of time matched up against the opponent's best wing.
Biggest Surprise: Dinwiddie
In Dinwiddie's first two years, he played just 46 games with the Detroit Pistons, got traded to the Chicago Bulls and then...waived.
He was effectively out of the NBA before Brooklyn signed him to a minimum deal in 2016, which makes his ascent this season truly remarkable.
Good Process Award: Brooklyn's Shot Selection
The Nets' three-point frequency ranked second only to the Houston Rockets' this year. Brooklyn's offense wasn't any good this season, but it hunted the right shots. Once they've got better personnel taking them, the Nets will be in business.
MVP: Kemba Walker
This isn't even a discussion. Walker led the Charlotte Hornets in total points, assists and steals while hitting more threes than any two teammates combined. Whenever he left the floor, Charlotte's scoring withered, slipping to a level that would have ranked below the Phoenix Suns' 30th-ranked offensive rating. The Hornets were disappointing this year with Walker. Without him, they would have been a disaster.
DPOY: Dwight Howard
Charlotte's leader in blocks, Howard also ranked fourth in the entire NBA in defensive rebounds, grabbing more than everyone but Andre Drummond, DeAndre Jordan and Karl-Anthony Towns.
Biggest Surprise: Malik Monk
...and not in a good way.
Monk had his moments early, scoring in double figures in four of his first eight contests and putting up 18 fourth-quarter points to lead the Hornets past the Bucks on Nov. 1. But then he just sort of...disappeared. Out of the rotation for months, Monk finally started seeing time again in March as Charlotte's playoff hopes evaporated. For a team that desperately needed capable guard play behind Walker, Monk's flop really stung.
Better Bring It Next Year Award: Nicolas Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marvin Williams
All three are under contract for big money next year ($51 million combined), and all three will have to perform better than they did in a collectively underwhelming 2017-18. Charlotte is stuck with this roster barring an unlikely teardown, so improvement has to come from within.
MVP: Nikola Mirotic
I don't want to hear about how Mirotic played his last game for the Bulls in January or how he didn't even suit up until December. Chicago immediately went on a seven-game winning streak when he returned from a facial fracture (thanks, Bobby Portis!), and his 25-game stint with the team produced 14 victories. For a club that won just 27 times all year, that has to count as valuable.
The Bulls were absolutely awful all season, except for the two months Mirotic was on the floor. You do the math.
DPOY: Kris Dunn
Dunn only played 52 games, but his on-ball tenacity and length in the passing lanes (he led Chicago in steals handily despite missing those 30 contests) made him a standout on D. Though much was made about Dunn reaching offensive competency at times this season, his defense is the real reason he's going to stick as a pro. Dunn has legitimate All-Defensive Team potential.
Best Newcomer: Lauri Markkanen
David Nwaba was a fun surprise—carving out rotation minutes with activity, athleticism and defensive effort—but it's Markkanen who most impressed in his Bulls debut. He was the fastest rookie to hit 100 threes in a season and showed flashes of an off-the-bounce game...as long as he was going left. With added strength and a better understanding of positioning, he could become passable defensively at the 5. And with that stroke, passable defense will be more than enough to approach stardom.
Patience of a Saint Award: Robin Lopez
Whether boxing out relentlessly so his teammates could secure defensive rebounds or accepting a benching solely so the Bulls could lose more games, Robin Lopez soldiered through a bitter season with a go-nowhere team and only erupted in an expletive-laden, ejection-inducing tirade twice.
That is the restraint of a true professional. Most vets in Lopez's situation would have blown their stacks once a week.
MVP: LeBron James
Were you expecting an argument for Cedi Osman?
James didn't make an effort on defense for most of the season, but he was reliably fantastic at everything else. He averaged career highs in assists and rebounds, made more threes than ever before and led the league in total points, field goals and minutes, all at age 33. He deserves to finish no lower than second in MVP voting for the entire NBA, which is more than enough to earn him the team-specific honor.
For the second year in a row, we abstain. Cleveland's defense has been dreadful all season, largely the result of James setting a "no accountability" tone on that end. If anyone on the Cavs defended well for more than a few possessions in a row, it was probably an accident.
Best Newcomer: Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood, George Hill and Larry Nance, Jr.
This four-way tie is really just an excuse to discuss the desperately needed roster refreshment Cleveland achieved at the trade deadline. Though none of the Cavs' four major additions blew the doors off (Nance probably made the biggest impact as a capable defender and lob-catcher), they collectively represented a reboot. The Cavs were circling the drain with their pre-deadline roster. These newcomers changed the tenor of the season.
Old Reliable Award: Kyle Korver
Eight players logged at least 1,000 minutes for the Cavs this year, and Korver's on-court net rating was the highest in that group. Cleveland always defended better when he played, and in a season marred by irresponsibility and lackadaisical effort, Korver was a pillar of professionalism. Among players who attempted at least 300 triples, only Otto Porter, Klay Thompson and Joe Ingles were more accurate than Korver from deep.
Kyle Korver: a man you can count on.
MVP: Harrison Barnes
When you're a bad team, a guy who can give you a whole lot of marginally positive minutes is nothing to take for granted. Barnes led the Mavs in points and rebounds per game, posting a PER just a hair above the league average. He spent more time at small forward in the second half and seemed to benefit. Both his three-point accuracy and scoring volume increased after the All-Star break.
DPOY: Dwight Powell played more than twice as many minutes as Salah Mejri, which you'd think would swing this award in Powell's favor. Both Mavs bigs finished among the top 30 in DRPM, but Dallas' defensive rating actually got better when Mejri was on the floor. That wasn't true for Powell, which hurts his case. The Mavericks didn't play great D this season, but Mejri's block and rebound rates (both tops among Mavericks regulars) earn him the nod.
Best Newcomer: Dennis Smith, Jr.
Because of the neat dunks!
And definitely not because of the lowest effective field-goal percentage in the league among players who took at least 1,000 shots!
Rage Against the Dying of the Light Award: Dirk Nowitzki
In his age-39 season, Nowitzki averaged 17.6 points and 8.3 rebounds per 36 minutes while posting the second-highest effective field-goal percentage of his career. No, he couldn't move on defense. And no, he probably won't get any more mobile when he returns for a 21st season (following ankle surgery). But who cares?
MVP: Nikola Jokic
Only two players in Basketball Reference's database have ever averaged 18 points, 10 rebounds and six assists while making at least one three-pointer per game. Russell Westbrook did it while winning last season's MVP award...and Nikola Jokic, this year. Jokic can't touch that Westbrook season in terms of volume or usage, but it's worth noting he was more efficient from the field, foul line and three-point arc.
Jokic was the hub of a very good Denver offense. Already one of the greatest passing bigs of all time, he also became a more willing shooter from deep after the break.
Denver is 102-36 when hosting a team playing the second leg of a back-to-back set, and its defensive rating is roughly five points better at home than on the road. There's not much mystery here: When the Nuggets get stops, it's usually because the other team is sucking wind.
Paul Millsap's DRPM was solid, and Nikola Jokic graded out as a positive by that same metric, but when you spend all year in the bottom third and rate among the bottom five on D after the All-Star break, it's tough to give the nod to any individual defender. So we didn't.
Best Newcomer: Paul Millsap
Trey Lyles proved he could be a rotation weapon in his first season with the Nuggets, even if he'll never make Denver the winner of the trade that brought him over from Utah for Donovan Mitchell. But it's Millsap who easily earns this award. He missed nearly 50 games but was a steadying force during the Nugs' strong stretch run, and Denver performed better on both ends whenever the veteran forward was on the floor.
Loud and Clear Award: Mike Malone
When Malone benched a listless Jokic in the fourth quarter of a dispiriting loss to the Mavs on March 6, he did it to send a message: Substandard effort wouldn't be tolerated from anyone, star or otherwise. Jokic responded by going on a tear in his final 18 games, showing sustained aggression during what has to count as the best stretch of his career.
MVP: Andre Drummond
Drummond led the Pistons in points, rebounds, steals and blocks while also finishing second to Ish Smith in total assists. Newly installed as an offensive hub at the elbow, Drummond showed he could be a facilitator while also excising empty post-up possessions from his game.
After never hitting better than 41.8 percent in a season, Drummond finished 2017-18 above the 60 percent threshold from the foul line.
Eric Moreland actually topped Drummond in defensive box plus-minus...in about a third of Drummond's minutes. The volume gives Drummond a massive advantage here. Though not a superstar on D (finished outside the top 30 among centers in DRPM), he comfortably meant the most to Detroit's play on that end.
Biggest Surprise: Reggie Bullock
It was dicey there for a couple of years, but Reggie Bullock established himself as a rotation NBA player with the Pistons. Taking more than half his shots from beyond the arc, the fifth-year guard hit 44.5 percent from that range. At 11.3 points per game, Bullock more than doubled his previous career best.
Face of the Franchise Award: Blake Griffin
It's not Blake Griffin's fault the Clippers heaped a bunch of money on him. And it's not his fault the Pistons decided they were fine taking on that contract (and the remaining $142.3 million over the next four years). But that doesn't change the fact that he's the symbol of Detroit's commitment to a desperate, win-now approach—one that doesn't fit schematically with the new version of Drummond, for what it's worth.
The Pistons will be half-decent and extremely expensive for a long time.
Golden State Warriors
MVP: Stephen Curry
The Warriors' net rating was plus-14.7 with Curry on the floor, a figure that would have led the league by a mile. In games he didn't play (and there were a troubling 31 such instances, which is the only reason anyone would consider an alternative for this award), the Dubs went just 17-14.
In terms of effective field-goal percentage, only Curry's unanimous MVP season was better than what he did this year. And thanks to a personal-best free-throw attempt rate, he actually set a new career high in true shooting percentage.
Short of LeBron James, Curry means more to his team's success than anyone else in the league. This year showed it as starkly as ever: The Warriors are a title threat with Steph on the floor. Without him, they aren't.
DPOY: Draymond Green
David West finished second only to Rudy Gobert in DRPM, which is shocking...but also a good reminder that one statistic doesn't always give enough information to make a decision. West's minute total was less than half of Green's. And though Green unquestionably slipped on D this year, he finished in the top 20 in DRPM while helping the Warriors knock about a point off their defensive rating whenever he was on the floor.
Though his performance didn't reach the levels he established in his three prior seasons, Green remained integral to Golden State's defensive scheme. His ability to guard all five positions, rebound in traffic and communicate from the back line continues to make him a valuable, versatile defensive weapon—one, the Warriors hope, who will focus up in the playoffs.
Best Newcomer: Quinn Cook
Cook did a pretty good Curry impression when pressed into duty down the stretch, providing valuable floor-spacing at the point in ways Shaun Livingston couldn't. One of the open secrets of this Warriors season was a distinct lack of shooting outside of Curry, Klay Thompson and Durant. Cook provided some, and the former two-way G League signee earned a guaranteed deal for his trouble.
Ominous Signs Award: Andre Iguodala
Iguodala played just 64 games, shot under 30 percent from deep for the first time in his career and posted a steal rate of 1.6 percent that was also the lowest of his 14 NBA seasons. Those indicators of decline are normal for a veteran like Iguodala, but they're concerning for the Warriors, who still rely on his defense and leadership in their biggest moments.
MVP: James Harden
When you're a lock to win the award for the league, it's a safe bet you'll also be your team's MVP. Harden led the NBA in scoring and became the first player to ever average at least 10 attempts from the foul line and from beyond the arc. He was an efficiency monster who destroyed opponents in isolation and spearheaded the Rockets' elite attack.
DPOY: Clint Capela
The Rockets' switch-everything approach produced a top-10 defense for several reasons, but it's hard to imagine that success without Capela holding his own against ball-handlers and protecting the lane as a help defender. Chris Paul, Luc Mbah a Moute and PJ Tucker were also integral to Houston's defensive emergence, and the fact that we have several options to choose from says more about the Rockets' growth on that end than anything else.
Best Newcomer: Chris Paul
CP3 lost time to various injuries this year, but there's no credible case to make that Tucker, Mbah a Moute or any other first-year Rocket was more valuable. Paul drastically upped his three-point-attempt rate, hit his patented elbow jumpers when necessary and produced zero friction with Harden. His on-off net rating splits were even bigger (in the positive direction) than Harden's.
Resuscitated Isolation Award: Paul and Harden
Harden and Paul isolated on a higher percentage of their possessions than anyone else in the league this year. They also ranked first and second in points per possession on those isos. By spreading the floor and leaning on two elite one-on-one attackers (who also happen to be among the best passers in the league, so don't send a second defender, or else...), Houston brought back isolation basketball.
Whether that's a good thing from an aesthetics perspective is debatable, but it sure was effective.
MVP: Victor Oladipo
Oladipo broke out in 2017-18, flashing a newfound willingness to fire away from long range off the dribble and proving his mettle as an end-of-game orchestrator in the pick-and-roll. He'll win the Most Improved Player award in a landslide after vaulting into legitimate All-NBA territory in his first season with the Pacers.
The league leader in steals per game, Oladipo thrived as a roamer. Generally assigned to a weaker opponent so he could float around off the ball and cause chaos, Oladipo darted all over the floor and mucked up the other team's offensive sets all season. He and Thaddeus Young both ranked in the top five in deflections per game.
Biggest Surprise/Best Newcomer: Oladipo
Nobody saw this coming. Oladipo's four-year, $84 million contract seemed like an overpay, and he (along with Domantas Sabonis) was viewed as a paltry return for Paul George. After getting into terrific offseason shape, Oladipo went out and put together a better year than George did with Oklahoma City. So with apologies to new Pacers Sabonis, Cory Joseph and Darren Collison, Oladipo has to win this hybrid award, too.
The Victor Oladipo Did Not Win This Award Award: Bojan Bogdanovic
The best three-point shooter you never notice, Bogdanovic managed to stay above 40 percent from deep despite having to guard tougher assignments than his skills warranted. He did what he could to allow Oladipo to play free safety, and Indiana's defense was better with him than without him.
Los Angeles Clippers
MVP: Lou Williams
Williams kept the Clippers alive after Blake Griffin got hurt, averaging 25.2 points per game in December and 28.2 in January. He'll win Sixth Man of the Year going away and was Los Angeles' most consistent source of offense. Without him stepping into a top-option role, there's no way the Clippers would have stuck around the playoff race until the final week of the season.
DPOY: DeAndre Jordan
L.A. was about three points per 100 possessions worse on D when Jordan played, which probably has a lot of longtime skeptics of D.J.'s defensive value nodding knowingly. But look at the other potential options. Aside from Jordan, only Wesley Johnson, Montrezl Harrell, Sam Dekker, Sindarius Thornwell and Williams played at least 70 games for the Clippers.
There may be a case for Thornwell, who topped Jordan in DRPM and narrowly trailed him in defensive box plus-minus. But I'm not ready to say a shooting guard is more defensively valuable than a big man when the advanced metrics are similar. Even if he's overrated, Jordan still has a reputation on D, and his presence on the floor assured strong defensive rebounding.
Best Newcomer: Montrezl Harrell
Boundless energy, out-of-nowhere development as a face-up attacker and the highest PER of any Clippers regular (not a perfect stat, but hey, it's something) made Harrell much more than a throw-in in the Chris Paul deal.
Maybe Next Year Award: Danilo Gallinari
Gallo's first year with the Clips never really got going. Plagued by glute and hand injuries, he logged just 21 games. An injury-hit season is nothing new for Gallinari, and at 29, it will only get harder for him to stay healthy. L.A. owes him $44.2 million over the next two seasons.
Los Angeles Lakers
MVP: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
If you're into counting stats, you're stunned Julius Randle didn't win this award. But Randle's turnover rate was higher than his assist rate, he trailed KCP in RPM, and it really, really felt like he was hunting stats with free agency looming.
Caldwell-Pope shot the lights out from deep, led the Lakers in steals and defended the opponent's best wing every night. If you're struggling to figure out how a team with so many plodding vets and inexperienced kids managed to play average defense, start with KCP.
DPOY: Lonzo Ball
Ball finished second in the league among point guards in DRPM, collected a team-high 1.7 steals per game and helped the Lakers to a 104.1 defensive rating when he was on the floor. No one who logged at least 1,000 minutes for L.A. bested that mark.
Biggest Surprise: Kyle Kuzma
I guess Kuzma's play wasn't quite as surprising to anyone who saw the breakthrough beginning in summer league, but it's still remarkable that a late first-rounder with a middling offensive profile came into the league firing (and hitting) like this. Kuzma showed terrific footwork, high-volume three-point shooting and a natural scoring touch.
Phase Two Complete Award: Brandon Ingram
Ingram shot it at 39 percent from long range (albeit on a paltry 1.8 attempts per game) improved dramatically as a passer, got to the foul line more often and generally looked like a quality rotation option in his age-20 season.
It was hard to see superstar upside in Ingram's rookie campaign, and it's still unlikely he reaches that level. But the growth he displayed in his second year, if sustained, suggested a few All-Star games could be in his future.
MVP: Marc Gasol
If Tyreke Evans had played 65 games instead of 52, he would have been the Grizzlies MVP. Not to take anything away from Evans, who had a terrific (if abbreviated) comeback season, but the fact that he had a chance to be Memphis' most valuable player says everything about how ugly things got for these guys.
Gasol, despite massive slippage on defense, takes the honor. He led Memphis in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and made free throws while becoming just the third player to ever accumulate 300 assists, 100 blocks and 100 made threes in a season, which has to count for something.
Even if he wasn't as focused or impactful on D as he used to be, Gasol was still the signal-caller and anchor of a defense that ranked in the top 10 before Mike Conley's injury started a chain reaction of devastation that destroyed Memphis' season.
Biggest Surprise: Tyreke Evans
Among players to average at least 19 points, five rebounds and five assists, only Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry bettered Evans' conversion rate of 39.9 percent from long distance. It was his most productive and efficient season since winning Rookie of the Year in 2009-10.
When Will the Hurting Stop? Award: Chandler Parsons
This could have gone to Conley, who played a dozen games because of heel/Achilles issues and is not looking like a strong value with four years left on his $153 million contract. Parsons, though, played fewer than 40 games for the second straight year. He shot 42.1 percent from deep, which was a massive improvement over his similarly lost 2016-17. Nobody needs a cost-controlled lottery pick like the cap-strapped and injury-riddled Grizzlies.
MVP: Josh Richardson
Richardson was only the Heat's fourth-leading scorer (if you include Dion Waiters), but he should get All-Defense consideration and drilled just a hair under 40 percent of his threes. With apologies to Goran Dragic, who led the team in scoring and assists, and Hassan Whiteside, who led it in RPM, Richardson filled in the gaps as a low-maintenance, high-energy starter. He also played more minutes than any Miami player and was remarkably consistent after shaking off a rough November.
The Heat are loaded with "good to very good" players and no transcendent ones, which makes this especially tough.
Richardson, James Johnson and Justise Winslow are all awesome, versatile, valuable defenders. Richardson might be the best individual stopper, but Winslow is close behind (and bigger), and Johnson can guard every position on the floor. That's before getting to Bam Adebayo, who might soon become the best defender on the team. The flashes he showed as a rim-protector and switchable perimeter piece hint at greatness on that end.
So, in keeping with the Heat's whole theme of "many good, none great," roughly a third of the roster gets to split this award.
Best Newcomer: Kelly Olynyk
Olynyk provided steady perimeter shooting from the frontcourt, rugged rebounding and the fourth-highest assist total on the team. His ability to spread the floor at either power forward or center is what allows the Heat to get away with utilizing Winslow and Johnson together.
Degree of Difficulty Award: Wayne Ellington
It's hard to think of anyone who consistently makes tougher-looking threes than Ellington, a specialist at catching the ball at a dead sprint, rotating his body and firing off a trey with his defender right on top of him. These are bad shots for most. For Ellington, who became the first reserve to bang in 200 threes, they're clean looks.
MVP and DPOY: Giannis Antetokounmpo
We'll package these and slobber over Antetokounmpo's Bucks primacy in a two-for-one fashion.
He won't win it, but Antetokounmpo belongs in any sensible MVP conversation. Harden and James are the only players toting clear-cut superior resumes, with Anthony Davis perhaps occupying space alongside Antetokounmpo in a strong second tier. Last year's Most Improved Player became a full-fledged superstar in 2017-18, leading the Bucks in points and rebounds while ranking in the top three in assists, steals and blocks.
Defensively, Milwaukee's scheme was a chaotic, over-helping, trap-heavy mess. Even in the middle of that nonsense, Antetokounmpo stood out. The Bucks' defensive rating improved by five points when the Greek Freak was on the court.
Best Newcomer: Eric Bledsoe
Bledsoe didn't transform the Bucks into a contender upon his arrival, but he made an impact. The team leader in steals, Bledsoe's on-court net rating was actually higher than Antetokounmpo's. Milwaukee didn't fall apart when he sat in quite the same way, but it feels fair to say that among a small crop of newcomers, Bledsoe made the biggest difference.
Do Better Award: Jason Kidd and Joe Prunty
It's hard to know who deserves blame since the Bucks were just has hyperactively disjointed on D under Prunty as they were under Kidd. This is a team with the length and athleticism to rank in the league's top 10 on defense, but the Bucks never came close. The scheme, all traps and aggressive help and mad scrambles, just doesn't work.
The same roster could, with a more sensible strategy, lock down the league next year.
MVP: Karl-Anthony Towns
The most complete offensive big man in the league, Towns led Minnesota in VORP, box plus-minus, PER, points, rebounds, blocks and, remarkably, made three-pointers.
A few more made free throws, and we'd be talking about a 50-40-90 season.
The defense was still shaky, but Towns improved as the season progressed. He's not hopeless on that end, and even with underwhelming play on D this year, he was easily Minnesota's best overall player.
DPOY: Jimmy Butler
We could have given Minnesota the Denver treatment and refused to give anyone associated with this shoddy defense a DPOY honor, but Jimmy Butler did enough to earn recognition. He led the Wolves in DRPM and in the time he missed from Feb. 24 to April 5, Minnesota went 8-9 with a 109.6 defensive rating, about a point worse than its full-season figure.
Quickly, shout out to Tyus Jones. Among players who logged at least 1,400 minutes, only Thaddeus Young and Robert Covington deflected passes at a higher frequency than Jones. Minnesota's defensive rating improved by four points with Jones on the floor.
Best Newcomer: Jimmy Butler
Butler was this season's tone-setter, perhaps equal in voice to Taj Gibson but better able to back up his words with deeds. Based on how they performed without him in the lineup (10-14 record), the Wolves' season would have been a lot less competitive without Butler.
Most Disappointing Award: Andrew Wiggins
Wiggins' true shooting percentage, free-throw rate and assist rate all fell to career lows in what should have been a step-forward season. With Butler aboard and Towns developing into a dominant force, Wiggins could have picked his spots, cut, attacked scrambled defenses and thrived in transition—not to mention had more energy to defend.
Instead, he floated through possessions, quarters, games and weeks. There were stretches of vastly improved defense, but the shot selection was always bad, and Wiggins failed to leverage his considerable athletic talent into real impact. Not ideal with a max contract kicking in next season.
New Orleans Pelicans
MVP and DPOY: Anthony Davis
Much like Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee, Davis was the alpha and omega on both ends for the Pelicans.
Once DeMarcus Cousins went down and the Pels became their best selves (Davis operating in more space and with crisper ball movement as the unquestioned primary option), it was on. During New Orleans' 11-game winning streak from Feb. 10 to March 7, Davis averaged 33.6 points, 13.1 rebounds. 2.8 blocks and 2.7 steals on 52.1 percent shooting.
He ranked first in the league in blocks, second in PER and scoring average and fourth in RPM wins.
The Pelicans' net rating with AD on the court was better than the Sixers' fourth-ranked full-season figure. When he sat, that number was closest to Orlando's No. 25 net rating.
Best Newcomer: Nikola Mirotic
Mirotic's arrival at the trade deadline brought the Pels badly needed frontcourt shooting and an ideal power forward complement to Davis at center. Though he was never going to sustain the 42.9 percent clip from deep he set with the Bulls, Mirotic was enough of a threat to concern defenses, and he quietly grabbed more rebounds per game than everyone but Davis after joining up.
The Jrue Holiday Award: Jrue Holiday
This is an uninventive excuse to praise Holiday, who played 81 games, posted a career high in effective field-goal percentage and defended ably at the point. Though he had to pick his spots behind Davis and Cousins, Holiday put together his best season ever. He was one of just eight players to average at least 18 points, six assists and four rebounds in 2017-18.
New York Knicks
MVP: Kristaps Porzingis
For the 48 games Porzingis was healthy, the Knicks weren't so bad. When KP tore his ACL on Feb. 6, New York was 23-32 with a minus-2.0 net rating. And when Porzingis was on the floor during that 48-game pre-injury stretch, the Knicks' net rating was positive, albeit by just a tenth of a point.
On a team this bad, marginally positive is good enough for MVP—even when it comes in under 60 percent of a full season.
Despite his truncated campaign, Porzingis still led the Knicks in total blocks and finished fourth in steals.
You could throw some consideration Frank Ntilikina's way, and Kyle O'Quinn led the team in defensive box plus-minus. But from a real difference-making perspective, neither impacted games like Porzingis.
Best Newcomer: Trey Burke
After three years of inefficient scoring in Utah and a washout season with the Wizards in 2016-17, it seemed like Burke's NBA career was nearing an early end. But then the former ninth overall pick jumped up from the Knicks' G League affiliate and stuck.
He hung 42 points and 12 assists on the Hornets in a March 26 loss and wound up starting (and finishing) games down the stretch. Though the sample spanned less than half a season, Burke was a different player—one who looks to have an NBA future again.
Human Dunk Prop Award: Tim Hardaway Jr.
Because Giannis Antetokounmpo jumped over him and dunked. May we never forget.
Oklahoma City Thunder
MVP: Russell Westbrook
Westbrook led the Thunder in scoring, assist percentage, usage percentage, rebounds, free-throw attempts, partridges in pear trees and just about anything else you can imagine is possible for a ball-dominant, stat-hunting, triple-double monger.
We need to look into the fact that other stars either get better when they stop playing with him or get worse when they start, but that's a deep dive for another day. Westbrook's statistical case is undeniable, even if he took a dip in scoring efficiency this season.
DPOY: Paul George
OKC's leader in steals and the only guy on the wing who could guard anyone once Andre Roberson went down, George is the easy winner here. Roberson finished top five in DRPM but played only 39 games. His absence directly coincided with the Thunder's defense cratering (fifth overall when he played his last game; 14th from that point on), and if he'd logged just a few more contests, it would have been reasonable to give him this award.
Biggest Surprise: Carmelo Anthony
Not every surprise is a good one. Melo was supposed to feast on open threes and bully second-unit defenders with a still-effective isolation attack. Instead, he couldn't guard anyone and shot 40.4 percent from the field, a career low.
Find A Way Award: Steven Adams
Adams just keeps getting better at finding ways to make an impact alongside Westbrook, who often doesn't leave much room for anyone else to breathe. Defensive boards belong to Russ because he steals them to pad his numbers, so Adams went after the only ones left. Result: He led the league in offensive rebound rate, grabbing 16.6 percent of OKC's misses.
MVP: Nikola Vucevic
The top three candidates—Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier—all missed at least 20 games and posted negative on-court net ratings. Vucevic, though long derided for matador defense, an inability to get to the foul line and generally ineffectual play, was probably the best of a weak, often unavailable bunch. He led Orlando in VORP and box plus-minus, and the team's net rating was worse when he sat than it was when anyone else on the roster was unavailable.
Orlando was always bad, but it was worst when it didn't have Vucevic. What a ringing endorsement for an MVP...
DPOY: Jonathan Isaac
We've disqualified several candidates on other teams because of missed time, but the Magic's defensive choices were so bad this year that Isaac, a rookie, gets the nod despite missing two-thirds of the year. He finished first in steals per 100 possessions and second to Bismack Biyombo in blocks per 100 possessions. If he stays healthy, he profiles as a disruptive, versatile force on D.
Biggest Surprise: Mario Hezonja
Hezonja may have saved his NBA career this year. Pressed into duty he hadn't really earned because the Magic had so many injuries, the third-year wing flashed the scoring touch that made him the fifth overall pick in 2015. He has 19 15-point games in his career, and all but four of them came this season. He even put up a career-best 28 against the Pistons in December.
Orlando declined his fourth-year option before the season, signaling it didn't see him as part of its future. That may still be true, but at least Hezonja now appears to have one somewhere in the NBA.
How Did This Happen? Award: Marreese Speights
Speights was the only Magic player with a positive on-court net rating. Stranger still, it was fueled by a 104.9 defensive rating. We'll have to consult the film, but my suspicion is that opponents, feeling remorseful, only put four players on the court whenever Speights checked in.
MVP: Ben Simmons
Volume has to matter, and Simmons played 18 more games than Joel Embiid, topping the big man in VORP and box plus-minus by comfortable margins.
Though it was true early in the year that Embiid's absence coincided with a massive dip in team performance, that disparity corrected itself as the season progressed and Simmons matured into a star. Embiid was out for more than half of the Sixers' franchise-record winning streak to close the season (if you count him as "out" in the game he played nine minutes before fracturing his face), and in that stretch, Simmons flirted with triple-doubles every night.
Simmons and Oscar Robertson are the only rookies to ever amass 1,000 points, 600 rebounds and 600 assists in a season. And if we learned anything from studying Robertson's stats in comparison to Westbrook's during triple-double mania last year, it's that we should look askance at numbers compiled in the no-defense, breakneck-pace environment of the early 1960s.
Simmons' rookie season was one of the best ever. Full stop.
DPOY: Joel Embiid
Embiid finished fifth among centers in DRPM but will likely land no lower than third on most league-wide DPOY ballots. Among players who defended at least 400 shots inside of six feet, nobody held opponents to a lower field-goal percentage than Embiid, whose presence on the court coincided with a 99.7 defensive rating that would have ranked first in the league by nearly two full points.
Simmons became a fantastic defender over the course of the season, and Robert Covington owned a lower on-court defensive rating than Embiid, but neither matched the big man's intimidating overall impact.
Biggest Surprise: Simmons
Nobody saw this coming. Maybe the passing vision and ball-handling were foreseeable, but there was no way to imagine Simmons would carry himself like a veteran star—confident, aggressive, wholly unbothered by his weaknesses.
That's another thing: Everyone expected the lack of a jumper to limit his effectiveness. Instead, Simmons just used the tools he had (size, strength, quickness, anticipation) to work himself into whatever position on the floor he wanted. Being ineffective beyond the arc didn't matter because he could easily get to a spot where he was dangerous.
He's a bigger, faster, meaner Grant Hill. If you say you knew this was possible, you're a liar.
NBA Canonization Award: Saint Sam Hinkie
History has vindicated the Process. Blessed be the true believers.
MVP: Devin Booker
Booker averaged 24.9 points, 4.7 assists and 4.5 rebounds in his age-21 season. The only other players to do that are LeBron James, Tracy McGrady and Michael Jordan. If Booker made any effort at all on defense, he'd profile as a surefire star over the next decade. There's still time for him to develop his two-way play, and it'll help if the Suns get competitive enough for defensive effort to matter.
Booker added more volume and efficiency to his three-point shooting, and he made substantial improvements as a decision-maker despite getting maximum defensive attention from every opponent.
Phoenix ranked dead last in defensive efficiency and was more than a full point per 100 possessions worse than the 29th-ranked Cavs. Almost by definition, nobody on this roster defended in 2017-18. If forced to choose, Tyson Chandler would probably get the nod. He at least has a mental understanding of how to play D, even if he rarely performed the physical component in his 46 games of action.
Best Newcomer: Josh Jackson
Jackson's jumper remains a work in progress from a mechanics standpoint, but he was more productive overall in the second half of the season. After the All-Star break, he averaged 18.7 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.5 assists.
More, Please Award: Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss
Neither third-year Sun took a leap, and it's starting to look like Phoenix whiffed on both Bender and Chriss in the 2016 draft.
Bender, only 20, probably still has the higher ceiling because Chriss' lack of basketball IQ hampers him on both ends.
Portland Trail Blazers
MVP: Damian Lillard
Thanks to career highs in three-point and free-throw rate, Lillard was a more efficient scorer than ever in 2017-18. But not by much. And though he's going to wind up higher on MVP ballots than in any previous season, the truth is Lillard really wasn't a changed man this year. There are no pronounced differences between his numbers from any of the last three seasons.
Don't be confused: Lillard was awesome and clearly the Blazers' most important player. But when looking for reasons behind Portland's rise this year, it's important to look past the narrative saying Lillard, playing at some previously undiscovered level, was the driving force.
He's been this good for a long time.
DPOY: Jusuf Nurkic
Opponents shot worse at the rim against Portland than any other team. Nurkic finished second to Rudy Gobert in DRPM, and the Blazers were better on D whenever he was on the court. I'd say that takes care of that.
Best Newcomer: Zach Collins
Cap constraints meant the Blazers couldn't add much to their roster this past offseason, and they're short on flexibility going forward. Good thing Collins, their first-rounder in the 2017 draft, looked like a keeper.
In a limited role, the future stretch-5 flashed a serviceable three-point stroke and the enticing ability to put the ball on the floor when opponents closed out too recklessly. There's a decent chance he becomes the Blazers' third-best player in two years—whether Nurkic is still on the roster or not.
Marathon Award: CJ McCollum
For the third consecutive year, McCollum covered more ground than anyone else, leading the league in miles run on the court. Deadly on spot-ups and dangerous off the dribble, McCollum is a scorer who can't be left unattended.
And it's a lot harder to attend to someone when they never stop sprinting.
MVP: Bogdan Bogdanovic
This is impossible. Zach Randolph's counting stats would seem to give him an edge, but he actively destroyed the Kings when he played. De'Aaron Fox showed flashes and will probably be the Kings' best player next year, but his lack of shooting and predictable rookie mistakes hurt his case. Buddy Hield was lights-out all season, but he depended on others for his looks.
That leaves Bogdanovic, who finished third on the Kings in total points, second in assists, third in steals and second in made triples. Among Kings who shot at least 700 times, his effective field-goal percentage was second only to Hield's. And Hield, again, was a one-dimensional specialist.
Bogdanovic's court sense, passing eye and cleverness distinguished him as one of the few Sacramento players you'd trust to make the right decision with the ball more often than not. He was far from perfect, but on balance, Bogdanovic was the Kings' best player in 2017-18.
DPOY: Willie Cauley-Stein
Sacramento finished 28th in defensive efficiency, and the best thing you can say about Cauley-Stein, who led the team in total blocks and finished second in steals, was that he didn't actively make the Kings' performance on that end worse when he played. Damning with faint praise, sure, but there's not much to crow about here.
Best Newcomer: De'Aaron Fox
Only five players in the entire league had a worse raw pus-minus total than Fox this season, but he showed enough potential as a transition threat and defensive pest to profile as a breakout candidate next year. There's still a good chance he can become a poor man's John Wall.
Just Good Enough to Be in the Way Award: Zach Randolph
Randolph led the Kings in shot attempts and posted a positive plus-minus figure in the clutch. That gave head coach Dave Joerger a defensible reason to rely on the veteran in key moments, which prevented some of the Kings' younger players from learning (or failing) in some late-game, high-leverage moments.
San Antonio Spurs
MVP: LaMarcus Aldridge
Occupying top-option status after two years playing second fiddle, Aldridge produced a career season at age 32, setting personal bests in PER, points per 36 minutes and effective field-goal percentage. Without him anchoring the offense and doing serviceable work at D (most often at center), the Spurs' playoff streak would have been kaput.
DPOY: Dejounte Murray and Kyle Anderson
These two have to share the award, if only so we can highlight their remarkably contrasting styles. Murray was a menace on D, all flailing arms, fast-twitch explosions into passing lanes and recovery speed. Anderson somehow stayed in front of opponents without seeming to move, playing the position game and leveraging his length to make up for nonexistent athleticism.
Both finished in the league's top 20 in DRPM.
Best Newcomer: Kawhi Leonard
This guy came out of nowhere, played nine games and disappeared for the rest of the year.
Nobody learned much about him because he never spoke, and it seemed like he was hampered by some kind of leg issue. But the potential, especially on defense, was clear. If the Spurs could ever relocate this mystery wing, they might be able to turn him into a player.
Be Wonderful Award: Manu Ginobili
Dunks, game-saving hustle plays and nightly fulfillment of his "be wonderful" duties made Ginobili, playing in his age-40 season, one of the year's best stories.
MVP: Kyle Lowry
What are seven points per game worth?
That's the edge DeMar DeRozan had on Kyle Lowry this year, and the reason DeRozan doesn't take this award is because we've concluded those points don't offset Lowry's superior rebound, assist and efficiency rates.
Lowry took more charges than anyone in the league, shot a sliver under 40 percent from deep and smoked DeRozan in several catch-all metric—including box plus-minus and RPM. In a down year, and one that supposedly saw DeRozan make a leap as a more versatile scorer, Lowry was still Toronto's most valuable player.
DPOY: The Bench
Lucas Nogueira blocked everything in sight during the 49 games he played, OG Anunoby showed flashes as a wing stopper, Lowry picked his spots, and Pascal Siakam made several head-turning athletic plays. All warranted consideration. But the Raptors bench, collectively, needs as much praise as we can find room to give.
Biggest Surprise: Fred VanVleet
The key to the best reserve corps in the league, VanVleet compensated for short stature with boundless energy (he harassed ball-handlers up and down the floor) and elite three-point shooting. He was a bench's ideal weapon: equal parts heat-check gunner and high-intensity defender. His on-court net rating was the highest of any Raptor.
All that from an undrafted 24-year-old who averaged just 2.9 points per game as a rookie last year.
Keep An Eye On Him Award: Pascal Siakam
Siakam is a nuclear run-jump athlete who thrives in transition and showed developing ball skills in his second season. The raw tools are obvious, and if Siakam ever develops a jumper, he could become a do-it-all star.
MVP: Donovan Mitchell
Mitchell grabbed first-option responsibilities early in Utah's season and never let go, carrying his team's offense and learning the NBA game on the fly. Most rookies struggle when asked to shoulder a load like the one Mitchell carried, floundering around inefficiently and making loads of mistakes. Mitchell didn't falter.
He and Michael Jordan are the only rookies to ever pair a usage percentage of at least 29 with an effective true shooting percentage north of 54 percent.
He dunked spectacularly, looked like a Dwyane Wade-Gilbert Arenas-James Harden hybrid with the ball in his hands and fired off high-difficulty threes with defenders draped all over him. Creative, competitive and poised, Mitchell was the steady, confident vet Utah needed to run the show in the wake of Gordon Hayward's departure. He just happened to be a rookie.
DPOY: Rudy Gobert
There's an obvious case that, for all of Mitchell's value, Gobert deserves the team MVP award. That's hard to argue against because the Jazz didn't really become THE JAZZ until he got healthy in late January. From Jan. 22 on, Utah owned the league's top net rating and defensive rating, with the latter absolutely crushing the field.
It's hard to know how effectively Utah could have scored without Mitchell, but the late-season protracted run definitely wouldn't have happened if Gobert hadn't supercharged the defense.
Biggest Surprise/Best Newcomer: Mitchell
The obvious pick doubles up here. Mitchell went 13th in the draft, which means at least a dozen teams didn't expect a campaign this dominant. The real number was probably 30, including the Jazz.
Someone Acknowledge This Man Award: Joe Ingles
If we qualify high-volume three-point shooters as guys who tried at least 300 long balls, only Klay Thompson and Otto Porter were more accurate than Ingles in 2017-18. And with the savvy to run pick-and-rolls, Ingles' offensive versatility was greater than either of those noted snipers. Toss in sneakily good defense, and you've got one of the best wings in the league that nobody knows about.
Anyone puzzled as to how a team with *only* Gobert and Mitchell could dominate for months at a time is clearly unacquainted with Ingles' game.
MVP: Bradley Beal
Beal played more than twice as many minutes as John Wall this season, leading the Wizards in scoring and made threes while adding an assist to last year's per-game total. An All-Star for the first time in his career, Beal projects as Washington's best player going forward—particularly if Wall's knees continue to sap his burst and cost him games.
DPOY: Otto Porter
Sixth among small forwards in DRPM, Porter led the Wizards in steals and generally spent his time guarding the opponent's best player. That's a tough trick to pull—focusing on a dangerous individual assignment while also zipping around enough to disrupt possessions.
Biggest Surprise: Tomas Satoransky
Underwhelming in spot duty as a rookie, Satoransky proved himself as a starter with Wall sidelined. If he increases his three-point volume (Satoransky shot a blistering 47.4 percent on under 100 attempts), he profiles as a quality first-unit point guard who can also defend at an above-average level.
Handy Helper Award: Marcin Gortat
Gortat tied for the league in screen assists, and in a related (but unofficial) note, he was also the NBA leader in expressions of total disbelief whenever called for an illegal pick. There's a fine line between a good screen and an illegal one, and Gortat basically lived on it.