B/R NBA Staff Midseason Awards: Who Takes Home Hardware If Season Ended Today?
Ratings be damned, 2019-20 has been special. Between Luka's upgrade from wunderkind to superstar and the explosive start to Ja Morant's career, among plenty of other developments, hoops at the highest level still reside in the National Basketball Association.
With the campaign's first half officially behind us, we asked NBA writers to hand out midseason trophies for each of the league's major awards.
To be extra clear: This is not a prediction of who will win hardware after the regular season ends, but a look at who is most deserving today.
Coach of the Year: Erik Spoelstra, Miami Heat
Miami Heat fans could have spent the entire offseason feasting on optimism, and they still wouldn't have seen this coming.
Miami isn't surprisingly good; it's good good. The Heat have 11 wins in 17 tries against teams that are .500 or better. That's a .647 winning percentage, which trails just the world-beating Milwaukee Bucks (.667). Only three other teams in the Eastern Conference have better than a .647 winning percentage overall.
The wins alone are remarkable, but the style is where Erik Spoelstra has really flexed his coaching muscle.
The connection among this club—the ball movement, the defensive rotations, the selflessness—would trick you into thinking it's benefitted from continuity. However, four of the team's top seven players in minutes last season aren't on the roster, one can't stay healthy (Justise Winslow) and another has been reduced to part-time duties (Kelly Olynyk).
Jimmy Butler (who didn't have the shiniest reputation) has emerged as a clear-cut leader. Bam Adebayo has taken an All-Star leap. Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson have added to the organization's long list of player-development success stories. Tyler Herro has been empowered to take and make big shots as a 20-year-old rookie.
Spo has transformed this season into a continuous coaching clinic, and that's enough to get the nod over Nick Nurse, Billy Donovan, Frank Vogel, Nate McMillan and the rest of this crowded field.
Executive of the Year: Pat Riley, Miami Heat
After years of mediocrity spent accumulating bad contracts, the Miami Heat are once again near the top of the Eastern Conference.
Following a 10th-place finish a season ago, Miami has risen to second in the East despite having no cap space and limited draft picks to work with last summer.
Executing a tricky Jimmy Butler trade changed the mentality of the team and provided a true alpha for others to follow. Moving Hassan Whiteside meant not only shedding his mammoth $27.1 million salary but also opening a starting job for 2017 first-round pick Bam Adebayo. The 22-year-old center has responded with 16.0 points, 10.5 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.2 blocks per game.
Selecting Tyler Herro at No. 13 looks like a steal as the 20-year-old shooting guard is already putting up 12.9 points, 4.2 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game while drilling 38.7 percent of his three-pointers off the bench.
Herro hasn't even been Miami's best rookie, though. The signing of undrafted shooting guard Kendrick Nunn back in April has paid huge dividends. In 43 starts, Nunn is averaging 16.3 points and 3.6 assists, both second among all rookies behind only Ja Morant of the Memphis Grizzlies.
While Dennis Lindsey of the Utah Jazz and Lawrence Frank of the Los Angeles Clippers also deserve recognition, Pat Riley and his front office have done the most to improve their team for this season.
Most Improved Player: Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
We all knew the potential was there. But Luka Doncic has been even better, even faster, than anyone could have expected.
The jump from fringe All-Star to legitimate MVP candidate is probably the most difficult one to make, but Doncic has completed it in just his second season. His stat line is ludicrous: 28.9 points, 9.7 rebounds and 9.0 assists per game with shooting splits of 46.7/32.9/78.2. He's the engine for one of the most potent offenses of all time, leading his team from the lottery to the race for home-court advantage in the playoffs.
He has diversified his game, added dominant scoring ability and shown the ability to get into the paint and finish at a higher clip than most lob-catching bigs.
The toughest snub for this award is Brandon Ingram, who has made the jump from mediocre (at best) to playing at an All-Star level for the New Orleans Pelicans. The Toronto Raptors' Pascal Siakam and the Charlotte Hornets' Devonte' Graham have each grown considerably and deserve to be in the conversation.
A significant jump is typically expected from second-year contributors, which usually takes them out of the running for Most Improved Player. But an exception has to be made for Doncic. No one else in the league has improved as much and had a bigger year-to-year impact on winning.
Sixth Man of the Year: Dennis Schroder, Oklahoma City Thunder
This is not a pick I ever envisioned making. The 2019-20 Oklahoma City Thunder were supposed to be a placeholder, a team assembled with the intention of disassembly, and Dennis Schroder is historically streaky and inefficient.
And yet, here we are.
Breaking up the Thunder now seems criminal, even if it holds long-term merit, and Schroder has proved indispensable to their performance. He's averaging 18.3 points and 3.8 assists on a career-best true shooting percentage that blows all his previous marks out of the water. It is almost uncomfortable how efficiently he's playing; you're waiting for him to come crashing down because it feels too good to be true.
Just look at his shooting splits by zone:
- At the rim: 64 percent (81st percentile)
- Short mid-range: 38 percent (53rd percentile)
- Long mid-range: 50 percent (80th percentile)
- All mid-range: 45 percent (73rd percentile)
- Corner threes: 52 percent (97th percentile)
- Non-corner threes: 35 percent (53rd percentile)
- All threes: 37 percent (69 percentile)
Schroder is essentially posting personal-best clips from everywhere on the floor. That's absurd. And the different ways in which he's scoring have helped the Thunder maximize their three-guard lineup featuring himself, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Chris Paul.
He's free to attack in space during those stints but doesn't always have the ball. His 38.6 percent conversion rate on spot-up threes shapes Oklahoma City's balance of ball-handling and complementary scoring.
It doesn't help Schroder's case that the Thunder are losing the minutes he plays without Paul, even when he's beside Gilgeous-Alexander. But Sixth Man of the Year isn't about identifying lifelines who come off the bench. It's about recognizing the reserve most valuable in his role.
As someone having a career year while playing more reliable defense and getting plenty of crunch-time burn, Schroder checks that box more so than any of his peers.
Defensive Player of the Year: Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
Rudy Gobert deserves to win Defensive Player of the Year for the third straight season. The Utah Jazz allow 9.6 fewer points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor, a swing that ranks in the 98th percentile, per Cleaning the Glass. Anthony Davis, who may be Gobert’s biggest obstacle to a three-peat, has a defensive rating swing that’s dead even and ranks in the 48th percentile.
Gobert, the game’s most impactful defender, hasn’t slipped a bit in Year 7. In fact, he may still be getting better.
Now that Derrick Favors is no longer starting alongside him, he has had to take on even greater defensive responsibilities. He’s averaging a career-high 10.9 defensive rebounds per game. The Jazz still have a top-10 defense despite no longer having Favors to hold the back line when Gobert sits. The Stifle Tower’s 19.8 shots defended per game leads the NBA, and opponents are shooting nearly 8 percent worse than normal on those shots. Finally, he leads the league by a wide margin in FiveThirtyEight’s defensive RAPTOR rating, a catch-all number that incorporates tracking data, box-score numbers and on/off data.
Perhaps more important than all of that, though, is what you see when you watch Gobert play defense. Tune into any Jazz game, and you’re bound to see a number of offensive players literally U-turn away from the paint when they spot him. You’ll see a few possessions where he shuts down guards on the perimeters. You’ll see monster blocks. You might even see a game-saving defensive play in the clutch. For half a decade, he has been a one-man defensive system.
Rookie of the Year: Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies
Zion Williamson's delayed start shouldn't affect his development. It will cost him a chance at winning Rookie of the Year. Ja Morant has set the bar too high with award-winning numbers and eye-test results that match.
From the Ohio Valley Conference to the NBA, it's been a smooth transition for the No. 2 pick.
Averaging 17.9 points and 7.0 assists, Morant is also on pace to have the highest true shooting percentage of any rookie guard to play at least 25 minutes per game with a usage rate above 25 percent. He's been incredibly efficient for a ball-dominant guard on a young team, even making 40.5 percent of his threes after entering the year with what was perceived as a questionable jump shot.
He's also led the Memphis Grizzlies into the playoff picture, another impressive detail that strengthens his case.
Williamson's best shot to overtake Morant will be pushing the 17-win New Orleans Pelicans into the eighth seed while knocking Memphis back into the lottery. However, only 38 games remain in the regular season, and he figures to be load-managed (in some capacity) over the next two months. He won't have enough time or games to unseat Morant atop the rookie ladder.
The Grizzlies point guard has been too productive, and he looks too comfortable for a potential rookie wall to hold him back for long.
If the season ended today, the most compelling argument against Giannis Antetokounmpo winning MVP would be that his team is too good.
Wait. Sorry, what? How does leading the league in wins and being on pace to set the all-time record for average margin of victory hurt Giannis' MVP case?
Well, because the Milwaukee Bucks' penchant for blowing opponents out is limiting Antetokounmpo's playing time to just 30.6 minutes per game, more than two fewer than Stephen Curry averaged when he won the award in 2014-15. Curry's 32.7 minutes per game were the lowest in history for an MVP.
But not to worry: Giannis is getting his counting stats anyway.
If he sustains his current pace, he'll become the first player to score more than 30 points in under 31 minutes per game. Not only that, but he'll also become the first player in more than a half-century to average at least 30 points, 12 rebounds and five assists. Add a requirement for a true shooting percentage north of 60 and he'll be the only guy ever to marry such gaudy counting stats with that level of efficiency.
The Bucks are the league's best team, and Giannis is leading them to historic heights without a second star, producing ridiculous box-score stats while playing All-NBA-level defense. James Harden has the scoring edge, and LeBron James has the advantage in assists and attention. But neither comes close to matching Antetokounmpo's two-way impact, and both have more star power supporting them.
Give this man the half-season MVP. There's no realistic case for anyone else.