Handing Out Awards for Every NBA TeamAugust 14, 2020
Handing Out Awards for Every NBA Team
It's been a weird year in the NBA. Or, actually, it still is a weird year.
See? We don't even know what tense to use in the wake of a four-month pandemic-induced hiatus, a bubble restart and a "not quite the regular season but also not the playoffs" 22-team seeding mini tournament.
Maybe a few awards will help provide some closure for the 2019-20 regular season and restore some semblance of normalcy.
Categories include MVP, Defensive Player of the Year and Best Newcomer/Biggest Surprise from all 30 teams. Additionally, we'll set aside a separate award to cover any key angles or performances those first three missed.
Most of our honors will go to players, but coaches are fair game, too. In special cases, we reserve the right to withhold an award entirely. For example, a team's defense can sometimes be so bad that it precludes the chance of anyone getting praise for being a part of it.
And just like the NBA is doing with its leaguewide honors, we'll restrict ours to only the pre-bubble portion of the season. It's the only way to be fair. Some of the advanced metrics aren't sortable by date, but when we refer to per-game stats, assume we're talking about games played through March 11.
So, who's taking home each team's hardware for one of the most unusual NBA campaigns ever?
MVP: Trae Young
No deliberation necessary here, as Trae Young earns the Atlanta Hawks' MVP for a second straight year on the strength of across-the-board growth that resulted in averages of 29.6 points, 9.3 assists and 4.3 rebounds (all career highs), plus an All-Star berth at age 21.
Young was one of three players (Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden were the other two) to top 59.0 percent true shooting with a usage rate above 34.0 percent in 2019-20, distinguishing himself as an elite source of offense. Defense is still a problem for Young, but his foul-drawing craft is already among the best in the league, and the Hawks were 8.4 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor.
Defensive Player of the Year: DeAndre' Bembry
John Collins and DeAndre Hunter made the largest on-off defensive impacts among Hawks players who saw at least 1,000 minutes, but there isn't a lot of film to support the case that either is a plus defender. Atlanta's reserves were just worse than they were, skewing the numbers. The Hawks finished 28th in defensive efficiency for a reason.
That leaves DeAndre' Bembry, whose energetic play altered the tone of games he entered. With top-notch block and steal rates for a combo guard—88th and 95th percentile, respectively—the fourth-year vet also has the stats to justify his win here.
Best Newcomer: Clint Capela
No, Clint Capela didn't play a minute in Atlanta after coming aboard from the Houston Rockets at the trade deadline. But he's exactly the kind of rim-running, shot-blocking, defensive-rebounding big the Hawks need. He could easily be Atlanta's second-most important player in 2020-21. Neither Cam Reddish nor DeAndre Hunter wowed as rookies. So, sight unseen, Capela snags this award by default.
Better Late than Never Award: John Collins
A PED suspension kept John Collins from contributing for 25 games early in the season, and by the time he returned, the Hawks were clearly ticketed for another lottery trip. Nonetheless, the hyper-athletic big man found his form quickly and showcased serious development on both ends, finishing the year with averages of 21.6 points and 10.1 rebounds.
Collins isn't yet a good defender, but he improved protecting the rim and better avoided the high-frequency mental gaffes that defined his first two seasons. He also shot 40.1 percent from three while continuing to thrive as a roll man, and he showed increasing skill as a shot-creator on the perimeter.
Though Collins played only 41 games, the Hawks should be highly encouraged by his growth in a shrunken season.
MVP: Jayson Tatum
The addition of a deadly pull-up three and diminished mid-range frequency helped turn Jayson Tatum into the league's most coveted commodity: a two-way wing capable (eventually, if not right now) of being the top scoring option on a contender.
Tatum led the Boston Celtics in win shares and value over replacement player, not to mention scoring at 23.6 points per game. You can count on one hand the players who had bigger breakouts in 2019-20.
DPOY: Marcus Smart
Tatum and Daniel Theis, who anchored a top-five defense despite giving up size to virtually every opposing center, deserve consideration here. But nobody charged Boston's defense like Marcus Smart. Handsy, exceptionally strong and always willing to embellish contact in search of foul calls, Smart also enabled the Celtics to experiment with smaller lineups. There aren't many bigs who can move him in the post.
If he doesn't earn an All-Defensive selection, something's gone very wrong.
Best Newcomer: Kemba Walker
Skip past the 21.0 points and career-best 3.3 made triples per game, and instead appreciate the professionalism and team-first attitude Kemba Walker brought in his first season with the Celtics. Boston mostly remains driven by players in their early-to-mid 20s. That's a big reason why Walker's presence mattered—especially in the aftermath of Kyrie Irving's tenure which, to be charitable, lacked consistency and accountability.
With Walker as an example, Boston's youth now knows what leadership is supposed to look like.
Don't Forget About Me Award: Jaylen Brown
As long as Tatum remains a fringe top-10 talent (so, roughly the next 10 seasons), it'll be tough to give Jaylen Brown his due.
Though occupying a lower-usage role, Brown scored more efficiently than Tatum (58.9 percent true shooting to Tatum's 56.2 percent) and similarly improved his shot profile. At 20.7 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game, Brown set new career highs in all three categories while also spending significant time matched up against the most dangerous opposing wings.
That Brown is Boston's second-best wing speaks to the franchise's embarrassment of riches in that department.
MVP: Spencer Dinwiddie
The absences of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving (for all but 20 games) pushed Spencer Dinwiddie into a larger role than he'll play for the Brooklyn Nets going forward. Though he suffered serious year-over-year declines in accuracy from the field, elite foul-drawing guile kept Dinwiddie's scoring efficiency in respectable territory. He managed to post a passable 54.1 true shooting percentage despite making only 30.8 percent of his threes and 41.5 percent of his shots overall.
Dinwiddie led the Nets with 20.6 points and 6.8 assists per game. Jarrett Allen and Joe Harris deserve mention here, and Caris LeVert could have made this close had he played more than 39 pre-shutdown games.
DPOY: Garrett Temple
Garrett Temple is no wing stopper, but he's always in the right place, and his team's defenses have been better with him on the floor in each of the last three seasons. No Brooklyn player with at least 500 minutes made a bigger impact on the team's defensive rating.
Allen played 413 more minutes than DeAndre Jordan, but he managed to defend over twice as many total shots inside six feet. Still, the Nets were much better on D with Jordan in the game. We'll call the big-man competition a stalemate and reward Temple's steady and intelligent play on the wing.
Biggest Surprise: Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris (tie)
Close-and-late production is notoriously unpredictable, but after two straight years of performing well in crunch time, Dinwiddie completely lost his touch this year. He hit only two of the 24 three-point shots he attempted in clutch situations, by far the worst hit rate in the league among guys who got up at least 20 such attempts.
Luckily, Joe Harris' 13-of-23 effort on clutch treys was the most accurate in that same group.
What Do We Do With This Guy? Award: Caris LeVert
Caris LeVert averaged a career-high 17.7 points before the hiatus, capitalizing on the Nets' need for shot creation with Irving and Durant out of action. However, LeVert won't have nearly as many opportunities to create looks when Brooklyn has its full roster. Can he be similarly productive off the ball? Would he even want that role after succeeding as a primary threat?
LeVert's continued ascent (albeit in a series of injury-shortened seasons) is a good problem. But the Nets may need to consider moving him for better fits, as his game might be marginalized with Kyrie and KD eating up possessions next season.
MVP: Devonte' Graham
Devonte' Graham wasn't just the Charlotte Hornets' MVP; he was one of the best stories of the season.
After averaging 4.7 points and hitting 28.1 percent of his triples as a rookie, Graham's scoring average exploded to 18.2 as he fired off 9.3 triples per game, hitting 37.3 percent of them.
The real key to Graham's ascent was pull-up shooting. The only players in the league with more than Graham's 366 off-the-bounce trey attempts were James Harden, Trae Young, Damian Lillard and Luka Doncic. At 34.4 percent on those shots, Graham was more accurate than both Doncic and Young.
Without exaggeration, the threat of Graham pulling up when defenders ducked under the screen in pick-and-roll sets defined Charlotte's offense. Just about everything that went right for the Hornets on that end of the floor started with their breakout point guard.
DPOY: Caleb Martin
From Feb. 10 until the hiatus, Charlotte played defense at a top-10 clip. Barely, but still.
If we're going to find a DPOY here, the decision has to be based on that stretch, rather than the portion of the season up through Feb. 9, during which the Hornets ranked 28th on D.
Caleb Martin played 262 of his 317 minutes after that Feb. 10 cutoff, and though some credit also belongs to twin brother Cody Martin and Jalen McDaniels, Charlotte's late-season defensive respectability is most closely tied to his insertion into the rotation.
The energetic wing posted block and steal rates above the 83rd percentile, and Charlotte's defensive rating was 11.3 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court.
Best Newcomer: P.J. Washington
Graham got his MVP shine, and he easily would have been the biggest surprise had we gone that route here. Instead, Charlotte's rookie forward gets the newcomer nod following a season in which he averaged 12.2 points, shot 37.4 percent from deep and handled himself well defensively for a rookie.
Washington turned in a solid year, but it's odd to note that he was never better than in his NBA debut, when he drilled seven threes and scored 27 points—both season highs.
Sneaky Clutch Award: Terry Rozier
Terry Rozier played 134 clutch minutes, which ranked just outside the top 10 leaguewide. In that relatively large chunk of high-leverage playing time, he shot a scalding 54.5 percent from the field and 45.5 percent from deep.
MVP: Zach LaVine
Zach LaVine's age-24 season included 25.5 points per game, 184 made threes and 2,085 minutes, all of which were career highs and tops on the Chicago Bulls.
Nobody will ever confuse the occasionally spacey wing for a stopper, but LaVine was more attentive on D than in years past. He still has a long way to go on that end, as evidenced by the fact that Chicago's defense was 7.2 points per 100 possessions stingier when LaVine sat.
The Bulls offense desperately needed his playmaking and shot creation, though, and his presence on the floor significantly improved their offensive efficiency for the second straight year.
DPOY: Kris Dunn
A terror on the ball and even more dangerous jumping the passing lanes, Kris Dunn's 2019-20 efforts solidified his position as one of the top defensive guards in the league. Among players who logged at least 500 minutes, Dunn led the league in deflections per 36 minutes.
Chicago's trapping scheme played to the 6'3" Dunn's strengths, freeing him to operate with extreme aggression. Best of all, he proved capable of checking bigger wings—a life-saver considering the defensive limitations of the Bulls' other options.
Best Newcomer: Coby White
Coby White embraced the bench-chucker role as a rookie, pushing the tempo and hunting shots at every opportunity. His 13.2 points per game were tied for seventh among rookies, and no first-year player got up more than his 376 three-point attempts prior to the league shutdown.
With three consecutive 30-point games and at least 19 points in each of his final nine contests, White appeared to be hitting his stride just before play halted. If he carries that through to next season, the Bulls won't have to wonder where their second-unit scoring will come from. Though he'd be a rough fit alongside LaVine, White could even crack next year's starting five if he improves his vision and defense.
Test of Patience Award: Lauri Markkanen
Injuries played a part in Lauri Markkanen's year-three stagnation, but that excuse isn't exactly encouraging. The 7-foot floor-stretcher has had a hard time staying healthy since he entered the league.
It isn't as though Markkanen cratered; he averaged 14.7 points and 6.3 rebounds while slightly upping his three-point attempt frequency. That isn't bad for an age-22 season, but it's still hard to view the Finnisher's third year as anything but a disappointment.
Players with Markkanen's size, skill and shooting ability don't come along often. He still has every chance to be a major offensive difference-maker. The Bulls would be wise to stay patient, but the clock's ticking.
MVP: Larry Nance Jr.
Kevin Love has a case here, but Larry Nance Jr. made a larger statistical impact on the Cleveland Cavaliers' limited success this season. FiveThirtyEight's RAPTOR has him atop Cleveland's leaderboard with 2.9 wins above replacement, and the 27-year-old narrowly edges out Love in Basketball Reference's win-share calculation despite having played 308 fewer minutes than the Cavs' biggest name.
Nance averaged 10.1 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.2 assists in 26.3 minutes per game, leading the Cavs in on-off differential among players who logged at least 1,000 minutes on the year.
One of the better passing bigs in the league, Nance also still has enough athleticism to impact the game on D, where his mobility produced a high steal rate. That he also nearly doubled his three-point frequency and canned 35.2 percent of 2.8 attempts per game is an added bonus.
DPOY: Matthew Dellavedova
Cleveland's defensive rating was 8.7 points per 100 possessions better with Matthew Dellavedova hounding opposing guards. However, almost all of that swing is because Collin Sexton, one of the worst backcourt defenders in the league, generally didn't play when Delly did.
The Cavs allowed 114.8 points per 100 possessions overall, just two-tenths of a point clear of the Washington Wizards' league-worst pre-bubble figure. Dellavedova gets this nod by default.
Biggest Surprise: Andre Drummond
Do we need to go any further than saying "Andre Drummond is on this team"? The opportunity cost of adding the 26-year-old center was basically nothing, but it's no less shocking that the rebuilding Cavs added a two-time All-Star who wasn't even thought to be readily available when the deal went down in February.
Drummond is an old-school big man in a league nearly out of uses for that player type, but he's a world-class board-hoarder who can help a young team in need of an interior presence. There wasn't anything surprising about his production in eight games with Cleveland (17.5 points and 11.1 boards per game), but it may be a while before seeing him in a Cavs jersey doesn't elicit a double take.
We Hardly Knew Ye award: John Beilein
John Beilein's collegiate approach didn't resonate with professionals, as the 67-year-old former Michigan head coach resigned from his post with the Cavs on Feb. 19, exiting with a 14-40 record.
We're good on old-school college coaches for a while, right?
MVP: Luka Doncic
Luka Doncic now owns the only age-20 season with a usage rate above 30.0 percent and a true shooting percentage above 56.0 percent. In just his second year, he ascended to a level that demanded top-five MVP consideration and led the Dallas Mavericks to the highest offensive rating in NBA history.
That enough for a team MVP?
DPOY: Kristaps Porzingis
Dorian Finney-Smith was Dallas' best wing stopper, and Seth Curry is always underrated as a defensive pest, but Kristaps Porzingis still takes the cake as DPOY. Among players who defended at least 300 shots inside six feet this season, only five held opponents to a lower field-goal percentage than KP. The 2019-20 season also saw Porzingis post the best defensive rebound rate of his career by far.
Dallas was 3.0 points per 100 possessions better on D with Porzingis in the game, in large part because opponents consistently shot more mid-rangers and took fewer point-blank looks. That deterrent effect might be the best testament to Porzingis' impact.
Biggest Surprise: Tim Hardaway Jr.
It's easy to forget that Tim Hardaway Jr. was essentially the cost of doing business. The Mavs wanted Porzingis, and the New York Knicks used that opportunity to dump what at the time felt like Hardaway's bad salary.
Now, after a career season that included a career-best 40.7 percent three-point hit rate before the shutdown, Hardaway might be wise to decline his $19 million player option and test free agency. That would have been unthinkable a year ago.
Best Pivot Food Award: Jalen Brunson
Jalen Brunson's season ended a bit early because of shoulder surgery. That's all the more reason to remind the uninitiated of his very specific skill.
The lefty is a master of the pivot. Typically utilized on drives to his left, Brunson's space-creating maneuver, in which he plants his left foot hard and then spins all the way back around over his left shoulder, is proof there's a dominant post-up player trapped in the point guard's 6'1" frame.
The pivot clinic has been part of Brunson's game since college, but it remains one of the NBA's most underappreciated individual quirks.
MVP: Nikola Jokic
It took a few weeks, but once Nikola Jokic got into game shape, it was another all-systems-go campaign for the league's best passing center and criminally ignored clutch star.
Jokic led the Denver Nuggets in minutes, points, rebounds, assists and steals, saving his best for when games were on the line. Only Chris Paul and Trae Young scored more close-and-late points than Jokic, whose plus-64 net plus/minus in clutch situations ranked seventh in the league.
We agonize over the definition of "valuable" in leaguewide MVP conversations. Whether you fixate on individual stats or a player's specific worth to his team, Jokic's case is unassailable.
DPOY: Paul Millsap
Another year older and another quarter-step slower, Paul Millsap still had the savvy and competitiveness to grade out as Denver's best defender. Not to take anything away from Jokic, who remains better than his reputation on that end, but Millsap's impact was far easier to see.
Denver's defensive rating was 102.2 with Millsap on the court and 110.7 when he sat, and he led all regulars with a plus-2.1 defensive RAPTOR figure.
Best Newcomer: Michael Porter Jr.
Maybe some of Michael Porter Jr.'s bubble breakout is bleeding into our thinking here, but the redshirt rookie still did enough prior to the Orlando portion of the season to earn the Best Newcomer honor.
Prior to the shutdown, MPJ showcased an undeniable bucket-getting gift, averaging 7.5 points per game on 49.2 percent shooting from the field and 42.2 percent from deep. A ridiculously good rebounding forward who can get his own shot and operate just fine off the ball, Porter Jr. exploded when given a bigger role in Orlando. We should have seen it coming.
Please Ignore the Numbers Award: Jerami Grant
Jerami Grant led Denver in blocks and, in theory, checks all the boxes of an ideal Jokic frontcourt partner. Quick, switchable, athletic, a good cutter and capable of hitting threes on the catch, Grant showed off all of those traits while somehow failing to make a positive impact on Denver's bottom line.
The Nuggets were 11.2 points per 100 possessions better with Grant on the pine.
Denver gave up a first-rounder to get Grant and will likely hand him a raise this offseason when he opts out of the final year of his deal. It seems safest to trust his game and ignore the alarming on-off splits, but those numbers might give the Nuggets pause.
MVP and Biggest Surprise: Christian Wood
Let's roll these two into one and celebrate one of the more shocking leaps the league has seen in a while.
In a matter of months, Christian Wood went from being an underdog in a battle with Joe Johnson for the Detroit Pistons' final roster spot to, well...this.
Maturity issues dogged Wood as he bounced around the NBA, sipping cups of coffee with the Philadelphia 76ers, Charlotte Hornets, Milwaukee Bucks and New Orleans Pelicans. It's clear now that talent was never a question.
Wood was a dynamic bench contributor who erupted when given a larger role after the Drummond trade. He averaged 24.0 points and 9.6 rebounds with a 57.1/38.9/76.4 shooting split after the All-Star break and is now in line for a major free-agent payoff.
Detroit's comfortable leader in win shares, Wood's statistical case for team MVP is beyond dispute. That's hard to process from a player whose career seemed to be on the ropes in October.
DPOY: Bruce Brown
John Henson did admirable work in a short stint after the trade deadline, but Bruce Brown's massive edge in minutes (1,634 to 188) put him over the top in that comparison. At 6'4", Brown was a dominant shot-blocker and rebounder for his position, and his tenacity on D didn't wane as he occupied a larger role in his second season.
It has nothing to do with his defense, but Brown quietly hit 34.4 percent of his threes this season after making only 25.8 percent in 2018-19. If he sustains that, the Pistons will be able to keep a top-notch wing defender on the floor for 35 minutes per game without issue.
This Is Real Now Award: Derrick Rose
You could make a case that Derrick Rose deserved team MVP consideration, as his stewardship at the point led to a team-high plus-2.6 offensive RAPTOR rating.
Rose averaged 18.1 points and 5.6 assists per game, and Detroit's offense ran more smoothly with him on the court. This is now two straight years of Rose involving himself in the Sixth Man of the Year conversation, which suggests that after so many injury-ravaged and inefficient seasons, he's finally settled into a consistent and valuable role.
There were long stretches where it seemed like that wasn't going to be possible.
Golden State Warriors
MVP: Damion Lee
This is a tough call, because how valuable is anyone on a 15-50 team with the league's worst net rating?
Damion Lee's familiarity with the Golden State Warriors' movement-heavy, intuitive sets stood out for all of the wrong reasons, as the contrast indicated just how lost most of his teammates were on both ends. Golden State's net rating was only minus-4.1 with the 27-year-old wing on the floor, the most respectable figure produced by any Dub who logged at least 300 minutes.
With averages of 12.7 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.7 assists, Lee's stats are easily the least impressive of any team's MVP. But he was a reliable professional who understood his role and ultimately made the largest statistical contribution to winning during the Warriors' forgettable gap year.
DPOY: Draymond Green
One of this generation's greatest defenders, Draymond Green played the entire 2019-20 season at half speed. And he was still Golden State's most important piece on that end.
The Warriors were 5.8 points per 100 possessions less generous on D with Green in the game, and he still managed to lead the team in steals despite playing only the sixth-most minutes.
It was a mail-in year for Green, but he still rotated more intuitively and diagnosed opposing plays better than most of the league. It also didn't hurt that he had zero competition for this award.
Best Newcomer: Eric Paschall
The Warriors hit big on Eric Paschall in the second round, snagging a likely All-Rookie selection with the 41st pick.
Paschall, a powerfully built 6'6", overwhelmed defenders with bull-rush drives and explosive leaping around the rim. His ability to vault off two feet and cover a ton of lateral ground is a lot like Zion Williamson's—minus 30 pounds and, like, 50 percent of the athleticism.
Golden State's leader in total points, Paschall looks like a rotation weapon on a good team going forward, which is all the Warriors need him to be. Not bad at No. 41.
He's Still Got It Award: Stephen Curry
A broken left hand and a late-season illness limited the two-time MVP's season to only five games, but Stephen Curry showed enough in his season finale on March 5 to inspire confidence that he'll be the same dominant force in 2020-21.
Coming off a four-month absence, Curry scored 23 points in that eight-point loss to the Toronto Raptors, gleefully igniting his team's offense and terrifying the opposing defense as if he'd never missed a beat. In a lost season, it was encouraging to confirm the Warriors' best player hadn't lost his touch.
MVP: James Harden
The league's top scorer and runaway leader in free throws and threes, James Harden was, yet again, the single most valuable source of offense in the game.
As if slowly perfecting his shot profile, Harden's attempt rates from 10-16 and 16-23 feet trended down for the fifth straight season. Pretty soon, he'll only shoot layups, threes and free throws, possibly causing Daryl Morey and the Houston Rockets' analytically-focused staff to combust with pure joy.
Everything Houston does on offense is built around Harden and the threat of his step-back three.
DPOY: PJ Tucker
Robert Covington's hands are everywhere, and he has the best on-off defensive splits on the team. But PJ Tucker's been doing the dirty work all year, banging with centers and throwing his body around under the boards so Houston can stretch things out on the other end.
No Rockets player defended more isolation possessions than Tucker, who handled himself just fine when on an island against a point guard, a wing or a big. Fully switchable, exceptionally strong and as tough as they come, the 35-year-old Tucker matters more to Houston's defense than any other player.
Best Newcomer: Robert Covington
In 14 post-trade, pre-bubble games with the Rockets, the 6'7" Covington flew around the floor, grabbed 7.9 rebounds per game and, incredibly, blocked 2.5 shots per contest. Essentially Clint Capela's replacement in Houston's new five-out starting lineup, Covington, a wing his entire career, took care of big-man duties as effectively as a real center.
Add 35.7 percent shooting on 8.0 three-point attempts per game and unparalleled off-ball defense to the profile, and it's no wonder the Rockets were a changed team with him in the fold.
It Took Some Tinkering Award: Russell Westbrook
The Rockets figured out how to extract maximum value from a hyperaggressive point guard who couldn't shoot, and all they had to do was scrap decades of positional norms. After a rough start to the year, Westbrook thrived in five-out looks that unlocked his attack-mode offense.
Russ finished the pre-bubble season ranked third in the league with 15.2 paint points per game, but that undersells his close-range surge. He led the league in points in the paint from Feb. 1 on and even scored a ridiculous 234 over a 10-game span. Shaquille O'Neal stuff, basically.
With no opposing center in the lane as a last line of defense, Westbrook regained his form as a devastating driver.
MVP: Domantas Sabonis
RAPTOR has him third on the team in WAR, and it's true he benefited from the spacing provided by teammate Myles Turner, but there's no denying Domantas Sabonis' value to the Indiana Pacers.
Whether banging inside or operating as a handoff hub, Sabonis keyed Indy's attack. He averaged 18.5 points, 12.4 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game while shooting 54.0 percent from the field in his first All-Star season. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Bam Adebayo were the only other players to tally at least 700 rebounds and 300 assists on the year.
DPOY: Myles Turner
Opponents shot only 50.6 percent inside six feet when Turner was the primary defender, a 11.0 percentage-point decrease in expected conversion rate. That's a massive figure, and one made even more significant by the fact that Turner also defended a team-high 423 such shots on the season.
Turner's block rate ranked above the 90th percentile for the fifth straight season, and he turned in 13 games with at least four swats, the third-highest total in the league.
Best Newcomer: T.J. Warren
With bubble stats included, T.J. Warren might have stolen the team MVP from Sabonis. His Orlando explosion, kicked off by a 53-point outburst against the Philadelphia 76ers on Aug. 1, emphasized the growth in his offensive game.
Acquired (now infamously) for cash considerations, Warren added volume to his three-point game and developed into a useful defender during the 2019-20 season. With a preexisting knack for isolation scoring and a dialed-in mid-range game, Warren essentially turned into a complete two-way wing at the age of 26.
Pay That Man Award: Justin Holiday
Justin Holiday was at least a half-serious consideration for each of the preceding three awards.
Though his scoring average of 8.4 points per game ranks only second on the Pacers among Holidays, the 6'6" swingman provided massive value during his age-30 season. With 42.4 percent shooting from distance, the most reliable wing defense on the team and a 4.3 RAPTOR WAR that tied for second on the team with Sabonis, Holiday contributed in meaningful ways across the board.
Does anyone know if there's a free-agent market for wings who can hit threes and wrangle top options on defense?
Los Angeles Clippers
MVP and DPOY: Kawhi Leonard
He played only 51 pre-bubble games in a load-managed season, but Kawhi Leonard was still the Los Angeles Clippers' MVP.
Despite organizational caution, Leonard still ranked third on the Clips with 1,643 minutes and led them in scoring. After coasting through the early part of the year, the two-time DPOY also proved he was still a high-end stopper capable of flipping the shutdown switch on command.
Improved passing and career-best accuracy from the foul line were added bonuses. Had Leonard played a few hundred more minutes, he would have gotten (and deserved) serious league MVP buzz.
Best Newcomer: Paul George
Shoulder troubles kept Paul George on the sidelines for L.A.'s first 11 games, but he looked every bit the elite 1B option upon his return in mid-November. With averages of 21.7 points, 5.9 rebounds and 3.7 assists, George filled up the stat sheet while also playing his typical arachnid defense: arms everywhere, all the time.
Los Angeles was outscored in more than 1,000 possessions with George on the floor and Leonard off, removing any serious MVP consideration for PG.
The Usurper Award: Montrezl Harrell
Sixth Man of the Year is supposed to belong to Lou Williams, and the three-time winner might collect his fourth honor this year. He shouldn't, though. Montrezl Harrell was the best reserve on the Clippers—and in the league.
He averaged 18.6 points and 7.1 rebounds while hitting 58.0 percent of his shots from the field in games played through March 11. Ever a devastating threat as a roll man, Harrell's pick-and-roll points per possession ranked in the 82nd percentile. Leonard was the only Clipper to score more efficiently in isolation.
His defense and poor rebounding might prevent him from seeing the highest-leverage postseason minutes, but Harrell was fantastic in his role this season.
Los Angeles Lakers
MVP: LeBron James
LeBron James led the NBA in assists per game and was essentially the sole determinant of whether the Los Angeles Lakers' offense hummed or seized up. Taking him off the floor resulted in a scoring efficiency decline of 8.1 points per 100 possessions.
Possible signs of athletic decline emerged in James' shot profile, as he took shots at the rim less frequently than in any of the previous four seasons and posted his highest ever three-point-attempt rate. As the bounce goes, average shot distance tends to increase. It's normal, even for all-timers like James.
With that said, LeBron is an MVP finalist. If he isn't at the absolute peak of his powers, he's still close enough to reach apex level in spurts. Expect more of that when the playoffs start.
DPOY: Anthony Davis
Anthony Davis set a new career high in defensive box plus/minus and keyed a Lakers defense that ranked third in the league. Opponents shot only 50.0 percent inside six feet when Davis was the primary defender, the 11th-lowest rate allowed among the 93 players who defended at least 200 such shots.
Though the Lakers honored Davis' preference not to play the 5 full time, things went just fine on defense with him at center. L.A. held opponents to 106.5 points per 100 possessions in those lineups, close to the 105.5 it produced overall. When playing the 4, his primary position, Davis still offered terrific rim protection while giving nothing away on the perimeter. His quickness and length made him a viable switch option against guards and wings. Among Lakers who defended at least 50 isolation possessions, only James allowed a lower points-per-possession figure than AD.
Biggest Surprise: Dwight Howard
Coming off a nine-game 2018-19 campaign and joining his fifth team in five years, Dwight Howard had all of the hallmarks of a player whose utility had expired. The surprise was that he wasn't washed after all.
Prior to the shutdown, Howard averaged 14.1 points, 13.8 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per 36 minutes while shooting an absurd 73.2 percent from the floor. Renewed energy and the willingness to embrace a supporting role saved Howard, and he's now an important piece of a title contender. Few saw that coming when he signed a one-year, nonguaranteed deal with the Lakers last August.
More than a Highlight Award: Alex Caruso
Headbanded cult hero Alex Caruso showed the ability to trend like few role players during the 2019-20 season, but his contributions to the Lakers were about more than the occasional steal-and-dunk or out-of-nowhere-follow-slam sequence.
L.A. was 5.0 points per 100 possessions better with Caruso on the floor, largely due to the defensive chaos that accompanied his insertion into the game.
MVP: Ja Morant
The Memphis Grizzlies had a handful of players with better on-off differentials than their rookie point guard, but Ja Morant was a net-positive player in his first year. That's rare on its own but even more eye-catching in light of his enormous role.
The lead guard and offensive engine from the jump, Morant's vertigo-inducing athleticism, sui generis ball-handling and advanced vision produced highlights and carried the Grizz into the bubble as the West's No. 8 seed. He hit the shutdown with averages of 17.6 points and 6.9 assists, both team highs.
That would be fine work coming from a veteran. From a rookie, it's franchise-altering.
DPOY: De'Anthony Melton
A destructive defensive force who ranked fifth in the NBA in deflections per 36 minutes (among those logging at least 500 total minutes), the 6'2" De'Anthony Melton harassed ball-handlers, disrupted passing lanes and rebounded like a forward.
Opponent turnover rates spiked with Melton on the floor, and despite his relentless pursuit of basketballs (both possessed by the other team and in loose-ball form), Melton's foul rate was ridiculously low.
Biggest Surprise: Jaren Jackson Jr.
If you watched Jaren Jackson Jr. as a rookie, you knew he had potential to stretch the floor at the 5. But you probably didn't envision him becoming one of the league's most deadly frontcourt shooting threats by his second season.
That transformative step, which saw Jackson go from taking 24.1 percent of his shots from distance as a rookie to 48.9 percent this year, is just as meaningful for Memphis' future as Morant's undeniable stardom. In fact, the two are linked; Jackson pulls bigs out of the lane, and Morant, wide-eyed with joy, gets to attack a lightly defended rim.
Jackson canned 39.7 percent of his treys prior to the shutdown, shooting off the catch and on the move like a guard. Don't be surprised if he spends his third season drilling triples off the bounce once he recovers from his torn meniscus.
Good Luck Guarding That Award: Brandon Clarke ('s Floater)
Rookie Brandon Clarke's off-the-charts bounce made him a perfect transition buddy for Morant, but the springy forward's signature shot is one typically associated with smaller guards or wings who don't have the lift to score over larger defenders.
Yep, one of the league's highest risers also owns a feather-soft floater.
It's a perfect weapon because rim-protectors have to lay back and load up to meet Clarke at the top of what they expect to be a highlight dunk attempt. That gives the 6'8" forward all the room he needs to stop short, rise up over the top of even the biggest defenders, and flip in a cheapie from 6-10 feet.
MVP: Jimmy Butler
The 2019-20 version of Jimmy Butler, which featured absolutely zero perimeter shooting but more facilitation and foul-drawing, was a little different but no less effective than what we've come to expect from the five-time All-Star.
Butler led the Heat with pre-bubble averages of 20.1 points and 6.1 assists, and his dramatic increase in free-throw attempts (career-high 9.1 per game) resulted in a true shooting percentage that was surprisingly above his career average.
It's still a shooter's league, but Butler proved you don't necessarily need a jumper to dominate.
DPOY: Bam Adebayo
Fully switchable and still capable of defending the basket, Bam Adebayo led the Heat in Defensive RAPTOR rating, total blocks and total defensive rebounds.
An All-Star for the first time, Adebayo's win here undersells his contributions. In addition to high-end defense at the center spot, the third-year big man also solidified himself as one of the best ball-handlers and passers at his position. He and Giannis Antetokounmpo were the only players to average at least 10.0 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 1.0 block per game this season.
Biggest Surprise: Duncan Robinson
Duncan Robinson had played only 15 professional games prior to this season, so his sticking on a roster for a full year would have been a surprise in and of itself.
He did a bit more than that by becoming as dangerous and defense-warping of a perimeter threat as there is in the league, hitting 44.5 percent of his 8.4 long-range tries per game.
The only player season in league history with more accurate shooting on at least that many attempts was Stephen Curry's historic 2015-16 campaign. So Robinson's 2019-20 season was the best high-volume three-point shooting effort of all time...not produced by a unanimous MVP.
Throw It Down, Literally, Award: Derrick Jones Jr.
Derrick Jones Jr. deserves credit for keying the Heat's zone defense and racking up gaudy block and steal rates for a forward. But a penchant for throwing the ball downward through the bucket without touching the rim (sometimes failing spectacularly in the attempt) made him one of the most exciting players in the league.
Few nicknames have ever been more apt than Jones' Airplane Mode.
MVP and DPOY: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Giannis Antetokounmpo hit the bubble with averages of 29.6 points, 13.7 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game. We've seen those averages in three previous seasons, but never in as few as his 30.9 minutes per game.
The Milwaukee Bucks spent much of the season on pace to win 70 games, and Antetokounmpo put them on that track with box-score dominance and potentially award-worthy defense. He might have been the best rim-protector in the league, playing a vital role in Milwaukee's NBA-best defense.
In an alternate universe in which the season went the full 82 games under normal circumstances (and Antetokounmpo hadn't tweaked his knee just prior to the shutdown), this might have been the most complete regular-season performance in league history. As it is, Antetokounmpo is in position to become only the third player to win MVP and DPOY in the same year.
Best Newcomer: Donte DiVincenzo
We're going to fudge the newcomer designation to get Donte DiVincenzo, who played a minimal role in 27 injury-plagued games last year, some shine.
The healthy version of the Bucks guard nosed his way into the Sixth Man of the Year conversation with elite rebounding, locked-in defense, hustle and just enough three-point shooting (34.4 percent on 3.7 attempts per game). Contenders prolong their windows by drafting and developing low-cost, team-controlled rotation gems like DiVincenzo.
Slept On Award: Khris Middleton
Khris Middleton was a top-10 player in the league this season. Sorry if you missed it.
Milwaukee's second option performed like an alpha all year, threatening the vaunted 50/40/90 split while producing exceptional results when on the floor without Antetokounmpo. More than a spot-up shooter, Middleton crushed it as a pick-and-roll ball-handler and held his own in isolation.
He's one of the most overlooked stars in the league.
MVP: Karl-Anthony Towns
The 29 games Karl-Anthony Towns missed weren't enough to disqualify him from an award that really couldn't have gone to anybody else. Andrew Wiggins and Robert Covington were the Minnesota Timberwolves' second- and third-most productive players, and neither finished the season with the team. Besides, Towns more than doubled the win-share total of any other Minnesota player.
KAT's presence on the court juiced the Wolves' offensive rating by 11.5 points per 100 possessions, a product of his complete three-level scoring skill set. No true center came close to matching Towns' 41.2 percent on 7.9 three-point attempts per game.
Towns' defense was hit or miss yet again, but there isn't enough competition for this award for that to matter.
DPOY: Robert Covington
Josh Okogie is one of only two holdovers (KAT is the other) from the pre-Gersson Rosas days, and he stuck around on the strength of his defense. But Covington topped the Wolves in total steals and blocks while also leading in defensive win shares despite exiting via trade after 48 games.
Best Newcomer: Malik Beasley
Acquired from the Nuggets with Juancho Hernangomez, Malik Beasley did all he could to solidify his presence in Minnesota's future. The Wolves will have to sign Beasley to a new deal or match an outside offer sheet in restricted free agency. After watching him score 20.7 points per game and stripe 42.6 percent of his threes in a 14-game audition, the Timberwolves have good reason to keep him around.
We're Committed Now Award: D'Angelo Russell
D'Angelo Russell logged only a dozen games with the Wolves, offering high-volume, moderate efficiency offense as expected. He didn't get a chance to develop pick-and-pop chemistry with Towns, but it seems safe to assume that pairing will do some damage on offense.
With that said, Minnesota's commitment to cornerstones with defensive reputations as shoddy as Russell's and Towns' means this team is going all-in on offense. Okogie can't guard everybody, so the Wolves will be defined by their offense. Russell's acquisition sets that in stone.
New Orleans Pelicans
MVP and DPOY: Jrue Holiday
Brandon Ingram blossomed into a No. 1 scoring option and made the All-Star Game, but Jrue Holiday's two-way play provided more overall statistical value to the New Orleans Pelicans. He led the team with 8.1 RAPTOR WAR and boosted the New Orleans Pelicans' net rating by 5.0 points per 100 possessions—tough to do when you spend almost all of your court time matching minutes with the opponent's biggest threats.
Holiday averaged 19.6 points, 6.9 assists and 4.9 rebounds prior to the bubble, terrific numbers made all the more impressive in light of the guard's defensive responsibilities. Few players spent more time guarding elite opposing scorers. Despite those major obligations, Holiday still somehow had the energy to lead the league in total deflections.
Biggest Surprise: Brandon Ingram
Specifically, Ingram's spike in three-point volume stands as the Pels' biggest surprise. The willowy forward's breakout stemmed mainly from a newfound willingness to fire (and hit) from long range. In 2018-19, Ingram took only 1.8 threes in 33.8 minutes per contest. This season, prior to the bubble, Ingram averaged 6.3 deep tries in a nearly identical 34.3 minutes per game.
That Ingram managed to up his hit rate from 33.0 to 38.7 percent on over triple the volume validates the sustainability of his shooting leap.
Zion Williamson Needs An Award Award: Zion Williamson
This could also have been called the "Most Likely to Accidentally Body Check An Opponent Through the Stanchion" or the "Did My Screen Just Glitch, Because How Can Someone That Big Be That Quick?" award, but we can all agree Zion Williamson has to get some acknowledgement.
His defense was unwatchably poor, and it now seems unrealistic to imagine Williamson's long-term future is at center, but the sheer spectacle of watching a rookie physically dominate seasoned pros deserves recognition.
Few 2020-21 prospects are more tantalizing than a full season of healthy Zion.
New York Knicks
MVP and DPOY: Mitchell Robinson
Fouls remained a problem in Mitchell Robinson's second season (6.7 personals per 100 possessions, the third-highest figure in the league among players logging at least 1,400 minutes), but the lanky center did enough in his age-21 season to sweep the New York Knicks' top two awards.
Robinson led New York in box plus/minus, win shares and VORP, and the team was outscored by only 2.9 points per 100 possession when he was on the floor, the best mark of any Knicks player. That's a modest achievement, but we're dealing in relative terms here. For the Knicks, the least-bad player is technically the best.
Here's hoping New York trusts Robinson to start and crack the 30-minute mark next season. His shot-blocking and vertical spacing as a lob threat, which led to a league-best 74.2 percent shooting from the field, are too valuable to keep on the bench for fear of foul trouble.
Biggest Surprise: Elfrid Payton
Elfrid Payton averaged only 10.0 points per game on a ghastly 47.0 true shooting percentage, but the sixth-year point guard mattered more to the Knicks' success than anyone but Robinson. On a team in desperate need of offensive leadership, Payton was better than anyone at providing it.
The Knicks logged 11 games in which a player compiled at least 10 assists, and Payton was responsible for nine of them. Their offensive rating leapt by 8.2 points per 100 possessions with Payton on the floor, a team high.
It's easy to look good when the positional competition is so weak; Frank Ntilikina and Dennis Smith Jr. didn't perform at an NBA level this year. But it's no less surprising that the Knicks got so much value from a player with such uninspiring individual numbers.
We Go Into the Bear Pit Award: Tom Thibodeau
The Knicks hired head coach Tom Thibodeau prior to the conclusion of the 2019-20 league year, so we're going to count this.
Whether you want to apply the metaphor directly to Thibs, in the sense that becoming the Knicks' head coach seems about as easy as diving into a zoo enclosure full of grizzlies, or flip it and say all of the young Knicks players are the ones in for a mauling under the notoriously demanding Thibodeau (I guess he's the bear in that scenario?), the parallel works.
It remains to be seen if the Knicks will immediately regret this decision.
Oklahoma City Thunder
MVP: Chris Paul
We have to start with clutch scoring, which defined both Chris Paul's and the Oklahoma City Thunder's season.
CP3 led the league in total clutch minutes and points, and the only two players with higher net-positive on-off differentials were teammates Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder. Among those who attempted at least 50 shots in close-and-late situations, Paul's 67.0 true shooting percentage ranked second in the NBA to Charlotte's Terry Rozier.
The Thunder went a league-best 29-13 in games that featured scores within five points in the final five minutes, producing an otherworldly plus-30.2 net rating. Paul, who averaged 17.7 points, 6.8 assists and 4.9 rebounds in a renaissance age-34 season, had more to do with the astounding clutch performance that drove OKC's surprising season.
DPOY: Nerlens Noel
Despite starting only seven of the 59 pre-bubble games in which he played, Nerlens Noel led OKC in blocks and finished third in steals. Quick off the floor and adept at deflecting passes since the moment he entered the league, Noel ranked above the 94th percentile in steal rate among bigs for the sixth consecutive year.
Though he isn't the same physically imposing presence inside as teammate Steven Adams, Noel was a touch better as a shot-alterer. He held opponents to 53.0 percent shooting inside six feet (Adams was at 53.1 percent), a figure that ranked just outside the top 10 leaguewide among players who defended at least 300 shots at that range.
Best Newcomer: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
SGA led the Thunder in pre-bubble points (19.3) and minutes (35.1) per game, upping both his true shooting percentage and usage rate from his rookie-year levels while also demonstrably improving his foul-drawing craft. Truly exceptional in the change-of-pace department, Gilgeous-Alexander kept defenders off balance with an array of hesitation and oddly timed moves, getting to the line 5.0 times per game, way up from the 2.4 free throws he attempted with the Clippers in 2018-29.
Farm-Related Steven Adams Quote Award: Steven Adams
Nobody has a higher success rate in media scrums than Adams, who increased his insurmountable league lead in quality quotes all year. It may not have been his best, but Adams' comment on his agrarian leanings during the hiatus deserves a nod.
"It was relaxing, mate. I was on the farm doing farm work, got a bit of a farmer’s tan going on for a little bit," Adams said in a conference call with reporters in early July. "The cows are doing good."
MVP: Nikola Vucevic
The Orlando Magic posted a minus-0.4 net rating with Nikola Vucevic on the floor, which seems underwhelming for a team MVP, but that number was actually the best on the team among players who started at least 40 games.
Vooch's presence on the court coincided with 7.1-point bump in offensive rating. He was the main driver of scoring for a Magic team that went into the bubble ranked 24th on that end. Without his team-high 19.5 points per game (not to mention 3.7 assists), Orlando would have gone from bad to abysmal on offense.
Low-end playoff squads need floor-raisers, and Vucevic fit that bill better than anyone else on the roster.
DPOY: Jonathan Isaac
Jonathan Isaac played only 949 pre-bubble minutes, the seventh-highest total on the team, yet he still managed to rank second in blocks and fourth in steals on the Magic. The advanced metrics are even better indicators of Isaac's clear status as Orlando's best defender. His plus-4.7 Defensive RAPTOR rating was far and away the best on the Magic and tied for fourth-highest in the entire league.
Isaac and Nerlens Noel were the only players this season to play at least 900 minutes with a block rate above 7.0 percent and a steal rate north of 2.0 percent.
The torn ACL Isaac suffered in the bubble will likely cost him most or all of the 2020-21 season, which is a colossal bummer in a hugely promising but already injury-riddled career.
Biggest Surprise: Markelle Fultz
Markelle Fultz started 59 games this year after appearing in only 33 games during his two seasons with the Philadelphia 76ers.
Though Fultz shot only 25.4 percent from deep, he was above the league average in overall field-goal percentage and utilized his size to play passable backcourt defense. Third-year averages of 12.1 points and 5.2 assists aren't what you'd hope to see from a typical No. 1 pick, but Fultz's career has been far from typical. His consistent presence in an NBA rotation has to count as a pleasant surprise.
What Logjam? Award: Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba
Remember when the Magic had too many promising players at the 4/5 position to give them all the minutes and roles they needed? With Isaac's knee injury, Mo Bamba's failure to make a major impact in his second season and Gordon's stagnation on offense, Orlando might not have any projectable stars at those spots.
Gordon remains perma-trade bait, but if Orlando moves him now, it won't be because Isaac and Bamba are ready to take over. It'll be because the Magic suddenly need more depth in the frontcourt. Life comes at you fast, and logjams don't last forever.
MVP: Joel Embiid
Though his point, rebound, assist and block averages all took slight per-minute dips in what could fairly be described as a disappointing year, Joel Embiid was still the Philadelphia 76ers' most valuable player.
Evidence of a high bar: Pre-bubble averages of 23.4 points, 11.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.3 blocks constituted a "down season" for the 76ers overpowering center.
No Sixers regular had a more positive on-off differential than Embiid, who also led his team in box plus/minus. Philadelphia is simply a different (read: better) team whenever Embiid is on the floor and engaged.
DPOY: Ben Simmons
Opponents' attempt frequency at the rim fell off a cliff with Embiid in the game, giving him a legitimate case to be Philly's DPOY over Ben Simmons. But the Sixers' versatile 6'10" forward/guard/whatever owned an edge over all of his teammates in defensive win shares, and he arguably had a more taxing gig than Embiid, Josh Richardson, Matisse Thybulle or any other potential candidate.
It's tough to wrangle a superstar wing on one possession and wrestle down low with a big man on the next, but Simmons did it all season. His league-leading 2.1 steals were the product of length, anticipation and a free safety's closing speed. An anonymous poll of 33 coaches conducted by The Athletic in July validated Simmons' status as a top-flight defensive weapon, handing him unofficial status as an All-Defensive first-teamer.
Best Newcomer: Matisse Thybulle
An absolute ball hawk with "gimme that" hands, Thybulle's rookie performance was as advertised, typified by trailing blocks, strips and deflections galore. He just finds the rock wherever it is, and then he takes it.
That Didn't Go As Planned Award: Al Horford
The Sixers had a negative net rating when Al Horford played with Embiid. Though the high-priced vet looked better as a backup when teamed with Simmons, it's hardly ideal when a massive acquisition basically can't coexist with the franchise cornerstone.
Horford posted the lowest true shooting percentage of his career and struggled to find a clean fit all season.
MVP: Devin Booker
Devin Booker took the next step in what now appears to be an evolution toward superstardom, piling up 26.1 points on career-best scoring efficiency while also handing out 6.1 assists before hitting the bubble.
The bigger development for the born scorer came on D, where Booker finally applied himself more regularly and moved out of "target this guy on every play" territory. Though his block and steal rates remained poor for his position, Booker competed harder defensively than he did in any previous year. As a result, he made the first of what could be double-digit All-Star appearances and easily led the Phoenix Suns in win shares.
DPOY: Mikal Bridges
Phoenix's second-year wing established himself as one of the league's best young defenders, ranking in the 95th percentile in steal rate at his position and crushing every Suns teammate in NBA Math's Defensive Points Saved metric.
He doesn't get credit for this, but the 6'6" forward was one of the only guys who seemed to bother T.J. Warren during his scorching bubble streak, holding him to only 16 points on 7-of-20 shooting after Warren had piled up 119 points in his first three on-campus contests.
Biggest Surprise: Deandre Ayton ('s Defense)
After missing 25 games early in the season due to a PED suspension, Deandre Ayton wowed everyone by quickly proving he'd taken the lessons of his rookie year to heart. Ayton was constantly lost on D in his first season, struggling to defend either the ball-handler or the roller in pick-and-roll sets and generally failing to end up in the positions demanded by Phoenix's schemes.
Not so this year, as Ayton held opposing shooters to 52.9 percent at the rim, a massive improvement from the 62.9 percent he permitted as a rookie. As a result, the Suns were 3.1 points per 100 possessions better on defense when he played.
The defensive jump from hopeless to demonstrably positive is tough to make in one year. That bodes well for the future of the 2018 No. 1 overall pick.
Steady As Ever Award: Ricky Rubio
Call him a caretaker if you want. Throw in game manager if you feel the need to get backhanded with your Ricky Rubio compliments. Just don't forget that the steady, defense-and-pass-first point guard juiced the Suns' net rating by more than any rotation regular in his first season with the team.
Rubio's unwillingness to shoot when open and struggles finishing inside make him imperfect, but that decidedly does not mean "bad." Booker, Ayton and Bridges will always get the most credit, but Rubio had as big of a hand in the Suns' moderate success as anyone.
Portland Trail Blazers
MVP: Damian Lillard
The pre-bubble stats—28.9 points, 7.8 assists and 40.1 percent shooting on 7.3 pull-up triple attempts per game—are more than enough to earn Damian Lillard team MVP honors. But when you throw in his unflagging leadership during a season in which Zach Collins joined Jusuf Nurkic on the injured list three games into the season and Rodney Hood went down with a torn Achilles in early December, Dame rises to a whole other level.
Lillard was stellar throughout his age-29 campaign, making the All-Star team for a third straight season. That run he had from Jan. 17 to Feb. 7, though? In which he averaged 40.9 points over an 11-game span? That's one we're going to be talking about for a while.
DPOY: Hassan Whiteside
Portland was rotten all year defensively, hitting the bubble ranked 27th in points allowed per possession. But defensive rebounds matter, and Whiteside grabbed more of those than anyone on the team, averaging 10.2 defensive boards per game prior to the hiatus.
Whiteside also swatted 3.1 shots per contest and held opponents to 49.3 percent shooting inside six feet, the best figure of any rim-protector credited with at least 200 field goals defended from that range.
Biggest Surprise/Best Newcomer: Carmelo Anthony
A dual award for the man presumed by most to be finished!
Carmelo Anthony put up 15.3 points per game and shot 37.1 percent from deep in 50 pre-bubble games with the Blazers, rejuvenating a career that needed some new life. Defensively, Melo didn't help. But that's beside the point. If you aren't impressed by a 35-year-old, off-the-street signee producing in a starting role, you have to reevaluate some things.
I Knew He Had It In Him Award: Gary Trent Jr.
Gary Trent Jr.'s true breakout came in the bubble, but it's still remarkable that a total non-shooter (23.8 percent from deep as a rookie) developed into a knockdown marksman in his second season. Trent drilled 38.8 percent of his treys prior to the shutdown.
Or, was it remarkable?
Trent shot 40.2 percent from the college arc and hit 87.6 percent of his foul shots during his lone season at Duke, so maybe this was inevitable. The Blazers have a useful three-and-D wing now, so they'll take it either way.
MVP: De'Aaron Fox
Head coach Luke Walton disconcertingly took the Sacramento Kings out of the running game that made them so dangerous and exciting in 2018-19, and that stylistic change minimized De'Aaron Fox's unmatched open-floor speed.
Nonetheless, the Kings' offense was at its best with Fox on the floor, and he led the team in points, assists and steals per game.
That superstar leap is coming, possibly as soon as next year if Fox can put together a fully healthy season.
DPOY: Nemanja Bjelica
Kent Bazemore played terrific, high-energy defense in his abbreviated stint after a trade from the Blazers, but Cory Joseph logged over three times as many minutes with Sacramento. If the award had to go to a guard, Joseph and his dogged on-ball defense would deserve it.
But it doesn't have to go to a guard, so Nemanja Bjelica and his team-best advanced-stat profile takes a surprising win.
Bjelica graded out as a quality (and hugely underrated) defensive player after the 2018-19 campaign as well. Maybe it shouldn't be such a shock to see him repeat that feat, leading the Kings in contested shots and finishing a single deflection behind the speedy Fox.
Though short on quickness, the 6'10" Bjelica made up for it with great timing and deft hands. Overall, he topped the Kings in defensive win shares and defensive rebounds.
Biggest Surprise: Richaun Holmes
Second on the team in win shares and sporting pre-bubble averages of 12.8 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.4 blocks on 65.4 percent shooting, Richaun Holmes was one of the best-value signings of the 2019 offseason. Inked for two years at just under $10 million, the 26-year-old center was a solid defensive presence whose inimitable floater game also made him a valuable offensive weapon.
If It Ain't Broke, Fix It Anyway Award: Luke Walton
The Kings were one of the NBA's most exciting offenses in 2018-19, sparked by Fox and the league's highest transition frequency, not to mention the No. 4 offensive rating in runout situations. In the pre-bubble portion of the 2019-20 season, the Kings slipped to 20th and 11th in those two stats, respectively, sucking the fun out of their games and producing worse overall results in the process.
It's understandable that Walton wanted to emphasize better ball security and defense on a Kings team that fancied itself ready to compete more seriously. But by doing so, he defanged a fearsome attack.
San Antonio Spurs
MVP: DeMar DeRozan
DeMar DeRozan has never played much defense, and the refusal to shoot threes means the former Toronto Raptor will always feel like a dinosaur. However, he shouldered the biggest load and provided the San Antonio Spurs' most consistent source of scoring all season.
DeRozan averaged 22.2 points and shot 52.6 percent from the field, schooling defenders with his in-between and mid-post attacks. No Spurs player logged more minutes, scored more points or attempted even half as many free throws.
There are several Spurs who graded out better by more advanced metrics, but none of them could have handled the responsibilities or provided the reliable offense DeRozan did.
DPOY: Jakob Poeltl
The Spurs' leader with 3.1 blocks per 36 minutes, Jakob Poeltl's presence on the floor coincided with a 4.6-point improvement in defensive rating.
More mobile in space than his frame would suggest, the fourth-year center also led San Antonio in defensive box plus/minus.
Biggest Surprise: Dejounte Murray
To be precise, the biggest surprise was Dejounte Murray's three-point percentage, which sat at a healthy 37.8 percent on 90 attempts before the hiatus. There are no questions about Murray's length, quickness and defensive potential, but he took only 34 threes and made 26.5 percent of them in 2017-18. Perhaps the lost year recovering from a torn ACL gave Murray the confidence (and time) he needed to reshape his shooting stroke.
San Antonio has to feel good about its point guard's progress in that critical area.
Still a Bucket Award: LaMarcus Aldridge
In his age-34 season, LaMarcus Aldridge remained a high-volume post-up option who could still score with better-than-average efficiency. But he also significantly upped his three-point volume to a career-high 3.0 attempts per game, hitting 38.9 percent from distance.
Aldridge's 18.9 points per game were his fewest since 2016-17, but the addition of deeper range suggests he's going to have increased staying power as a useful offensive weapon.
MVP: Kyle Lowry
Toronto's leader in VORP, win shares, box plus/minus, floor burns, perfect passing-lane angles taken, timely drawn shooting fouls, charges absorbed and virtually every other on-the-margins leadership contribution you could possibly want from a veteran star, Kyle Lowry all but assured himself a statue outside Scotiabank Arena with his play this season.
Lowry averaged 19.7 points, 7.7 assists and 4.8 rebounds heading into the Disney bubble, but those figures barely scratch the surface of his impact.
DPOY: OG Anunoby
It's hard to isolate an individual player on a defense so tied together and cooperative. Marc Gasol quarterbacks the operation, Lowry caroms around like a pinball with a homing device tracking the ball, Pascal Siakam disrupts wherever he goes and Fred VanVleet is as irritating of an on-ball pest as there is in the league.
But OG Anunoby, Toronto's leader in defensive win shares and quietly the best young wing stopper in the game, gets the recognition here.
There aren't many wings with Anunoby's combination of length, quickness and strength. When his man moves around the floor, Anunoby sticks with him like a shadow—if a shadow could also knock you over with the slightest nudge. He's unscreenable, capable of banging with bigs down low and downright intimidating when digging down in a stance for an isolation clash.
Anunoby might be the most complete on-on-one defender in the league.
Biggest Surprise: Pascal Siakam
One leap would have sufficed, but Siakam made a second in 2019-20. This one mattered more, as the 2018-19 Most Improved Player vaulted from high-end rotation weapon to full-blown star.
Siakam's vastly expanded off-the-dribble game and individual shot creation were brand new this year, and they resulted in an All-Star nod and across-the-board career highs. At his current growth rate, Siakam will score roughly 150 points per game by 2023.
Somebody Tell Him He's a Guard Award: Terence Davis
With over-the-top dunks like this and rebound rates most power forwards would be glad to have, undrafted rookie Terence Davis spent his first season flying at the rim on both ends.
Don't tell him that he's a 6'4" combo guard. I don't think he knows.
MVP and DPOY: Rudy Gobert
It'd be nice to split this one, as the Utah Jazz had at least two other consideration-worthy MVP candidates in Bojan Bogdanovic and Donovan Mitchell. But Rudy Gobert's clean sweep as team leader in box plus/minus, VORP, win shares and RAPTOR WAR means those two deserve no more than passing thoughts.
Gobert's defensive presence remains profound, illustrated by a team-high 585 shots defended inside six feet and an opponent field-goal percentage of just 48.4 percent on such shots, the third-lowest accuracy rate allowed by anyone who defended at least 300 shots at that range. All things considered, the two-time DPOY probably remains the NBA's top rim-protector.
According to Cleaning the Glass, opponents averaged 8.4 fewer points per 100 possessions when Gobert was on the floor, far and away the biggest decline tied to any Jazz rotation player.
Best Newcomer: Bojan Bogdanovic
Upon his free-agency arrival, Bojan Bogdanovic instantly filled a gunslinging void on the Jazz. The veteran forward's age-30 season was even better than the previous one, which earned him a new four-year, $75 million deal.
Bogdanovic averaged a career-high 20.2 points and hit 41.4 percent of his 7.3 three-point attempts per game. Some of those treys were more dramatic than others, but Bogdanovic's willingness to play right up against the edge of "forcing it" was necessary for a Jazz offense that has struggled to find someone other than Mitchell to take tough shots with confidence for the last few years.
He'll Do It His Way Award: Donovan Mitchell
Mitchell managed to post a career-high effective field-goal percentage despite taking fewer shots at the rim and more mid-rangers than ever. The first-time All-Star has an array of tricky in-between flips and floaters, so he's better equipped than most to succeed with that shot profile.
It's still odd to see a high-scoring guard trending away from the "threes and layups" norms sweeping the league.
You do you, Donovan.
MVP: Bradley Beal
Bradley Beal pumped in a team-high 30.5 points per game for a Washington Wizards team that needed a high-scoring attack to offset its putrid defense. Beal was a tone-setter in all the worst ways on D, but it's hard to be too critical when his offensive responsibilities were so immense.
Washington's top producer in win shares and box plus/minus, Beal was responsible for 31 of the 37 30-point games registered by Wizards players this season.
The Wizards entered the bubble ranked dead last in defensive efficiency. We've been lenient to this point, but it'd push participation-trophy entitlement too far to give anybody involved with Washington's no-show defense an award.
Best Newcomer: Davis Bertans
Davis Bertans took 91 shots from at least 28 feet this season and hit an obscene 49.5 percent of them, easily the highest conversion rate of anyone who regularly took so many ultra-deep attempts.
The 6'10" forward broke out with a frighteningly high-volume season, casting off 8.7 triples in only 29.3 minutes per game and hitting 42.4 percent of them. You can bet the San Antonio Spurs wish they'd green-lit such a prolific sniper.
Bertans is in for a significant raise in free agency this offseason.
Buy Some Stock Award: Troy Brown Jr.
Just a little tip to close this out: Troy Brown Jr. looks like he's going to be a player.
The 6'6" wing has an intriguing combo of size and court sense, is a solid playmaker and is already a high-end rebounder for his position. Pre-bubble averages of 9.7 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists don't jump off the page, but Brown looked even better than that in the eight-game seeding round and could be poised to become a quality starter next season.
Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Accurate through games played March 11, 2020. Salary info via Basketball Insiders.